Lighting the Fuse

XxxxxxX

"Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?" – Captain America (Chris Evans), Captain America: The Winter Soldier

XxxxxxX

Alex leaned against the side of the bus shelter while she sipped her coffee. The coffee was shit, complete shit, and Alex struggled to keep the grimace off her face as she drank it. It was Columbian, naturally. She didn't need her ultra-sensitive Kryptonian sense of taste to know that it was Columbian. All she needed to do was take a sip. The coffee tasted of the oily mud the beans were grown in. To a discerning palate – to a coffee snob - one could tell these things with just a single sip, and Alex was a definitive coffee snob. This coffee was as far from the $35 a pound Indonesian special blend she normally drank as you could get and still technically be talking about coffee. But it was part of the cover, so she drank it.

As she playfully daydreamed of ways to cause the utter destruction of the deli where she bought the coffee – the most enjoyable idea she came up with was dropping a tanker truck filled with crude oil onto it from a thousand feet up - Alex let the ebb and flow of New York City's mid-morning traffic move around her. She ignored the cars and the people on the sidewalk and kept a subtle watch on the building across the street. Every time someone walked toward the building's door, she examined them with her X-Ray vision, committing their faces to memory with telescopics. The guy who had drugged Carol Danvers – a goon named John Leslie – worked his day job here. Alex wondered if his bosses knew he was actually a Hydra agent, or maybe the entire place was a secret Hydra base. Either way, John Leslie was in for the shock of his life. He'd been cordially invited to an interrogation. Since Alex was the one member of their merry band of pranksters not busy that morning, she was the one chosen to deliver the invitation in person.

Movement across the street caught Alex's attention, and her eyes narrowed at the man approaching the door she's been surveilling. He was tall, blonde, obviously in shape, and carried himself like he knew how to move. Her X-Ray vision also revealed that he had at least two easily-concealed guns on his person. Hydra Agent John Leslie, as she lived and breathed. "Cool. An excuse to dump the coffee." Alex dropped the half-full cup into the trashcan next to the bus shelter and stepped toward the curb. Alex was tasked to bring this man in to the safe house Steve had set up, and there was only one real way to do it. Tony warned her to keep everything low-key, so Alex figured it was best to get into the building like a Muggle, and only use her powers when it came time to confront the dude, if that turned out to be necessary.

"Hey there, babe! How're you doing?"

Alex's head dropped toward her chest. She so didn't need this right now. She'd been so concentrated on the man with the guns and the building that she missed this toad approaching her. He was twenty something and looked either vaguely Hispanic or vaguely Italian, had a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, was wearing shades, and had his shirt open to the point of revealing chest hair. Combine that with a red leather jacket, and it looked like this guy had stepped right out of the 1970s. She shook her head at the bad luck of it all. Of all the times for Leisure Suit Larry to hit on her…

"Come on, sweet thing… not even a hello?" The man asked with a grin that just made him seem cheesier.

Alex didn't even look at him. Maybe he'd take the hint. "Fine. Hello. Now, buzz off. Not interested. Way, way not interested. And busy. No time for your bullshit. Bye." That's when she heard the click. She turned toward him to find that he'd been taking pictures of her with his iPhone, the kind that for some stupid reason supplied an artificial and utterly unnecessary "shutter click" noise when it took pictures. Oh, this is not happening. This is not happening at all right now. The man was grinning as he put his cell phone back in his pocket, backing away from her all the while. "Okay, shit-head. Now you've got me pissed. I've got no time for some asshole who thinks he's God's gift to women. So back the fuck off!" To emphasize her point. Alex casually grabbed a parking meter, snapped it off at the base, and waved it under his nose. "Or I could beat you to death and save a lot of women the headache of ever dealing with a piece of shit like you!" The action gained the pair attention, and she found herself in a circle of people

The man's eyes got wide as saucers. "Yeah, sure! No problem! No problem at all!" He turned and left, moving through the growing crowd as quick as he could without running. Every few feet he'd glance back over his shoulder to make sure she wasn't following. Everyone else just stared at her. Most had their cell phones out. Some were smiling, some were even smirking, while most of the remainder just watched. But there were also some who were deeply frowning.

One young woman, Asian with bright purple tips in her otherwise black hair, stepped forward. "I recognize you! You were in that YouTube video! You're Superwoman!" The news of her identity traveled through the crowd like a lightning bolt. Alex just sighed as her cover was blown. The smilers grew in number, but so did the frowners.

"It is her! Its Superwoman! I heard about her on the news a while back! She's a terrorist! Killed those soldiers!" The woman screaming this was holding up her own iPhone while filming Alex who was just standing there in shock. When the fuck did I kill any soldiers? I haven't killed any soldiers? Alex's confusion grew as the woman continued screaming. "Someone call the Army!"

"She's not a terrorist!" The Asian girl turned and nearly spat in the first woman's face. "She's a hero! She saves people!"

"But the news is always saying…"

Alex tuned the voices out and looked around. With this crowd, and this many cell phones, the "new Avengers," Carol Danvers hand-picked team of maniacs, was sure to already be on their way. While Alex knew she could take them, both Steve and Tony had told her to not cause a scene and to lay low. With another sigh, Alex crouched for a moment, then leaped upward, speeding into the sky fast enough that she was out of sight in seconds. There'd be time to find John Leslie and interrogate him later. For now, she'd head home and get the lecture from Captain 'Better Than Thou' and his team of moralizers. Yeah, he was a hero, and he was getting his hands dirty resisting the government and their gestapo tactics lately, but he never stopped sneering at her for some reason. The fact that he resisted her attempts to find out what the problem was didn't help things.

