Kate's office is probably described by her as being 'utilitarian' and 'sleek,' but the sight of the desk – completely bare but for a pen, a pad of paper, a cell phone, and for some bizarre reason a Richard Nixon bobblehead – makes James nervous. So when he sits down, he doesn't feel like a superhero as much as he feels like a straight-B seventeen-year-old with poor extracurriculars interviewing with his top choice college.
"Just sit right down, make yourself comfortable," says Kate, walking around her desk to settle herself in her own chair. "This shouldn't take too long. Or it might. I guess we'll see." She picks up her pen, opens the pad of paper, and even upside down James can see her write CALAMITY in neat, capital letters. "So," she says. "As you already know, this little session is so that we can avoid any potential unpleasantness and/or sex tape scandals in the future."
"Sex - ?" begins James, but Kate keeps going, like a steamroller.
"Anything I may ever need to know, anything that may come back unexpectedly to bite you in an uncomfortable place, anything that has the potential to get over a million hits on YouTube if cell phone camera footage of it is posted – that's why you're here, to tell me. I'm not concerned with laws. I'm not concerned with anybody who isn't in this room right now, unless I'm also working for them. So. Let's go ahead and begin. Carl Crenshaw."
James blinks. "Somebody had a sex tape scandal?"
"Not the point, unless you have one," says Kate, looking him up and down. "Do you?"
"Good." She makes a note. She actually makes a note, right below his codename and next to a freakishly circular bullet point – "says no sex tape." "Which brings us back to Carl Crenshaw."
"What about him?" asks James, crossing his arms.
"That's pretty much my question," says Kate. "Henry was kind enough to pass along that he found the two of you playing Wii in his trailer. Why?"
James shrugs. "He was playing when I got there, and he had an extra controller, so - "
"Not my point. My point is, why were you at Carl Crenshaw's trailer in the first place?"
James makes a point to actually think about it first. "To get closure," he says. "I mean, I was pissed at him at first, but then I got there and his life was a wreck, you know? And I wanted to show him what he'd taken from me, but he was just so guilt-ridden - "
James closes his eyes. He always forgets how much he hates dealing with publicists. "So essentially, every question you ask me, I should assume you mean, 'if the press asks you this question, how will you respond?'"
"Exactly," says Kate, smiling benignly at him. "So let's try that again. Carl Crenshaw."
"Was so drunk it was embarrassingly easy to kick his ass at MarioKart."
Kate narrows her eyes at him. "You're not taking this seriously."
"I've been dealing with the press since pretty much forever," says James. "So no, not really."
"I see." Kate makes another note, but this time scoots the notepad closer to herself so that James can't read it. He's incredibly tempted to run and read it over her shoulder and be back before she even notices he's twitched, but it'll be a few more SOMA treatments before he's at the level he would need to be to make that happen.
Kate looks up at him, glancing over her narrow glasses, and says conversationally, "You and Mulholland never really got along, did you?"
The funeral was two weeks ago. The question feels like a punch in the stomach.
"What?" sputters James.
"You argued. A lot, apparently. She nailed you with her hammer in the middle of a mission. You didn't get along."
"Why the hell are you asking me that?"
"Because if I don't, someone else might, and if that's your answer? That's a bad thing. It's my job to make sure that bad things like that don't happen. So. You and Mulholland never really got along, did you?"
James stares at her for a long minute, feeling his nails digging into the palms of his hands. "No," he says finally. "We didn't really get along. But she was one of us."
Kate looks at him for a moment, then nods, satisfied. "All right. Then we're probably done here. Oh, one last question – corporate espionage. I'm not going to find out that Stark Industries or someone patented any of the components of your prosthetic legs, am I?"
James rolls his eyes. "Yeah, because I got a degree in Engineering just to steal Tony Stark's designs, and then I applied to work for him."
"Then we are done here." Kate makes another note, then flips the pad of paper shut. "As your publicist, it is my professional advice to you to not make a sex tape."
"Right," says James. "Uh. Duly noted."
The chair is pretty uncomfortable, and Maggie can't help but wonder, at least a little bit, how much of that is deliberate on Kate's part. To keep her clients off-balance and on the defensive from the moment they sit down. It takes some effort on Maggie's part not to adapt the ice-queen persona that comes less naturally now than it did, but certainly still easily.
"Morning," says Kate easily. "So, this little session is to get those skeletons out of the closet and make sure we're all on the same page when it comes to any scandals that I may need to cover up for you in the near future. Any of those you'd like to talk about?"
