"Would anyone care to explain to me why Gargan made the Frontline yet again?"
Norman's voice was tense, the sort of calm that told everyone he was livid with rage as he tossed the newspaper onto the table. It slid and bumped Bullseye's elbow; he unfolded it with a flourish.
"Another deadly attack in Madison Square! A couple was found early morning that appeared to fall fate to the mysterious pattern of deaths that have been circling Manhattan. Only half of the man was able to be recovered and he is as of yet still unidentified; his companion and dog may have been eaten whole owing to the amount of different blood, severed hand, and tattered leash found at the scene."
He put the paper down. "I don't know, Ozzie. Sounds like it could be anyone."
Though Gargan sneered and proceeded to eat his cereal, bowl and all, Norman snatched the paper up from Bullseye, still furious.
"Unless you clowns are interested in getting the very public boot and have all your pardons and privileges revoked, I strongly suggest using your brain before you go about eating people in public," he hissed. "I would say that's an order, but that doesn't seem to make any damn difference for you ignoramuses. Shape up before you find yourselves the next headline victim of some dramatic catastrophe."
Karla rested her chin on her fist, watching Norman turn to leave. She glanced askance, thoughtfully.
"He's right, you know," she said after a moment. "We have it good. If any of you nincompoops derail this gravy train, I might just have to take care of you myself."
She raised her eyebrow, though the threat was purposefully tame. She didn't want them to take her too seriously, though she needn't have worried. Mac Gargan ostentatiously commented: "Reason enough for me!" He and Bullseye chuckled to themselves while Karla excused herself, strolling down the long hall past the Sentry's Watchtower towards Norman's office.
Already, she had ideas.
"Some of us," she said shortly afterward to Norman, facing him in his workspace. His expression was unreadable behind his helmet. "Provide a much better public face than the rest. Don't you agree?"
There was a beat of silence, before Norman answered: "Well done. That's hardly news."
Karla only inclined her head and smirked, mascara-lined eyes fixed on him beneath a thick lock of blonde hair. She twirled it around her finger.
"I think we'd be negligent not to take advantage of that, Norman. Pander to the press. If we give them stories to focus on, they won't be so desperate to latch on to Gargan's breakfast."
"Make your point quick, Ms. Marvel."
"Robert and I are the real face of this team... after you, of course. We play the game right. I think if we were to become a bit closer… well, I'm sure you can imagine our two gorgeous faces on all the magazine covers."
Norman took the faceplate to his helmet off, glaring at Karla with narrowed, suspicious eyes.
"The Sentry has a wife. And tabloid-fodder is one of the lowest forms of publicity. We needn't embarrass ourselves."
"No one cares about his wife. Those who even know about her. Think about it," she continued, watching his face as she said it, "we're exactly the kind of pair that the media eats up. We're both blonde, beautiful, white, heroic; how better to distract the press from the antics of Hawkeye, Wolverine and Spider-Man? No one will care about Norah Winters, Peter Parker, Ben Urich or the Frontline. Trust me."
"You know that I don't." His nose was wrinkled, but Karla smiled serenely back at him knowing he couldn't find fault with her plan, not without playing another card. That one he kept so close to the chest Karla was certain she'd been the only one to catch it.
"I'll just assume that's your go-ahead," she said, turning and walking away.
She began right away: subtle, but clear enough. During their meetings Karla sat beside the Sentry every time, her arm brushing his. She took his hand at press conferences, flew with him when the Avengers partnered off. If the Sentry noticed anything amiss he didn't comment, and any discomfort he showed to her attention and touches only encouraged Karla more.
"What am I reading?"
"No way -- when'd that happen? How come we've never heard them going at it?"
A week later had brought the group together in the common room again, Bullseye reading a crumpled magazine over Gargan's shoulder. Karla could see the cover from across the room -- MS. MARVEL & THE SENTRY: PARTNERS IN HEROISM, OR SOMETHING MUCH MORE? EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS declared the headline, across a photo of them standing near enough that it appeared they were holding hands. Karla knew that they weren't, of course, and smirked into her coffee before wandering down the hallway to listen at Norman's door.
It didn't matter that upsetting Norman wasn't her stated primary motivation. A little publicity was a nice thing, but not quite as satisfying as the needles in Norman's skin she knew were being stabbed every time he looked at the news. He came out of his workspaces less often so as not to expose his terrible mood, and subsequently hadn't been micromanaging them all to quite the same capacity.
"--Gone far enough, Ms. Hand! We are a functioning, professional organization, not some weekly teenage television drama! People should pick up the paper and read about whose asses we're saving from their own stupidity instead of who's crawling into whose--"
"Norman, you're shouting."
"I know I'm shouting!"
"Ms. Marvel?" Karla glanced askance as Bob exited the Watchtower several feet away from where she was standing. "Who's shouting? What's going on?"
"Did he wake you up?" She asked with a coy smirk. "Do you always sleep in your costume?"
"I wasn't sleeping," he said, lowering his voice. "I don't have to. Sometimes I lay with Lindy to keep her company. What's--?" He looked at the door to Norman's office, moments before it was flung open, Norman storming out in a rage. He looked at the two of them, face flushed with indignation and lips drawn in a snarl; behind him Victoria Hand looked terrified that they were standing there, and Karla moved closer to Bob to put her arm on his chest without moving her eyes from Norman's.
The reaction was satisfyingly immediate; Norman practically dived for her, arm drawn back. Victoria grabbed him by the wrist.
"Norman! You can't hit your Avengers!"
"She's--!" With his heat of the moment fury tempered and momentum lost, Norman lowered his arm, looking mildly frustrated with himself. Abruptly he turned to look at Bob. "This is a sick joke," he said.
"What?" Bob looked from Norman to Karla to Victoria, then Norman again. Realization dawned on his face a moment after and he immediately looked guilty, caught in an unprofessionalism he wasn't to blame for. "Oh -- um… is this about--? They're taking all that out of context, Ms. Marvel and I aren't --"
"I don't want to hear it," Norman snapped, grabbing a fistful of Bob's cape and drawing him down into a rough, territorial kiss on the mouth. Karla felt immensely victorious; Bob looked surprised and drew himself backward and Norman pulled away quickly, scowling at all of them.
"… Just keep your private life out of the papers."
"You say that as if it's going to be a factor," Karla said, looking from Bob to Norman and smiling smugly at him. "I hope you plan on following your own advice."
"I hope you plan on getting out of my sight," said Norman curtly, glaring at Karla before he turned to go back into his office. "Go make yourself useful and see that no one's let Gargan outside this morning."
"No thanks," she said, still smiling and leveling a knowing look on him, the implicit threat hovering. "I think I'll be doing whatever I want. I'm keeping the rest of you out of the papers, aren't I?"
Victoria shoved Norman through the door before he could respond.