The Deep Breath Before the Plunge
The Deep Breath Before the Plunge
"A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return." – Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"
Agent Phil Coulson had been the senior field agent on SHIELD's special assignment team for five years now. They were the agents that SHIELD deployed when their normal teams, which were made up of the finest trained people on the planet, just weren't enough. To say that the special assignment team was the best of the best, and that as their head Phil Coulson was the best of the best of the best, was an understatement. It was a mark of the man's character that Coulson didn't let his reputation as a miracle worker go to his head.
But being the best of the best of the best didn't make him any more patient than anyone else. It just meant he was cool under fire and level-headed in situations that would cause astronauts to panic. But not as patient. Right now, Coulson was doing his best to keep his patience under control.
After four days of constant investigation since the attack, his superiors in SHIELD had decided that the girl wasn't in Los Angeles and had expanded the search to include nearby cities. 'Nearby' was being defined as a five hundred mile radius around Los Angeles. But now things were coming to a head and he knew that they were running out of time. He and his team had found the girl. Luckily, his team knew the score and weren't overly concerned with what Henry Peter Gyrich wanted out of life. But – and this was an important but – SHIELD didn't recruit morons, and if he could find and follow this evidence, he was sure that the agency's other agents could too.
"Grimm, pick up your phone." He hadn't mean to say it out loud, but he had. Coulson did a quick check of his 360. No one was close enough to have heard it except for Agent Ho, and Agent Ho was a collaborator, not an opponent. Other than the other agent, Coulson was, as far as he could tell, alone. This was a good thing, because technically, what he was about to do could be considered treason, given that the ultimate consequence would be aiding and abetting a teenaged girl who was considered a terrorist by the current administration.
Not that he had any use for the Bush Administration. If the country survived having a chimpanzee like that in the White –
"Phil, what d'ya got for me?" Since his transformation, the only real way to describe Ben Grimm's voice with any accuracy would be to call it 'gravelly,' with all the puns about that description tossed in for good measure. If Grimm's body had been remotely human anymore, Coulson would have told the other man to immediately stop with the cigarettes.
"Ho analyzed air traffic records, traffic cameras, and internal security camera footage and found the girl. She's in San Francisco at the UCSF Teaching Hospital, and she's not alone. According to the footage, she's there with a bunch of super-powered teenagers who normally run around LA. From what we can tell going through the hospital's records, when Bullseye attacked he clipped at least two of them."
"No, just injured. They're being treated. Hold on a second." Coulson tapped Ho on the shoulder. When the other man looked up, he asked, "How long can you sit on this?"
Agent Ho turned back to his computer screen and began tapping in some commands. The footage became blurry and indistinct, the colors off. "Well, it's going to take me a couple of hours to wash it, verify it, and enhance it. Call it four hours tops. Then they'll know what we know."
"Right." Coulson put his phone back to his ear. "We can delay the intel for about four hours, Ben. After that, the San Francisco office will be notified. You've got no more than four and a half hours to get them out of dodge."
"Gotcha. Let me get to it. Talk to ya later, Phil." Coulson pocketed his phone as Grimm signed off. "Okay," he said to Ho. "We've given Grimm as much time as possible. Do your best to sit on this as long as possible. Nobody with an ounce of sense wants this to become a shooting war. I've seen what this girl can do; Gyrich throwing Project Ragnarok at her is just going to get a city leveled."
That seemed to panic Ho. "Um, Phil? My mom lives in San Francisco."
Coulson thought about it for a minute. "Make it quick, tell her to pack light, and get the hell out of town."
Ben Grimm stepped out of house. He wore a trench coat and a fedora, both over-sized; the last thing he needed was some SHIELD surveillance satellite to wonder what the hell the Thing was doing Santa Barbara, California and not in safely self-exiled in Nice on the French Riviera. Sue Richards had chosen this specific house, built on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Coast, as a hiding spot because it belonged to Clint Barton and his wife Bobbi, purchased and lived in during their time as members of the West Coast Avengers.
Grimm had no idea who the house belonged to now that both Clint and Bobbi had passed on, but Sue had told him where keys would be left. It was a nice house, and while it was a little creepy to be in a house still filled with knick-knacks from a dead married couple, he'd spent the last two days there waiting for word from Coulson. No one outside of Sue Richards, had known he was here, and that was a good thing if he was going to pull this off.
In addition to anonymity, there was another good reason to use this house. It had a gigantic garage.
