Maria has never been able to pronounce the name of the Skrull refugees' new homeworld. She gets closest when she's precisely four shots' drunk -- something about loosening her throat muscles, there's a sort of singsong intonation in the back of the throat that humans can't easily recreate -- but even then, Talos just kind of winces and changes the subject. Carol finds her attempts hilarious, but Maria would like to point out that she's never actually heard Carol try to pronounce it sober, either. Just 'cause Carol's, like, the savior of Skrull-kind and shit, that should not let her off the hook.
She doesn't know how to write it out, either -- not in any kind of alphabet she can read, anyway. Carol sketched it for her in Kree glyphs, which are a lot more accommodating of those kinds of glottal stops, and it's very pretty, but still just as unpronounceable.
So when Monica asks her what planet they went to this time, Maria won't be able to say it aloud or write it down for her. But the sky is purple and the sea a deep aquamarine, the kind of impossibly rich colors you didn't think ever really existed in nature, and she's dancing on a beach to music from an instrument that looks like a saxophone but sounds like a harpsichord, and Carol's arms are loose and warm around her waist, eyes glinting that same sun-soaked gold of her hair.
"It was beautiful, baby," is what she'll tell Monica, when she asks. "So goddamn beautiful."
When Maria is a little girl, she's considered a slow learner. Not dumb, her momma tells her, fiercely, "no matter what that ol' hag teacher of your says." She just comes at things from a different angle than anyone else. But once she gets there, she understands, bone-deep, in a way that sticks on hard and never lets go. "Stubborn as a mule," Momma will say, pride winning out over frustration every single time.
Stubborn does Maria well as she gets older. Stubborn and smart as a whip, once she figures out how to make school work for her. She just has to find her own way about it.
Her momma reads to her every night before she goes to sleep, and every morning over breakfast. Doesn't matter what; any book she can get a hold of, anything she thinks might catch Maria's attention. She goes to the shabby old local library every single Saturday for something new. Says reading is the best education a little girl could ever have.
The one Maria likes best is A Wrinkle In Time. Because Meg is slow, too -- comes at things from upside-down and backwards -- but she's the strongest of all her family of geniuses. She is the hero of her own story, even though she isn't the cleverest, or the prettiest, or even the bravest. She's stubborn as hell and won't give up, that's all. That's more than enough.
"This is something you can understand, Meg," Momma reads aloud in Mrs. Whatsit's voice, her eyes so warm and expressive in the lamplight of Maria's bedroom. "Don't be afraid to try. Was your mother able to explain a tesseract to you?"
Maria watches Momma's face intently, and wills herself to understand.
In Dr. Lawson's laboratory -- in space, a corner of Maria's mind is still squealing, not quite able to accept this brave new world -- there is a very alien piece of machinery that appears not entirely unlike an exposed engine, with a piercingly blue light at its center.
"Is that it? The core?" Maria asks, and Carol says, "In her notes, she called it the Tesseract."
When Carol lifts the shining blue core into her no-longer-entirely-human hands, her eyes gleam otherworldly in the Tesseract's reflected light, and Maria's still-too-human heart stutters in her chest.
Not too much later, when she sees Carol press her glowing fists together and take flight, like a fucking goddess, she remembers her favorite childhood book: Meg's little brother's explanation of tessering, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.
Carol's never been one to follow the obvious road, always forging her own path, her head in the clouds. Taking shortcuts. It's only fitting.
The first time Maria meets Carol Danvers is on her first day back on base after her maternity leave. She's exhausted and sore and wrung-out, her body not yet feeling like her own again, and secretly terrified of losing the rank and respect she's fought so long to earn. And after a morning being given twelve kinds of shit from Major Asshole (who doesn't think that women deserve to fly under normal circumstances, let alone scant weeks after giving birth), this smart-mouthed newly-promoted First Lieutenant takes one look at her and says, "I am so goddamn sick of this sausage party, you wanna get absolutely fucking wasted tonight?" And despite the fact that she's still breastfeeding and has an impossibly tiny, perfect infant waiting for her at home, Maria finds herself agreeing wholeheartedly.
She never does learn how to say no to Carol.
The first time she kisses Carol is about three months later, in her parked car behind Pancho's, the gear shift digging uncomfortably into her side and Carol's sun-blonde hair brushing soft against her cheek. She can't for the life of her remember who started it, or why. Carol later claims it was absolutely her own brilliant idea, but Maria thinks of the look in her eyes when they pulled back, the abject shock shining out of them for a long, startled moment before shifting into wicked glee, and reckons that for once in Carol's foolhardy life, she hadn't been the one to make the first move.
