The last person Natasha Romanoff expects to see when she turns around is another superhero.
Even without knowing anything about the person standing in front of her, Natasha knows she’s a superhero. For one, she’s been doing this a long time, and no one just appears out nowhere -- not unless they have some sort of power, and not unless they know how to get into the very locked and secure compound. For another, no one walks and mentions Fury unless they’ve worked with him previously and know that bringing up his name will cause people to take notice.
The first thing Natasha does, before anyone else can react, is blurt out “who the fuck are you?” Steve gives her a look of surprise, Bruce gives her a look of amusement, and the stranger's expression doesn’t change at all.
Natasha searches her brain for any kind of hidden memory concerning the name Carol Danvers, and frustratingly comes up with nothing. She decides to try the next best thing.
“How do you know Fury?”
Carol raises an eyebrow. “Do you know about Goose?”
Steve tosses her a confused look and tries to interject, but Natasha steps in front of him and nods. Carol shrugs, looking like she’s just solved the world’s easiest and most obvious riddle.
“Well, there’s your answer.”
In truth, it makes Natasha feel a little better to have a tiny bit of confirmation that Carol is apparently someone Fury has trusted enough to divulge the real story behind the loss of his eye to. Still, Natasha’s wary -- wary of Carol’s arrival, wary of this person just walking into their grief party like they owned the place, like they’d been around for any of the past few years, the alien invasions and professional betrayals and team deaths and government rulings. Sitting across from Carol in the common room, trying to get a feel for her emotions and her motives, she feels like she’s taken up the mantle of being overly paranoid in Clint’s absence -- everyone who knew Strike Team Delta assumed that between the two of them, Clint was the one who was easygoing while Natasha was the one who trusted less. The real truth was that Clint was the one who had taught Natasha about not trusting easily, because he was more paranoid about opening up than he’d ever show anyone.
“How did you get here?”
Carol eyes her with a tentative look, and Natasha knows Carol hasn’t missed the way she’s been carrying herself -- open yet guarded -- because she’s mirroring her language the same way a spy might pick up on someone’s tells.
“You called me,” Carol answers flatly, as if Natasha’s asked her the dumbest question in the world.
“I didn’t call you,” Natasha corrects. “Fury called you. And we don’t know why.”
“It’s...not...obvious,” Carol deadpans with an eyebrow raise. “Hello? Half the world has been wiped out.”
“We know,” Natasha responds bitingly. “What we don’t know is who you are and what you’re going to do about it.”
“God, you’ve all really been living under a rock for the past twenty-five years, haven’t you?” Carol asks with a long sigh. “I told you who I was.”
“You’re Carol Danvers. And I’m the Black Widow. Do you have any idea what I can do?” Natasha stares at her coldly, feeling her fists twitch with the urge to throw a punch. Carol smiles faintly, clearly unintimidated.
“Yes,” she says easily. “I do. You’re Natasha Romanoff, one half of Strike Team Delta. You have excellent spy skills, you’re one of the best assassins in SHIELD’s history, you trained in the best espionage program in the world, and you can smell someone’s bullshit a mile away which is why, I assume, you’ve decided to interrogate me over your friends. I can travel through time, I can shoot photons from my hands. I can go binary, if you’re smart enough to know what that means. My powers were given to me by what you guys now call the Tesseract, and I’ve been in space fighting my own battles.” She pauses. “Any other questions?”
“Just one,” Natasha says, trying to take all of Carol’s words in. “When did you meet Fury and join SHIELD?”
“I never joined SHIELD,” Carol says with a shake of her head. “But I met Fury in 1995. Why?”
This time, it’s Natasha’s turn to smile. “A man I know also joined SHIELD in the early 90’s, and he recruited by Fury -- his name was Clint Barton. Did you know him?”
Carol tilts her head and gives Natasha a confused look, because she clearly hasn’t expected the question to take that kind of turn.
“Yeah. He was a mouthy little shit to me in the five seconds that I met him.”
Natasha rolls her eyes and gets up, leaving Carol on the couch. As she walks out of the room, she crosses paths with Steve, who glances at her and asks the question he won’t say out loud.
Natasha nods back at the room.
“I like this one.”
Steve’s standing in the middle of the training room, staring at a punching bag, when a light voice interrupts his thoughts.
“Wanna go a few rounds? Captain to Captain?”
Steve turns, meeting Carol’s smirk, and heaves out an exasperated sigh. “You’re supposed to be helping us work.”
