Origin Story

Dragged Into the Harsh Light of Day

Dragged Into the Harsh Light of Day

XxxxxxX

"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." – Justice Louis D. Brandeis

XxxxxxX

Yes, I know you came expecting a new chapter. The new chapter is actually the new Chapter 3. Sorry about the confusion.

XxxxxxX

The communications tech was nobody. She wasn't even considered an agent. Just technical support. She was hired by SHIELD because her grades at MIT were exemplary and she made it past several dozen psychological screenings and a background check that made the one used by the CIA to vet their recruits look like open hire day at McDonald's.

But still, she was nobody. There were a million people around the world who could do her job around the world, if not more. But she was the one working at SHIELD. And when two people, both of whom she respected as much as she respected her mother and father, came to her and asked her to perform an act that was technically treason, she hesitated. She hesitated because usually, when nobodies like her did this sort of thing, they abruptly became somebodies. Somebodies with prison records. Somebodies whose picture was splashed all over FOX News with the word "traitor" slapped beneath it. She liked being a faceless nobody in a mid-level office doing a boring job. It was steady work, nobody bothered her, and she was well-paid for it.

In the end, she decided that she would help. Which was why she was sitting in her car in an alley behind an all-night internet cafe at one in the morning, using a black box laptop to upload a certain file to YouTube. Shortly, she would upload certain documents to the Sunshine Press, to Rolling Stone Magazine, to the New York Times, to Time Magazine, and to as many other spots on the internet as she could. And shortly thereafter she was finding a nice, out-of-the-way trashcan and setting the laptop on fire.

What decided it for her wasn't the situation. The two men had explained what was going on with this girl Karen Starr, and she was sympathetic. She girl had been run roughshod over and someone needed to help her. But it was the trust the two men showed in her that was the kicker. They knew she could do the job anonymously, covering not only her own tracks but their involvement as well. And they didn't threaten, or cajole, or browbeat. They merely explained what was going on and then asked if she could help. They even told her that if she refused and reported them, they'd understand. She'd never been trusted by anyone to that level before. What's more, they both knew her name. She, a desk-bound tech weenie who worked on the twenty-second floor of SHIELD's Los Angeles headquarters. It spoke volumes to her.

There was one thing, though. She chalked it up to being some personal in-joke she wasn't party to. When she asked the two why they chose to approach her, out of all the possible communications techs they could have approached, both men had just smirked and made an off-hand comment about destiny that made no sense at all.

The reason why Willow Rosenberg didn't get the joke was that she'd never been a huge watcher of television. She'd vaguely heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but hadn't seen a single episode.

XxxxxxX

Within three hours, the video footage of the Avengers and SHIELD getting their asses kicked by a barefoot teenager in blue jeans and a Pussycat Dolls t-shirt had reached a half million views. Within six hours, it had over three million views, and had been shared on Facebook and other social media sites nearly ten thousand times.

The New York Times had altered their headline for the morning edition to account for the documents they'd been sent. So did the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Herald. The Sunshine Press was offering Karen Starr's full, unexpurgated file as a downloadable .pdf.

And Willow Rosenberg was driving up the Pacific Coast highway to visit her mother and father in Santa Barbara. The two men had told her that the last place she wanted to be was the Los Angeles SHIELD office when the shit hit the fan. Safe in her existence as a faceless nobody, she was actually looking forward to seeing her parents.

XxxxxxX

One by one they assembled outside of the oval office. Tony Stark, Norman Osborn, Henry Peter Gyrich, and General Thaddeus Ross. The president's executive secretary pointed them toward a row of chairs near the desk without asking what they needed, which told all of them that they were expected. They were one chair short. As Secretary of Defense, Tony Stark technically outranked everyone else in the room, including the four-star general, but he was the one who decided to remain standing.

The group waited nearly twenty-four minutes. It drove Stark up the wall. He hated wasting time, and that's all this power play in the anteroom was. A big waste of time. It was the President – or more likely the Vice President, given the nature of George W. Bush's administration – showing the peons who was in charge. Utterly unnecessary, and it was time that Stark could use for other things, like hunting down Captain America or redesigning the Sparrowhawk missile.

But eventually the secretary's phone buzzed, and they were shown into the Oval Office. The President was sitting down, speaking into the telephone. The vice-president was pacing on the far side of the Resolute Desk, flanked by the White House Chief of Staff.

"No, no… I understand, Jean. I get it. Sure. Now, I'm sure that's not goin' to be… Jean, I don't see why we can't just keep this all friendly like. All right, Jean, I'll expect his call. Bye, now."

Tony Stark watched President George W. Bush slam the telephone receiver on its cradle over and over again, each time punctuating the impact with a loud "Motherfucker!". After seven or eight repetitions of this, the man had apparently worked the frustration out of his system. He looked to his vice president and said, "Goddamn frogs are gonna cause us some trouble over this, Dick. Sure an guaran-damn-tee." He only then seemed to take notice of the newcomers.

"Come on in, fellas. Come on in." The president was seated at the Resolute Desk, his hands folded in front of him. Stark had noted that the man seemed capable of only about six facial expressions, and this one looked to be his "I Just Smelled a Turd" look. "Tony, Norm, Pete, General Ross. Come on in and sit down." Vice President Cheney stood to one side, glaring at them as they entered. He had his usual pissed off at the world look to him. "Go ahead and have a seat fellas."

"Tony, you might be interested to know what I was just told by Ambassador Levitte, just now. He said that, uh, in response to our illegal arrest of one of their ambassadors, the Republique Francaise is freezing all American governmental and corporate assets until, uh, well, until this mess is all cleared up, and that iffen we don't clear it up right quick, they're considerin' nationalizin' it all." The president rubbed his forehead, as if he felt a migraine coming on. "He mentioned Stark Industries assets in particular. Just thought you might like to know, in case your stock values go down all sudden like."