He lifted the garage door, revealing the concealed Fantasti-car that Sue had somehow managed to get her hands on. It was an older model, and Ben guessed that Reed had just lost track of it. Typical of Stretch, Grimm thought. If it isn't biting him on the nose, he doesn't care about it. Might be why Susie is divorcing him.
Hey keyed in the ignition sequence as quickly as he could, and carefully maneuvered the vehicle out of the garage and out onto the drive-way. He finished his checklist, made sure the craft was functional, then pulled the charging cable from the garage's electrical outlet. As it automatically retracted into a hidden panel in the Fantasti-car, he double-checked the GPS. He had four and a half hours to get the girl out of San Francisco, and it was going to take him at least half that to fly to San Francisco.
Oh well, no help for it. Time to get started.
"Alex. Sweetie. I love you more than I can say with words. You know that, right?" Alex took in Louise's smile and it made her spirit feel lighter. She held the smaller girl carefully and gently as Louise stood up from her hospital bed.
"Of course I do!" Alex returned the smile and carefully placed a light kiss on her girlfriend's forehead. She could feel Louise lean into the kiss. "I love you too, honey."
"I'm glad. I'm glad you know this. And since you know I love you, I'm sure you'll take what I have to say in the spirit I mean it." Alex continued to smile at her girlfriend as the two of them slowly approached the restroom door. Louise stopped and again looked up at Alex. "Alex, love, if you keep treating me like I'm made of glass I'm going to scream. And maybe throw things. I'll definitely get something heavy and hit you with it. I know it won't hurt you, but maybe it will convince you that I can make it to the bathroom and back by myself and I don't need you to hold my hand to pee." The smile on Louise's face never once dimmed. "I'm not even really hurt anymore, jeez."
Alex stopped right where she was, a stunned look on her face. Louise took three steps before she realized that Alex had stopped, but rather than stop herself just shrugged and kept walking into the rest room. "Thanks love," she called over her shoulder. She blew Alex a kiss and closed the door behind her. And that's when the giggling started.
She turned to the other person in the room. Nico Minoru was lounging in the chair beside the door, and was taking great pleasure from the scene that just occurred. "Please don't laugh at me." Alex frowned at the other woman. "It's not funny."
"Oh, I think it is. I think it's hilarious. I had the same conversation with Molly my first night here. Of course, she was actually trying to pick me up and carry me." And once again, Nico caught the giggles.
Alex couldn't help it. She tried to stay dour, but the laughter was infectious. "It's your fault, Nico. You and your fancy magicky healing. She was all gray and sick looking yesterday. I have to have time to get used to the fact that she's not looking like she's going to die every second of every day. I mean, abracadabra and she's all pink and beautiful again. It's eerie."
That caused Nico to giggle again, harder this time.
"It's not funny!"
"Yeah, okay, it was funny and I deserved it." She smiled as the rest room door opened again. Louise smiled back, and patted Alex on the shoulder on her way to the bed.
Once Louise was settled, Nico grew serious. "We need to talk about the plan."
"What plan?" Louise asked.
"Exactly." Nico was quiet for a moment. "While you were in recovery, Alex and I had a talk. I suggested she disappear. The cops and the Feds have got to be looking for her. I mean, you'll probably fly under the radar, but she took those guys out, so they're going to be coming after her. And just sitting around in the hospital isn't going to cut it. They're going to start looking, and we're not exactly well-hidden."
Alex nodded. She glanced over at Louise and saw that she, too was nodding.
"Okay. So what? We run? Where do we run?"
Alex started to answer, but Nico beat her to it. "Well, I've been doing to thinking. I think – and I hate this, I do – I think that you guys are going to be running for the rest of your lives if you stay here."
"Here? You mean San Francisco?" Louise looked confused.
"No, I mean here, this dimension. I think you guys should try to reach Alex's home dimension. I mean… sorry, I mean Xander Harris's home dimension. Or, even if you can't get there, maybe some other version of this dimension. Or anyplace you guys can be safe. Because I don't think this world is going to ever be safe for you."
Alex shook her head. "You mean run. I don't want to run."
"Alex, we're – aren't we going to have to run anyway?" Louise stared at Alex, her eyes wide. Alex opened her mouth, and Louise interrupted. "And don't you dare say that you'll run and I'll be safe, because you already told me you wouldn't do that."
"You remember that?"
"Yeah. I remember that." Louise smiled.
Alex stared at her for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. We run and hide and we run and hide together." She turned to Nico. "You said something about a Jennifer Hale? And a Nexus of something-or-other?"