The first time Carol meets Monica is two weekends later, after a quick phone call in which she invites Maria out to dinner and Maria declines, pointing out it'll be more trouble than it's worth to find a sitter on this short notice. Carol breezes into the Rambeaus' little house on base forty minutes later, uninvited, with terrible Chinese takeout and a case of beer. "Hey there, trouble," she coos to the baby in Maria's arms, brushing her fingers across Monica's fine, dark curls. "Figured it was about time we got acquainted."
"That's Lieutenant Trouble to you," Maria says sternly, fighting back a smile. "You sure you wouldn't rather go out tonight?"
"Who wants to go out?" Carol scoffs. "Going out is for losers. Staying in is where it's at. Isn't that right, Lieutenant Trouble?"
Monica lets out a high-pitched giggle, and Carol's eyes go so very soft. That's probably when Maria knows she's a goner.
The first time she loses Carol, no one will even tell her how it happened. No one wants to go on the record admitting it happened at all. There's just suddenly this Carol-shaped gap in their lives, too big to fit around, like a void in Maria's home and heart.
She quits the Air Force a month later, packs up their things (and Carol's too), and moves back home to Louisiana, to a place Carol never left a shadow.
Sometime in the early 2000s, she realizes Carol isn't aging. Hard to notice, when they only see her every couple of years, but at one point when Monica's in college, Carol manages to stay put for a solid three months. "Don't tell Fury," she says with a wink, like she does every time she drops in (literally!) for a visit. But it seems like the universe doesn't need saving for a bit, 'cause she near to puts down roots in that big old house.
Maria's enjoying watching her putter around the bedroom in the altogether one afternoon when the penny drops. It's just -- look, Carol is some kind of otherworldly being these days, and a superhero to boot, obviously she's fit. But Maria's no slouch herself, and she's still getting thicker around the waist and butt these days, stretchmarks spidering their way across her belly and thighs, breasts hanging a little lower and heavier. Her face remains smooth, but you can see the crinkles around her eyes when she smiles. She's past forty now, it's only to be expected. It doesn't bother her much.
But Carol looks just the same as ever. All supple skin and lean muscle and pert curves, and there's not a single streak of silver in amongst all that golden hair. When they go out together to the gay bars on Bourbon Street, Maria sees the looks some of the other girls give her, the thumbs up and wink she gets from an older butch at the bar. She's doing well for her age, they seem to say.
"What're you staring at?" Carol demands, breaking her reverie, hands akimbo and butt-naked in the middle of the goddamn afternoon, sunlight streaming through the open curtains and coloring her all in gold.
Eternity, Maria thinks, awed. That's what she's staring at. Some kind of warrior goddess, immortal and untouchable. It makes her sad, a little. Time was, she'd looked forward to the pair of them becoming crotchety old ladies together, hollering at kids to get off their damn lawn and wrapping their gnarled hands together to keep each other warm.
But Carol glows, warm enough for them both, and this is who she's become, this marvel. Maria couldn't ask for anything better.
"I'm staring at the crazy lady who thinks anything out there could possibly be better than what's in here," Maria tells her with a smile. "Come back to bed."
Carol grins and does, for now. It's enough.
The first few weeks after Maria moves back to her hometown just outside of New Orleans are hard. Monica hates everything, seems like. She hates the house ("It's too big!"), hates her new school ("Everyone is stupid there!"), even hates the heat, as though that's any worse here than the fucking desert.
"What if Auntie Carol comes home and she can't find us?" Monica finally asks, angry and plaintive and lost, and Maria's heart near to cracks in two.
Monica starts getting nightmares, too, which she'd almost never had before. The only thing that calms her down enough to get back to sleep is being read to. They don't own too many books -- too heavy and take up too much space, which is something they never had enough of in military housing -- so Maria starts making trips to that same old shabby library down the street, borrowing all her childhood favorites.
This time, Meg's story isn't about her stubborn heroism. It's about loss, that gaping void in her life that her missing father left behind. "We must go behind the shadow," Maria reads aloud, and a shiver tingles across her own skin. Monica watches her silently with those big brown eyes, and Maria would kill for this little girl to never have to face any trials or loss of her own, she really would. But it's already too late for that.
"Now we will tesser, we will wrinkle again," she reads on, unconsciously mimicking the intonations her own momma used for Mrs. Whatsit's comforting voice. "Do you understand?"
Monica nods fiercely, and Maria thinks, then explain it to me, baby, please, because I'm still trying.