That's a problem for a different day, she thought to herself. Hopefully the lecture won't be too boring and we can get back to figuring out what's going on. And even more importantly, stopping it. For the fifteenth time, Alex wished Louise was in New York. She missed Louise.

XxxxxxX

When she got back to the SHIELD helicarrier they were using as a base, just outside US territorial waters, the ensuing lecture was precisely as bad as Alex had suspected. And as self-righteous. And it had gone on long enough that Alex started rolling her eyes. Which is what ultimately set the good Captain off.

"You need to stop pretending like this is a game and start taking it seriously! What were you thinking? With you range of abilities, you should never have been spotted at all, much less end up on the evening news!" Steve Rogers waved a hand toward one of the many screens on which a "Terror Alert" broadcast was being made. The Department of Homeland Security had got their hands-on footage from someone's phone and, with a little editing and a carefully written news story, had painted a picture of 'a group of concerned citizens' stopping a known terrorist from destroying a building in Manhattan by way of public exposure. It was a beautifully orchestrated piece of propaganda. Though how did anyone in the government could believe that crowd could stop me from doing anything I didn't want to, I'll never know…

"Like I can control every single bystander with a phone! What did you want me to do, Rogers? Kill everyone there?" She rolled her eyes again. "Yeah, like that wouldn't have landed on the news…"

"And that's another thing. You and your casual use of lethal force. It's unacceptable." Rogers sneered at her. "Time was, the Avengers had standards and didn't let murderers on the team."

Okay, that's it. Alex rose to her feet and stood nose to nose with Captain America. "Are we really going to do this now? When what we need is a little teamwork and planning so we can figure out just how far Hydra's got their hooks into the Avengers?

"Actually I think now is a fine time to hash this out. Before anyone has to rely on you for anything that matters." She had to give Rogers credit. In the face of a superior opponent he knew could crush him completely, especially one who was actually taller than he and just as muscular and imposing, he never once backed down.

Alex took a deep breath. "Listen, you arrogant ass, I am not a murderer. I haven't murdered anyone." The lie came easy to her, even as Gyrich's face flashed behind her eyes. She quashed the feelings of guilt before anyone else could notice they were there and drove on. "Yes, I acknowledge that I killed Bullseye and the Radioactive Man. But it wasn't murder in either cases. Besides, I find the hypocrisy in you complaining about me killing those guys a little bit more than ironic, Mr. Super-Soldier." She waved her hand at the assembled heroes in the room, and there were a lot of them. In addition to Tony, the Widow, Janet, and Simon, half of the Fantastic Four were present, alongside the Falcon, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Luke Cage, some girl wearing what looked like Ant-Man's costume, and another girl in purple carrying a bow. "I can name at least five people here who have killed other people for reasons that range from self-defense to the defense of others to just plain old simple vengeance. So for you to come at me with this fucking attitude of yours is ludicrous. How many people did you kill back in the 40s, Rogers?"

The truth apparently stopped Steve Rogers in his tracks. Cap looked around the room and counted the faces of people who know looked guilty, not to mention the faces of people who were nodding. Tony Stark gave him a shrug and said, quietly, "She's got a point, Steve."

After a moment, he replied. His voice was low and quiet, and a lot of the anger was missing. "It was war. It isn't the same thing at all."

"It is to the people you killed." Alex took another deep breath. "It's no different at all. Dead is dead. But I'm not going to stand here and try to lie to you. I think about killing people all the time."

The shock on Rogers' face was tangible. "What?!"

"Oh come on, Steve! Take a step out of the world of blonde heterosexual men for a moment! I'm not only a woman, Captain, but I'm a gay woman! Every single day, I see and hear people say things about gays in this country that are so hateful... do you have any idea how hard it is to live in this country some time when you know a good portion of the population hates you for just being born? There are people who want to see me and my wife murdered just because we are in love with each other."

Rogers mouth opened as if he wanted to say something, but Alex rode over him. "Can you guess how easy it would be for me to just round up all those bigots and drop them collectively into a volcano? Or all the racists? Or the sexists? I could do it in an hour. It would be that easy! A snap." Alex emphasized her words with a snap of her fingers that was just a bit too loud, giving off the sound of a gunshot. It caused everyone listening to jump. Alex then realized she was ranting, but she couldn't help it.

"Every time I watch TV and I see some hate group like the Klan holding a rally, I fantasize about showing up and just hovering in the air as I burn each of them to a cinder with my heat vision. Every time I see the news about some poor kid beaten to death by some assholes who hated his sexuality I want to find the people who did it and throw them into space. Every time I see something in the news about some asshole in Congress taking away the services old people or the homeless depend upon just to live, I want to go to them and threaten to wipe out their entire families if they don't do something decent once in their lives."

"But I don't!"

Again, he began to speak and Alex interrupted. "And why don't I? Can you guess? Let me tell you, it's not because I am afraid of being thrown in jail. And I'm really not afraid of any of you trying to stop me, either. Its because I have a woman who loves me and thinks I am a good person, and because of her I try to be the best person I can possibly be. Because of her, I try to make the world a better place, every single day, and despite the fact that it would be so god-damned easy to make the world a better place by wiping out the people who cause the world to turn to shit, I don't. Because that would be wrong."

She glared at him. "You haven't worked with me long enough to truly understand how powerful I am. You keep thinking in terms of Thor or Sentry. But I'm on an entirely different level. An entirely different level. If I wanted, I could cause an earthquake just by stomping my feet. Or a hurricane with one hard, sharp breath. But I don't. I don't. Because she wouldn't want me to."