"Kale. Jennifer Kale and the Nexus of All Realities."
"Okay." Alex shrugged. "So who is Jennifer Kale and what's a Nexus of All Realities?"
"Well, Jennifer Kale is a witch. She's one of the Magisters." Nico sighed at the blank looks on Alex and Louise's faces. "Okay, remember the other day I mentioned Doug Henning, about how he was one of the backups for Doctor Strange? Well those guys are Magisters. The guys who are almost powerful enough to be Sorcerer Supreme. If something were to happen to Doctor Strange, one of them would almost certainly be next in line to be the next Sorcerer Supreme."
"How many of them are there?" Alex was genuinely interested. Xander Harris had always liked the Doctor Strange comics, and it had carried over to Alex.
"Uh, well, there's Kale, and hmmm…." Nico thought about it for a minute. "There's about six, maybe seven of them right now. I called around and asked a couple of people I know in the magic community for some ideas. Sort of asked them, you know, if you were going to run to a new dimension to get away from an enemy, who'd you go to for transportation, right? Jennifer Kale is the only one they suggested who is easy to find and also might be inclined to help you rather than turn you into an enthralled slave or something."
"Right. Mind-controlled slave is of the bad." Alex chuckled. "We definitely don't need that."
"So where do we find her, Nico?" Louise's hands were in motion out of nerves. She smoothed the blanket over her legs three times.
"Florida. From what I hear, she lives in the Everglades."
"The Everglades? You mean the big swamp?" Alex asked.
"No, the mountain range." Louise laughed. "It's not that bad, Alex. I went there once with my folks when I was a kid. Family vacation to Florida. It's pretty cool." She turned to Nico. "So what's this Nexus thing?"
"Well, the Nexus of All Realities is this… Nexus…" Nico shrugged. "I don't have any idea. Just, it's a connection between all the different dimensions. When I asked Drogo, he said it was like this tube that ran through all the alternate dimensions. But just the alternates. It doesn't go to places like Hell or Fairyland. Just to places like an Earth where Jersey Shore was canceled after two episodes, or where the dominant life form was intelligent ducks or something. It'll take you to Xander's home world, or maybe to somewhere else you can be safe if you can't get to that dimension."
"But what about…" Alex began.
Nico cut her off. "Yeah, I know, but look, right now you've got the entire weight of the United States government about to fall on you. They're never going to stop coming unless you somehow convince them that it's cheaper to leave you alone. And if they aren't willing to do that for the Hulk, why would they do it for you?"
A tense silence fell across the room. All three women stared into space.
Finally, Alex sighed. She took one of her girlfriend's hands and leaned in to press her body against Louise's. "Louise, it's up to you. You're from here. This is your home. I mean, yeah, it's mine too, but you know what I mean. I'll do anything you want. If you say we stay, we stay. If you say we go, we go."
Louise nodded, not yet looking at Alex. They were all quiet for a long while, before Louise finally said, "Would things be better there, Alex?" She looked up and met Alex's eyes with her own. Alex could see that Louise was on the verge of tears. "Would we… would we have to live on the street? I don't want to start, you know. I stopped and don't want to go back to it."
Alex shook her head. "No. We wouldn't have to live on the streets, and there's no way you're going to back to hooking." Nico started at that; she hadn't been let in on that aspect of these two women's lives yet. But the context gave her some understanding about it. When you lived on the streets, you did what you had to do to survive.
"I've got friends there. Well, Xander has – damn it!" Alex shook her head. "You guys know what I mean. There are people there who would help us if we explained what was going on. They'd take us in once we explained who we were and what was going on. Maybe help us find some place to live and all." Alex smiled at a memory. "And I know that Mrs. Summers, Buffy's mom, wouldn't let us go hungry."
"Okay." Louise took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She was quiet for a while before speaking. She opened her eyes. "Okay, then let's try to get there." She gave a weak laugh. "Always wanted to be on television." She gave Alex's hand a squeeze. "So, we need to find Jennifer Kale and the Nexus thingy. What are we going to need to get there?"
"Well, I think you're –" Nico stopped talking as the hospital room's door opened. The man who stepped through was unexpected. It wasn't just that he was tall and filled the door. It was that his skin was bright orange, and seemed to be made of stone. Everyone recognized him at once. Alex stood, placing herself in between the Thing and Louise. She caught Nico's eye and gave a bob to the left with her head, which was returned with a nod. Alex stepped toward the intruder as Nico moved to stay behind the Kryptonian.
