Pull back.

When her palm chopped upward, (at a velocity no human woman should be able to achieve, no less,) she’d been able to stop it on a dime before the 5’7” federal agent with a paunch could actually suffer its consequences.

The hit was meant to land at the soft of his neck, where the slope of his chin met trachea; she just barely tapped it the stubble there, despite the appearance of an intent to nearly take the man's head off.

In a typical women’s self defense course, she could’ve been taught to strike upward -- push, yell 'FIRE' or flail -- but this wasn’t the local YMCA. This was military training, and it was self-defense designed to incapacitate an assailant.

What happened when the defensive partner was a half-alien superhero with powers bordering on godliness?

Well. The assailing partner, as it were, usually lucked out. When Cara glanced over her shoulder, despite her partner’s profuse thanks and borderline panic, she glanced at Marko.. Almost as if to gloat her ‘I told you so’ before she could actually say it. She'd never say it (until he was in earshot, and/or they had some privacy).

Feds feds feds. He'd never been a fan of them but damn did they know how to spend money. He had Homeland Security on the farm for the next 2 weeks. Secret Service. The fresh batch of recruits had just finished 11 weeks of training before being pushed out to their 17 week specialized courses. Marko's industrious hustling had secured a 5-year contract with the agency for Physical Techniques & Conditioning, and Firearms, so here he was.

The training facility was sprawled out over 7,000 acres of land an hour's drive west of Lodi. His crew took care of everything, but he blew in and out occasionally. He had a new guy starting this week and two interviews. Plus, there were a couple heads in the incoming group of 2 dozen that had sharp files worth holding on to for future recruiting purposes, so he'd made the trip out to see their potential for himself. He didn't poach per se but hey, nobody stayed anywhere forever.

He was letting Cara knock the everliving god out of men twice her size on the mat because it was good to take down the egos early and she liked punching things.

He grinned at her from across the gym when she threw him that look.

If he had it his way, he'd have supers out here all the time because eventually, the government would have to deal with the bad ones in the worst way and right now there was no visibility to what they were all capable of.

"Alright alright, don't break him on Day 1, Davies. Healthcare ain't free," he hollered at her.

He uncrossed his arms and jerked his head at Tanto to tap in so she could tap out.

She bit her tongue. It was federal agents that’d kidnapped her, federal agents that knew exactly who she was and what she could do -- at least, the tiny fraction of drones that’d been assigned to interrogate her and intimidate her family. Marko had no idea how deep this went, and odds were, neither did the man who was still sweating and shaking in his metaphoric boots at the sight of the lean blonde in a ponytail and sparring gloves.

This man was a man filed amongst those trained to negotiate with hostages, run into battlefields, and throw themselves over grenades. The realization made Cara bring a water bottle to her lips when her decision of noncompliance was validated.. At least when the government was concerned. When a look was thrown back at Marko as Tanto took her place, she sighed. The big man knew a lot, but not everything, and she kept her cards as close to the chest as humanly possible. If it were possible.

“You’re gonna have to toughen ‘em up,” she remarked softly, unwinding a glove from one hand in her approach. “.. There’s a lotta things uglier than me out there these days.”

"I think they noticed," he said. Not to state the obvious but most of these men weren't that progressive. They were more likely to write her off and call her sweetheart or try to pick her number up in a bar than take her seriously in a boxing match. It was a good lesson to learn. Never underestimate the opposition.

For all the digging that Marko had been doing on his own, he hadn't surfaced much. Whatever Uncle Sam was doing with the supers and the caped crusaders and the metahumans, they hadn't popped a leak yet. Surprisingly. He didn't want anything to do with clean-ups. The city getting slammed every so often with damage control wasn't his problem. He was a mercenary at heart. If some crooked government or corporation wanted to pay him to protect, say, their 'private interests' from righteous superheroes, all the check needed was the right number of commas. It was coming. He just wanted to be proactive about it. He was smart enough to recognize he needed fire to fight fire.