Tony Stark opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again. Were things really in such a poor shape as that? "I don't really know what to say in response to that, Mr. President."

"Why am I not surprised. Anybody else want coffee?" When no one else bit, the president buzzed his secretary and asked for a pot of coffee and three Tylenol. It was brought in almost immediately, which gave Stark the idea that they had a pot of coffee waiting at hand at all times.

The silence began. Cheney kept glaring, while President Bush took his painkillers with his coffee. Tony Stark stared at his hands for a long moment, not sure where to begin. After a while, Bush sighed. He pulled a folded up newspaper out of a drawer in his desk and tapped it.

"You know, it's interestin' about the French. We make all kinda jokes about 'em being pussies and weak, and us… what was that joke again, Dick?" Bush asked.

"Cheese-eating surrender monkeys."

"Right, there you go. Cheese eatin' surrender monkeys. We talk a lot of shit about the French in this country, but I happen to know that the truth is, those Frogs are a bunch of vicious assholes who can really throw down when they wanna. And while I know in the end we'd come out on top, this bein' 'Murica and all, I don't wanna get into a pissin' contest with 'em."

With that, the president reached into a drawer in his desk and pulled out a small pile of documents. Three newspapers and a handful of magazines.

"So." President Bush began. "Anybody read the paper this morning? Maybe check up on Time Magazine, or Newsweek?" President Bush asked. He stared at the newspaper laid out on his desk as if it were a viper about to bite him. "Absolutely fascinatin' headline here in the Washington Journal. It says, 'SHIELD and Avengers on Hunt for Teenage Girl. Then, when you get into the story, it talks all about how this girl was held without cause for six months. It says that after she registered and got all legal-like, the gubbment – that's us, fellas – decided that she couldn't go after all so she ran."

He stared at the four of them. "Damnedest story I ever read. I don't think I've read any story quite like that before. How 'bout you, Dick? You ever read a story like that before?"

"No." The Vice President was almost shaking, he was so angry. "No, I've never read a story like that one before."

"Yeah, me neither." Bush pursed his lips, ten shook his head. "Condy tells me that there's this video on the internet. Shows the Avengers getting' their fucking heads handed to them by a teenage girl. A girl, I might remind you, that SHIELD's been hunting for better on a month now. A girl that at least one of you have said would be easy to take down."

Suddenly, Norman Osborn couldn't meet anybody's eyes.

"Okay, so nobody wants to read the paper. Well, that's okay. We're goin' to talk about this story anyway. We're goin' to talk about it all day if we have to." The president swept the newspaper back into his desk drawer. "But come sundown, there's two things'll be true that ain't true right now. Number one is, I'm gonna know who it was told the press about what was goin' on with this girl. And number two, I'm gonna have somebody's ass in my briefcase!"

The men in the room all exchanged glances. Stark was the only one still playing it cool, and he was watching the other men very carefully. The president, the vice-president, and General Ross all looked mad enough to chew nails. Osborn looked nervous. Gyrich looked arrogantly smug. Of course, Gyrich always looked arrogantly smug.

"So. Which one of you fellas wants to go first?" Bush looked from one to the other, awaiting an explanation. No one said anything.

"Anyone?" The president waiting in silent for a moment. "All right, that's fine. Dick, why don't you go get a few Federal Marshalls. We'll go ahead and start –"

"We had a leak, Mr. President," Gyrich began. "We're currently looking into who had –"

"A LEAK!?" Bush stood abruptly. "You call what's goin' on here a leak? Boy, let me tell you, the last time there was a leak like this, Noah built his-self a boat!" The man was red-faced, obviously outraged.

"As I was about to say, Mr. President, we're in the middle of investigating everyone who had access to this information, from the agent who recorded the footage to the clerks who handle the files. They're all going under the microscope."

"That'll plug the leak. What are we going to do about the PR aspect of this problem?" Vice-President Cheney was still gritting his teeth. "The general public might be only slightly smarter than a pack of trained monkeys, but they love a sob story. And a blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenager being hounded by the government who want to kidnap her for some nefarious purpose? That's going to tug on the heartstrings of every mother in America. The fact that she's got tit's like a missile's nosecone is going to appeal to all the men. The Democrats are going to have a field day, and this is an election year, too. If we don't shut this down and quick, it's going to blow up in our faces if we don't do something about it right now."

"Yeah, the last we need is to give those commie sumbitches a way to get back into power." The president leaned forward in his desk.

Tony Stark successfully hid the grimace at the vice-president's words. "Sir, you might want to tone that down. She's only seventeen."

Cheney glared at him. "I've read her file. She's a runaway lesbian powerhouse with a Playboy centerfold body and who can apparently lift aircraft carriers over her head. Did I miss anything, Stark? Have I forgotten any of the important details?"

"How about the fact that she's only a kid? I think we all lost sight of that. I know I certainly did." Stark bristled. He wasn't going to take a black-hearted asshole like Dick Cheney talk to him like that. "Mr. Cheney, I know you don't really give a shit about other people except for how they can be of use to you, but pull your head out of your ass for two seconds. This girl is just a kid, and kids lash out when they're scared."

"Scared kid my white ass," General Ross snorted. "Scared kids don't cause millions of dollars of damage."

"She's a scared kid!" Stark was almost screaming. At this point, he could give a shit about his position in the government.

"No, Mr. Secretary, she isn't." Henry Peter Gyrich cleared his throat. "She isn't Karen Starr, remember? She's... something else. We know Karen Starr was murdered by her father, remember? He's still awaiting trial in Ohio. The truth is we don't even know she's human. We can't analyze her DNA, remember?"

"Oh for crying out loud. Really?" Stark couldn't believe his ears.