"Hey, you Karen Starr? If so, we gotta get – URK!"
"Shut up! Why are you here? What do you want?" Alex had pushed the man out of the room and into the hallway. She pressed him against the wall as hard as she could without breaking through it. She looked left and right, scanning the rest of the hospital with her x-ray vision, looking for the rest of the Fantastic Four. Where the Thing was, they wouldn't be far behind. When the Thing remained quiet, she turned back to him. "Answer me, damn it!"
"Which way do ya want it, kid? Ya want me to shut up, or you want me to answer ya?" There was a patient humor in Grimm's voice.
"What?" The Thing's question had thrown Alex off her stride. "No, answer me! What are you doing here? Why are you attacking us?"
"Kid, I'm not attackin' anyone. I just came to find you." Alex's expression grew tight at that, but before she could say anything Grimm added, "Wait, kid, no. Not like that. Sue Richards asked me to help get you out of sight, so here I am, helpin'. Now, we can stay here with you pressin' me through a wall and all, or we can get the heck out of dodge before those SHIELD yutzes get here and make things more complicated than I think you want."
"SHIELD's coming? Here?"
"Yeah, kid. I figure they're only about a half-hour, maybe an hour behind me, tops. We got to get you and your friends out of here, now. So… do ya mind? You're rumpling my coat, and you wouldn't believe how expensive it is to get tailored clothes for a guy my size." He pointedly looked down at where her fist was bunched up in his trench coat. Already, two buttons had popped off of it.
"Oh. Yeah, sorry. So you're here to – wait, how did you find us?" Alex stepped back, then tried to smooth the trench coat down as best as she could.
"Let's just say not everybody at SHIELD is happy with being turned into the gestapo and leave it at that. Like I said, we need to get out of here. I have a ride waiting. C'mon." Grimm stepped past her and back into the room.
Alex followed. "Hold on a second, Mister! We're not going anywhere with you just on your say so. I mean, how do we know you're not just leading us into a trap, huh?"
The Thing sighed. "Okay, look. That's a good point. But from what I've been told, you can bust through pretty much any trap, right? So both I'm tellin' ya the truth and you're wastin' time, or else its nothin' you need to be worried about anyway. So get your stuff and let's go."
Alex looked to Nico, then to Louise. Louise looked like she was about to faint. Nico just looked thoughtful. Nico shrugged. "You said Sue Richards sent you?"
Nico was about to continue, but Louise interrupted. "Why would the Invisible Woman give a shit about three kids from LA she ain't never met?"
"She didn't like what you been through." He gestured toward Alex. "Thinks you been riding the railroad too long and needed some help. So she sent me. She couldn't come herself without attracting undue attention, and as I was unencumbered by scheduled events and all, I figured I'd lend a hand. Now, for the sake of all that's holy, could we get a move-on? SHIELD's gonna be here any minute."
Nico finally found her voice. "So the Invisible Woman wants us to go with you? And what… help her and Captain America fight off Iron Man and the Avengers? We've been trying to keep our heads down. We don't want…" Grimm was already shaking her head.
"All she told me was to get you out from under SHIELD. So, we goin' or what? 'Cause even if you tree decide you want to hang around, I'm beatin' feet. No need to let them bozos know I'm in town, know what I mean?"
He just stood there, waiting.
"Yeah, yeah, okay. Nico, where's your stuff?" Neither Alex nor Louise really had anything else but the clothes they were wearing. Louise didn't really have anything other than her jeans and the hospital gown. The shirt she was wearing when she came in had been cut off of her by the emergency room doctors.
"Molly and Chase took it back to LA. We're good. Let's go." Nico headed out, past Grimm.
"Right. Louise, sweety, I know you can get around just fine, but for now, put up with it." Alex scooped the smaller girl up into her arms. She turned to Grimm. "Lead on, MacDuff."
The Thing smiled as led them out of the room. "Actually, it's 'Lay on, MacDuff', not 'lead on.' You kids always get that wrong. Head for the elevators. I've got a Fantasti-car hidden in the parking garage."
The trip to the hospital's parking garage took only a handful of minutes. The Thing immediately began the start-up procedures.
"I definitely hear helicopters approaching, guys. We need to get a move on." Alex set Louise in the Fantasti-car's front seat, then helped her fasten the five-point harness.
"I don't hear anything." Grimm was still flipping switches. The vehicle's engines started spooling up to full capacity.