“Really?” Carol somehow manages to look both amused and offended at the same time. “It’s 2019 and I don’t take orders from men, unless that man is Nick Fury and he’s earned my trust.”
“Tell that to a man who’s almost one hundred,” Steve retorts, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Narcissism isn’t a good look on you, Carol.”
“Depression isn’t a good look on you either, Steve.” Carol folds her arms across her chest. “Look, I am helping. Your scientist friend and I had a nice breakthrough, I think -- found some options that might help us understand what happened. But I need to let off some steam, and aside from Black Widow, you’re the only one in this place who might let me punch you and still live to tell the tale.”
Steve offers her a half-hearted smile. “Don’t tell me you’ve never had to try to move on after losing everything.”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t,” Carol answers evenly. “I did my homework, Captain. I know all about Project Rebirth. I know about Howard Stark, I know about the plane, I know about the Red Skull, and I know about Peggy Carter. I know you know grief, and I do too -- I know a fuckload of grief. But that’s not a reason to shut out the world, especially when you’re one of the only people who can help fix it.”
Steve bites down on his lip and runs a hand through his overgrown hair.
“How many pep talks do you give in space?”
A small smile graces Carol’s lips. “Depends on how I’m feeling on any given day. Anyway, I was serious when I asked before -- do you wanna go a few rounds? Otherwise, I’ll leave you alone and get back to work.”
Steve considers his thoughts before responding; he hates to admit that the last time he felt like fighting was longer than he feels comfortable with. He’d tried to convince himself that he had a real reason for not wanting to get back in the game -- people needed help, they didn’t have any options, there was no point in preparing for something that you didn’t know how to handle -- but those reasons usually just ended with downtrodden thoughts circling back to “what’s the point?”
Except. Carol’s looking at him with fire in her eyes, and it’s a fire he hasn’t seen since the first few days of his partnership and growing friendship with Natasha -- a fire he hasn’t seen since Peggy sized him up as a scrawny asthmatic kid and put her faith and trust in the world’s most unreliable (but perhaps most passionate) soldier. He suddenly finds himself matching Carol’s smirk, speaking out loud to no one in particular, since the room is otherwise empty.
“I like this one.”
“So,” Bruce says, fingering his glasses and adjusting them, “we think that part of what may help, after analyzing your powers a little bit more, is something called the quantum realm. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the intricacies of Pym particles and molecular energy and --”
“Doctor Banner, continue to mansplain me and I will rip your body to shreds so fast you won’t have time to try and turn green,” Carol snaps loudly.
Bruce looks affronted, then turns around and grins at Natasha, who is looking on in the background and logging some notes.
“I like this one.”
Carol’s drinking coffee in the kitchen when Rhodey walks in. He watches her eyes travel quickly towards his legs, where his prosthetics are in place, but aside from that she doesn’t project even a hint of discomfort or interest. Rhodey thinks that might be impressive, if he wasn’t already impressed by what Natasha had told him about their new guest.
“So, you knew Director Fury.”
“That’s a loaded question,” Carol answers, leaning against the counter and taking a sip of coffee. “I’m more surprised you haven’t asked where I’ve been for the past twenty-five years. Thought everyone around here wanted to know my secrets.”
“I know where you’ve been,” Rhodey says, recalling the tidbits of conversation Natasha has shared. “You’ve been in space. Space is space -- does it matter what you were doing there?”
Carol shakes her head. “If it doesn’t matter to you, then it doesn’t matter to me.”
Rhodey sits down at the table, reaching for a bag of chips left open within his reach. He puts one in his mouth and chews it slowly. “How did you meet?”
“Fury?” Carol looks suddenly thoughtful. “I ended up on Earth after a mission went wrong. Guess I caused a bit of trouble with the law, looking the way I did and all. Fury was called in and we ended up having to work together for awhile.”
The story is simple and informative, and Rhodey feels like he should be satisfied with it -- it reminds him of the way Natasha relayed information when she was just Romanoff, that same clear-cut candor mixed with a healthy dose of anything else you want to know before I cut you? mixed in. But he finds himself asking the question before he can stop himself.
“What would you do if your best friend was lost in space? What would you do if the whole world was gone because you failed to save it?” He pauses, looking down at the table. “Would you keep fighting? Would you even believe someone is out there? I mean, would you even entertain the idea that the person you cared about could survive and fight and that you had a damn chance at winning this thing?”