Gyrich didn't even "Because she's clearly not a human being, despite what she looks like, my office has classified her as a strategically useful animal. As such, she is the property of the federal government."

"I sincerely hope that the press never hears you say that." Stark was livid. "That's the same reason the Confederacy gave when General Patrick Cleburne proposed freeing slaves who volunteered to fight on behalf of the South in the Civil War."

"Now wait just a God damned minute, you –"

"Oh, I'm sorry." Stark interrupted. "Did you not mean to imply that this girl, as well as anyone else out there whose status as Homo sapiens might be in question, was property and not a person?"

"Gentlemen, this isn't helpin' anything." The president interjected. "What are we gonna do about this mess?"

"Mr. President, I think the only thing we can do is give up pursuit of the girl. The entire operation has been nothing more than a huge waste of time, effort, money, and in three specific cases, lives." Stark sat back down on one of the couches that faced the Resolute Desk. "I am aware, as Henry is about to point out, that the girl has actually committed crimes for which she should be prosecuted. Not only did she kill Benjamin Poindexter, Chen Lu, and MacDonald Gargan, she –"

"Who?" Bush asked.

"Excuse me, sir?"

"Who's this Poindexter guy? Sounds like a nerd." The president chuckled to himself, as if he had just made the funniest joke in the world. "And, uh, the other two."

"Bullseye's real name was Benjamin Poindexter, Mr. President. The other two would be Venom and the Radioactive Man." Stark could feel the migraine building; his temples were beginning to throb. As a proud member of the Republican Party, Tony Stark was glad that an anti-business commie like Al Gore hadn't been elected, but he'd never understand how the American public thought a complete moron like George W. Bush was qualified to run for dog catcher, much less President of the United States.

He took a deep breath and tried to keep himself calm. "As I was saying, not only is she responsible for three deaths, there's also the burglary charge –"

"Burglary? She broke in someplace?" The president pronounced the word "byooglary", like the girl had been unlawfully playing a brass instrument.

"Uh, yes sir. She broke into Macy's and stole some clothing. Plus there's the destruction of a government jet, damage to a public parking structure, vandalism of a hospital's windows, destruction of property when she threw Wonder Man through a clothing business. Oh, and when she used a pick-up truck as a weapon. Guess we could call it malicious mischief."

Gyrich snorted. "If we're going to kitchen sink the criminal charges, let's add evading pursuit and resisting arrest."

"The girl's been busy." Cheney snorted. Stark was amazed that the man even snorted in a sinister manner.

"That she has." Stark sighed. "Anyway, I no longer think that it is worth it for the Federal government to pursue the arrest and prosecution of Karen Starr, not because I'm turning a blind eye –"

"Why do you call her that?" Bush asked.

Stark stopped, off-footed. "Um. What's that, Mr. President?"

"Well, I've seen the SHIELD report. Karen Starr is a bag of bones hid in her daddy's soybean field. Why do you call this girl Karen Starr? Makes no sense to me." Bush shook his head. "And what's up with that? She a zombie or somethin'?"

"Well… we're not sure, sir. In my time as an Avenger, I've seen a lot of odd things." Stark shrugged. "Uh, the simplest explanation is that she's a clone of some kind, in which case she's not so much Karen Starr as Karen Starr's daughter. She could –"

"Wait, daughter? What do you mean daughter?" Cheney asked.

It was Gyrich that answered. "Technically, a clone of an individual is the offspring of the creature, despite being genetically identical, Mr. Vice-President."

Cheney shook his head in amazement. "And that's the simplest explanation?"

"Uh, well, yes sir, it is." Stark counted off on his fingers. "Especially when you consider that the alternatives are that she's a robot masquerading as a human, she's an alien from outer space masquerading as a human, she's an alternative Karen Starr who came here from another dimension, she's –"

"Yeah, we get the picture. So she's a clone, then. How did she get so damned powerful?"

"Genetic manipulation, maybe? Might be some sort of mutation that only triggered after her death that caused her to grow a new super-powered body. We really don't know, Mr. President." Stark shrugged. "Who knows, maybe she's an angel sent back to earth from the afterlife."

"She ain't no angel. Angels don't murder people." Bush, ever the conservative Southern Baptist, was clearly uncomfortable with the idea that this girl might be a part of the heavenly host.

Stark clamped his jaw shut to prevent himself from blurting out the fact that the Bible contains several examples of Angels slaughtering not just individuals but entire populations of people.

"So your advice is to just let her go about her business, attacking people and destroying things?" Cheney was still sneering. It occurred to Stark that the default setting for Dick Cheney's face was a sneer. It was like he was convinced that the world was worthy of nothing but contempt.

"Yes, Mr. Vice-President. That is my advice." Stark sat back and fell silent.

"Well that's just bullshit. This girl is a weapon. She has to be controlled. There's no two ways about it." For the first time, General Ross spoke up. Stark wasn't surprised by the General's opinion. He held the same opinion about Bruce Banner and the Hulk. "Can you imagine what would happen if she decided to go to work for the Iranians? Or the Chinese?"

Gyrich was nodding. "I concur. She's too valuable a resource to allow unsupervised, and too much of a danger to us to allow someone else to control her. We have to manage this girl. There is no other alternative."

"We don't even know if she can be contained, much less controlled." Stark rubbed his eyes. "And just how far are you planning on going to get her under control, General? What if it takes nuking her, and I mean literally hitting her with a nuclear bomb, to hurt her? Nothing else so far has worked! All we've done is wasted time, money, and materiel. Not to mention three lives."

"Speaking of money, how much has this little adventure cost us, anyhow?" Bush asked. It was uncharacteristic of him to worry about how much his government was spending, but this was a special case.

"Uh, well, Mr. President, that's complicated." Norman Osborn shifted in his seat. "We don't have exact numbers on that, but I can get a report done and up to you by morning."