"You will. Give it two seconds." Alex reached across Nico to help; the other girl was having trouble getting the harness closed correctly. She had just finished snapping closed the last restraint line when she abruptly jerked her head up.
Alex stood and took a quick 360. To the others, it looked like she was staring at nothing. "Shit! Mr. Grimm, we're out of time. Where are you taking them?"
"Uh… there's a house in Santa Barbara, built on a cliff overlookin' the ocean. We're usin' it as a safe house."
"Okay, get moving. I'm staying to cover your get-away. I'll catch up to you." Alex turned away from the Fantasti-car, but had barely moved when Louise's hand shot out and caught her arm.
"Wait, what? No! Alex! You have to come! Don't leave, please!" Louise was clearly terrified.
Alex ran a gentle hand down the face of her girlfriend. "It's okay, honey. I'll be there. I just have to make sure you're safe. You trust me, right?"
Louise nodded. She was tearing up already, and Alex found it excruciating to do what she was doing.
"Okay. Then I need you to go with Nico and Mr. Grimm. I have to know you're safe. They can't hurt me. I'll be okay." She kissed Louise then. It was a soft, slow kiss that had every ounce of emotion Alex could put into it. When it was over, Alex stood. "Get them out of here, Mr. Grimm. Keep them safe." Alex stepped back as the Fantasti-car lifted off the ground and shot forward. She kept her eyes on Louise as long as possible, and waved as long as she could.
With a sigh, she walked to the outer rim of the parking garage. A waist-high concrete wall kept people from falling four-stories to the ground. As Alex watched, a caravan of blue-colored SUVs and step-vans crowded the hospital entrance. They soon disgorged dozens of armed SHIELD agents. Some formed a perimeter around the hospital, others rushed inside. For some reason, none looked up at the parking garage.
Alex shook her head and grinned. This was one Kryptonian power she never really thought she'd needed. It always seemed to be too weird for television. But now it served a purpose. She took a deep, deep breath, and then shouted loud enough to shatter every pane of glass with 500 yards of her, and cause every other rigid surface to vibrate. Many of the armed men and women on the ground below her were knocked down by the shockwave.
"HEY, DIPSHITS! YOU LOOKING FOR ME? I'M UP HERE!"
Every eye below her turned to stare. The SHIELD agents were motionless in shock, but soon enough it wore off. A dozen of them sprinted toward the parking garage while three more ran into the hospital. Alex just stood there, waiting. She didn't have to wait long.
"On the ground! Now! Get down on your knees! Hands on your head!"
Alex turned and smiled at the circle of SHIELD agents, all of whom were pointing weapons at her. She recognized the guns; they were the rifle version of the Hulkbuster that Agent Dunne had tried to use on her back when she first escaped. For that matter…
"Hey, I know you. You're… you're – what's your name. Copella!" Alex smiled at the man leading the platoon of agents. "Agent Copella! How've you been? I thought you were still in New York!"
Copella didn't return the smile. "Karen Starr, you're under arrest for aggravated assault, murder, attempted murder, destruction of government property, and terrorist actions. Get down on the ground, now."
Alex just laughed. "Oh come on, Bart. Can I call you Bart? You and I both know that you're not going to hurt me with those things. I'm not going…" She trailed off as two helicopters flew across the upper floor of the parking garage barely higher than rooftop level. It was clear by their flight-path that they were after the Fantasti-car.
She looked back down at the senior agent. "Okay, time to go. You guys have a good –" The agents started firing as soon as the word 'time' had left her mouth. It didn't do any good at all. The first time Alex had been shot with one of those things, it had stung a bit. But now, after the top-off that Sentry had given her, plus days and days of exposure to sunlight, the adamantium slugs fired by the rifles might as well have been soap bubbles for all their impacts bothered her. " – time. I've got a couple of helicopters to catch."
Alex shot into the air, straight through the top two floors of the parking garage. She took a moment to orient herself, and was after the SHIELD aircraft like a shot. Alex could see Ben Grimm's aircraft flying low over San Francisco Bay a few miles ahead, but the helicopters were closing. And they were armed. She didn't think that SHIELD would want the bad PR that would come from shooting down a member of the Fantastic Four, but personally, Alex didn't want to risk it.
It took no time at all for Alex to catch the first helicopter. She matched speed and caught the pilot's eye; the helicopter veered to the right, away from her, as the pilot jerked in shock. Alex stayed close, never allowing the pilot to get the aircraft more than five feet away from her. She pointed to the pilot, then pointed to the ground emphatically. He ignored her, trying to maneuver his craft away. She pointed again, and again the pilot ignored her. She shook her head, then pointed again. This time, she pointed to herself, then pointed at the helicopter's rotors. And then she pointed at the ground.
