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When The Dust Settles

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Monica clicked through the channels on the hospital’s TV. Her mom was getting released from the hospital today. Every day since her mom was diagnosed with cancer, Monica felt like she was holding the breath in her lungs. When her mom was on the surgery table, she felt like she couldn’t breathe. But when Monica was told the surgery was a success, that her mom was in recovery and she could go and see her, Monica suddenly felt like she could fly. Like every breath she held inside was now the wing beneath her wings. And now, finally Monica knew that everything was okay with her mom and she can go back home. Now she knew she wasn’t going to lose her mom.

Release day was a good day and nothing could ruin that for her. 

She stopped on the news channel. ‘Tony Stark, Spiderman and anonymous man taken in a spaceship’, the headline read. 

Maria lifted an eyebrow, “an alien kidnapping? I thought the invasion was bad.” Maria stretched out a hand to reach for her phone, “SWORD should know about this.” 

Monica slapped her hand away from the phone. “I’m sure they do,” Monica reassured her mother, pocketing the phone. Monica hadn’t really noticed what a workaholic her mom was before. Monica usually worked with her mom and she liked it. It was hard to be critical of something you like to do. But now that she had to drag her mom back to resting, it was clear as day; her mom loved working a little too much. Carol had joked ‘like mother like daughter’ . She was probably right. “And if not, maybe we can tell mom. Page her something like ‘hey, look out for an eccentric superhero billionaire on your way home’.” 

Maria smiled, “Fury doesn’t like it when we do that.” Then she mimicked their former boss, in a deep voice, “they’re the Avengers, they can handle it.”

Monica laughed. The Fury impression reminded her of when her mother would read stories to her as a kid, how she would make her laugh with voices she made. “Well, he was right,” Monica pointed out, lifting the blanket up to her mother’s neck, “so calm down and enjoy your release day.” 

Maria huffed, “fine.” 

Soon, her mother’s eyelids began to drift close. Not long after, Monica followed suit. 

~~~

Carol was fighting a kree soldier when her enemy turned to dust in front of her eyes. 

She felt two pagings against her hip. One read ‘hel’ and the other read ‘Monica is gone’. 

~~~

Monica is gone, Monica is gone, Monica is gone. Carol isn’t sure if she ever flew faster in her life. Around her, worlds were collapsing with the weight of the loss, but all Carol could feel was the weight of her own loss, because Monica is gone

Curse her good heart, she thought as she stopped to help some of the planets that were suffering. Curse her good heart, she thought as she found the lost spaceship. Curse Thanos, she thought as she was told what happened. 

~~~

“Carol,” Maria said with tears in her eyes, “I woke up and she was gone .” 

Carol tried not to choke on her own tears when she gathered Maria in her arms. Maria, who she was so afraid of losing just two weeks ago. Maria, who once lost Carol but now got her back and they swore to one another they’d never lose each other again. Maria, whose daughter, their Monica, was gone, and they both never expected to lose her. Maria, who believed that the cancer wouldn’t kill her, who believed Carol would come back. Maria, who believed Monica wasn’t gone forever. 

“I’m going to bring her back,” Carol promised and kissed the top of her head. 

~~~

Thanos was a dead end. 

“She’s going to come back,” Maria stubbornly insisted nonetheless. 

~~~

Carol stayed on Earth for a while after that. Every instinct inside of her told her to get off her ass and go fight something, punch an alien until just so she would do something, be useful for once and help people by fighting the threats in the universe, but when she looked at Maria… Maria was still recovering from surgery. Maria was supposed to have someone to take care of her. Maria lost her daughter. 

Monica told her that when Maria thought Carol died, she wouldn’t stop doing things. She talked to the Air-Force officials again and again, trying to find out what happened to her. She talked to Carol’s relatives and she went to their friends’ houses and she fought with Doctor Lawson and she organized a funeral. ‘ When there was nothing left to do ,’ Monica said, ‘ when the only answer she was given was the piece of your dog tags… she fell apart.’ Maria boxed up everything that belonged to Carol and she cried. And then… then she moved on. 

This wasn’t what Maria was doing now. 

“Monica never believed you were dead,” Maria told her, calmly drinking the tea Carol handed her, “and she was right. I owe her. I owe her the benefit of the doubt.” 

Carol didn’t know how to deal with that. 