Maggie frowns. "Is this why James asked me if I had a sex tape?"
Kate closes her eyes, then flips back in her note pad to a page marked CALAMITY and writes, in clear letters, cannot keep his mouth shut. Then she returns to the page marked VEDA. "Do you?"
"That would be a no," says Maggie. "And I have to say, you're not very good at building trust with your clients."
"It's not a matter of trust, not really," says Kate. "It's a matter of image. And it's my job to make sure that yours is good."
"So even after everything, you still think of this as a strictly professional transaction?"
"Magdalena," says Kate, taking off her glasses and meeting Maggie's eyes, "I am a professional. Of course this is a professional transaction."
Maggie raises her eyebrows. "And when was the last time Becky's dad talked to her?"
"I don't know."
"Do you even care?"
"My job is to make sure that Becky gets remembered as Aralune, the superhero who saved L.A. x number of times, not as Becky Ryan, who was a year too young when she won Little Miss Texas."
"And you don't care if you hurt her," says Maggie flatly. "You'll forgive me if I have trouble reconciling what you're telling me with the fact that you were comforting her on the Helicarrier after the riots."
"Simple," says Kate. "That? Wasn't a professional matter. This is."
Maggie crosses her arms. "And you're fine with screwing over her dad as long as she's okay professionally."
"Becky's dad isn't my problem."
Kate goes quiet for a moment – but just for a moment. "I'm afraid I don't quite follow."
"Holly's SOMA process just happened to fail after Henry made it onto the tower? You could drive the Helicarrier through the holes in that story."
Kate puts her glasses back on. "Technically, that would be 'fly.'"
"It would be so easy to pin everything on him and let the Order keep going with a new leader," says Maggie.
"Except that it wouldn't, because he's the face of the Order," says Kate.
"All right, then answer me this," says Maggie, narrowing her eyes. "Is the reason you're not screwing him over because you're just plain screwing him?"
Kate doesn't even hesitate. "No. For one thing, he's the one who hired me. Tony Stark may be signing my checks, but Henry's the one I'm working for. For another, if the public face of AA and the leader of the Order, personally brought in by S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Tony Stark, were to get metaphorical, murderous egg on his face, that's what we like to call in the business 'a PR shitshow,' and I get paid to make those not happen. And lastly," and Kate leans forward now, deathly serious, "I happen to think that Henry makes a damn good superhero, and if it had been anybody else in that costume, L.A. would have burned."
Then she leans back in her chair, and picks the pen back up – Maggie hadn't even seen her put it down. "But we're not here to talk about Henry," she says, her voice completely back to normal. "We're here to talk about you and your orphans. It sounds too good to be true. Is it?"
Maggie just stares at her for a long moment, trying to figure her out. "I don't like you very much," she says finally.
"That's nice. Now just tell me you're not trafficking orphans."
"I'm not trafficking orphans," says Maggie. "I have never made a sex tape, I never intend to, and you don't even have to worry about a pregnancy scandal. Isn't that nice?"
Kate flips shut her pad of paper. "You don't have to like me," she says. "But it's still my job to make you look good."
"Actually, you work for the Order," says Maggie, standing up. "I'm pretty sure that makes it your job to do the right thing." She pauses. "How's Henry taking it?"
Kate looks up, actually surprised. "All this?" she says, and Maggie nods.
"You've known him longer than I have. And he seems - "
"He does," agrees Kate, also standing. "He's taking it hard. But he keeps going."
"Good," says Maggie. "Well. If any unexpected orphan traffickers knock on my door, I'll be sure to tell them to lie through their teeth to the press."
"Greatly appreciated, although if you feel the need to drop their names off at my office, I can see what I can do," says Kate.
"Oh, I will," says Maggie, casting a glance back over her shoulder from the door. "I may not like it, but I have the feeling I'm in good hands."
"I hate this city," says Kate, wrinkling her nose and pulling her coffee closer to herself.
"Really?" says Pepper, grinning. She can feel her cheeks flushed with the cold. "I love it."
Kate smiles crookedly into her coffee. "That's pretty obvious. How's Stark treating you?"
"Oh, as usual," says Pepper, shrugging. "Half the time he forgets I'm there, and the other half he assumes that I've already worked out his entire life for him and cured cancer in my spare time."
Kate gives her a glance that she recognizes from experience – it's the 'I can't tell if you're sleeping with your boss, but will do my best to rein in my curiosity' look. "How could you cure cancer? Don't you have snow days on days like today?"