The pilot ignored her for a third time. Alex gave the man a quick salute, and then very slowly, very visibly gained altitude. Inch by inch, she got closer and closer to the helicopter's rotors. She pointed to the ground emphatically the entire time. The pilot and his co-pilot had a shocked looks on their faces as they realized what she was doing, but did nothing to land the helicopter. Eventually, Alex got tired of it and shrugged.
Then she flew through his rotor.
With the sudden lack of lift, the helicopter began a crash spiral. It fell three or four feet before Alex caught the helicopter. She carried it to the ground, and before either the pilot or the co-pilot could react, she'd grabbed the canopy released and peeled the top off of the helicopter.
"You guys okay? Either of you hurt?" Alex asked.
"What?" The co-pilot managed to gasp out. The pilot was grabbing at the pistol strung under his shoulder. He turned the muzzle of the weapon toward her and fired, almost by reflex. Alex's left arm blurred as she caught the bullet out of the air?
"Are either of you hurt?" Alex took the pistol out of the pilot's hands and crushed it and the bullet into a small ball. She dropped the former firearm and its round to the ground. "I just wanted to stop you, not hurt you. You hurt?"
"Uh… no ma'am. Um… shouldn't we try and arrest you?" The pilot finally said.
"Right. Good luck with that. Might want to tell your friends in the other helicopter I'm coming." And with that, she took off back into the air. Alex spotted the other helicopter. Hell, the pilot was making it easy for her. The other aircraft was wheeling around and she could see the rotary cannon slung under the cockpit begin to spin up. Alex veered to the right and accelerated, leading the helicopter away from San Francisco and out over the bay. No need for stray shots to endanger anyone else.
She dove under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed toward the open Pacific maintaining just enough speed for the chopper pilot to stay interested without once giving him a clear shot. All the while, Alex was counting. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. When she got to eleven, she stopped dead in the air. The SHIELD helicopter at first shot past her, but then the pilot began to wheel around again. Alex closed with it as the pilot triggered his gun, but he wasn't quick enough to keep it targeted on her. Within seconds, she was on it. Literally. She took hold of the helicopter, then booted sideways. The sudden change in air pressure and the overwhelming torque caused the rotor to shear away, and the tail to snap off.
Alex smiled at the pilot and shrugged at his panic. Moments later, they were back on Alcatraz Island. Like with the first helicopter, she peeled the canopy away and asked, "You guys okay? Either of you hurt?"
"What the fuck, lady? You could have fucking killed us back there!" The pilot popped his safety harness and jumped out of the helicopter. He began examining the remains of his aircraft. The co-pilot followed, but where the pilot was more interested in the helicopter, the co-pilot was interested in Alex. He yanked his pistol and held it on her.
"You freeze right where you are, lady."
Alex sighed. "Look, uh…" Alex read his rank. "Look, Captain, you shouldn't pull a gun on someone unless you intend to shoot them, and that would be a phenomenally bad idea. Anyway, I got to be going."
"Going? You're not –"
But Alex had already lifted into the sky. She'd passed the sound barrier before she reached a thousand feet, and broke it again before she reached five thousand feet, and a third time by the time she reached eight thousand feet.
She flew until the sound stopped, and then looped, almost returning to the same trajectory as the rose. From far enough away, San Francisco and Los Angeles were right next door to one another. Alex dove through the atmosphere to the surface, slowing as she went. By the time she was a hundred feet above the Pacific, she was barely moving at the speed of sound.
She couldn't see the Fantasti-car in front of her, which was odd. They couldn't reached Los Angeles already. Even as fast as they were flying, it would take a couple of hours, and the fastest way to go and still avoid notice was out over the open water. So where were they?
When it finally occurred to her, Alex felt like an idiot. She looped around to look behind her, and there, maybe twenty miles away, and eighty feet above the water, was the Fantasti-car. Alex focused, and suddenly she could see the faces of Louise, Ben Grimm, and Nico Minoru clearly. Grim was concentrating and talking, Louise was wide-eyed, but calm. Nico couldn't help looking over her shoulder every ten seconds. Time to join them, she thought to herself. Alex carefully approached the aircraft, careful to match speeds as closely as possible and careful to not cross its path with her own wake. She remembered from Kara that doing so was a bad idea; many of the swiftest, most powerful flying heroes had accidentally wrecked aircraft they were trying to rescue through self-generated air turbulence.
