Origin Story

The Wounded Recognize the Wounded

The Wounded Recognize the Wounded

XxxxxxX

"Too often, we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around." – Leo Buscaglia

XxxxxxX

It hadn't occurred to Xander to ask either of the brothers for directions. She had the convent's address, but given that he wasn't familiar with Los Angeles in the least, those didn't help him at all. He thought about it for a little, then asked the waitress at the cash register. While the waitress didn't have the first clue about the convent, she did know how to get to the street it was on.

And so Xander was walking again. He wasn't sure why, but he got the impression that casually flying around would be a mistake. He'd have to navigate by landmark if he took to the air, rather than by street sign. And besides, the Avengers were still out there, and they'd been actively hunting him the last time he saw them. He wasn't looking for another fight, and though he was fairly sure they couldn't stop him, he didn't want to put up with the hassle.

Xander had considered just finding a hotel and getting a room, but then decided against it. Might as well save the money for clothes and a pair of shoes, not to mention incidentals like a toothbrush or a hairbrush. This was also the reason why he didn't just hop into a cab.

The waitresses directions sent him further on down Hollywood Boulevard. The street had lost its glitz. The wear and tear on the surroundings were beginning to seriously show, and he suspected that he may have drifted into a bad area. Not that he was worried, of course, but again, he didn't want the hassle. Xander paused for a bit and stretched. He wasn't tired, precisely, but he was getting there. He'd expended a lot of energy over the last twenty-four hours, and his meal at Denny's wasn't stretching very far.

What he needed was the sun. For a short moment, Xander considered flying into orbit and just basking in the sunlight for a while, but his innate sense of laziness kept him from doing it. Again, too much of a hassle.

"Wonder how far I've got to go?" He searched around for a street sign, but was shocked to find that he was no longer on Hollywood.

"The hell? When did I -" Clearly confused, he searched his surroundings for some clue as to how he made a wrong turn, or any turn at all for that matter, but there was nothing but the run-down neighborhood to give him an answer.

Several blocks ahead, there was a group of people, all women, standing along one side of a fenced traffic overpass. Below them, what looked like one of the Interstate Highways was still buzzing with traffic, even at this hour. It took him a moment to figure out who, or rather what, they were, and why they were just standing around. So, do I go talk to the hookers, or do I just wander around lost until I figure things out? Xander asked himself. With a sigh, he headed toward the group of prostitutes.

XxxxxxX

Wonder Man sat at the table, next to his laptop. He had a legal pad close, and had been jotting down questions to himself for the past several hours. Questions about Karen Starr. Questions like, "When did this girl actually refuse to cooperate?" and "Why wasn't her lawyer in her corner?" Questions like "When did her powers emerge?" and "Why did she run away from home two years ago?" And questions like "Why is she insisting she's a character from a TV show? And why a male character?" and "What are the odds that she's telling the truth?"

That last question had Simon thinking, and thinking hard.

It wasn't too likely, but Wonder Man had heard of worse. Parallel dimensions existed. Reed Richards had proven it. The "closer", if such a word could be used to describe parallel dimensions, a dimension was to the one you were from, the more and more identical to yours it was. The dimension "next door," for example, might be almost completely identical except for a single small difference. So was it really that impossible that this young woman was actually a young man from an alternate dimension? Well… except for the fact that she had a life and a history in this dimension, no, it really wasn't impossible, just really, really unlikely. But Karen Starr turning out to be a hidden Eternal was just so much more likely than that.

Wonder Man was intent on figuring out the truth about this mystery girl. And if SHIELD and the Avengers didn't have the resources necessary to do the job, maybe somebody else would. What was clear was that the girl needed help. Lots of it. Help that wasn't "toss her in a psych ward for the rest of her life."

Wonder Man tore the top sheet of his scribble-covered note pad off and, with just a bit of concentration, caused the paper to burst into flames from the heat transfer caused by his ionic energy. Then he started from the beginning.

He sighed as he restarted. "Too bad that just walking up to her and talking in a civilized manner got tossed out the window early."