It was too bad Cara was upstanding. Ward and his little collective of principled heavyweights, tch. There were kings and there were soldiers. They weren't the same. But he did like to tease Cara every so often that he could cut her bigger checks if she were willing to take a flexible stance on ethics. He knew she'd never take him up on it. There was a certain level of what he assumed was hostility at some of the shit he did. He'd scaled back some after the Senate hearings a few years ago. Apparently the hoi polloi didn't like the idea of their government paying private soldiers to fight wars overseas and once the media had caught on, everything had turned into a shit show. Her boss had been part of the damned tribunal.

"Anything ugly enough I need to worry about?" he asked. He held out the fresh bottle of water towards her as she came off the mat.

Cara lifted a brow and her water bottle at the same time. Marko was no fool; he was one of the sharper people she’d run into over the last few years, in fact. When it boiled down to it, she’d blast-punch Eris to save him just as much as she would for the more buttoned-up citizens she knew. That was the thing about being upstanding, she’d suppose. That accompanying tendency, however, didn’t come with unlimited viewings of the things that lived in her brain.

She picked particular bits for Marko intentionally; enough to prepare him, and enough to keep everyone safe, at least by her standards.

“Y’all got.. Norse gods taking half-a-dozen forms, Lantern rings zippin’ around..” She paused, glancing over from her view, seated on the mat. She rocked back on her hands. “Time stone’s out there somewhere too,” Cara added, not hiding the bite and concern in her tone. Righteous, yes. Stoic, never. That was the thing about sitting with Markovich; he was a foil, like Lou had always been. The lack of sympathy from the former actually helped more than it hurt these days.

Not that she’d ever admit it.

Chalk it up to years of building scar tissue. You sympathize that much with every blade of grass and you killed yourself at some point. Most people who did bad things didn't think they were bad, just necessary. And most people who got help didn't even fucking deserve it. If he could rattle around someone like Cara's head, he'd probably be appalled at the level of responsibility she'd taken on. Seemed crazy to him to try to save people from themselves. They could barely given a shit about global extinction because of climate change. Why was it up to anyone else, anyone powered, to fix their problems for them?

He shook his head, eyebrows hiking up marginally in private amusement at her small litany. He was chomping at the bit to get involved with this shit but nobody had given him a key yet. Cara, his neighbor, Nora, all people he'd been watching but hadn't interfered with.

"Above my pay grade," he said. "For now."

His mouth did slant into a grin before he said. "Come on. I want a round." Not on the mat though. He jerked his head and waited for her to cap her water and follow him.

"I get paid whether you show up or not but I can't figure out why your boss thinks you need these unless you're supposed to be keeping an eye on me."

“Maybe you’re supposed to be keeping an eye on me,” Cara offered, lifting her eyebrows thoughtfully before glancing down at her hands; watching them for the beat it took for them to twist her water bottle closed. Her boss didn’t know the depth of her involvement in the shifter community, at least per what she’d expressed. He hadn’t as much as brought it up in a form more than a shared, intent glance.

Marko, however, didn’t give as much of a hoot about her as Ward did. He called things like he saw them; it didn’t matter much to him.. Or so she assumed.

“.. You’re not the only badass around here.”

His grin was returned as she strode alongside him, matching the energy he gave off by pulling her shoulders back just slightly.

He had to laugh. The perils of working at this level came with a certain guaranteed level of paranoia. Whether or not anybody at any point paid either of them to see what the other was up to, how would they ever know?

"A woman asked me the other day how she could be sure I wasn't a fed, and I damn near pulled a muscle trying not to laugh," he mentioned. He'd take their money, but he for damn sure was never going to work for law enforcement. Overseas, military consulting, tactical training, fine. But god knew he wasn't fit for a badge. Hell, most of what he did now wasn't necessarily legal but nobody won wars by playing fair. The wizard behind the curtain of American security was something the public was much better off not seeing. He'd started off as a patriot when he was 17, and then he'd grown the fuck up.