"This is just a sprinkle," says Pepper, even as the thick layer of snowflakes melts into her hair. "You should see a real blizzard. Now that's something."
"I went to Vassar," Kate reminds her. "I've seen blizzards." She looks back out the window of the Starbucks. "I'd just forgotten how much I hate them."
Pepper takes a sip of her coffee. "You didn't say on the phone – what brings you to New York in January?"
"One of my clients is taking time to do some off-Broadway to establish her indie credibility. She invited me to her show." Kate pulls the tickets out of her purse. "'The Void Looking Backwards Towards Prometheus Chained to His Rock.' Would you like to come? I'm sure it will be entertaining."
Pepper smothers a smile. "I think I'm going to have to pass, but I appreciate the offer."
"Don't," says Kate instantly. "I just felt the impulse to share my pain."
Pepper can feel her smile fade, just a little, and shifts her weight in her seat. "How's – how is everyone? I haven't really..." She shrugs. "I talked to Henry a couple weeks back, but other than that..."
"We brought on a new member, and recruited one of the communications techs from S.H.I.E.L.D. to be the new Hera," says Kate.
"Oh," says Pepper, quelling her disappointment and reminding herself that she was the one to leave.
"Henry tried to convince me I should do it," Kate adds. "I told him he was even more delusional than I had believed if he thought those Starktech enhancements were coming anywhere near my slender, dainty neck. She's not as good as you were."
And Pepper's smile returns full-force. "Besides," she says. "You'd probably try to spin any info you got."
"Precisely," says Kate, toasting her with her marble mocha macchiato. "I've talked to both Calamity and Veda about any possible PR disasters, and so far I don't see anything we can't manage. But I still have to talk to Supernaut and Aralune."
Pepper's mouth twitches. "Ah," she says. "Are they still...?"
"I don't want to know," says Kate darkly. "Except I have to. That's the horrible thing about this job. We're meeting up on Wednesday, after I fly back to L.A."
"If they've - " Pepper hesitates halfway through her sentence, then plows on again. "If they've found each other, and they're happy, they should – they need to take advantage of that. They shouldn't have to give it up for the team, not when they work so much better together."
"In theory and philosophy, I don't disagree with you," says Kate. "In practice, I'm the one who has to figure out a family-friendly way to say that their bizarre hybrid sex gave Supernaut back the use of his legs."
"Well, I would start by not using the phrase 'bizarre hybrid sex,' for one thing," says Pepper. "Just a suggestion."
"Really? I thought it would go over nicely with the eighteen-to-forty-five crowd, and they're our target demographic." Kate takes another sip of her coffee. "I'm thinking of just avoiding the issue entirely. Milo's been keeping out of the public eye when he isn't in the suit, but it's just a matter of time before someone catches a picture of him running out to a Starbucks and posts it online under the headline 'WAR VETERAN FAKERY – ANTI-WAR PROTESTER FIELDS CAN WALK!', and then it just all gets political."
"As opposed to the politically-neutral PR work you've been doing so far," says Pepper.
"Comparatively? Yes." Kate shakes her head. "I remember when the worst I had to deal with was my clients snorting cocaine off of stripper's breasts."
"Ah, the good old days," says Pepper wistfully.
"Are you kidding? This is much more interesting."
Pepper smiles again, looking back down at her own coffee. Her hands are cupped around the paper, cradling the warmth. "And – how's Henry?"
"Angry," says Kate. "He's still doing everything he can to look for Stane, since he knows Stark isn't."
Pepper's lips thin. "'Proportional resources,'" she echoes.
"Right," says Kate. "He's not particularly happy with the new team members. He didn't want to hire anyone else, you know. I had to convince him. He kept saying five was a fine number for a field team, there were only five original Avengers, that sort of thing, and then I asked him how may Avengers there are now and he stopped arguing, I think partly because he couldn't even count them all."
Pepper is quiet for a moment, a look of concentration on her face, and then she gives up. "I can't say I blame him. Are the new team members that bad?"
"They're not Holly or Heavy or you," says Kate simply. "That's all. He'll move on eventually."
"Yeah," says Pepper, looking out the glass window into the New York snow. "I guess we all will." Then she clears her throat. "And you? How are you holding up?"
Kate's face maintains its neutrality, and Pepper has to take a moment to wonder how much practice it took to train herself to keep her cool that well when blindsided – but Kate's pointer finger taps three times against the side of her macchiato, giving her away.
"I'm fine," says Kate. "Why wouldn't I be? I just deal with the press."