XxxxxxX

As Xander approached the collection of street walkers lined up on the traffic bridge, he had one of those random thoughts that just came out of the blue at you and were appropriate to nothing going on. Maybe I should get a bicycle. Bicycles were cool. If he got a well-made ten-speed he could pedal all over town. And there were advantages: you didn't need a license, you could go places a car couldn't, and you didn't show up on radar like if you were flying. And it wasn't like he could get all tired out riding around town, right? So definitely, he needed a bicycle.

"Where are your shoes, honey?"

The question came out of nowhere and brought Xander's attention back to where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. Even with his much-enhanced senses, it seemed he was capable of just losing track of what was going on. He looked up before he really recognized what was being asked.

"What?"

"You ain't got no shoes on, honey! Where are your shoes?" The speaker was a tall, lanky black woman in her early or maybe mid-thirties. She had on a black mini-skirt, a purple tube-top. In Xander's opinion, the woman was just a bit too chunky for the combination, but at least she wasn't overdoing the eye makeup. And the hair extensions were excessive.

"Oh. Well, um, I –"

Before Xander could come up with a decent explanation for his shoeless condition, the woman leaned back and continued. "Oh lordy! That ain't your shirt, either. It's at least a size too big for you, and looks like it belongs on a man. Why you wearing a man's shirt, honey?" Xander, still stunned, didn't react as the woman grabbed one shoulder of his shirt and pulled it sideways. "And honey, your tits they too big for you not to have no brar on." The woman's tone of voice was odd. It wasn't friendly by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time it wasn't overtly hostile. More cynical and world-worn that anything else.

Xander looked down at himself, still confused.

The black woman continued, seemingly out of pity. "Girl, I don't know what made you dress yoself like that when you got up this morning, but it just ain't working for you."

"Um. Okay." Xander said finally.

Another woman chimed in. "So who's the new girl? Marvin didn't say he got a new girl. He say he got a new girl to you?" The speaker was in her late 20s, and clearly some flavor of Asian. She was dressed in the same slut-chic as the black woman.

"Naw, Panda, Marvin didn't get a new girl. She just walkin' on the street." The black woman took a step back, allowing Xander some room. "Tits like that, she stick around, Marvin's just gonna gettin' to her, though."

The new arrival, Panda, gave Xander the up-and-down and seemed to smirk. "What happened to your shoes?"

Xander had decided he'd had enough of that question. "I forgot to steal them while I was busy stealing the pants and the shirt."

"Forgot to…" A light seemed to ignite in Panda's eyes. "Right. You're one of the street kids. I came over here thinking you were someone new to the territory just starting to trick, but you're not. Just a kid without any place to go." And with that the Asian woman turned her back on Xander as if dismissing him from her knowledge of the world. The black woman smirked at Xander, and then she too ignored him.

Xander simply stood there for a moment. "Um… actually I was hoping one of you could help me with directions?" The black woman gave Xander a quick glance, then turned her attention back to the street. No help there. And the Asian woman didn't even acknowledge that Xander existed. The third hooker he approached hadn't been paying attention to his discussion with the other women. Xander tapped her on the shoulder. "Sorry, excuse me. Could you help me with some directions?"

The woman turned around, startled, but then smiled. It made the woman's face light up like Christmas. "Directions? Sure… where do you need to go?"

She was short, though not as short as Buffy. Just as blonde, though the lack of dark roots told Xander that either the girl had colored recently or really was that blonde. She had an accent that Power Girl's memories remembered as being from somewhere in the Midwest. She was dressed in a miniskirt, with tall dark stockings and a tight top over which she wore a denim jacket. She was pretty, though.

"You still there?" The girl smiled again and snapped her fingers in Xander's face. He started, then looked sheepish at drifting off on her.

"Yeah, I'm trying to find this convent." He handed the girl the card he got from the Sanchez brothers. "I'm new to LA and have no idea where to find it." He coughed, then looked back at her. "I'm, uh, Alex."