~~~

Carol knew how to deal with her own grief. She went down to the Avengers Compound and she didn’t stop punching the bags until they were burned to the crisp. 

Seeing the ashes made her feel better sometimes. Other times it made her fall down to her knees and cry. 

~~~

Maria got better quickly. Soon she could get up from the bed without help and then she was challenging Carol to fly faster than she could pilot a plane. She seemed to be stuck deep in her own denial, so no symptoms of grief showed on her. A part of Carol knew she should tell Maria that Monica was dead and that she wasn’t coming back, so she could move on, but… she didn’t want to. She wanted what Maria thought to be true. 

She thought Maria had a breakthrough once. 

Maria stared at the photo album Monica made for them for their wedding. 

The photo album mostly consisted of pictures of them when they were younger, before Monica was born, and pictures of them after they found each other again. Monica wrote about their little milestones in the margins and added funny comments to every picture. ‘ It’s a collage for you ,’ Monica told them, ‘ It shouldn’t be about me .’ But Monica did add one page of photos with all three of them. A picture of Monica’s first Christmas, a picture from Monica’s tenth birthday party, and a picture at Monica’s graduation. ‘ Thanks for everything, moms ,’ she wrote on the page, ‘ you’re my inspiration for everything. For life goals and couple goals.’ 

Maria stared at that page of the album. 

Carol put a comforting arm around Maria’s shoulder, ready for when Maria realizes they weren’t getting her back. 

“I just miss her,” Maria said brokenly, “I know she’s coming back but… I just miss her.” 

Carol tucked Maria’s head into her neck and let her cry it out. 

~~~

Carol couldn’t seem to get past the anger phase of grief and Maria couldn’t seem to get past the bargaining phase. 

Carol never snapped in front of Maria, of course. No, snapping was reserved for the villains, the bad guys, the people she was fighting and the punching bags at the Compound. …and sometimes the Avengers at the Compound too (she apologized to Cap for nearly burning his head off when they were sparring). 

Maria admitted to herself that Monica was dead but she refused to believe that it would stay that way for Monica. She refused to believe it would stay that way for anyone. Maria had pestered Carol until she explained how the whole thing happened. And when the story was told, Maria concluded, “so she can be brought back.” 

That meant Maria could go back to work but Carol couldn’t yet. Maria was getting better quickly and was itching to get back to SWORD, ready to pretend everything was normal and do her job as usual. Carol’s hands were buzzing with the photon blasts on the tips of her fingers when every call to action she got meant she had to hold her punches and she had to be kind. 

Maria would go to work and Carol would wallow in her own bitterness. 

“Want to come with?” Maria offered. 

Carol never really had time to go to SWORD. When she got back to Earth, she was often too busy catching up with her girls. But Carol had been on Earth for nearly two months now, and she wasn’t doing anything else. 

Carol nodded. 

They walked hand in hand into the facility. “Everyone!” Maria called as they walked in. The few people working (most of the people who could help it didn’t go back to work) raised their heads, “I know this is a tough time for everyone, and I want you to take it easy. Extraterrestrial threats still exist, this proves it if nothing else, but it’s better that we don’t work rather than exhaust ourselves, okay? We need all the people we can get. Keep up the good work and I’ll be in the office if you need me.” 

Everyone nodded at Maria’s speech and went back to their work. Carol smiled at how good of a boss her wife was. 

“Director Rambeau,” someone quickly came to Maria’s side, “we need help with the new recruits.” 

Maria sighed at that, “yeah, I figured.” She turned towards Carol, “we’ll do the tour later, ok, babe? Wander around for a while, I’ll call you when I’m finished here. I really need to go though-” 

And then she was dragged off by the person who needed her. 