Stark wasn't going to let that just sit there. "Counting the seven months the girl spent in a SHIELD hospital, plus the special facilities they required to study her, and the facilities used to hold her while she was there, insurance pay-outs and medical costs for injured SHIELD agents, not to mention medical care for the injured Avengers, plus the cost of repairing environmental damage caused by offensive actions in both New York and San Francisco, deployment costs, fuel, and replacing two California national guard helicopters? We're looking at just under seven hundred million dollars." Stark tried to keep the smugness out of his voice. It didn't matter, everyone was so used to him being smug, no one really noticed anymore.

The vice-president stared at Norman Osborn for a moment before addressing Stark. "Almost a billion dollars?"

"Yes, Mr. Vice-President." Stark nodded. "Almost a billion dollars." Stark suddenly chuckled to himself. At the looks he was getting, Stark forced himself not to grin. "Sorry. I was just thinking that at least we don't have to replace the SHIELD truck that Starr escaped with. It turned up the next day, without a scratch on it. She dropped it off on the roof of SHIELD's LA headquarters."

That got a laugh out of the president. "Little girl has some spirit. I like that." He giggled to himself until a sour look from the vice-president stifled him.

"It isn't funny." Cheney growled.

"Aw, come on, Dick. You gotta admit, that shows some style, ya know?"

Gyrich cleared his throat. "We think she and this other girl who's traveling with her, this, uh…" Gyrich consulted the file. "Laura Kraft is her name. Anyway, we think they're hiding in Los Angeles, and we might have a lead as to where."

"How'd you find out about this Kraft girl?" Bush asked.

"SHIELD was able to lift the girl's prints from the hospital room," Osborn said. "Turns out she is a bonded nanny and in order to get bonded, they took her fingerprints. Truth is, without the help of that doctor, we'd never even found the room she was staying in."

"What doctor is that?" Bush asked. He was clearly getting interested in the meat of the story.

"Oh, the emergency room doctor who treated the girl when she first came in. Car accident, apparently. Anyway, the doctor thought it was hinky – his word, not ours – that the Kraft girl came in covered in her own blood and that – and this is a quote – her girlfriend didn't have a mark on her."

"Girlfriend?"

Osborn shrugged. "He might be misreading the situation. Anyway, it was the doctor's suspicion that the other girl – the name she was using was, uh, Seamus or Sammi Erin had been drinking and got them into a car crash."

Cheney glanced at Bush and nodded. The president shot his vice-president a questioning look and Cheney glared at the man. Looking slightly chastised, President Bush cleared his throat. "Okay, that'll be all. Thanks, fellas. Norman, I want your office to get me the name of that leak or I swear by God and Sunny Jesus heads are gonna roll. You unnerstandin' me?"

Norman Osborn visibly swallowed. "Uh, yes, sir, Mr. President. I understand you."

Everyone stood, and Stark, Osborn, Gyrich, and the General filed out. Behind them, Stark could barely hear the vice president begin to speak. "Okay, George, this is what you're going to do. You're…" before the door to the oval office closed.

XxxxxxX

"This is just nuts!" Chase was staring at the laptop he propped up on the arm of the couch.

Alex and Louise had arrived in Los Angeles the day before and had immediately returned to the hideout used by Nico and Chase and Molly and their friends. They had thought about returning to their place at the camp under the interstate, but it turned out that the area was crawling with cops, all of whom were watching the homeless camp. Alex had spotted the surveillance from the air and had got them out of dodge as quickly and quietly as possible.

"I'm telling you, this is just nuts." Chase said, a little more loudly this time. The various people around him turned their attention toward him, which Alex was assuming had been the point all along.

Nico looked up from where she was playing cards with Louise. "What's nuts?"

"This YouTube video, of you kicking ass all over the Avengers? The original was pulled by YouTube a couple of hours after it was posted, but whoever ordered it pulled missed the boat. It's everywhere. There must be eighteen or nineteen bootleg copies bouncing around YouTube, plus it's on Facebook now, and a dozen copies on MySpace." He had been watching and rewatching the video all morning. "Oh, that had to hurt! Alex, damn. Remind me not to piss you off, like, ever!"

"If you think that's nuts, you should read the blogs on Huff Post. Must be a dozen of them." Nico laid a card down and Louise scowled at her for it. "Most of them are supportive. A couple are doing the cautious neutrality thing. Oh, and stay away from the conservatives." Nico turned to address Alex, who was flopped on the couch watching TV with Molly. "Those people are convinced you're Space Hitler or something and are calling for the government to send in the Marines already and put you in prison where you belong."

"No skin off my nose." Alex shrugged without taking her eyes off of the screen. Danny Glover and Mel Gibson were doing their thing, ridding Los Angeles of evil. This time, the evil was a bunch of South African diplomats who doubled as drug dealers and smugglers. "I think I've decided that I don't really care anymore. As long as, you know, everyone's safe and all. And we'll be out of your hair as soon as we can, we promise. I know you guys are in enough trouble without the two of us adding to it."

"You're no trouble at all." Molly leaned in and gave Alex a hug. Alex could tell that the smaller girl put some oomph into it, but it still just felt like a normal hug. "I like having you around."

"Well, I like being around, squirt. Now shush, I'm trying to watch the movie."

But it was not to be. Almost immediately thereafter Victor Mancha stuck his head in from the other room. "Girls, I have your papers ready," he announced, then disappeared from whence he came.

"I thought you said it would take, like hours?" Alex asked as she rose from the couch. Louise followed her into the other room, where Victor sat at what looked like a very expensive, top of the line computer terminal.

"Well… I might have inflated the time necessary so you'd think I'm a genius." The young man smirked just a bit. "Because, well, I'm a genius." He took two packets of paper from his desk. He handed one packet to Louise the other to Alex.