"Nice to meet you, Alex." The girl gave Xander the same up and down glance the Asian girl, Panda, had given him, but this time the gaze lingered a little. It lifted Xander's mood slightly. "I'm Tiffany." The girl turned her attention to the card. "Right. This is the Convent over on Kenwood. You're only four or five blocks away. I stayed there when I first got here, but you're only allowed a certain amount of days before they kick you out. I still go there for dinner, and when I need a shower, though, so that's cool. The Convent's a good place for someone new." Her smile faded to a frown. "But you can't go there now. They close the doors overnight and don't let anyone in or out until about ten in the morning."

"Right, yeah, morning." Xander looked around. At the stars, the buildings, the street, and the hookers. "You wouldn't have any idea what time it was, would you?"

"Sure." Tiffany looked at her watch. "A little after three." The girl gave the street a long look. There was still some traffic, but it was dying. Then she looked back at Xander as if surprised he was still there. "You got any place to stay?" At Xander's suspicious look, Tiffany just laughed. "It's okay, I'm not, like, a psycho or anything. I was just wondering."

"No, it's not that. It's just…"

"Aw shit." Tiffany interrupted. She shot Xander a quick glance, then stared over his shoulder.

Xander spun around to see the cop cars pulling up. Their lights were spun up, but no sirens. "Just play it cool and you'll be okay," Tiffany assured him. "They do this every couple of days. They say they're doing spot checks for drugs, but it's actually to drive off the johns. Like I said, play it cool. You'll be fine."

Xander doubted it, but just nodded. If the cops ran his name, the jig would be up. His mind being what it was, he momentarily began wondering just what the hell a jig was and why it was a bad thing that it was up, but then he returned his attention to the approaching cops. There were a couple of plain-clothes types and about half a dozen uniforms.

One of the detectives, a tall woman with auburn hair, started talking as the uniforms pushed all the girls and Xander into a rough line along the drug store's wall. "Okay, ladies, you know the drill. Might as well empty the pockets on your own, because we're about to. Darlene, don't even think about it. You tried that last week and it didn't work then. Why would you possibly think it would work now?" The woman directed this last comment to a girl on the end of the line.

The uniforms were going through purses and giving the girls pat downs. Xander waited his turn as calmly as he could, but visibly winced when the uniform checking him ran his hands across the underside of his breasts. He felt like he'd just been molested. "Hey!"

"Shut up." The cop didn't sound angry, just tired. He moved his hands down to Xander's pockets, felt the wad of bills, then smiled. "So, what you got here?" The cop reached in, grabbed the money, and pulled it out. He looked at the bills, then whistled. "Looks like you've been busy, princess!" The uniform turned to the detective and handed her the cash. He kept going with the pat down, eventually reaching Xander's ankles. "Hey, where the hell are your shoes? Hey, Lou… check this out. Princess here ain't got no shoes!"

The detective, who'd been counting out the cash the uniform handed her, paused and stared at Xander's feet. "Well, there's a new one. Five hundred dollars in cash and no shoes." She seemed to peer at Xander with x-ray vision, then asked, "Let me guess. You made the five selling meth, but lost your shoes in a bet?"

The uniform had finished with Xander and moved on to Tiffany, allowing Xander to turn to face the detective. "Actually I was paid five hundred dollars for an hour of my time."

That caused the detective to smirk. "Wow. Five hundred for an hour. Must be something special. Hey, Louise," Xander frowned in confusion when he realized the detective was addressing Tiffany. "You ever get paid five hundred dollars for an hour?" Tiffany didn't respond, just looked down at the ground while the uniformed officer groped her.

Xander felt his face getting red. It wouldn't do to anger the cops, but this woman was out of line. "I was given that five hundred by a pair of brothers. They also gave me the card to the Convent that Tiffany is holding." As he said this, the uniform pulled the card from Tiffany's fingers, looked at it, and then handed it to the detective.

"Oh let me guess. Pair of vaguely Hispanic gentlemen in shiny sports coats. Offered you five hundred to talk to you about doing porn." The detective shook her head. "That's not a life you want to get into kid. How old are you?"

"I'm twenty-one." Xander lied.