Carol decided to do as Maria had suggested; she wandered. She walked into the hall on her left, and walked in the hall of offices. Most of the offices were deserted, filled with personal belongings gathering dust and waiting for the people in the office to be back. Some offices were already empty, relatives coming to clean up the workers’ desks.  Carol wondered what offices will be claimed again. She wondered if the photos of kids and wives and husbands got hung out elsewhere, surrounded by flowers. 

Carol ached for all the people that suffered.

She wandered into the SWORD’s visitors center. She had no idea how it happened, since SWORD was a very easy facility to navigate, being a government building with signs to the bathrooms and plates telling what office this was and yellow lines on the floor directing you anywhere.  Carol didn’t notice all those though. She was just looking around, aimless. Like she felt. 

The visitors center wasn't open.Carol came from the back. There were no tourists, no employees. But everything in the visitors center stayed frozen. All exhibits staying the same. 

She was the only one there, in a world that paused. The only sound were her shoes clicking against the marble floor. 

She looked at some of the kids activities. Kids were meant to recognize whether someone was a skrull or not. They could make types of alien plants in another activity. There was even a video game about building a spaceship and recognizing bad aliens. Carol didn’t play with any of them but she could see a small Monica acing the skrull game and calling the skrulls her friends and teen Monica building a spaceship and refusing to fight any of the aliens. 

Carol looked away and went to some other exhibits. There was one exhibit with historical spaceships. Another showed all the information known about aliens. And then there was one showing the history of SWORD. 

Carol paused in front of that one and looked at the short timeline drawn on the wall. Carol slowly trailed her finger across the line. 

In 1995, SHIELD discovered the first extraterrestrial threat. In 1997, Fury hired Maria. In 2000, Maria founded the SHIELD division; SWORD. In 2010, Maria launched their first mission outside of Earth. In 2013, SHIELD was abolished and SWORD began to be an independent agency. 

Carol finishes reading all of the organization's accomplishments and steps back, staring at the timeline. She thinks about Monica. 

"I'll be back before you know it," Carol reassured her daughter back when she saw her again.

Monica didn’t seem satisfied by that. "Maybe I can fly up and meet you halfway," she suggested.

Fury smiled at her and teased, "only if you learn to glow, like your Auntie Carol."

"Or maybe I'll build a spaceship,” Monica insisted stubbornly, “you don't know."

Monica didn’t build a spaceship. But SWORD… SWORD was partly her girls’ way of reaching out to her.

She thinks about Fury paging her. How he knew she was busy but he thought she was needed on Earth. He did it in his dying moments. He was trying to page ‘help’. She thought about how Maria was doing good right now and Carol was the one left alone to wander aimlessly. She thought about all the people who didn’t come to work with Maria today. She thought about people elsewhere, in a worse Earth. She thought about people elsewhere, who were grieving just like her but were unable to eat, unable to save themselves. 

She wasn’t angry anymore. She wasn’t angry at Thanos. She wasn’t angry at the people who failed. She wasn’t even angry at herself for not getting to Earth sooner.

She felt... needed. People needed her out there. And she was ignoring them. 

Carol took a deep calming breath and knew she had to go back to work. 

“Hey,” Maria came and tapped her shoulder, “there you are! I’ve been calling you. You were gone for like an hour.” She then squinted at Carol’s serious face, “you okay?” 

Carol looked at the timeline with the history of Maria’s and Monica’s accomplishment. She looked back at her beautiful wife. 

“Yes,” Carol answered, “I’m okay.” She gripped Maria’s hands, “I’m just so proud of my wife.” 

Maria smiled at her, beaming with pride, “aw, you’re not too bad yourself, Marvel. But stop being sappy. Let’s go - I want to introduce you to some people.”

Carol looked at the windows outside the visitors center. She looked at the sky. ‘ Yeah ,’ she thought, ‘ let’s go .’ She turned back to Maria who was used to her daydreaming antics, “lead the way, Photon.” 

~~~

Carol left a week later. She told Maria she’d be back at the first page. 

Maria wrapped her arms around Carol’s neck. “Be safe out there,” Maria pleaded, eyes worried, “you’re all I have left.” 

Carol’s gut twisted as it seemed like Maria was finally admitting it. 

“I will be,” Carol promised. 

She flew up; she got high enough to stare at the Earth beneath her. The earth was always her girls’ home. When she looked down to the Earth she saw them . Now, when she looked at it from afar she could pretend they were both there.