"If I'm keeping an eye on you, it's purely outta visual appreciation." He squinted at her, ready to dance out of hitting range if she decided to clip him for making the joke.

Empty gym, next door. He'd yank the door and hold it for her if she didn't try to whip him.

“Who said you had to be a fed to keep an eye on me?” Cara lifted a wise brow before moving past him into the empty gym.

She knew enough people that’d pop him if he stepped out of line with a joke like that -- hell, she’d pop him herself, but wasn’t keen on adding Marko’s name to the list of Stuff She’d Jettisoned Into Outer Space (both by force and their own choosing) lately. For the record, two entities were on that list, one of them being the reality stone itself. Marko could stay, and she’d chew off her own hand before she’d call a comment about her own appearance as strangely bland, given the sea of other things he could’ve said.

“Tall, knockout-blonde kicks securities-expert’s ass,” she sniped back as a headline, snorting a little when she started to press a wrap back down between her fingers. Cara took another thoughtful pause before she readjusted her ponytail, watching Marko.

“.. What degree of beating’re you lookin’ for? Mild, medium, or ice bath tonight?”

"Fair enough." In all reality, the private sector would've concerned him more than the federal. For her sake, he hoped no one ever used her superhero identity against her. There was so much money to be cashed in on that cow. Maybe they didn't full trust each other, but his ability to keep that secret said more about his decency than he wanted it to. He could sing to the heavens about how shitty he was as a man, but he'd never exploited anyone's secrets, he'd never taken jobs with autocrats and authoritarian states, he'd worked with more underdogs and freedom fighters than wealthy royalties. Somewhere, buried underneath all that cynicism, Marko was still a patriot.

"I've been jonesing for an ass kicking," he joked. He wasn't exactly dressed for a brawl. He was wearing the standard jeans and polo for the day while he worked, but he'd manage. He dropped the clipboard he'd been holding onto the side of the mat and grabbed the back of his shirt collar to haul it over his head. The jeans were loose enough to move in. The hand wraps were more for him than her since he knew she was borderline indestructible. His dad had been a boxer so he'd grown up fracturing his knuckles on a regular basis. They were as good as granite. Coupled with a high pain tolerance and her inability (probably) to bruise, they'd be fine. He wasn't delusionally arrogant though, so he did modify his previous statement to include, "Nothing hospital worthy. I still gotta work in the morning. I'd like to show up with all my teeth."

He lost the belt, heel-toed the shoes off and lined them up, too, his penchant for details manifesting even at this level. Everything in its place.

"You pick up any fancy new tricks since the last time I saw you?" he asked, eyes narrowing on her as he backed up across the mat, gravitating towards the center. He was vaguely familiar with the cycle. He knew at least that it took some time for new talents to manifest, that people like Cara only got stronger with time..

She watched him; passively observing as Marko went from assessor to assessed. There was a time-earned honesty between the two of them; the easy calm of it all just happened to skillfully ribbon its way through and around their differences, slicing and dancing through the relationship like a blade, among half the other variables thrown into the equation. Superpowers or not, Cara huffed out an exhale of a laugh and nodded her understanding.

“Noted about the teeth,” she assured him, rolling her shoulders and blinking a little. She twisted her back until she heard a soft ‘pop’ and continued speaking. “I can’t remember what we were up to last time -- flying? Fire-cannon hands?”

.. And then she struck, barely giving the man time to adjust. Cara felt her lip curl only slightly when she pulled down at the joint of his elbow, ducking around him to pull that arm behind Marko’s back. With a foot lifted and a soft grunt, she pressed at the back of his knee and aimed to knock him to the floor, pushing hard and away. It was blunt, military-style self-defense; a collision of things Sabre had and hadn’t taught her.

There was a time, Cara knew full well, that she could let herself loose when it came to training -- whether it’d been class or client. The days of outrunning Teddy Soriano in a park or teaching a strength class were long-gone; it wasn’t about pushing herself anymore, she’d concluded idly. It was about balance now.