Alex opened her packet up and looked at the first page. It was a birth certificate that said that ALEXANDA LUCRETIA HARRIS, a female child, had been born in Santa Barbara, a town in Santa Barbara County, California, to ANTHONY PETER HARRIS and JESSICA FRANCINE LAVELLE on April 12, 1987. It even had a signature on it.

She glared at him. "Wait… my new middle name is Lucretia? What the hell, Victor?"

He shrugged in response. "I like the name Lucretia. You said I could pick anything as long as it wasn't Lavelle. It's not Lavelle."

"Lucretia's not that bad, Alex. Calm down." Louise patted Alex on the arm. "Don't worry about it. Besides, you notice that he made you nineteen?."

Alex stopped glaring long enough to glance at Louise's new paperwork. "Oh sure, take his side. Louise Hannah Fulford," she muttered. "Nice normal name, Hannah. And he actually made me negative seven. I was born in 1981."

Louise sighed. "Yes, dear, I know. When you left your dimension it was only 1996. But here its ten years later, so you're only 19. Legally, at least."

"Right. Um." Victor was obviously desperate to change the subject. "What you've got there is birth certificates, social security numbers, High School transcripts, shot records, not to mention some dummied up medical records that cover about the past four years or so. You've also got clean, brand new records with the DMV and the passport office, but you're going to have to go down there yourselves to get new copies of the documents themselves. With what you have in your hands, you should have no problem.

Victor stopped talking for a moment and blushed. "Um… Louise, I also took care of your arrest record. As far as anyone is concerned, you've never been arrested for, uh… well, you know."

For a moment, Louise looked like a deer caught in an oncoming car's headlights. Alex watched her force herself to remain calm. "Uh, thank you. I, um. I'm not too proud of, uh…" Victor just nodded. No one wanted to bring up the girl's past as a street-walker.

"And you're sure we'll be safe with just using a variation of our actual names?" Alex was still reading through the information.

"You'll be fine. You said SHIELD is looking for Karen Starr, remember? They didn't believe you when you said you were Xander Harris. Thought you were crazy, right? Well, they might start looking for Alexander Lavelle Harris, but I doubt anyone will make the connection."

"Right." Alex accepted it, but still wasn't utterly convinced. She, Louise, and Victor wandered back into the main room; Louise returned to her card game, Alex back to her movie. She got back in time to watch Gibson and Glover stuff their pockets full of hundred dollar bills.

"That's stupid," Molly said, tossing a piece of popcorn toward the television.

"What's stupid?" Alex shifted, then shifted again. She was sprawled across the couch and was trying to find just the right position.

"This. A shipping container filled with hundred dollar bills? There's got to be a bazillion dollars in there. Where would a bunch of drug dealers get a bazillion dollars. And they just left it sitting there in a big metal can at the docks? Yeah, right." Molly was emphatic, as if she took offense at the stupidity of the film's writers. "Where are the gorillas carrying Uzis? A real drug dealer would have gun-men and mooks all over that dock guarding that much money."

"It's just a movie, Molly. Calm down." Alex finally found the comfortable spot. "Besides, the drug dealers in this film work for the South African government, remember? Governments and big international corporations have much more money than any drug dealer does, and they ship cash in those containers all the time."

Alex's head suddenly whipped around and she stared at the television with laser focus. "Governments ship things in containers all the time," she repeated.

"What?" Molly was staring at her. Alex just smiled and shrugged.

"No, you have something face. What?"

Alex shrugged again. "Hey, Louise, remember how we talked about going to Florida and finding the Nexus, but we didn't have money or a vehicle or anyway to cross the country that wouldn't have us targeted like an ICMB? I just had an idea. What if we got Norman Osborn and Tony Stark to pay for our trip?"

XxxxxxX

Norman Osborn could feel that a storm was brewing, and had no intention of being caught in it. Even before his limousine had left the White House gates, he had opened up his briefcase. Osborn pulled a cell phone out of a Ziploc sandwich bag and punched in a number only he and one other person knew existed.

This wasn't the mobile phone that was on record with the White House and with his office. Nor was it the phone the number of which he had given his various mistresses. This phone connected to only one person and one person only, and was intended for one use only.

It took four rings for Desmond Arsuba, his head of security, to answer instead of the usual two. That irked Osborn, but he'd managed to learn to control his urge to punish everyone around him for offending him. He admitted that he was still on the far side of the psychopath line, but at least now he could function in public without people fleeing from him in terror.

"Arsuba." As if anyone else would be on the other end.

"This is Osborn." Again, as if anyone else would be using this phone. "Dunkirk."

"Acknowledged." And with that Arsuba disconnected. Osborn turned the phone off and waited. When his limo was crossing the bridge over the Delaware River, he rolled his window down and tossed the phone out of the limo and into the river.

It took half an hour for his limousine to pull up in front of his Georgetown townhouse. He didn't get out. The driver simply honked the car's horn twice. Desmond Arsuba came out accompanied by two men, all carrying three suitcases apiece. The luggage was put in the trunk of the limo. Arsuba and the two men then joined Osborn inside the car. Once everyone was settled, the driver took off. He'd already been given instructions.

Osborn knew that his private plane was already being prepared for takeoff at the jetport in Somerville. By the time they got there, it would already be in taxi position, just waiting for him to climb on board.

Osborn leaned back in his seat. His thoughts were already on Dubai. He knew that shortly the government would seize Oscorp, but he'd already gutting the corporation in preparation of taking the government position. He'd left four or five bank accounts here or there with a few million just to make his banking history look viable. But his real assets were already transitioned to Swiss accounts, or had been made more tangible in the form of diamonds, stock certificates, bearer bonds, several books of rare stamps, a few highly prized collectible books, some valuable artwork, and a surprisingly high number of pre-loaded Visa gift cards.