~~~

The next year was spent in routine. Carol found the planets suffering the most and went to help each and every one of them. Once she helped one, she went back to Maria for a week. And so every month her routine was three weeks on another planet and one week on Earth. 

Ten months of this routine and this time, when she came home to Maria she was smiling. The last planet she had been on had given her a gift and she wanted Maria to have it. It was plans for a spaceship. One of the best in the galaxy, they promised her. 

When she walked into the Louisiana house that was their home, Maria was sitting on the couch. She was… quiet. Grave. In shock. 

Carol hadn't noticed and her good mood hadn’t wavered. “Honey, I’m home,” she singed songed as she walked into the home. 

Maria turned to her and Carol’s heart jumped to her throat. Maria looked haunted. Something was most definitely wrong. 

“Is everything okay?” she carefully asked her wife. 

Maria was quiet for a beat before she said, “take a seat,  Carol.” 

Carol didn’t know why, but she obeyed. 

~~~

Carol felt numb. She didn’t know what to do. Last year, Maria’s surgery was a success and the family could put cancer behind them. And then… Monica was gone so soon after Maria got better and suddenly they weren’t celebrating Maria’s recovery but mourning their daughter disappearing. Carol hadn’t even thought about cancer since Maria’s recovery. 

“We’ve been so distracted with Monica… everyone was distracted with... well. I was supposed to have checkups but I… I guess it just slipped my mind… my doctor’s brother was dead… she forgot too...” Maria rubbed at her chest, “it isn’t just a lump anymore.” 

Carol felt like she couldn’t breathe. 

~~~

The treatment was different this time around. The first time they had to do surgery to remove the lump. This time it wasn’t an option. They had to kill the hidden cells. They had to do chemotherapy. 

“Isn’t there any other way?” Carol asked, wanting to do something less dangerous for Maria. “We can… we can find treatment elsewhere. On this one planet-” 

“I’m not putting any alien shit inside me!” Maria refused. 

“Stop being so stubborn!” 

“Stop thinking I can’t decide my own treatment!” 

“You could die , Maria.” 

“And I get to choose how I go.”

After that fight, they wouldn’t talk to each other for a whole day. They were always near each other, Carol silently supporting her wife, Maria silently accepting the support. But they wouldn’t speak. 

When Carol brought Maria breakfast in bed, their fingers touched as she handed her the mug. 

“You’re not going to die,” Carol broke. 

Maria smiled, “exactly. I’m not going to die.” 

~~~

At the first cycle Carol was nervous. She tried to hide it because it wouldn’t help Maria, but she bit her nails until they bled. 

“She’s feeling bad,” Carol called the doctors, panicked, “she’s sick.” Maria asked for a bucket near the bed because she felt nauseated and a cup of water because her mouth was dry. She called the doctors when she felt Maria’s forehead and found she had a fever.

“It’s okay,” the doctors assured her, “it’s normal. It’ll get better at the next cycle. Just give her the medication.” 

Carol hung up the phone. She gave Maria the meds. They helped with the symptoms. Carol felt a tension released.

The tension came back at the next cycle Maria’s symptoms only got worse. 

~~~

Carol was softly brushing her fingers through Maria’s hair, trying to soothingly ease her suffering. 

Hair came off when the tips of Maria’s short hair passed her fingers. 

“Maria,” Carol whispered, surprised. They knew this would happen, but she hadn’t expected it to be now. “Your hair...” 

Maria went still in Carol’s arms. “I… I know,” she eventually said. 

Carol didn’t stop caressing Maria’s hair, still trying to calm her wife. “Why didn’t you tell me?” 

Maria pursed her lips before quietly admitting, “you always liked my hair.” 