Alex gave each person in the room a searching gaze before returning it to Captain America. Rogers had a thoughtful look on his face but wasn't saying anything. She had more to say, so she continued. "I'm not asking for a medal for it, though. I'm not saying, 'Hey, I deserve a fucking ticker-tape parade for not killing thousands of people today.' That would be monstrous of me. But I am not going to stand here and be lectured about my moral choices by someone who doesn't have to deal with my situation. I can accept you not liking me. But I refuse to accept you constantly dogging me about it all the time. So here's what I am going to do. I'm going to work with Stark and Natasha and the team to stop Hydra and figure out what to do about Carol Danvers. Whether you want to work with them or not is no skin off my nose. So you might as well get used to it, because it's not changing."

Rogers just looked at her. "And I'm sure getting back at Carol for sending you away and putting Louise in prison has nothing to do with it."

Alex just laughed. "Oh, it has everything to do with it. But before you lecture me about vengeance, I want you to note that, like I said, I haven't just flown in and dropped a mountain on Carol Danvers, have I? Or snatched her up from her apartment and thrown her into the sun? Or maybe just waded in and beat her to death? You have noticed that she's still breathing? Yes?"

Reluctantly Rogers nodded. "Yeah, I noticed."

"Good. All I am asking is you cut me some slack." She took another deep breath. "So… Danvers knows I'm back now. How are we going to handle that?

It was Stark, who'd been silent during the entire rant, and had kept other people from interfering with the confrontation between her and Captain America, who replied. "Well, we still need to talk to John Leslie. Natasha has been looking at apartment listings, and she thinks she's found him. We need you to go into Manhattan again."

XxxxxxX

Grant Phillips was an accomplished criminal, having spent years as a soldier for the Butler family, an arm of the so-called "Redneck Mafia" back in Northern Florida and Southern Alabama. Most of his work for the Butlers was B&E jobs and snatch and grabs, so even before he was recruited by Hydra, he'd known how to get into a place unseen and unheard. And after Hydra found him, and trained him, his skills were on an entirely different level, as befitting his status as a cleaner. He thought the usage of the word was funny, and every time he thought about it, he smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile, but then the way Hydra used the word 'cleaner' wasn't all that pleasant either.

'Cleaner' as in, 'cleaner of messes.' As in 'remover of loose ends.' As in, assassin sent in to remove people who got in the way, or who had become inconvenient and potentially a problem for Hydra in their pursuit of world-wide domination. John Leslie, for example. From the mission brief, Leslie had been effective and successful at whatever mission he had been given, and had circumstances been different it's entirely possible that Leslie might have moved up into the senior ranks of the organization eventually. Unfortunately, something – Grant was never told what - had arisen that meant John Leslie might had become a loose end. And loose ends were never tolerated. Ever. Which is where Grant Phillips, the Cleaner, came in.

But he was an expert in breaking and entering even before Hydra, which meant that getting through John Leslie's apartment door was child's play. A hard-card against the plate, and some pins in the lock and it opened as if he had used the door key.

Once inside, he took in the apartment. Leslie obviously hadn't put too much into it, which was understandable if he moved around a lot. There were a few personal touches, but the furniture was generic, the decorations were generic, the color scheme was generic. No style at all, thought the assassin. He had memorized the apartment's layout, and knew to check the bathroom, the spare room, and the master bedroom, but given Leslie's usual schedule the entire place was otherwise empty. In the sitting room – or whatever you called it, the room with the TV anyway – Grant selected the chair that gave him the best view of the door without simultaneously giving away that someone was already inside the room. He took out his weapon – it was an HP22 Semi, a pistol that was cheap as fuck but as reliable as the sunrise – and screwed a suppressor onto its barrel. Then he tugged a paperback novel out of the pocket of his jacket and waited. According to the debrief, it would only be an hour or so before Leslie arrived. The job itself wouldn't take more than ten seconds or so – there was no need to talk to Leslie, after all, just to kill him – and then some minor cleanup afterward and he's be out the door within five minutes after Leslie was dead.

Naturally, it came as a huge surprise when, fifteen or so minutes after Grant Phillips settled in to wait for John Leslie's arrival, his attention was pulled from his reading by what sounded like metal scraping against metal. A tubular object – it took him a moment to realize it was the lock assembly on a door – went flying away from the sliding glass door leading to the apartment's balcony. Grant stood, weapon extended, and when the woman entered the apartment he didn't hesitate. He pulled the trigger on the .22 twice by instinct, instead concentrating on where to quickly hide her body so that Leslie wasn't warned of his presence. Grant's mouth dropped open. The woman had turned to look at Grant, and the assassin was able to watch the .22 slugs flatten against her forehead. He was still standing there, pistol extended, as the woman caught the now ruined bullets, glanced down into her hand at them, then smiled up at him and said, "Wow, that was rude."

Grant recognized her. Everyone working in the area recognized her. It was Karen Starr, the so-called Superwoman. She wasn't in costume, but no man who ever saw a picture of this woman would forget her. Not with that body and that face. What the fuck was she doing back in New York? That Mordo guy sent her to hell or something? This thought was Grant Phillips' only moment of hesitation. Knowing he was blown, knowing that as strong as she was, and as invulnerable as she was that there was absolutely no way to fight her, no way to stop her from getting anything she wanted from him, Grant did precisely what Hydra trained him to do in such circumstances. He closed his eyes, put the gun beneath his chin, pointed upward toward his brain, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Grant opened his eyes and she was standing right there, not more than a foot away, smirking at him. She held up a piece of black metal, and it took Grant a moment to realize that it was the top half of the gun, including the firing assembly and the barrel. Looking at the pistol confirmed it: all he held was the grip and the trigger assembly. She had somehow taken the gun apart quicker than he could react, while he was bringing it up to his chin.