The detective smirked again. "Twenty-one, huh? Sure. And I'm Queen of the Netherlands. You should have said eighteen, kid. I might have believed that." The woman stared at Xander, then back to the card, then back at Xander. "What the fuck are you doing here on Hooker Row with no shoes? Did Marvin sweep you up and make you one of his girls? You decide to turn tricks in addition to laying some shithead on camera? Does your Mommy or Daddy even know where you are?"

"She was askin' for directions." The Asian girl, Panda, answered for Xander. She gave him a quick glance, then turned back to the cops. "Was trying to find the Convent."

"Yeah?" The question was directed at Xander, who just nodded. The detective nodded back. "Yeah, well, Convent don't open until ten. Hey, Burney."

The uniform who groped Xander stepped up. "Yeah, Lou?"

"Get her in a car and take her to the Motel Six out on Tivoli. She's got the cash for a room. Stick with her until she's registered and in her room." The detective fished a business card out of a pocket and shoved it, the Fazio's card, and the five hundred dollars into Xander's hands. "Look, kid… this is not the neighborhood to be on the street carrying that much money in your pocket. Someone will kill you and take it. So I'm doing you a favor. Get a room, take a shower, sleep in a bed, and tomorrow take a cab to the Convent. And if you need help, give me a call."

Xander read the card quickly. Lieutenant Denise Togorian, LAPD Vice, and then two phone numbers: one listed as an office number, the other a cell number. "Okay, thanks." Then the uniform pulled her to a squad car and opened the back door.

As they drove away, Xander looked back at the row of prostitutes. The cops were moving some of them into squad cars, but most of them were being let go. He had no idea what was going on, but it felt like he'd just escaped something weird by the skin of his teeth.

XxxxxxX

"All right then, I need to ask you a few questions. These questions are to make sure nothing untoward happens during your stay here. We are not judging you, and only in the most extreme cases would your answer disqualifying you from seeking shelter with us, so do your best to be completely honest with me, all right, Miss Harris?"

It had been a busy morning for Xander. Slightly confusing as well. He woke in a strange bed in a strange room that morning, and at first it had shaken him. The last room he'd been in was in a SHIELD cell, and for a bit he'd wondered where the hell he was. This room wasn't his cell. The bed was just as uncomfortable, but his cell didn't have an air conditioner under the window, or faux art on the wall.

He stretched, looking around, and remembered the cop. He'd taken her to this hotel, a Motel 6, and stood there at the counter until Xander was checked in, and then further followed Xander to his room door.

After a quick shower and grabbing a couple of donuts and a cup of coffee from the 'complimentary breakfast buffet,' he'd checked out and started on his way to the Convent. His way eventually intersected a McDonalds for a #13 Breakfast Combo with a coke. He'd thought it over while eating his steak bagel, bit the bullet, twice, and finally called a cab. It took him to a Wal-Mart, where the confusing part of the morning.

Xander knew he had to buy some clothing and some shoes. The ones he had stolen from Macey's were just about done unless he could wash them, and who knew when that was going to be possible? If he was going to be staying with some nuns, he didn't want to show up looking like a wooly-headed barbarian.

And it was here that he bit the bullet again. "Okay, Xan-man… you can do this." He walked into the women's clothing section and started looking. Finding a selection of shirts that looked like they might fit took a while. In my defense, Xander thought to himself, Power Girl is six foot tall and looks like a bodybuilder. The average woman was considerably smaller than his current body. A new pair of jeans took almost as long. Women's pants just didn't look right to him, at least until he found a pair that fit. He had to admit, it made his ass look great.

The underwear was painful. Absolutely painful. But again, he bit the bullet. The nuns would ask questions if he showed up without a bra and in a man's pair of boxers. He did fine with the panties, but the bra was troublesome. He had no idea what the hell the difference in cup size was. He knew that the body was a 40H because he had overheard someone at SHIELD talking about it, but just what that meant apart from 'Wow, those are really huge!' he had no idea. But he did find a bra that size. It was this ugly white cotton thing, not anything he'd call sexy, but he figured that the nuns would look askance at him if he didn't have it. The hookers certainly had. Putting it on had been a quick adventure, but he eventually figured it out. That problem had only taken him ten minutes to figure out.