He'd dangle the bait in front of the Federal government, and they'd take the hook, thinking that they had crippled his finances, and thus his influence. If they only knew. Dubai was a wonderfully modern place to live, for a nation in the Middle East. They knew how to take care of their ex-patriot billionaires.

XxxxxxX

"Wow. There's, uh, more of these crates here than I thought there would be." Alex floated a couple of hundred feet in the air above the Secure Holding Yard at the Port of Los Angeles. She held Molly Hayes in her arms, while Victor Mancha floated in the air beside her. "You sure you can find the right one?"

"I'm sure." Victor had his tablet out and was enthusiastically tapping away at it as he hung in thin air. "This is the most feasible way available to get one of the jerks heading up the hunt for you guys to pay for your trip to Florida. SHIELD ships material through private means. We can't get to it without starting a shooting war. Stark does the same thing. That leaves only Osborn. From what I was able to pry out of the Oscorp computers, there's a container filled with that was described as 'trade goods.'"

"Trade goods?"

Victor shrugged. "Its a box full of bribe money and goods to smooth things over between Oscorp's people and the local warlords in the Middle East and Africa."

"Yeah, but this is way, way too open. I mean, this is not how I expected all this to go down when we were talking about it in the cave." Alex said this as as casually as she could. The trio dropped gently out of the air and stood atop the stack of containers. Below them, the aisles between the containers were brightly lit, but everything was dim as high up as they were. Alex let Molly down as soon as her feet touched metal.

"It was your plan, remember?" Victor continued to tap on the screen of his tablet.

"Sure, but that was before I saw that this was going to be like searching for a... you know, I don't even think its a need in a haystack. More like trying to find a particular needle in a stack of needles. Her tone belied the fact that she was nervous as hell and wasn't really sure she knew what she was doing. All around her were thousands and thousands of shipping containers. Unfortunately, they all looked identical unless you could read the alpha-numeric codes on the containers ident plaques.

"Patience, grasshopper. And there we go." Victor handed Alex his tablet. "Using the GPS chip in each container, I created a 3-D map of the entire facility. From what I learned with my initial search, we're looking for container #284-22-43983. It should be right over there." He pointed to the right, at a stack of containers lower than the one they were standing on.

"I hope the box we're looking for is on top." Molly scuffed her foot along the top of the container they were standing on. "These things look heavy. Are we going to be breaking into it here, or are we going to carry it away and then break into it?"

Alex looked to Victor, who shrugged. "I think we'll take it out of here then break into it."

"Right. Come on." Victor glanced at his tablet, stepped from the top of the container stack into the air. He floated over to a new, shorter stack before stopping. Alex held a hand out to Molly, but the younger girl just shook her head and leapt toward her teammate. The noise caused by her landing caused Alex to cringe, but thankfully none of the security guards responded. Alex sighed again, forcing herself to remain calm.

She floated down to where Victor was standing in mid-air. He smiled at Alex and pointed to a particular container. It was bright yellow, and had Oscorp and #284-22-43983 stamped on its visible end. It was also third from the top in a stack of five containers.

Alex sighed again. "Nothing's ever easy." She maneuvered herself above the top container in the stack, and motioned Molly over. "I'll pick this up. I need you to make sure that when I put it down again, its even with the other crates, okay? That way, someone can't just, like, walk by and notice something's out of place."

"Sure, no problem." Molly shot her a thumbs-up.

Alex centered herself above the top container. It took her a few moments to find likely hand-holds, but within minutes the top crate was in her hands. She landed next to the spot she wanted to move it to, and carefully shifted her grip to the side of the crate. Molly put a hand on the container to steady it, but rather than make it more stable, Alex felt shaky for just a moment. It was as if someone was trying to snatch the huge metal box out of her hands. The moment Molly stopped touching the container, the feeling went away. She blinked at the younger girl, but ultimately decided that it didn't matter.

"How are you doing that?"

"How am I doing what?" Alex looked over at Victor, and found that the young man was staring at her with a confused yet amazed look on his face.

"How are you still holding that container?" He pointed at her. "You can't possibly have the leverage, no matter how strong you are. That thing has got to weigh, what, thirty or forty tons? I understand you're strong enough to pick it up, but just moving it like that should be impossible regardless. You're not positioned right. Its why the cranes use this four-cable rig. The wouldn't be able to lift the containers otherwise."

He pointed at the container again. "Not to mention that you holding it from just one end should have caused the thing to break apart from the strain. But there you are, slick as you please, violating the laws of physics."

"Oh, uh..." Alex stared at the enormous metal box in her hands. "Well, I, uh, I really have no idea, really. But I've heard some ideas. If you believe this guy named John Byrne, there's a component to a Kry – I mean, to my strength that's actually a form of telekinesis. So my mind is not only helping me lift this box, its keeping the box from breaking up all at the same time."

"John Byrne the comic book guy?" Molly asked. She'd been on the other end of the container, making sure it was coming into place evenly.

"Wait. You guys know who John Byrne is?"

Victor shook his head while Molly nodded. "Sure, yeah. John Byrne's fantastic! He was the writer of the licensed Fantastic Four comics for a while, then wrote for the Avengers' comic, and then did Iron Man for a while. My favorite, I think, is when he rebooted Ultra-Man." The digression into geekery put smiles on the faces of both Molly and Alex. Victor just seemed confused by it all.

"You're talking about comic books?" he asked.

"Of course we're talking about comic books! Comic book geeks aren't just unwashed hairy basement-dwellers any more." Alex couldn't help but tease him. "Some comic book geeks are hot chicks with super-powers!"

"Right." Victor started to say something, then changed his mind. "So, you going to put that down?"

"Oh, right. Sorry. Molly, guide me in." Alex shifted the container, then moved to pick up the next one. She felt a bit sheepish, having been distracted by the conversation.