"I know, right! Impressive! I remember back the first time I did that to someone, I not only took the gun away from them, I took their index finger with them. Not that he didn't deserve it. I mean, the guy was a pimp and a drug dealer, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for him losing a finger, you know?" She crushed the gun's receiver into a small ball of metal, almost casually, and tossed it over her shoulder. Then she gave Grant the once-over.

"Got to say, not too impressed. I mean, you're just going to shoot yourself with your gun? You'd think an evil spy organization like Hydra would give you guys a poison gas tooth, or a suicide bomb, or something like that." Grant didn't know what to say to that, so he didn't respond at all. "Sit down. We're going to have a talk." When he didn't respond, she put a hand to his chest and pushed with just enough force to knock him back into the chair. It was built with a low-enough center of gravity to not tip back on itself, but it was a near thing. "I said sit." He sat there for a moment, trying to regain his equilibrium, and as he did so, he noticed the woman glancing around the apartment. Her gazed from location to location, only stopping for more than a moment in a few places… but where her gaze stopped, there came a whiff of smoke and burning plastic. "There. Now we can have this conversation in private."

Superwoman towered over Grant as she performed the most direct and specific a frisk as he'd ever experienced. This was no pat-down. She knew where everything was, from his cell phone – which she crushed in her hands the moment it was out of his pocket – to his backup piece, to even the pocket knife he'd been given as an eight-year-old boy by his grandfather. She even snagged his paperback. "Huh. Double Cross by James Patterson. He any good? I've never read any James Patterson before."

"What?" He had expected to be questioned. He had not expected to be questioned about the paperback or his opinion on James Patterson as a writer.

"Is James Patterson a good writer?" Starr sat down at the edge of the couch next to him, pulled his chair around so that it was directly in front of her, and then grabbed him lightly by the jaw, with just enough force behind it to remind him that she was totally in control. She stared into his eyes, seemingly looking for an injury. "I didn't concuss you when I pushed you into the chair, so you should still be able to think straight. Is James Patterson any good?"

The entire point of her asking went past him. "What? I mean… why the fuck do you care?" Grant tried to pull his head away from her fingers but it was like he was caught in a vice.

"I'm always looking out for a good book. Now, I'm going to keep this." She waved the book at him. "When I'm done with it, if I remember, I'll see about getting this returned to you once you're in your cell. Don't worry, I'll make sure to get you medical attention for the concussion. In the meantime," Starr let him go, and Grant pulled back, twisting his neck back and forth to loosen it up.

"What the fuck are you talking about? What conc –" and that was as far as he got before she reached up and thumped him on the forehead. Everything went black, suddenly.

XxxxxxX

John Leslie was a whistler. He whistled absent-mindedly while doing other things for the same reason other people would turn the TV as background noise but never once actually watch what was on. It was white noise.

He was even whistling now as he approached his apartment. Some snippet from a movie he'd seen. OR maybe a play, now that he thought about it. John repeated the refrain he'd just finished, with an ear toward remembering where he heard it. Took a couple of seconds, but eventually he got it. It was "With Cat-Like Tread" from Pirates of Penzance. The 1979 film version with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline had been on AMC a week ago, and he'd watched it. Still whistling, John pulled his front keys out of his pocket and took a quick glance over his shoulder. The three girls were still following. All of them had the glassy-eyed look that told him the Puppeteer Compound was working.

He'd been able to snare the three with ease. Marybeth he'd met at a dance club; she was – or had been, at least – a pre-med student at Empire State. Jenah had once been a model at the Stephens Agency before she encountered John Leslie at a showing at the Hansen Gallery. And sweet Aleja had been a high school sophomore – now officially considered a runaway and 'missing' by her family and the authorities - he'd bumped into while stopping at a bodega for cigarettes. Now, thanks to the Puppeteer Compound, they were toys of John Leslie. No, the word toys projected the image of the relationship. Pets, maybe? Pets. Yes. He loved them like pets, naturally. And they loved him back, in more ways than one, naturally. The thought made him grin. When he first ensnared them, he had to constantly dose them and give them reinforcing commands, but now all it took was the occasional booster. They were conditioned to the drug and to their need to it, and were conditioned to obey his every whim… which was entire point of it all, naturally.

Hydra paid John Leslie enough that he could afford to keep two apartments in this building, so he did. One apartment was his. The other was effectively a kennel. A place for his pets to stay when they weren't playing with their master and seeing his needs.

John opened the door to his apartment, gesturing for the girls to enter quickly. "Go on ahead to the bedroom and get ready. I've just got to take care of a few things first, so feel free to start without me." He flipped through the mail he'd grabbed in the lobby, on the way to the apartment's living room. Mostly advertising, and a reminder that he needed to register to vote again. John dropped the mail on the reach-over counter that separated the small kitchen from the living area, and began his 'I just got home' ritual by dropping his keys in the bowl he kept there for that purpose, and yanking at his tie. He hadn't noticed that the door to his balcony was open, or that the wind was toying with the curtains that normally kept the sun out of the apartment in the mornings. Why would he? He wasn't expecting any surprised, except maybe once he joined the girls in the bedroom. Which is why he nearly leapt out of his skin when he heard the voice.