Carol stays quiet, sipping her coffee. “Your friend is a fighter,” she says after a moment. “I read about him and his work. It seems pretty likely to me that someone who once got himself out of a cave in the middle of Afghanistan with a box of scraps could find a way out of space.”
“You’d think,” Rhodey mutters, before raising his voice. “I mean, look. I thought anything was possible, until this happened. I never thought one person could actually wipe out half of the universe. Now I don’t know what to believe.”
Carol takes another sip of coffee. “Believing is easy,” she offers. “It’s being confident that’s hard. I guess people confuse the two...you can believe your friend will come back, but you have to be confident about it. You can believe that we’ll be able to fix this, but you have to be confident about it. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can’t just assume that because you believe something, you’ll be confident enough to make it a reality.”
“Wish I was as confident as you,” Rhodey says glumly.
Carol laughs. “You are.” She nods towards him. “What’s your Air Force background?”
He’s a little surprised that Carol’s gotten there so easily, but brushes it off when he figures she may have peeked into his file while she was pursuing Tony’s. “Lieutenant,” he says with a mock salute. “I remember hearing about you -- you were there a little later than me, though.”
“Not that much later,” Carol says. “I mean, the patriarchy was definitely still in full force when I passed my flight test.” She smiles, looking content, as if she’s fallen into some comfortable memory. “You’re never more confident than when you’re flying,” she continues. “Whether that’s a plane or a suit -- it doesn’t matter. You’re confident. You might not think about it that way, but it takes a hell of a lot of guts to get yourself off the ground in the first place.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey agrees. “Guess so.”
Carol turns back to the counter to refill her coffee and Rhodey leans over, grabbing an orange from the near empty fruit bowl. Before she can turn back around, he tosses it in her direction, and Carol’s reflexes seem to instantly snap into action. She whips around at the last minute, securing the orange easily with two fingers, and gives him a smug look before tossing it back. Rhodey catches it and looks down at the table, grinning to himself.
“Oh, I like this one.”
God knows why Thor has left her with his weapon, of all things.
She suspects it’s because he thinks she’s trustworthy, despite the fact that no one knew who she was until at least three hours ago. She also suspects it’s because maybe Thor is a pretty good judge of character, given his history. Or maybe after everything he’d been through, he just legitimately didn’t give a damn anymore. Carol wouldn’t blame him, if that was the case.
She had read up on everyone as much as she could in the downtime that was allowed between being shoved into Bruce’s lab and trying to figure out what she was dealing with. The Avengers, they called themselves -- or at least, they used to; Carol assumes that half of the missing people they’re mourning were members of that team. A team apparently named after her, for her freaking call sign.
Goddammit Nick. She was going to have words with him when he got back from wherever he had apparently been dusted to.
It’s been hard to find a moment to herself, a moment where she can exist without someone asking her a question or wanting to know about her history. So in the interest of giving herself some self-care, she’s found herself on the roof of headquarters. It’s not a bad place to camp out; the view isn’t so bad and the world is eerily quiet, though she doesn’t know how much of that is the normal atmosphere and how much of that is Thanos.
Thanos. The big fucking alien idiot that she’d only heard about in passing, that she never once thought was real enough to be a threat. Skrulls had mentioned him in hushed tones, Krees had scoffed at his name, but either way, Carol never figured he would get down to Earth. Even if he did try to impart some insane plan to try to take over the world, the likelihood that his anger and deviousness would spread that far, well...it seemed frankly impossible. Space was big enough as it was. Thanos would have had more than enough planets and colonies to rule; Carol had seen most of them herself. He didn’t need to come to Earth.
But apparently, he had. And the Avengers, the people who had been put into place to protect the world from their biggest threats, they had failed, and Fury had kept that damn pager in his literal back pocket for over twenty years and he hadn’t called her once. He had tried to do everything himself, to let her handle her own life and her own responsibilities, and he hadn’t called her until he was absolutely certain they were in trouble. Until he knew he needed her.
Until they needed someone to even the scales.
“Are you taking a therapy session or are you taking care of my weapon?” Thor calls to her from the ground below, and she’s not surprised he’s found her up here. For once, though, she doesn’t mind the interruption. Carol stands up and grins, picking up Stormbreaker, flipping it easily and catching it in one hand. It feels light and heavy at the same time, and she marvels at how easily she can wield it.
“I like this one,” she calls back with a smile.