That said, the self-inflicted Jedi mind-trick didn’t stop her from holding Marko in the restraint-grip. She held him there with a little bit more force than the average-man required. He’d been, in his own words, jonesing for it anyway. He wouldn’t see her smirk.

"How's your aim--" He barely got the question out about the damn hand cannons before she'd launched herself at him. He should've anticipated it. Even when he was getting a beating he could appreciate clean lines and technique. He didn't have to play nice with her. It went the other way now. He felt the pressure on his arm and his knee buckled forward towards the mat, fuck. Marko used his free hand to punch upward toward her inner thigh from beneath her, an attempt to knock her off balance too. He threw his weight forward, dragging her with him, cutting the heel of his palm upward toward her chin and rotating into her shoulder. The goal was to flip her.

“Jesus. Fuck,” Cara managed; it was the middle-ground between a hiss and a grumble when she was forced to move with the momentum, preserving her joint and maybe saving a bone or two from cracking. Hitting the mat was, decidedly, less badass-looking than standing tall, but it was a worthwhile loss.

Instinct fired down her synapses; shoulder up, forearm down, second arm up to brace behind the neck to hold her target in place, head back and g-- but it was consciousness that stopped her from headbutting Marko into a concussion, a broken nose and potentially, missing some of the aforementioned teeth.

It was disgusting how much he liked fighting. He was fussy about who he hit the mat with because he didn't want to waste time with people who couldn't make him better or keep him sharp. He resented the idea that being out of combat this frequently deteriorated the training he'd dedicated most of his life to so when he could fight someone like Cara, even if it was just an ass kicking served up on a silver platter, he'd take it. The talking stopped as they moved into full-on sparring, trading off take-downs and ratcheting up the bruises. Some part of him would always feel an aversion to hitting a woman but she was a supe, and she'd let him.

It was all too often that Cara was speaking; it was in the delegation to new interns, in the questions she’d asked of other researchers and superiors at ALPHA, or apparently -- rerouting a poor attempt by Wired magazine to scoop a project toward a profile of San Francisco’s newest women in STEM. There were very few people with which she shared a companionable silence these days -- Wyatt being the obvious first, but Marko shared a sliver of that pie as well. She’d lost a best friend. She’d hurt another. When she grabbed Marko by the shoulders to literally throw him to the side, Cara said nothing and felt no guilt. Maybe she’d have to soon (she felt the wellspring of absorbed kinetic energy growing in her gut), but it wasn’t because of politics or obligation. Marko understood, in their bizarrely-shared, brutish way. She hung with him, and when she breathlessly cocked a fist back to deliver a blow; she didn’t pause. She hit him square in the ribs without hesitation.

If she put a hole through his gym, he was going to charge her boss an arm and a leg, and buy himself a whole new one. So please, Cara, put a hole in his gym. Maybe in the shooting range, the cafeteria, his house on the ridge. (Just a few mild suggestions.)

Was he ever concerned she'd go too hard and knock a hole through him one day? Surprisingly, no. He had no fears about hitting the mat with her. If he ever had to dissect that level of trust he had, it'd probably make him uncomfortable. But he could chalk it up to her being a good guy and good guys couldn't afford to make mistakes like accidentally kill consultants in training exercises.

After a good ten minutes of boxing, grappling, and fancy foot work, he felt her attention start to zero in. He could see it on her face once the silence set in. The concentration. The work. There was something liberating about getting down to the basics, pure physical competition. The sound of them going toe to toe and smacking hands to skin ended when he felt her fist connect with his ribcage and drive him back. It was a good clean shot. He'd always give credit where credit was due. His forearm came up too slow to catch her. The pure power of it slammed into him like a gunshot, knocked the air clean out of his lungs. She forced him backwards and he hit the mat damn hard.

That shit was going to bruise.

"Fuck me."

He started laughing as he rolled onto his back and pressed his hand against the spot where she'd drilled him. It was already starting to purple and turn into an ugly red. He was going to wind up favoring it for a couple days but at least she'd kept her promise about not busting up his teeth.