"You know, John, I've got to say, I've seen some shit in my life that could easily fall under the label "sick", but if your taste in porn is any indication of how you are in real life, you are a sick, sick man. Don't get me wrong, a healthy sex life is important, but this isn't healthy for anyone. Not for you, and certainly not for them."

John whirled around.

A tall, leggy, overly-muscled and large-breasted blonde woman was sitting on his couch. She looked for all the world like one of those lady bodybuilders he saw occasionally in the muscle magazines. She wasn't looking at him, though. She was holding one of his magazines up in front of her face, looking at the centerfold. It was one of the magazines that he kept in the safe in his bedroom. One of the ones he bought in the back room of a basement shop on Mercer. The one involving studded wooden paddles, bruises, and crying women. "Let me guess," she continued from behind the magazine. "You only read it for the articles. Ladies, go lock yourself in the bedroom and don't come out until someone identifying themselves as a police officer knocks on the bedroom door." And naturally, because John had already dosed them, they followed the order. How did this woman know…?

Which was when it hit him. He recognized her. He started to tremble as he recognized her. He recognized her. He recognized her from the briefing. She could kill him in seconds, without breaking a sweat. Her eyes were hard, and her smile was harder.

"Oh fuck," he mumbled. It was Karen Starr. Superwoman herself. He'd seen first-hand video of this woman executing the Thunderbolts. She's fought off the Avengers and even managed to hand Thor himself his own Asgardian ass. He thought getting his hooks into Carol Danvers had made him a badass, but this… dealing with this was going to be impossible. There was no dealing with this. There was only surviving it! The woman's grin turned even tighter and his trembling actually increased. Almost involuntarily, John checked the locations of the various cameras and microphones in the room. He was very careful to move only his eyes. If someone back at the base happened to monitor his live feed, he might get a rescue out of this. Of course, there was an even chance that he'd be seen as compromised and liquidated, but a 50/50 chance was better than…

"Don't worry, John. I burned out all the cameras and yanked the microphones out of place." Karen Starr tossed the porno mag onto the coffee table with an almost contemptuous flip of her hand, while bringing her other hand out of her pocket. There were seven of the miniature listening devices. Seven? John Leslie's jaw worked up and down wordlessly. I thought there were only three! As he watched, Superwoman crumbled the high-tech electronics in her hand, leaving pieces no bigger than breadcrumbs. "Took care of that right after I caught the assassin."

"A-assassin?" It was all John could think of to say.

"Yeah, this guy." She nudged at something under his coffee table, and it was only then that John Leslie noticed that there was an unconscious man there. He'd been stuffed under the table, presumably by her. "A hit man of some kind. Or at least I assume. I mean, he was already here when I got here, and the moment I walked in he shot me in the head. Or, you know, tried to anyway. I'm guessing he's from Hydra." She looked him in the eye and smiled. It was a scary, predatory smile. "John, I hate to break this to you, but I think you have become a loose end." Her smile told him she didn't hate to break it to him at all.

"So, what's going to happen is this: you, me, and the hit man here are going to take a little trip to a nice, secure interrogation room outside of US territorial waters. And then we're going to have a conversation about what's going on with Carol Danvers. But first…" The woman stood and towered over John Leslie, who gulped and instinctively stepped back away from her. John Leslie was no Captain America. "Don't move. Don't even breathe."

He nodded. At this point, anything she wanted him to do was fine. John watched she went to his front door. The mass of her body hid the door from him, but there was a creaking sound, then the sound of something tearing. When she turned back around, she held a good third of the door in her hand. "Huh. Can you believe it?" The woman almost asked as she tossed the fragment of the door aside and moved to stand in front of him. "Your front door is two thin sheets of pressboard with some Styrofoam in the middle. Shoddy construction, John. It's a bane to civilized society." Slowly, Starr reached out toward him. Before he could say anything or otherwise react, she'd grabbed at his jacket above the pocket and yanked. The cloth tore, naturally, and his cell phone and a good portion of his jacket came away in her hand. She let the cloth drop and tapped at the phone for a moment.

In a moment, he heard the voice through the phone. "9-1-1. What is the nature of your emergency?"

Starr grinned at him before yelling, "Help! He's busting through the door! I think he wants to kill me! You've got to…" And then she crushed his phone in her hands. "Time to go, John." She reached into her back pocket and pulled out what looked like a black cloth bag.

John managed to get "Are you kidding me? You're going to –" before the hood went over his head.

XxxxxxX

John blinked, owlishly, when the hood was finally yanked off his head, but he knew it was at least an hour. The entire thing had been an odd experience, one that he'd never been through since training as a Hydra agent. He knew that Karen Starr had thrown him bodily over her shoulder. He knew she'd taken off into the air from his balcony because he could hear the Manhattan traffic below them. And then came the flight. It was cold and windy, and he was sure he'd smelled the ocean at one point, but it also had the rushed feeling of a rollercoaster ride, with constantly shifting G-forces. The truth was he had no idea where he was. For all he knew, he was in China now. When they got to where they were going he'd heard voices, and announcements, that made him think military base, or maybe SHIELD facility. Starr had carried him into this room – which was soundproofed, he could tell; soundproofed rooms just sounded soundproofed from the inside. She had plopped him into the chair he was still in, cuffed him to what felt like a metal table, and said she'd be back later. He knew it was hours ago, but how many hours? No telling.

But now the bag had been removed. This was good, because he was beginning to need to go to the bathroom.