Xander found a nice utilitarian pair of shoes (men's running shoes; they didn't have women's shoes in his size) and some white tube socks. Then he was set. Another cab got him to the Convent, where for the past hour he'd been filling out paperwork. He had filled out the Convent's information card as best he could. But he hadn't liked it. For one thing, he was sure that somewhere in the Bible it said that lying to nuns was a sin. But he had to lie to them. If he told them the truth, they'd think he was just as crazy as the SHIELD guys did. So under "name" he's just put "Alex Harris" instead of "Xander" or "Alexander". He told the nuns he was female; that's all they'd see anyway, and he didn't want an argument about it. And he left the emergency contact numbers blank and didn't put anything down about his parents.

"Miss Harris, are you listening?"

"Oh. Um. Sorry, sister. I was thinking about something else. I apologize." Xander wasn't particular religious, but he'd always instinctively been polite to the clergy.

"Are you currently pregnant?" The nun, Sister Mary Rose, looked at Xander from over her glasses. At Xander's confused look, she added, "It's in case we need to get you to a doctor while you're here, dear."

"Ah. No, um, no, I'm not pregnant. I, um. I haven't exactly, um." Xander blushed with his entire body. "You know. I uh, haven't ever, um."

"Oh!" The nun's eyes got wide. "I see. Well, good for you. It's nice to see a young person who doesn't just throw it away these days." Mary Rose smiled shortly, then asked the next question. "Do you narcotics or alcohol regularly?"

"No. Absolutely not." Xander's adamant answer caused the nun's eyebrow to lift. "The last thing I want is to turn into my fa… I mean, um."

Sister Mary Rose was quiet for a while. "Your father was a drinker, I take it? Was he a mean drunk?" At Xander's shrug, she nodded. "So, for you it's no drugs and no alcohol. Do you smoke?"

Xander shook his head.

"And you're not HIV positive, then?" The question was almost hopeful. Xander just shook his head. "Oh good. We have to ask, mind you, but it's not a comfortable question. Neither is this one. Is there someone who is going to come looking for you that we might need to notify the police about?"

"No, ma'am." And that was a bigger lie than letting the nuns think he was a girl.

"Well, then. That's that. Let me explain the rules, all right?" At Xander's nod, the nun continued. "We can give you an evening meal and a bed to sleep in for a week, unless you decide to formally assume our vows and join the Dominican Order as a postulate nun. And don't worry, while we might encourage you, we won't pressure you. After that week, we can allow you the use of a bed one night a week, as long as you are willing to work for it."

"That sounds reasonable."

"Thank you." The nun gave her another grin. "As I said, there's a work requirement while you're staying here. Every morning, after breakfast, you'll be assigned some chores that we expect you to do as payment for use of the bed. Just simple stuff like sweeping and mopping, or dusting, or doing the dishes. We expect you to do these chores before you leave the Convent for the day."

"Leave for the day?" Xander asked.

Sister Mary Rose paused. "While we don't require it, most of the young women who stay here tend to leave from the ending of their chores to just before the pre-dinner service. I simply assumed you'd want to as well." The sister took on a sterner tone. "And I should mention that while we don't ask where you've been or what you've been up to, remember that we have a zero tolerance policy regarding drug use. If you show up at the door for service and are drunk or high, you will not be admitted. Is that clear?"

"Crystal, sister. And you don't have to worry about that, I promise."

"Very well, moving on. Every day, we have a pre-dinner worship service for the people we feed during dinner. Are you Catholic, Miss Harris?" The nun's face seemed to brighten as she asked the question.

"Um. No, ma'am. Presbyterian, though I haven't been to church in a while."

"That's okay, dear. We don't mind. You'll be Catholic soon enough." Mary Rose's eyes twinkled, as if this was a long-held and favored joke. Xander laughed, thinking back to how one of the Fazio brothers had told him the very same thing. "So after the worship service at 5 pm, we have dinner at 6, and an hour after dinner is lights out. It's possible you'll get assigned dinner dishes, which means you'll be working in the kitchen until after lights out, but we'll see. Now, before you go to bed, you'll be required to take a shower and change into a nightgown. We keep a supply here."