"So, Byrne's a comic book writer and he came up with some explanation for how your powers worked?" Victor watched as Alex lifted the second container. He didn't remark on the impossibility of it this time. "What, did you let him test you or something?"

"Nah. Alex has the same powers as Ultra-Man." Molly was grinning from ear to ear.

"What's an Ultra-Man?"

"You've never heard of Ultra-Man? He was only the first comic book superhero, like, ever!" Molly rolled her eyes. The girl was obviously outraged, and Alex couldn't avoid smiling at Victor's predicament. But Molly was on a roll. "Ultra-Man actually predates the real superheroes! How can you not know Ultra-Man? Jeez... where have you been living, under a rock or something?"

"Uh, no, I just had a very restrictive childhood." Victor looked away for a moment. "So what are Ultra-man's powers, anyway?"

Molly shrugged. "Super-strength. Invulnerability. She can fly really fast. Right out of the comic book." She helped Alex lower the second container into place. "Oh, hey!" The younger girl brightened. "Alex, do you have atomic vision?"

Both of them confused, Alex and Victor asked, almost simultaneously, "What's atomic vision?"

"You know... atomic vision! Like in the Ultra-Man can you shoot beams of deadly radiation out of your eyes?"

"Well, uh, not exactly."

"Oh." Molly's entire demeanor slumped along with her shoulders. "That's too bad, because that would be a really cool power to have."

"Well, I don't shoot radiation, just heat."

What, like you've got fire vision?" Molly perked right back up immediately.

"Uh, no, no fire. Just heat." Alex looked to Victor. "You're sure this is the one?"

"Yep. The numbers match and everything. This is the container you wanted. So, heat vision on top of strength and flying and invulnerability?"

"Also heightened senses and x-ray vision and being really, really fast."

"Hey, Alex, are you allergic to Xenonite?" Molly asked out of the blue. Alex just shook her head at the girl and smirked.

"That sounds kind of random, don't you think? Like the writers of the comic book just added more and more super-powers as they needed to make the plot work?"

For some reason, Alex felt embarrassed. "Yeah, I guess." She bent and power lifted the crate so that it was above her head. "Okay, kiddo, climb on. Victor, if you want a ride, you can climb on too. I'll hold it level. You won't fall, I promise."

Victor took Molly's hand and lifted the both of them to the top of the container. "Okay, we're on," Molly called. "Let's go!"

Alex lifted off into the air gently, trying not to shake her passengers off. She could hear the low mumble of their conversation, but wasn't really paying attention. A few minutes into the flight, Alex heard Victor exclaim, "No, I do not think she has cryogenic breath. She chuckled over that for a good long while.

XxxxxxX

Twenty minutes later, Alex landed in the middle of the parking lot of an old abandoned motel. The remains of the motel's sign read "Qual Re tel", under which was a marquee that read, "Under New Management. Grand Reopening Soon!" The sight of it made Alex sort of maudlin. This place was someone's dream once, and now it was a wreck. As she carefully lowered the container to the ground, she could see the rest of Victor and Molly's group, plus Louise, standing well clear. Most of them were holding flashlights, as the wreckage of the motel no longer had electricity.

When the container was safely on the ground, Victor floated down off of it while Molly just jumped. Alex turned to greet Louise, who'd been standing with Nico. "Hey, baby. Went off without a hitch, just like I promised it would."

Louise gave Alex a quick squeeze and a kiss. "I know. You're my favorite criminal mastermind."

That caused Alex to giggle. She threw an arm around Louise. "We need to get that on a t-shirt. Mine will say 'Criminal Mastermind' while yours says 'Criminal Mastermind's Main Squeeze.' They'll match."

"Hey Alex, come on and let's see what's in this thing!" Molly called. She'd been eying the amazingly strong-looking lock that kept the container closed.

"Fine, fine. No more delays." Arms still around each other, they walked to the front end of the container. Alex studied the lock for a moment, then nodded. "Sorry, baby, but I need both hands." She looped a finger from each hand into the and pulled the restraining bar into three pieces. That taken care of, she stepped back and motioned to Molly. "It's all yours."

Alex took Louise in her arms again and stepped back as Molly stepped forward. "This is a lot like a treasure hunt." Molly said. The girl scatted the 20th Century Fox fanfare, before opening the container's doors with a flourish. Everyone was laughing as she did so, but the moment they got a clear look at what was inside, their breath caught in their throat.

No one spoke.

Still, no one spoke.

"Wow." Chase finally broke the silence. "That is a literal fuck-ton of money." The near end of the container, just inside the thing's doors, was a wooden pallet that had a plastic-wrapped cube of hundred dollar bills stacked on it. "How much money do you think that is?"

"As you say," Victor responded. "It is a fuck-ton."

"No, I mean, how much money do you think that is?" Chase repeated the question. "Molly, drag that out of there so we can count it. Nodding, Molly leaned down and grabbed the wooden pallet the money was stacked on out into the parking lot. The rest of the container was pitch dark.

"Uh, well, I mean, each packet is a hundred $100 bills. That's $10,000 in each packet. So the stack is, uh, jeez... I don't know how high or wide it is. I mean..." they started counting.

"Hold it a second. Let me do it. Chase, give me your flashlight." Alex held out a hand and Chase dropped his mag-light into it. Alex concentrated and sped up her count by an order of magnitude. In seconds, she she had the answer. "I got it, you can stop counting. The cube is a hundred packets high by a hundred packets wide by a hundred packets deep."

Everyone started doing math in their head. "Jeez... high school algebra. What's the volume of a cube again?" Alex heard Louise mutter to herself.

Nico had closed her eyes and was clearly counting, just like everyone. But again, before anyone could get going, Victor short-cutted the process.

"There's uh, wow. You guys are not going to believe this." Victor looked shocked. "There's ten billion dollars in this cube."