He glanced around the interrogation room. It couldn't have been anything else, really; he'd seen enough episodes of Law and Order to recognize it, even if had that high-tech day-after-tomorrow look so common among SHIELD facilities. A table was before him, a mirror along one wall that was no doubt just one-way glass. Cameras in the corners. An electronics assembly in the ceiling above the table that had to be more cameras and microphones. Like he thought. Any fan of Law and Order could have recognized the room for what it was. Seated at the table across from him were two people. One of them was an athletic, red-headed woman who looked vaguely familiar, John thought, and the other was a middle-aged man who looked remarkably like Tony Stark. Behind Stark, leaning against the wall that held the 'mirror,' was a tall muscular man with blonde hair. Next to him, also leaning on the wall, was Starr. And next to her was a hugely-built man with black hair, wearing a pair of wrap-around red sunglasses. A sound behind him made him turn his head to look. A shorter woman, brown-haired, atheletic looking, stood there, staring at him.

It took him a minute to recognize them all: Karen Starr meant the Avengers, which meant this really was Tony Stark. The woman against the wall would be Natasha Romanova, which was why she was familiar to any Hydra agent. The blonde man must have been Steve Rogers. Captain America himself. The other two would be Wonder Man and the Wasp.

A polite cough brought John's attention back to the people sitting at the table with him. Tony Stark smiled at him. "So, John. Do you mind if I call you John?"

"Uh, no, that's fine." John nodded, trying to be helpful. There was no reason not to be. He wasn't one of the brainwashed soldiers who'd die at the whim of his Hydra commanders. By now the leadership had to know he was compromised, which meant he was dead anyway. Might as well try to stick it to the people who'd eventually kill him.

Stark just smiled again. It occurred to John that he had never realized just how short Stark was in comparison to the other Avengers. "So, let's talk about the overall plan, shall we? Here's what we know, and we want you to fill in the gap. Right now, there's a small army of Hydra personnel hiding in plain sight on an Air Force base the government closed eight years ago due to budget cuts out in New Jersey. Hydra managed to get this base up and running without anyone noticing and are using it as their base of operations in this part of the United States. In fact, all of your personal operations are being run out of it. So, tell me, John, how does Hydra take over a disused Air Force base without anyone noticing?

"Uh… noticing?" John was puzzled for a moment, then understood it. "Oh, you mean how did we take over an Air Force base without the government figuring it out. Yeah, uh… well, they don't tell me much, so I don't really know what's…" That was as far as got before Karen Starr dropped one hand on the table. Her hand landed no more than an inch and a half from his own fingertips. For all that it looked casual, the table itself shook a bit and there was a distinct dent under her hand. His attention was immediately drawn there. "What are you - "

Karen Starr leaned in. "I can hear your heartbeat, John. I can see your body temperature shift. I can track the tachycardiac pulses moving along your nervous system. When you lie, all these things change. Which means lying to us isn't worth the effort and will only get you punished. Do you understand, John? Nod your head if you understand."

John frantically nodded his head. His memory brought up autopsy images Hydra had acquired after this woman punched Bullseye in the head. They were not pretty images at all. He stared at her hand a moment, then brought his eyes back to hers.

"Good. Now, Mr. Stark asked you a question. How did Hydra take over an Air Force base?"

"Air Force base, John." Stark asked again.

"Hydra bought the entire property. It was covered as a real estate development deal." John took another deep breath. He was very aware that Starr was scratching at the table, raking up metal shards with just her fingertips. "The company that bought the property was going to turn the base into a series of residential neighborhoods, right? Put in a couple of parks, a shopping center, and rebuild the base hospital. But it was a Hydra front. The company that was supposed to do all this went 'bankrupt' and so the base has just been sitting there as far as anyone knew." He shrugged.

Romanova nodded. "The Bratva does that sort of thing all the time in Russia. Buy up lots of property, get construction contracts, go out of business, keep the money."

"Same kind of set up." John shrugged, trying to casually move his own hands away from the blonde woman's fingers. "Different goal. It gave Hydra time to finish construction."

"Right. Okay, so what's the point? What are you idiots doing here?"

"I don't know!" John knew he sounded desperate, and Stark did cut a quick glance to Karen Starr, but the woman just shook her head. "No, seriously, I was given my assignment. I was to meet Carol Danvers and bring her under control using the Puppeteer formula. Then I'd use her to get to the rest of you. Hydra wanted the Avengers under their control, and I was told Carol Danvers was the weak link."

"Okay, let's talk about this Puppeteer formula. What the hell is it?" Stark asked. "Are we talking about the clay used by Phillip Masters? That Puppeteer?"

"I don't know." Starr's hands moved to grip one of his. It felt like he was being held in a vice; not painful, but not escapable, either. John yelled, "No! I don't know! I just, you know, have a guess!"

The pressure lifted. "Tell us your guess, then," Starr growled.

"Right! It's a drug, and I think, yeah, they make it out of the same sort of stuff that old kook Masters used against the Fantastic Four." Leslie looked around the room, meeting the eyes of everyone but the blonde man standing behind them. "I'm guessing that's why they call it that. I don't know for sure. I don't have anything to do with making it. Just giving it to Danvers. I don't even give it to Pym. Danvers does that."

"You're using a formula based on the Puppeteer's clay?" Stark stared into space. "Well, I guess we should be grateful no one's thought of that before." The billionaire brought his attention back to Leslie. "How'd you get to Danvers?"