"A nightgown? Why do I have to wear a…" Xander started to ask.

Mary Rose interrupted. "It's a sanitation issue. We can't control how clean you keep your clothing, but we can control how clean you keep our sheets and our beds. So we require you to bathe and change into a nightgown. In the morning, you change back into your own clothes and turn in the nightgown. We'll issue you a new one the next night."

Sister Mary Rose sat forward, putting her elbows on her desk. "So, Miss Harris, do you have any questions?"

"Um. What time is wakeup?"

"Wake up is at 7 am. Breakfast is served about an hour after that. We usually hold a short prayer service after breakfast that you are not required to attend, but the daily chores begin right there after." Sister Mary Rose took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "So, do you think you can live with all our rules?"

For the first time that morning, Xander smiled. "Yeah, I think I can. Thank you, Sister."

"That's good. Now… you missed breakfast, and you're too late to do any of the regular chores, so I guess we'll see you back for worship service. Try not to be late." Sister Mary Rose stood and saw Xander to her office door. "And don't worry, dear. Things will get better. God loves you and is watching out for you."

She never heard Xander's muttered, "Yeah, but which god?"

XxxxxxX

The mystery surrounding the girl continued to build as Wonder Man continued to dig for information. It's beginning to look more and more like she really is from another dimension, where all the TV characters are real, and the writers here on Earth got it all wrong.

He found information on the girl in the National Missing Persons Database a half hour ago. It was a slow search, because there were a lot of missing people out there. While he waited for that search to finish, he slogged through every other database he could get into, pulling related information from almost everywhere. He was trying to put a picture together that would tell him about Karen Starr.

He even did some research on Alexander Harris, the fictional character. "Well, isn't that interesting?" Wonder Man reread the trivia snippet twice, still wondering how it all fit. Karen Starr's hometown might have been some farming town in Ohio but Alexander Harris was from California. A fictional town called Sunnydale. What caught Simon's attention was the fact that apparently the producers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had based the town on Santa Barbara. Wonder Man admitted to himself that he might have figured it out wrongly, but according to a map used in several of the episodes, Sunnydale was located just a few miles away from where the Avengers had last encountered the girl. Of course, according to the real world map, the town would have been underwater, but still. Maybe Alexander Harris, or Karen Starr thinking she was Alexander Harris, had been telling the truth when she told everyone she was going home. There just hadn't been any home to go to.

The idea of her stepping out of the television into the real world didn't seem too crazy anymore. Or rather, it seemed crazy, but was it crazy enough to be real? After several long minutes of careful consideration, Wonder Man abandoned the idea. It was just too silly to be taken seriously. She'd run away from home, her powers had erupted, and the stress of the eruption was too much for her to take, so she retreated into the identity of a fictional character.

Once they confirmed her history, once they really knew what was going on, Wonder Man knew that they'd be able to get a handle on the girl, calm her down hopefully, and help her deal with whatever trauma she'd been put through that convinced her to abandon being Karen Starr in favor of being Alexander Harris.

And hopefully they'd be able to deal with her in a much more pleasant, and much less painful way than having her boot them all around the room.

The sun had just barely begun to peek over the top of the San Gabriel Mountains when the computer finished its search. It had located the missing persons report originally issued about Karen Starr, and the investigation undertaken by the police in her hometown. Simon skimmed it, looking for information that he hadn't previously known.

Karen Starr had been listed as missing two years ago, on a complaint issued not by her mother or father, but by one of her uncles, and backed up by her steady boyfriend. She'd last been seen getting into a pickup truck at the local gas station-slash-convenience stores sometime after midnight. The driver wasn't identified conclusively, but from descriptions it's believed to have been her father. Dad confirms that he brought her home and gone straight to bed, but in the morning she was gone.