Maria graduates high school by the skin of her teeth; like her momma says, she's plenty smart, she just wasn't made for normal schooling. She aces all her math courses, though, and would've done pretty well in English if she'd cared about turning in her homework -- she liked reading all the books just fine. College was never on the table, even if she had the grades for it; no way they can afford anything like that. Her pop is a mechanic, and she likes the feel of engine parts under her palms, has a knack for fixing things. But he thinks she should just get married and settle down. Fuck that noise.
She's never left the state of Louisiana in her life before she enlists in the Air Force. Hard to say why she picked that, of all things, if she was gonna go into the military at all. Maybe because planes sound much more interesting than the usual beat-up pickups her pop works on. Maybe because something deep in her gut thrills at the thought of taking flight.
Maybe she wasn't born to fly, not like some. Not like Carol, head in the clouds, higher, further, faster, baby! But she does love it. There's nothing quite like the feel of all that power under her, completely in her control, the sight of clear blue sky stretching out endlessly in every direction. The sheer adrenaline rush of it. Her teachers used to call her a slow learner, but she picks up flying like a duck takes to water; it hardly takes any thought at all. Being one of very few women in a man's world doesn't bother her much; she's used to her pop's auto body shop, no big difference there. It sucks big fat hairy balls that women aren't allowed to fly combat missions, but she'll take what she can get. The sky's enough.
"You ever gonna teach that kid of ours how to fly?" Carol asks, too casually, on her third visit back to Earth.
Monica's just finished her first year of high school and is an unholy terror of a teenager. "Hell no," Maria says immediately. "I'm scared to even teach her how to drive, no one needs to open that can of worms."
"Hmm," is all Carol says, which is Maria's first warning.
She disappears the very next morning despite having promised to stay at least a week, which is the second.
Three days later, there is a goddamn spaceship parked in the middle of Maria's backyard. A small one, but still. Her neighbor's kids are already gawking from their back porch.
"Borrowed a friend's ride," Carol explains breezily, then shouts up the stairs, "Hey, Lieutenant Trouble! Time to earn your wings."
"The hell you say," Maria protests over the dulcet tones of Monica squealing at the top of her little lungs, but who is she kidding, she's absolutely dying to get inside that cockpit herself.
It'll be the first time she ever sets foot on an alien planet, and though it's far from the last, it never fails to take her breath away.
The ship handles like an absolute dream, especially once Carol gives its engines a little extra oomph, and after a week out in the stars, Monica is able to initiate takeoff and navigate landing without any assistance, albeit with a few gut-churning bumps. She's gonna be stealing Maria's car keys next, God help them all. But she smiles so widely, young and happy in a way Maria feels like she hasn't been in years, and what the hell, they'll figure it out as they go along.
They're gone for a solid two weeks all told, and New Orleans has never felt so small as when they return to their everyday lives. Carol has to take off again as soon as she's dropped them off, with little more than a quick kiss goodbye, and Maria needs to steady herself against her front door and just breathe for a few minutes after, regrounding herself.
Her phone rings an hour later, and Nick Fury's voice greets her with, "Do you know how much motherfucking paperwork your little joyride has caused me this week?"
She laughs long and hard, every hitch in her throat feeling like the start of a sob.
Monica is a very precocious two-and-a-half years old, leading her mom and Auntie Carol on a merry chase around the entirety of the house buck-naked and dripping wet from her bath, and it takes a solid hour to finally tickle her into submission and get her to sleep. Maria makes it as far as the hallway before flopping down onto the floor herself, back against the wall, too exhausted to even think of moving further.
"Hey, babe, c'mon," Carol whispers, not quite giggling. "You don't wanna sleep out here, do you?"
"Fuck you, I absolutely do."
So Carol drops down right next to her, tugging until Maria's head comes to rest on her shoulder. It is not particularly comfortable, and Maria's back will emphatically not be thanking her for this in the morning, but it's good enough for right now.
"I have never seen a child that small move that fast for that long," Carol finally remarks, and she sounds far too impressed for Maria's peace of mind.
Maria snorts, tilting her head into the crook of Carol's neck. "Moments like these, she's more your kid than mine. 'Cause she sure as hell didn't get this shit from me."
Carol goes very still for a moment. Then she resumes rubbing gentle circles into Maria's shoulder. "What was her birth father like? You've never said."