"Uh-huh," says Pepper. "Right. So the Order is just another client."
Kate frowns. "I didn't say that. Henry's always a special case."
"Right," repeats Pepper. "And that's the only reason we're getting special attention?"
"The Order," says Kate.
"You said 'we.' You meant 'the Order.'"
Pepper blinks. "Oh. Right."
"And obviously the Order is a special case, since it's a team of superheroes and not an A-list celebrity, but more or less – yes. I do my job and I do it well. Give me a pen and a cell phone and I can make miracles." Kate shrugs. "This part of the job is just – different." She looks briskly down at her watch. "Well, I'd better leave soon – wouldn't want to miss the existentialist ramblings of what's sure to be an off-Broadway tour-de-force." She stands up, and so does Pepper. "It was good to see you. If you're ever back in L.A. - "
"Unlikely," admits Pepper. "But I will. And if you're ever in New York - "
"Similarly unlikely, but – I will." Kate gives her a smile. "If you ever need anything – if Stark ever tries to get you into a scandal - "
"Oh, God, don't give him ideas," groans Pepper, but she's grinning. "And if you ever need anything - "
Kate just nods. Pepper goes for a handshake first, then Kate rolls her eyes, and they end up sharing a somewhat awkward hug, which Pepper supposes is better than the brotherly punch on the shoulder she'd been half-expecting.
iv. supernaut and aralune
"I figured it made sense for us to do this together," says Milo, pulling out the chair for Becky, who takes her seat with a smile for him. "Since I think I pretty much know what we're going to be talking about."
"Mhmm," says Kate, sitting down at her desk and surveying the both of them over her glasses. "And what exactly would that be?"
"We're not gonna tell anyone, not so long as we're on the team," says Becky, folding her hands in her lap. Milo sits down next to her and puts his own hands in his lap too, to resist the temptation to reach out and hold Becky's. "We already talked about it. Not even our – not even our parents know."
"It's not going to affect us in the field, I can promise you," adds Milo. "We talked about that, too. We know that our priority is the team and the civilians, not each other."
"And we're not going out together or anything," says Becky. "Not alone."
"You're just wearing each others' clothes," says Kate, and Milo looks over to meet Becky's glance, confused. "That's Milo's sweatshirt, Becky."
"It's just too big for me," says Becky stubbornly.
"I can see the stain where James spilled ketchup on it two weeks ago," says Kate.
"Oh," says Milo. "Damn."
"This can't affect the team," says Kate firmly. "I know you've already gotten this talk from Henry, but you need to be on-book all the time, every minute of every mission, do you understand?"
"Perfectly," says Milo.
"Good," says Kate, her eyes on Becky. "Anything else you'd like to tell me?"
Becky shakes her head, and Milo says, "Well, I protested against the war, but I'm pretty sure most of that is already a matter of public record, so..."
"Right," says Kate. "Milo, I'm going to ask you to leave. I've got a few questions I'd like to ask Becky."
Becky's eyes widen. "What? Like what?"
"Like questions I'm not sure you'll answer honestly with him in the room," says Kate.
"Anything you can say to me, you can say to him, and I'm not gonna lie just 'cause he's here," says Becky stubbornly.
"Okay," says Kate. "Are you still bulimic?"
Becky's eyes widen, and Milo looks over at her, surprised. "Baby?" he says.
He can almost see the words "I don't know what you're talking about" forming on Becky's lips, but she pauses at the last second. "No," she says finally.
"And is that because you're using your abilities to control your weight?" pushes Kate.
"I don't think that's any of your - " begins Milo, his hands tightening into fists.
"No," says Becky. "No, that's not why. It's 'cause I don't need to anymore. It's 'cause I'm happy here, and I'm doing good." She crosses her arms. "I can be anything I want, right? Well, I want to be a superhero, and I am."
"Okay," says Kate, leaning back in her chair. "Excellent. I'll be releasing a statement tomorrow letting the press know that through a strange set of circumstances, the combination of Stane's messing around with your SOMA process and the changes we made to it after the fact have allowed you to regain use of your legs. Hopefully that will stave off questions about that. That's the official story, and it's what we're sticking to. Any questions?" Becky and Milo trade a glance, but Kate barrels ahead. "All right, then we're done here. I'll see you in training, bright and early tomorrow morning."
Becky and Milo both stand up, and Milo glances back at Kate to see her making a few notes on her pad of paper. Then she says, without looking up, "Becky, have you heard from your father recently?"
Becky frowns. "He called right after the riots," she says.