Louise spotted her first, and gave Alex a smile and a wave, then tapped Grimm on the shoulder. The Thing took a quick look and nodded. Nico, in the Fantasti-car's back seat, smiled at Alex, but kept checking the way they'd came. Alex smiled at the group and started to edge closer with the ultimate goal of dropping into the open seat, but she had to abruptly pull up and away. There was some sort of field surrounding the Fantasti-car, and Alex had brushed it. It felt a bit like an electric shock, a tingly vibration over her entire body.
Alex could have kicked herself. She should have known there was something protecting the open cockpit of the aircraft. They had to be moving at over three hundred miles per hour, yet none of the passengers were being buffeted by the wind. Heck, Ben Grimm's hat was still on his head. With this sort of wind flow, it should have been torn from his head miles back.
Okay, so hopping into the cockpit is impossible. Guess I'll just fly along. Alex ducked under the aircraft and came up on the pilot's side. Grimm spared her a glance and nodded again. Alex gestured, pointing two fingers at her own eyes, then pointing at the Fantasti-car, then waving a hand at the surrounding seascape. She hoped Grimm got the idea. He looked at her for a moment, then nodded. Good. He got it.
Alex waved again at Louise, then gained altitude so she could keep a better view, and thus keep a better eye out for possible attack.
"Yes. I see. Broken windows? Ah, yes, I guess that would happen. Were there any casualties? Anyone hurt? Really? And you said the helicopters… and despite all that the crews weren't harmed? I see. Wait, one of the pilots said he shot her? How did she respond? Really? Interesting. How about the other people; the girls who were wounded in Bullseye's attack. Did they also escape? I see. Yes, that would be problematic. Who do you think? I see. Yes, thank you, Agent Copella. Stay on station. We'll get you new orders shortly." Phil Coulson placed the receiver back on the phone and sat back, thinking. He looked up at Maria Hill, who was standing in his office doorway and shook his head. "It's as expected. She got away clean. There weren't any human casualties, but SHIELD apparently owes the California National Guard a couple of attack helicopters."
He leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. "Also, her – what would you call them, accomplices? Companions? Girlfriends? Doesn't matter, I suppose. Anyway, they escaped with the aid of someone who had access to an aircraft. Agent Copella said that he wasn't a hundred percent sure, but that it looked a lot like one of the old Fantasti-cars that the Fantastic Four used to use. Given their direction and their heading, they could be in any of the coastal cities, but Copella thinks the most likely destination was Los Angeles. Doesn't make much sense to me for them to go rushing back into the lion's den, but the logic follows.
"So Sue Richards was helping them." Hill stepped in and shut the door. She had an odd look in her eye. "Which would raise the question of how Sue Richards even knew this girl exists in the first place."
The house to which Ben Grimm had taken them was huge and empty and dark and smelled slightly musty, like no one had lived there for years. The Thing had told Alex that the house had belonged to Hawkeye and Mockingbird once, but since both of them had died – the news that Hawkeye had died came as a shock. The comic book geek in Xander Harris had always preferred those superheroes who were especially trained athletes and martial artists, who used their wits and some special gear and training to get by. Batman. Green Arrow. Black Widow. Hawkeye. It was a shock to find out that in this world, Hawkeye was dead and buried.
Grimm had given them enough time to decompress, and then had sat down with Louise and Alex and given them a proposition. Laid out several options as to where to go from here. And then he'd left them alone to think.
Alex was still thinking. The view of the Pacific Ocean from the back deck of the house was conducive to thinking, even if the view of the stars was disappointing. Alex stared up into the night sky. It was gray, with thick, heavy clouds obscuring her view of the stars and blocking out most of the moonlight. To the south, toward Los Angeles, the occasional bolt of lightning could be seen. The wind brought the ozone smell that both Xander and Power Girl associated with a rain storm. Alex looked to the sky and concentrated, and the stars reappeared amid the bright haze of ultraviolet rays bouncing away from the earth's ozone layer.
"Um, Alex? I made some tea. Do you want some?" Louise's voice betrayed the hesitancy she felt. Alex smiled at her girlfriend over her shoulder. Louise had been a bit on edge since Grimm's talk with the two of them.