It's surprising to realize that no, she hasn't -- neither of them have ever so much as mentioned the fact that Monica had to have come from somewhere. "Not much to say, really. Didn't know him long. Never intended to. He was out of the picture before I even realized I was pregnant." She closes her eyes. Even his face is hazy in her memory. "He was handsome, though, I know that much. Not too much of an asshole, either. Just not a keeper." She shrugs, her shoulder heavy against Carol's. "Best mistake I ever made."
"Yeah," Carol says softly. She presses a kiss to the top of Maria's head. "She is."
Maria's a grandmother by age fifty, which in her opinion is way too damn young. Never mind that Monica waited a good while longer to become a mother than Maria had.
Little Carrie is the most beautiful baby Maria has ever seen.
"I dunno," Carol says, looking down at the newborn, her nose all scrunched up, "she looks kinda like Winston Churchill to me."
Maria punches her in the arm, hard. Carol just laughs.
Little Carrie is four years old when the Blip happens. Their family gets lucky; Carrie and both her parents make it through fine, and so does Maria.
Exactly one week later, Carol turns up on their doorstep, and it's the first and last time in her life that Maria will ever see what fear looks like on Carol's face.
"Thank God," Carol says shakily, arms wrapped so tight around Maria that she can hear her old bones crack. She presses her face into Maria's neck. If wetness trickles down into her collar, well, neither of them are ever gonna mention it.
Carol eventually decides not to stay put -- Earth has its own team of heroes now, but the rest of the universe doesn't -- and after a few days' debate, the Rambeau-plus family leaves with her.
"You wanna see the galaxy, baby?" Monica whispers to her little girl, and Carrie's eyes are huge and round. "Wanna grow up on a spaceship?"
"It's not forever," Maria points out sternly. "Just for a little while."
Carol's hand is in hers, holding on like she's never gonna let go again, and, well, why not? It's a big universe. May as well see a bit more of it.
In 2012, for the first time in their decades-long acquaintance, Maria is the one to call Fury first. "Aliens in New York City," she says flatly. "You didn't think maybe that one was worth paging her for?"
"We had the situation under control," Fury responds. His voice is brisk and cool. Maria hasn't heard him laugh in years.
"Uh-huh. What's the death toll at? And how many million dollars' worth of damages?"
"It could've been much worse. If Stark and Romanoff hadn't managed to seal the breach, believe me, I would've called her."
She's seen the news footage from the attack. The Battle of New York, they're calling it. A hundred thousand aliens versus six superheroes and a city full of civilians. Maria knows more than her fair share of military strategy, and that's not a battle. It should've been a goddamn massacre.
"What the hell level of crisis is gonna qualify, Fury?" she asks wearily. "You know she'll come. In a heartbeat."
"I know." He sounds just as bone-tired as she feels. "That's why I don't want to waste it. When the time comes, Rambeau, don't you worry -- I'll know."
(He will, too.)
Carol loves to listen to Maria read to their granddaughter. She just curls up in a big squishy chair they'd somehow crammed into Carrie's bunk, quiet and still in a way Maria thought she could never be, watching them both with the softest little curve to her smile. They couldn't bring along too many books -- a spaceship, like military housing, doesn't have all that much space for stuff -- but Maria has most of them loaded onto her eReader anyway. Except for her very favorite, of course.
This time, Meg's story isn't about stubbornness, and it's not about loss. It's about love. Love so powerful it could defeat any evil; love against all the odds. Love for family, and friends, and home.
"I see!" Maria reads aloud in Meg's voice. "I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can't possibly explain it now, but there for a second I saw it!"
She glances across the little room to Carol, and sees it in Carol's eyes, too: she understands. She gets it. They're home.
"Who was that you were talking to?" Maria asks, as Carol rejoins her at the car. It's been a long, hot day on base, and all Maria wants in the world is to take an hour-long cold shower and eat her own body weight in ice cream, but first they've got to pick Monica up from daycare.
Carol slides into the driver's seat, wincing as the hot leather seat hits her butt. "Hmm? Oh, Dr. Lawson. She's looking for volunteers for something called PEGASUS. Testing out experimental aircraft."
Her leg jiggles, and she drums her fingers across the gear shift, impatient as ever to get moving. Maria sighs and eases herself down onto her own too-hot seat. "Sounds interesting. You thinking about it?"
"Obviously. What else they gonna give us to do here, right? I'm sick to death of drills for combat missions we're never gonna be allowed to fly." Carol grins over at her as she revs the engine. "You wanna come too, babe? I'll put in a good word for you."
"You better," Maria says. "Ain't gonna let you get up to who knows what all trouble without me."
Carol laughs, warm and bright and free, and hits the gas.