Maria's out back trying to unfuck the sump when a shadow falls over her.
"When's your next drill weekend?" Fury asks without so much as a hello.
"I report on Friday," she says. Monica's already at her folks; they're taking her to Lafayette for some kind of ballet thing. Maria'll miss her like breathing, but she misses sitting in the cockpit of a Strike Eagle, too.
"You got anything doing the weekend after?"
She stands up, wipes her forehead with the hand not holding the wrench. "You asking me out, Nick Fury?"
Carol tried to suggest such a thing before she left; she's still suggesting it on the messages she sends from space. Maria just makes static noises like the connection's breaking up over Carol yelling that Kree tech doesn't do that.
Here and now, Fury looks annoyed at her, or at least he's trying to. The bandage over his eye screws up his expressions and he just looks like a constipated pirate.
"I'm asking if you want a job," he says sourly.
"Better than a date," she responds, a little relieved and a little disappointed. Not that Fury's not interested, that's the relief. But she's a single mom and that's the default answer and she's starting to believe that it's not them and that it might be her.
Six weeks later, she's got a badge clipped to her uniform jacket and is being walked through a hangar in a part of Edwards AFB that's not not on the base map. SHIELD needs a test pilot and her little dogfight against the Kree got her bumped to the top of the candidate list for a job she never applied for. The pay'll be comically better than what she's getting on the civilian side and she can drill right here, "not that you'll be craving the flight hours," says the project manager, who has clearly never been a pilot. There'll be good schools for Monica, better than back home -- which won't be hard, Monica's bored half the day sitting in those classrooms. But it'll be far from home, far from her folks, far from everything she wanted when she switched over to the reserve side of the house five years ago.
"You didn't join the Air Force to put down roots," Carol tells her, making that face she makes when she's calling you on your bullshit. Carol's changed plenty of ways beyond being able to glow in the dark and fly without wings, but in almost every way that counts, she really hasn't. Especially now that she's had time to find all the parts of her that existed before 1989 and put them back where they belong. "You knew we'd be calling long distance soon enough. Not intergalactic, granted, but we were going to get PCS'ed away from each other on our next orders."
Maria swats away the expression and the words; Carol's a light projection coming out of a thingmajimmy that looks like a kitchen timer, but she says 'ow' anyway. She says truth, too, but that's harder to swat away -- or maybe too easy. Maria's gotten soft in the reserves, she knows she has; they have the same planes, but not the same drive. And coming over after losing her best friend who everyone pretended didn't exist, acting like her grief was made up along with whatever happened to Avenger... she learned to take her foot off the accelerator. She learned how to be afraid. It's time to unlearn all that. It's past time.
She tells SHIELD yes. Monica is bounce-around-the-house-can-we-call-Auntie-Carol? excited, her parents a little less so once they find out it's test piloting again. But her momma's willing to go out to California with them to get everyone settled.
"Well look at that," Carol whistles when Monica shows her a brand-new ID that says Major Maria Rambeau, USAF/SHIELD. "You gonna get a dependent card to match?"
She will, but not until they get to California, which they will never do unless someone starts packing up her books and the toys she wants to bring with her.
"So how's it feel?" Carol asks when it's just the two of them again. "Back in the saddle again..."
It feels like she's found something that's been lost, but she knows the smile says that well enough. "I'm just wondering if I should stay past this next plane," she says instead. "They're upgrading most of the quadjets and I'm going to be testing out the quinjet, too, once it's welded together. But if their production cycle's this fast, it's not gonna be too long until..."
"... there's a SEXJET!" they finish together and Carol cackles from galaxies away. "Oh my god. You absolutely have to be lead on that one. C'mon!"
Fury's at the airport when they land in Bakersfield, which is nice of him but mighty inconvenient because if Carol's stopped trying to hook her up with Fury, her momma's about to start trying to marry her off to "that fine gentleman."
She thought she'd be rusty and she is, both with the stupid shit that comes with being on base every day and the routines of being part of a test squadron, but the rest... The flying's easy and she looks great doing it even in the simulators because it turns out she's one of the only actual fighter pilots in the unit; almost everyone's here out of a Globemaster or a Hercules and they all drive like it. She's the one who tries the crazy maneuvers in the sims, the ones that actually get the stalls the engineers are looking for; in the air, she pulls tighter turns at greater speeds and comes back down to bitch at the design team because didn't none of them think about the drag coefficient before they decided to put the new weapons system in at that angle?
"I'm the new you," she tells Carol.
"You're eating all the free samples at the BX?"
"I'm wondering why everyone else is driving like my grandmother," Maria corrects with a smile. She still gets a warm feeling every time Carol casually proves that she's gotten her life back. A few months ago, that question would've been a real question.
"Maria, sweetheart, honey," Carol sighs. "You were always wondering why everyone else drove like your grandma. You were just doing it from next to my wingtips. We weren't just trying harder than everyone else. We were better than everyone else. We still are. Stop being embarrassed by that. And if someone gives you shit about it, well, then actually be me and punch them for it."
It takes a while for that to sink in. Maria's still got the shellshock from coming up when she did, with all of the bullshit she and Carol had to put up with -- the dick jokes, the porn in the ready room, the constant criticism of tiny things when the guys got away with much more, their XO asking for the record if they were lesbians, the performance reviews that called them average because they were being graded by officers who didn't think women belonged in a fighter plane. It was bad when it was the two of them, but it was worse when it was just her, when everyone else used Carol's death as proof of all of their biases and there was no one else to share that burden. When she was trying to live with a hole in her heart while everyone else seemed to be gloating. After Carol died, she didn't want to stick her head up out of the crowd and have it be shot off...
...Except now she realizes that she does. That SHIELD's not exactly into women's lib, but the holiest name in the place is Peggy Carter's and that means something. And that Carol, not dead and not wrong, maybe knows her better than she knows herself.
When the first quinjet is actually welded together and ready to fly, the jet jockey they still call Photon is lead pilot.