Carol didn’t say anything but she could read so much between the lines. I like my hair

~~~

Carol shaved it off. Her hand didn’t shake as she held the razor and as she swiped the razor over her scalp she didn’t miss even one bit of hair. 

“How do I look?” she asked her wife. 

Maria looked up from the TV in the bedroom and stared at her wife leaning against the bathroom’s frame. “What did you do?” she quotined, astonished. 

Carol raised an eyebrow in teasing, “I shaved my hair.” Then she pouted, “what, can you not tell?” She made a show of grabbing her scalp. 

Maria’s lips turned up, “but... Your hair was so pretty.” 

Carol came closer to her wife at once and kneeled to kiss her hands, “I wanted to be as pretty as you.” 

Maria’s gaze softened as she looked at her. 

“Besides, when it’ll grow a bit longer, I’ll be a proper bucth. All the girls will swoon.” 

Maria laughed and ran her hands over Carol’s head, “you would look hot with short hair. They should swoon.” Then she rested her hands on Carol’s nape and gently swiped her thumb over the skin there, “as long as they know you’re mine.” 

Carol’s arms snaked around Maria’s middle and she pressed her head to Maria’s belly, “yours - no matter what.” 

~~~

It was by the tenth infusion that the doctors realized Maria was only getting worse. They seemed to look concerned as Carol described Maria's chemotherapy symptoms. They ran tests on Maria and frowned at the results. Carol and Maria knew what was coming. But neither of them wanted to say it.

Carol was called by the doctors’ one day. 

Maria was quiet when she came back. 

“Am I…?” Maria asked, hesitant. 

Carol swallowed the lump in her throat, “yeah.” 

Maria looked away, nodding. “Let’s not talk about it,” Maria asked, leaning back on Carol, “tell me something happy.” 

Carol took a deep breath and started to get into Maria’s mindset. She smiled softly, fingers trailing up and down Maria’s arms. “Happy like a fun space story, happy like a pride inducing Monica story or happy like a remember-how-stupid-we-were story?” 

“Air Force story,” Maria responded, “I want… I want to remember you’re here and that you remember. I want to think of when we didn’t use to have these troubles. I want a story that will make me feel alive.” 

Carol tried not to tighten her arms too tight around Maria at her words. “Okay,” she complied and tried to think of a story that will help, “remember when we accidentally flew all the way to South Dakota?” 

~~~

Neither of them slept properly that night. They tried to tire each other out with story upon story and kiss upon kiss, but nothing would work. They would drift off and five minutes later wake up again.

“Carol,” Maria finally whispered helplessly to the darkness of the late hour, “I don’t want to die.” 

This was the first time they said the word die. Even when Monica… they didn’t use those words. They used gone and disappeared and going to come back . They didn’t say died. 

Carol didn’t know what to say but her hand snaked down the bed to hold Maria’s hand. 

“When you went missing… when Monica was gone… when we were approached by that jerk at the bar… I… sometimes I just didn’t want to live. But I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to die,” Maria started choking on her words, sobs in between them, “I don’t want to die.” 

Carol rolled over and gathered Maria into her arms, letting her wife sob into her neck. “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,” Maria repeated again and again, “I have so much I still want to do. I want to grow old with you. I want to finally be okay with retiring and watch SWORD flower under other capable hands. I want to see Monica one last time. I want to live. I don’t want to die.”

Carol’s hands on Maria’s back fisted her shirt. “You’re not going to,” Carol whispered tenaciously between Maria’s sobs.

~~~

Carol went to multiple of the Avengers trying to find a treatment for Carol. 

“There’s more of a threat that gamma rays kill Director Rambeau rather than bring her back,” Doctor Hulk explained and then awkwardly said, “I’m uh, sorry for your loss.” 

Carol stormed off after hearing Banner’s premature condolences.  

“The serum hasn’t been recreated in seventy years,” Steve Rogers thoughtfully and cautiously responded, “and we can’t just give it to everyone.” 

Carol tried to calm the photon blasts at the suggestion that Maria wasn’t worth the serum. 

“Extremis doesn’t work like that,” Tony Stark explained, looking at everything but at her, “it grows cells, it doesn’t replace them.” 