"Met her in a singles bar." Leslie's eyes went hooded for a moment, as if he was remembering. "I was selected for this mission because from what Hydra's surveillance can tell, I fit her favored physical type when it comes to men. There was another agent working alongside me who fit her favored type for women. We, uh, tag-teamed the mission. One of us would go to a pick-up bar we knew she frequented and would just wait." John shrugged. "I got lucky. She danced with Lesko, but never took her home. Me? I danced with her a couple of times, but it took a while. She was cycling through the regulars there – I'm talking, like, a different guy or a different girl every night for a month, never repeating. She is seriously into the entire 'take them home, fuck their brains out, shove them out the door' thing and she never repeats a lover, I guess. So, I knew all I had to do was wait. She'd gone through maybe thirty guys before my turn came around." Leslie slowed down, noting the disgusted looks on people's faces. "Anyway, she took me home, and from there it was easy."

Behind Stark, the Black Widow literally face palmed. She muttered something that sounded like, "Eta shlyukha otkryvala nogi vsem," and shook her head. She looked outraged. "You roofied her and raped her."

"Hey, she was going to sleep with me anyway! Seriously, Danvers just about gives it up to just about anybody who asks! All I had to do was wait for her to come to –"

"SHUT YOUR GOD-DAMNED MOUTH!" Stark's roared at the man. He took a moment to calm himself, before looking at his teammates. "Later." Stark returned his attention to Leslie. "You said Danvers and Pym were hooked. Who else?"

"On your team? Nobody." He shook his head. "You are always in that armor of yours, Black Widow is, like, totally paranoid and never eats or drinks anything she doesn't prepare herself. Wonder Man never eats or drinks anything, period, so he's impossible to dose. Ares apparently never even noticed he was dosed. Oh, and Carol said that when she dosed Spider-Man, he seemed susceptible for a while, for like, an hour. But then he shook it off and never had another reaction to any further doses. From what Danvers said, it took Spider-Man about an hour to break past the control, and she hasn't seen any addictive effects as well. She was impressed by it, is all I'm saying." He swallowed sharply and glanced around again. "Never got a chance to try the drug on Superwoman. Most of the current team are hooked."

"Jesus!" Finally, the blonde man spoke. The one John was presuming was Captain America. "When was this going on? When did this start?"

John looked up at the man. "Uh, I was instructed to hook Carol Danvers right after the disaster in Stamford. You know, the big explosion?" Leslie swallowed again, then nodded toward Stark. "Back when Stark was ram-rodding the Superhuman Registration Act through Congress, and you heroes were splitting into sides. Hydra thought it was the perfect time to strike. While you guys were too busy fighting each other to notice. My original target wasn't Danvers. My handlers at Hydra wanted me to dose Captain America, to bring him under control. The plan was to use him as a long-term agent." At this, Starr let out of loud bellow that seemed equal parts howl and honk – to be honest, it sounded for all the world like a seal was being tortured, slowly. It took a moment to realize that the woman was laughing. It sounded painful, absolutely painful. It also had to be one of the weirdest laughs he'd ever heard in his life.

Stark looked past Leslie toward his teammate. "You find something about that funny?" Obviously Stark had heard Superwoman laugh before, and thus was in no danger of mistaking it for someone dying of an embolism.

"Are you kidding me, Tony?" The woman honk-bellowed again. "Come on, Tony… Captain America as a Hydra agent? Please. Can you even… I mean, what kind of utter fucktard would you have to be to even think Captain America would make a good Hydra agent? I mean, God, that's like taking a piss on the Constitution! He's an icon, for fuck's sake… and even if it happened, I wouldn't believe it for a moment. Not for one damned moment. It's - " she seemed to be looking for a word. "It's just way too absurd to even be a decent make-believe story.

Stark chuckled at that – thank God his laugh was normal – and shook his head. "Yeah, that would be weird." Stark looked at the blonde man, confirming John's suspicions that this was Captain America. "What do you think, Cap? Want to be a Hydra agent?"

Leslie glanced up at the blonde man. Captain America was chuckling, silently. His body was shaking with laughter at the thought. "Sure, yeah. Okay," the man said, sardonically. "Me as a Hydra agent. Yeah, that's not stupid at all. Hail Hydra."

XxxxxxX

As everyone filed back into the conference room after the interrogations, Alex let the others sit at the table. As she waited, she half-sung-half-hummed the phrase, "I am the very model of a busty superheroine…" to herself. Leslie had been whistling that song from Pirates of Penzance and it had called to mind an absolutely earworm YouTube parody she had seen once. The song in the video was an earworm, and at the moment it just wasn't letting her go, almost to the point that she almost regretted watching it. Of course, it wasn't the worst parody of the 'Major General' song she'd ever heard. The difference, of course, was that this time the song was about her, and Alex was still wondering whether she should take it personally. Besides, the tits on the actress playing her wasn't nearly as busty as she was.

The Black Widow shifted slightly next to her and leaned closer. "Are you humming Gilbert and Sullivan?"

"No. Its's uh… it's hard to." Alex began and then stopped. "Can I talk to you later?"

The Widow shrugged. "No problem. Did I irritate you somehow?"

"No. The song did. I'll show you later."

Both women turned their attention back to the meeting, which had just started once everyone arrived. Captain America brought everyone to order and began. "So, did we get anything out of the hit man?"

Sue Richards shook her head. "No, he did the usual Hydra 'Cut one head off, two more regrow' nonsense. Total fanatic. We probably need to put him on suicide watch just to keep him alive."

"Damn." Captain America sighed. "Our interrogation of Leslie bore a lot more fruit then. We still don't know what their full plan is, but we know what his mission was. He was supposed to drug all of us, not just Carol and Hank. We just got lucky about it."