Several of her friends had speculated that she'd run away because of abuse at her parents' hands. She'd regularly show up at school with visible bruises, and everyone knew that her dad was mean, so it was assumed she was getting beaten on by him. The girl had never been examined for sexual abuse, and refused to get medical treatment when she showed up injured. The best theory the investigator had was that the girl had snuck out after dad was asleep, and was probably now in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles trying to hit it big. Well, they got the Los Angeles part right. It only took two years, but they got it right.

The investigator had examined the girl's room and found all her clothing in place except for a handful of familiar items that she remembered Karen Starr wearing the day before. No luggage was missing. Nearly fifty dollars in cash was found stuffed into a jewelry box.

So what does it add up to? Wonder Man thought to himself. Everyone thinks she ran away, but she did it without taking a vehicle, leaving all her cash behind and not packing a bag. Everyone assumes she just ran away, but no one saw her after she got picked up by her dad. Her dad who had been abusing her for years.

A very ugly thought was beginning to form itself in the back of Wonder Man's mind.

The buzzing of the phone shook Wonder Man out of his reverie. He no longer had a lot of the same needs and reactions as a normal human being, but after sitting in silence for several hours, long after the point at which he began ignoring the clickety-clack of his own keystrokes, the loud buzzing of the telephone actually caused him to jump in his seat. His fists clenched involuntarily, and he gripped the armrest of his chair so hard that it bent out of shape.

"Of all the times to –" He grabbed the phone on the third ring and took a deep breath. "We're sorry, but the West Coast Avengers are no longer in service. If you would like to leave a message, press one. If you'd like to speak to an operator, press two. Si desea continuar en espanol, pulse tres."

"Simon, has anyone told you that your Spanish is atrocious?" It was Stark.

"Tony! How are you doing? Did they let you out of the hospital already? How is Carol?" Wonder Man was glad to hear from the man, regardless of how pissed off he was about how things had gone down. He needlessly rubbed his eyes for a moment. "What time is it in New York?"

"Well, in order, I'm still feeling beat up, they wanted me to stay in the hospital for one more day for observation, but I left against medical orders, she's still in the burn ward and I haven't been able to either get any specific information on her nor visit her because apparently it's a sterile environment and they don't let visitors in there, and just a little bit before 8:30 in the morning." Stark said it all in one breath. "What's the story with the girl? You guys catch her yet, or what?"

Simon cleared his throat, feeling just a touch sheepish. "Yeah, about the girl. Do you remember back when the same pretty young slip of a girl who put you and Carol in the hospital threw Sentry into orbit, then flew off so quickly it looked like she teleported?" Wonder Man tried not to get snarky, but really couldn't help it. Stark was utterly silent on the other end of the line. "You remember that happening, Tony?"

There was a deep sigh on the other end. "She got away?" It wasn't really a question.

"You're damned straight she got away. Worse, she sort of vanished. We figure she's somewhere in LA, but we really don't have the first clue as to where to start looking for her. Seriously, for all I know she's sitting on the roof of the building I'm sitting in right now, laughing at us. She shows up on radar when she flies, but she hasn't been flying since she disappeared into the city's clutter." Wonder Man switched ears. "If she's as fast on the ground as she is in the air, and I don't see why there's any reason why she wouldn't be, we won't catch her on radar until she messes up and starts flying again."

Stark was silent again.

"Tony? You still there?" Wonder Man couldn't even hear the other man breathing. "Hello?"

After a few more moments, Stark said, "You know, that would be a real ballsy move. Have you asked someone to check the roof?"

Wonder Man rolled his eyes. "I'll add that to the to-do list."

"I'm totally serious. Make sure someone checks the roof."

"Okay, I'll get someone on it. Listen, Tony – I've been digging into this girl's past and have uncovered some things that make me get that itchy 'something horrible has happened' feeling. I'm no longer a hundred percent sure she's not telling the truth when she says she's from some other dimension."

"Karen Starr existed before she arrived, Simon."