Carol wanted to tear his head off for not even being willing to try. 

~~~

Carol didn’t stop trying. She talked to every doctor that was an expert. She checked treatments in development. She read medical theories that could turn into solutions. But Carol was looking for the impossible; a cure for cancer. 

Maria was acting the exact opposite than her. She seemed… resigned to her fate. She spent most of her time making arrangements for her death. When she was feeling particularly sick she would spend her time in bed. When she was in bed she would either sleep or flip through old photo albums, the tiniest smile on her face. 

Carol couldn’t understand how Maria could just give up. 

Carol lost her cool in front of Maria one day. She ran into another dead end and the last doctor looked at her with such pity. Like she just knew Carol was losing everything. She angrily ranted to Maria and when she got to the boiling point of the speech (“like she was willing to just let you die!”) she blasted a hole through the floor. 

She took a few calming breaths, coming down from her rage. When she felt herself relax, she looked down to the floor. “Oh,” she said, realizing what she’d done. 

“Carol,” Maria stared at her. Carol expected this to scare Maria. Carol was scared of herself. But it didn’t. Maria was never scared of her, only worried for her. Maria reached a hand out to her, “Carol, baby.” Carol had wandered into Maria’s grasp, and got pulled into bed. “Stop wasting all this time,” she covered Carol up and snuggled up to her, “these are my last days. I want to spend them with you.” 

Carol let herself be dragged into bed. She let Maria snuggle against her and turn on the TV they brought from the living room to the bedroom. 

Carol closed her eyes against the tears of defeat and grief. She thought about what just happened. How she lost it. She thought about what she would do if she lost Maria. Would she become an irrational, angry superhero gone out of control, this time with no one to keep it together for? No. She didn’t want to be that. That wasn’t her.

Maria was right. This wasn’t any way to spend Maria’s last days. 

The words ‘last days’ rang in her ears as she finally admitted to herself that Maria was going to die. Oh God, she was going to die. She couldn’t imagine a world without Maria. 

She wrapped her arms around Maria’s shoulders and gave herself a new mission; making Maria’s last days of her life the best days of her life. 

~~~

Maria died in her sleep. She wasn’t cold. She didn’t seem in pain. It was… peaceful. 

Carol cried until she had no more tears left. Possibly no more tears left in forever. 

~~~ 

She left Earth the next day and didn’t return for the next three years.

She didn’t look back at Earth this time. That planet was now empty to her.

~~~

Carol didn’t like the holographic Avengers meeting. They were all always begging her to come back to Earth and most of the things they discussed weren’t relevant to her. Carol didn’t understand why she had to attend them. 

Sometimes though… 

‘You should be an Avenger,’ Monica told her as they watched the aftermath of the battle of New York. 

‘Yeah, Marvel, you totally should,’ Maria pitched in. 

‘Nah,’ Carol objected, ‘I’m way too cool for them.’ 

Sometimes it was nice to have a piece of her girls’ world be part of her identity. She already didn’t feel human. Maybe she could be an Avenger instead and think of Monica’s admiring expression.

"What, you gonna get another haircut?" Rocket sniped at her when she said she couldn’t be on Earth, exhibiting exactly why she hated these meetings. She couldn’t help but feel defensive over her hair. 

"Listen, fur-face,” Carol snapped at the raccoon, “I'm covering a lot of territory. The things that are happening on Earth are happening everywhere, on thousands of planets."

She felt a small pinch of guilt from the white lie. It wasn’t a complete lie. She was needed elsewhere. 

“Geez, okay,” the raccoon responded weakly. 

But the truth was… the truth to the reason she couldn’t return to Earth was… there was just nothing for her on Earth anymore. 

~~~

She was in space again when she heard the pager against her hip. 

‘Mom, I’m back. Where is other mom?’ it read.

Carol stared at the message. For once the emotion she was feeling was hope. 

~~~

After almost beating Thanos to a pulp, Carol found Monica at their old home. 

“Mom, mom, mom,” Monica sobbed in her shoulder, “she’s gone .” 

Carol ached for her daughter’s grief and for her own grief, but she couldn’t help thinking, ‘ but you’re not .’