"Wait, what?" Everyone was in shock, but it was Nico who voiced it. "Did you say ten billion?"

"Yeah, ten billion dollars."

"Billion? With a B?" Alex stared at the cube.

"With a B, yes." Victor ran his hand over one side of the cube. It was much more money than any of them, even the ones who had grown up in the lap of wealth and luxury, had ever seen in one place at one time.

The other young girl, the one who dressed an Amish bride, said, "I can't even conceive of such a sum. Its beyond my ability to comprehend."

"Holy shit, we're fucked. We are fucked. They're going to kill us. Seriously." Chase sat down abruptly, right in the middle of the parking lot. He put his head in his hands. "This is hunted down, chopped up into bait, and fed to the sharks by the Mafia kind of money." He looked up at everyone else. "Haven't any of you guys ever seen any movies? Jesus Christ!"

"Yeah, this is definitely way too much money." Karolina chuckled. "So, Power Girl, was this part of your plan?"

Alex shrugged, grinning. "It's way more money than I planned.

"Oscorp isn't going to just let this go, man. They're going to come after us and kill us, even if we gave it back, they're gonna kill us."

"No, no, its going to be okay." Victor sat down next to Chase and pulled out his tablet. "I can hide it."

"You can hide $10 billion?" Chase was panicked, nearly hysterical.

Victor shook his head. "No, I can hide the fact that we stole it."

Louise turned to Alex. "I, uh, I think I have an idea. Its a bit out there, but I think it would work."

"Sure, baby, what's your idea?" Alex motioned to Nico, Klara, and Karolina, and the three girls came over. She looked toward where Victor and Chase were seated, but neither were really paying attention. "Go for it."

"Well, um, I think what we need to do is everyone take some for themselves. But no more than, uh, I don't know, maybe half a million dollars each. Maybe a million. Anyway, I want to give some to Aaron to help out the guys. Maybe leave some of it in a brown paper bag for the sisters at the convent. You know, give some of it to people who need it.

"And then." She paused and took a deep breath. "And then I think we need to pour, like, gasoline over whatever is left and just set it on fire. That way, we don't have big targets on our heads, and this Osborn guy doesn't have his money."

"You're kidding, right?" Karolina scoffed. "Just burn up billions of dollars? Throw it away?" She seemed scandalized by the waste of it all.

"Yeah. What else are we going to do with it? Throw it off the top of a tall building? Drop it off a Goodwill? We can't keep it because Chase is right! People will hunt us down if we try to keep this money."

"Right, uh, okay, let's get the plastic off this pile. Everyone start filling bags. Don't take more than a hundred packets apiece." Nico unfolded a vinyl athletic bag as Molly stripped the cube of its plastic wrap.

As everyone else started shoving money into their bags, Molly took a flashlight and ventured into the space left open by the pallet. "Hey guys, come look at this!"

Alex left Louise to cram their bag full of money. She stepped into the container and spotted what Molly was reacting to. "Wow. That's a beautiful car!" The car was a Mustang GT, painted a warm metallic green. It had been strapped down and secured into immobility in the middle of the container. Behind the car, against the far end of the container, were several stacks of cardboard boxes.

Alex grinned. "Hey, Chase, I think I have a replacement for your car." Alex carefully started popping the straps holding the car in place. Once it was free, she pushed it out of the container and into the night air. "It's gas tank is probably dry as a bone, but I'm betting its so factory fresh it still has the new car smell."

Chase looked up from where he was still moping. "Great. A stolen car." He put his head back into his hands.

Alex had just about enough of that. She strode over to where Chase was sitting and yanked him to his feet. "Don't talk like that! Grow some balls already! If Victor can get inside Oscorp computers to find a shipping manifest, he's got to be able to get into the DMV and jigger a car's registration so it shows that you own it." She looked over at Victor, who was climbing to his feet. "Right, Vic?"

"Sure. Piece of cake." Victor dusted off his pants.

Molly's voice echoed from the container. "There's all kinds of stuff in these boxes, guys! Come look!"

Nico and Karolina went into the container after Molly. Shortly they came back out, each carrying a cardboard box. "Hey, guys, look!" Karolina put her box down and opened it. It was filled with smaller boxes, each painted blue with gold trim. In a fine cursive hand, the words "Pol Roger Winston Churchill Couvee 2001" could easily be read. "Not sure what this crap is, but there's like a dozen crates of it in there."

Molly followed, dragging a huge rectangular box. It was five feet tall if it was an inch, and seven feet long, but less than a foot wide. From the markings on the box, it contained an absolutely huge flat-screen television. "There's four or five of these in there two, plus some more boxes that look like they have computers in them."

Alex looked over at Victor. "Trade goods."

He nodded back to her. "Trade goods."

Molly laid the box she was dragging on the ground. She was being very careful with it. "I want one of these TVs for my room."

XxxxxxX

Author's Note the First: Neither Buffy nor Marvel Comics nor DC Comics belong to me. I'm just using the playground equipment. The game I'm playing, however, is of my own devising.

Author's Note the Second: Pol Roger Winston Churchill Couvee 2001 is a type of champagne. It was introduced in 1984 by the Pol-Roger champagne house in honor of their most loyal customer and ardent supporter, Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill drank Pol-Roger champagne at every occasion from the time he ordered his first case of the 1895 vintage in 1908, right up until his death in 1965. During World War II, he justified his constant drinking of the champagne with a line he stole from Napoleon Bonaparte: "In defeat, I need it, and in victory I deserve it."

In 1944, he met Odette Pol-Roger, the grand dame of the Pol-Roger family, and the two became fast friends. Every year, on his birthday, she would send him a case of his favorite vintage as a gift. After Churchill's death, as a sign of respect, the blue boxes that all Pol-Roger champagne is shipped in that were sent to England were trimmed in black rather than the usual gold.

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