"I'm glad to hear that," says Kate.
"He told me he was proud of me," continues Becky, and Kate looks up, surprised.
"Oh, yeah," says Becky. "Then he started talking about loyalty and family values and after twenty minutes I hung up on him."
"Oh," says Kate. "Good for you."
"Well," says Kate, accompanied by the thud of her files hitting Henry's desk, "I admit that I have yet to interview New Kid or Fake Hera, but it looks like we're more or less prepared for any potential scandals that may crop up in the future with those four."
Henry barely looks up from his computer screen. "Good. That's good. Did Becky mention if her dad's talked to her recently?"
"He called after the riots to tell her how proud he was, and then yelled at her for twenty minutes about loyalty and family," says Kate, sitting down. "Apparently. And Pepper says hi."
Henry looks up at that. "When did you see Pepper?"
"In New York, a couple days ago."
"Oh." Henry blinks. "How is she?"
"Enjoying the snow, last I saw her," says Kate. "Still working for Stark."
Henry rolls his eyes. "Aren't we all."
"Henry," says Kate, "did Stark give you this job because you're screwing him?"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Let me rephrase that," says Kate. "Did Stark give you this job because you are now or were at one time screwing him?"
Henry looks at her for a long moment. "I'd like to think that I got the job because he thought I'd be good at it."
"And do you actually think that?"
Henry makes a face. "There won't be a sex scandal from that direction, if that's what you're asking."
"That's not a yes or no."
"No, it's not," says Henry. "I like to maintain at least a little air of mystery. Can we move on?"
"Okay," says Kate. "Why did you jump onto the platform during the riots?"
Henry can feel himself go still. "Is this an interrogation?"
"I asked everyone else uncomfortable questions," says Kate. "I don't see why you should get to miss out on all the fun."
"Kate - "
"If somebody asks, I need to know what you're going to say," Kate continues. "You were the last person to see Mulholland Black alive. You were with her when she died. What if some reporter comes up to you and says, 'unforeseen tampering to the SOMA process as a cause of death? Really?' I need to know what you'll say, and you need to be prepared."
"I've been living in the spotlight ever since I was TV's Tony Stark," snaps Henry.
"I know," says Kate quietly. "But you'd never killed anyone before."
Henry feels like he's been slapped in the face, and despite his years of experience on the stage, he can tell that it shows.
"I know you didn't have a choice," says Kate. "And I know that it was the right thing, and I wish we could keep pretending it didn't happen, but that's a luxury we don't have. It's frankly a miracle that nobody's stuck their fingers through the holes in our story yet, but when they do, you need to be prepared and ready to stick to the script."
"Which is?" says Henry hollowly.
"Which is the same it's always been," says Kate. "That Stane's alterations to the SOMA process killed her." She takes a breath. "Henry, there was a reason you weren't at the press conference where we gave out that story, and it was only partly because of the head wound. Can you keep telling that story?"
"She asked me to make it stop," says Henry, his voice very small.
Kate is visibly thrown off-balance for a moment. "I...didn't know that."
Henry leans forward, closes his eyes, and plants his elbows on his desk to better rub his temples tiredly. "I can tell your lie."
"Okay," says Kate. "That's – good. Okay."
Henry hangs his head to cover his face and rest his head in his hands, and his ragged breathing sounds hollower in its echoes. He can hear Kate stand up and walk around the desk, then he feels her hesitantly put her hand on his shoulder. He leans into it, just a little, and she moves her arm around his shoulder.
"I hate this," he says, his voice muffled.
"I know," says Kate.
They spend another moment like that, until Henry pulls back. His eyes are still dry, at least, and for the moment at least he feels more tired than determined. He checks his watch. "Last SOMA treatment," he says. "In about an hour, the Order will be back up to full power." Kate's hand is still resting on his shoulder, and he reaches up to cover it with his own. "What would you have done if I couldn't answer?"
Kate sighs. "I would've made sure you never got asked. Which would be hard, but let's face it, I'm a miracle-worker anyway."
"Maybe we should give you a name and a costume," suggests Henry, only half-joking. "I don't think Miracle Worker's taken, though I could be wrong."
"I'm perfectly happy staying on the civilian side, thank you," says Kate, squeezing his shoulder one last time before pulling back. "I'll leave the heroing to the professionals."
"Speaking of which," says Henry, standing up. "I'm due on the Helicarrier."
Kate smiles at him, thinly. "You ready to save the world?"
Henry smiles back wearily. "I guess we'll see."