"And the overall plan?" Sue asked.

"He didn't know." Captain America looked around the room. "Taking Leslie means Hydra knows we're coming. We've got to take down their base, which will mean going up against Carol and her new 'Avengers' team. There's got to be some intel at the base itself. Once we capture the base, we'll have the intel. But It's not going to be pretty."

Alex had just been following along, but at this.. at this she stepped forward. "Cap, I have an idea. You guys take out the Hydra base. You're not going to have to worry about Carol or her team. I'll make sure of that."

Cap stared at her. "What are you planning?"

Alex shrugged. "Distraction. I show up just as you launch the attack on the base, and keep them all busy until you're done. That way, Carol and her team don't interfere with you at all."

Captain America continued to stare. It was clear that he didn't like the plan, but… "Okay." He turned to the rest of the room. "Let's get prepped for the attack. When we're ready, Superwoman will start her 'distraction,' and once that's underway, we'll strike. Any questions?"

There were no questions.

XxxxxxX

"There haven't been any new sightings since yesterday." The man making the report was dressed in Hawkeye's purple costume, but Carol knew he wasn't Clint Barton. He was Barney Barton, Clint's older – and morally looser – brother. "Wherever Superwoman went off to, she's keeping her head down."

Carol Danvers was seething. What did they think, that this was a joke? None of the rest of this team of 'Avengers' the government had assembled took the threat Karen Star presented seriously. None of them. They didn't know the woman like she knew her. They hadn't fought Starr. They hadn't had their bones broken, or been set on fire by her, or had almost been killed by… NO! She shoved the fear and desperation aside and glared at the people gathered around the conference table. The emotionally unstable Thor clone, who'd taken to calling himself 'Ragnarok.' A 'Wolverine' who wasn't Wolverine. A 'Hawkeye' who wasn't actually Hawkeye. She knew for certain that the man inside the repainted War Machine armor wasn't James Rhodes. The only real Avengers present were Sentry and Yellowjacket. None of them were reliable, but they were the only team she had.

She leaned over the table, pounding her fist on it. "You people need to understand just how dangerous Superwoman is. This is nothing to joke about!" There were looks around the table at that, but she ignored them.

"Carol, no one is joking about – " Pym started.

"Don't interrupt me! Don't you dare say a word. You're probably responsible for her being back." Everyone in the room jumped. Carol realized, as soon as the words were out of her mouth, how paranoid she sounded, but she couldn't help it. She'd been more and more out of sorts lately. She knew how to handle it, though. When the meeting was over, she'd go over to John's apartment, get high, pull the man into the bedroom, and then ride him like a horse until the sun rose the next morning. That would relax her all right.

"Carol, you're being…" There was a distant booming, like thunder, but too close and too precise, that cut Pym's protests off. The former Air Force pilot in Carol recognized the sound for what it was: something was approaching, dropping from hyper-sonic speed as it came. The floor-to-ceiling windows along the conference room's outside wall shook – audibly shook – from the shockwave caused by the sonic boom. And within the space of an eyeblink, she was there. Superwoman herself. She hung unsupported in the air, outside the window. Her hands were crossed under her bosom, and her cape fluttered majestically in the high winds that were constant at this height above New York City.

Superwoman's gaze took in everyone in the room, but then centered on Carol. Carol's jaw worked, soundlessly, as Captain Marvel tried to think of something to say.

The woman - Karen Starr, gave Carol a wry smile, and said, loud enough to be heard through the glass, "Colonel. Would you care to step outside?"

XxxxxxX

Author's Notes

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the property of Warner Brothers in conjunction with Mutant Enemy Productions. The Marvel Universe is the property of the Walt Disney Company. Power Girl is the property of DC Comics, which itself is the property of Warner Brothers.

2. I am constantly making edits to this story, correcting some grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors, adding missing words, correcting whatever misspellings I find, and so on. I'm also tinkering a bit with some of the language used. In any case, it's slow going and gradual because I don't have any sort of beta reader helping me with it and because of my physical situation. So, if anyone spots any errors, please feel free to let me know. I need all the help I can get.

3. This story has its own TV Tropes page. Due to my long-standing argument with Fast Eddie (the guy who runs that site – I may have once called him an arrogant jackass), I'm not allowed to update it myself. If someone wants to go over there and tinker with it or leave a review, feel free to do so.

4. Just to issue the usual warnings, there is explicit language in this story, but no explicit sex. The main character is a gay woman, so if the idea of two women getting together offends you, sorry but there are other stories out there you might enjoy more. And because I don't want to have to repeat myself here, let me drop a huge spoiler on you: this is not a gender-bender story. It is not about a guy who gets turned into a girl; it's about a girl who has a bit of a psychotic break and thinks she's a guy.

5. To the people who complained about my not detailing what happened with Alex in the Buffyverse, you're going to have to wait, because that is a separate story entirely.

6. To the four separate people who are coming this story and have been sending me lists of typos and other corrections, I thank you! I am making the corrections. But like writing the update, its all moving slowly. RED, I owe you especially given how much work you've put into it. Thanks.

7. An anonymous reviewer wanted to point out a mistake I made with this chapter. Specifically, they said, and I quote, "I feel compelled to note that the Bush administration came before the Obama administration and that therefore there is no 'Obamacare' and thus no 'services old people'." While I have no solid confirmation, I suspect the person who sent me this is either in their teens or their twenties. I base the fact that someone could be so ignorant to think that governmental services for the poor and the elderly only date back to Obamacare to be the height of sorrowful ignorance.