"What happens when you do that to a man with your hand cannons on? Goddamn, Davies."

Her breath shuddered in her lungs, not because of fatigue, but for the sheer adrenaline of it all. Cara Davies wasn’t a violent person; she was a physical one, as was Carol Danvers. Uniting the two sides of her Being (capital B), though, came with some kind of poeticism that she’d rambled about once and probably wouldn’t ever do again. Dramatics weren’t intentionally her style; a claim that her occasionally-glowing-eyes would beg to contest. Socking Marko felt simple. She needed simple and blunt for a little while.

While her body arced backward to stretch itself out from her clenched and close-quartered hit, her eyes thoughtfully moved from the bruise on up to Marko’s face. Rather than brood and dwell on the ‘could’s and the ‘should’s, she lifted her affronting fist again. What happened when she hit someone when the cannons were on?

She hardly had to try for this anymore, Cara mused, and on her next blink, energy streamed between her knuckles, warping and slithering all the way up to her elbow like she’d closed her innoculously-manicured-fingers around the sun. Light and heat seemingly begged for escape from the confines of her body. It bled through her irises, the tip of her nose, and even the rounds of her cheeks when she turned to give him the view of a human star.. At least a mild version of one with little to no effort at all. Marko’d done the work for her with every hit and feint they exchanged.

“You’re a smart guy. You tell me.”

Her lungs shuddered again as she swallowed the connectivity down, burying it somewhere deep and packing over it with everything around her. The room. The taste of sweat in her mouth. As quickly as she’d ignited, she pinched herself back down into a wisp of pensive smoke.

"Contrary to popular belief, I do actually like being alive." The fact that he fucked off every other week to war zones to fight other people's battles voluntarily was a character defect, not a death wish.

Marko lifted a hand to shield his eyes when she started to turn up the lights. And it was -- "Fuckin' beautiful." And mind blowing. And he knew that his fascination was borne out of a desire to have that kind of power, but a greater part of him knew he wasn't the kind of person who could be trusted with it. He wouldn't use it for any kind of good. "That's too much," he said. "That's too much responsibility. The power to fuckin'--"

His voice trailed off as he continued to rub the bruise on his chest. He sat up slowly, pulling his knees up and bracing his arms over the tops of them.

"Save the world."

There was a whole list of things that bubbled in her throat, along with the urge to vomit. He was right. It was insane power, and he hadn’t even seen what she could do with it beyond dodging a few blows and giving him a nasty bruise. With that in mind, she didn’t even bother to disagree with Marko when she sat down beside him, folding her legs and making herself just the slightest bit smaller, if only for her own subconscious’ sake.

Holding the world in her hands was terrifying for a girl from Georgia, even the most tenacious varieties like her. The pressure mounted when the owner of those abilities never went away -- when she’d become as much a part of Cara’s daily rationale as her own instincts.

“Yeah,” Cara said softly. “My movie made a billion though, so at the very least, people don’t hate me,” she offered, kicking one last attempt at levity into the reality of the situation. Her smile was cautious, but it was there.

“The.. uh. The feds’re watching me. They’ve told me they are; it's not like they minced words on that,” she continued, nodding once and looking forward instead of at Marko himself. Her voice lowered. “Ruined a perfectly great date night by trying to enlist me in some task force, but only after doing their best Law and Order routine for two days. They want to observe, and 'own' people like me.” This was prized knowledge; only the Avengers really knew, with a few privileged exceptions. Marko had earned his place in that trust tier, no superpowers needed.

“.. Get people on their payroll like living spies and weapons. I said no, but they aren’t letting up on surveillance. You said it yourself; Ward has government contacts. I think.. Shoot, I-I don’t know the whole story yet. But keep your ear to the ground. Watch your contracts.”

She sighed. Marko knew her before all of this; before they were knocking each-others literal and metaphoric lights out in a specialized gym. There was some degree of warmed-over weariness to her commentary.

“Never thought I’d be an in-demand weapon of mass destruction, but here we are.“