"Hey, you. C'mere." Alex took the other woman into her arms, careful not to jostle the tea cup. "I love you." She kissed Louise on the top of her head, and then again. "It's going to be okay. I know it's all, I don't know, shaky. What'cha call it. Unsettling. I don't know about you, but I feel like we've fallen into a deep hole and haven't hit bottom yet."
Louise put the tea cup on the deck's rail and returned the hug. "What do you think we should do?"
Alex gave Louise a one-armed squeeze. Hugs were always a good thing. "I've been thinking about it. As much as I'm a bit surprised that they'd want me to help them, I don't think I can go with Plan A. I want us to be safe, and I can't see how joining the fight against Iron Man and the Avengers is going to do that. I mean, I appreciate that Captain America and the invisible Woman think I can help, but I have to think about you, not just myself."
"So Florida, then?"
Alex tipped Louise's face up. "Florida." She gave Louise a gentle, warm kiss that brought all thoughts of danger or being chased, or having to hide to an end. For the next several minutes, all there was in the whole wide world were the two of them, standing over the Pacific Ocean, enjoying each other's existence. When the kissing ended, they stood in each other's arms and watched the ocean move back and forth against the shore, driven by the moon.
Alex and Louise were quiet, both waiting for the other to speak. The moment, and the silence, stretched for as long as either could tolerate. It was finally Louise who ended it. She sighed, and turned in Alex's arms so that she was facing away from the taller woman, her back pressed to Alex's chest. She leaned back into Alex, and said, "How are we going to get to Florida? Are you going to fly us?"
Alex gave Louise another hug before answering. "I don't think that's a good idea. If I flew us there as fast as I can, you'd get hurt. Not just the wind resistance, but you'd get wind burn so bad you'd die. And if I didn't fly that fast, they'd be able to track us, I'd imagine. I probably show up on radar looking like a missile or something. We don't want them to track us; the entire point of going to Florida is getting away."
"Yeah. Okay, so you flying us is out of the question, and the same problems occur with you just running us there, I guess. We can't afford bus tickets, much less two seats on a plane. And SHIELD has to be watching the airports and the bus stations. Probably the train stations, too, not that we can afford the train. So what's left? Hitchhiking, maybe?"
"Maybe. Might be a bad idea. I bet the cops are looking for us by now. If we were made while on the road, it could get bad."
Louise pressed on Alex's arms, self-generating another hug. "Too bad neither of us owns a car. Or, you know, has money for gas, or food. Or hair dye and sunglasses." The last was said with a gentle laugh. "We could do the entire Thelma and Louise thing."
"Well… except for the driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon thing." Alex laid another kid on the top of Louise's head. "Why is it that you can never find a gym bag full of hundred dollar bills when you need them?"
"Yeah. Life is so inconsiderate, not leaving those around where you can stumble across them." Louise sighed. "Alex, let's think about this again tomorrow, okay?"
"Probably a good idea. It smells like it's going to rain."
"I smell it too. I saw lightning a second ago. I think a thunderstorm is coming."
Alex shivered as Louise yawned and stretched languorously against her. The sensation of Louise's body against her own caused her to shiver. Alex gasped unconsciously. Louise turned back to face Alex, again not leaving the taller woman's embrace. Alex smiled as her girlfriend put her arms around Alex's neck and hopped into her arms. Alex cradled Louise, who leaned her head into the crook of Alex's neck.
"Alex, let's go inside." The soft breath of air whispering across Alex's neck caused goose-bumps. "I need you, tonight. Make love to me."
Alex's mind was awhirl. They'd kissed, and there was the occasional grope over the clothes, and once even under the clothes, but they hadn't ever got to what the Xander portion of Alex's memories thought of as the "hot and sweaty stuff". She was, despite Kara Zor-El's memories otherwise, still a virgin.
"You mean you want to…?"
She could feel Louise's smile. Alex again felt the whispered breath across her neck. "Alex, take me to bed or lose me forever."
Alex hugged Louise to herself and gently carried her girlfriend – soon to be her lover – inside.
Author's Note the First: If you recognize it, it belongs to Marvel Comics, DC Comics, or else Mutant Enemy. If you don't, it's likely mine.
Author's Note the Second: For some strange reason, this was a rather difficult chapter for me to write. I got done with the first draft, then rewrote it almost from the ground up. Then rewrote it again. And then again. I'm still not completely satisfied with the final draft, but it is as good as it is going to be getting, I think. Maybe the problem is that this is a transition chapter that doesn't move the story along very far.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it. The next chapters are going to be more exciting that this one, I assure you.