"Yeah, but was it our Karen Starr?" Wonder Man pulled his notepad over so he could read it clearly. "She disappeared two years ago, and it wasn't her parents who made the complaint. Her friends all think her father was beating on her, and a couple implied that maybe he was doing more than that. She supposedly ran away, but took none of her stuff, not even her bankroll. Other than the fact that she disappeared, there's nothing here saying she ran away."

"Nothing to say she didn't either, though."

"Yeah, well, I guess I have to give you that." Wonder Man shrugged, despite knowing that Stark couldn't see it. "I don't know. It just feels hinky to me."

"Well, we certainly can't have that. Tell you what, we'll put an investigatory team on it. Run everything through SHIELD's system. It won't hurt to know more about this girl anyway, and if something hinky as you put it has happened, well… the sooner we know, the better, right?"

"Right. That sounds like a plan."

On the other end of the phone, Stark cleared his throat. "So, anything else?"

"Yeah. I'm fairly pissed off at how SHIELD treated this girl. As far as I could tell, she was in compliance with the SRA and had actually signed up for boot camp. She was held in a cell despite SHIELD not really having any cause or legal standing to bring her in, much less hold her." Wonder Man flipped to the second page of his notes. "And the government lawyer who supposedly "defended" her apparently didn't talk to her once, and was paid and employed by SHIELD to boot. This girl got railroaded. I am seriously not comfortable with this, Tony."

More silence. Then, "Yes, I know all this, Simon. I read her file and saw the transcripts."

"And?"

"And while I am sympathetic to her plight, I feel we as a team must stand firm in our resolve to enforce the law of the land, and to support SHIELD in the enforcement of that law. We can see what we can do for her after she's been returned to custody."

"Tony."

"Yes, I get it, Simon. But she escaped from legal custody, and that's the primary concern. Now, if it makes you feel any better, it's not going to be our primary concern much longer. The team's being recalled to New York. We've got a lead on some of Cap's people and I want us to get on it ASAP."

"What about the girl?"

Stark sighed before he answered. "SHIELD's people in Los Angeles will monitor the situation, and will call us in when they find the girl."

"You know that there's absolutely nothing they can do to capture her, right? Hell, I'm not sure we can, for that matter." Wonder Man pushed his notepad away in frustration. "Okay, I'll round up the team and we'll be in the air shortly. I'll send someone to the roof, and let SHIELD know they need to send a forensics team to the girl's home town."

"You do that. Tell Janet to call me when you're all in the air."

XxxxxxX

Xander, the "girl" in question, had spent the day using the city's bus system to explore a little bit. He got off the bus the moment it came within sniffing distance of a mall. Malls, he knew, were great for time-wasting. He spent some time in the Barnes and Noble book store, which gave him a chance to see what served as comic books in the Marvel Universe. He was surprised to find comics based on some of the 'real' superheroes like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, but also found issues of comics dedicated to superheroes he'd never heard of, like The Guardians of Freedom.

He took one of the Guardians trade paper backs (entitled The Da Vinci Directive) just to check it out. What he found was surprising and actually sort of cool. The Guardians were obviously some sort of one-off version of the Justice League. There was the Batman-like martial artist Achilles, the red, white and blue clad Superman-clone named Ultraman, a guy named Crossbow who used trick arrows, a super-strong woman named Amazon, and the Sapphire Sentinel, a woman who manipulated some sort of purple energy. The entire Justice League was represented here in clone form, and he found it too good to pass up. At least this way he'd have something to read.

After purchasing the comic book, he stopped off and had some Chinese fast food from a place called Panda Express (why no one in his home dimension had ever thought of fast-food Chinese, he'd never know). And then he'd discovered the movie theater.

He stared at the poster for a long time. Someone had made a movie out of Frank Miller's "300". One of Xander's favorite comics of all time. He didn't recognize a single name on the poster, but it didn't matter. He spent the rest of the afternoon watching sweaty Greek men die heroically fighting off an army of a million screaming Persians. It was great.

The bus ride back took so long that he almost missed church. He slipped in the door and sat down right as they began.

He looked around to make sure no one was giving him the stink eye, and when he turned to the left found he was sitting next to the hooker who tried to give him directions the night before. Taffy. No, Tiffany. He gave Tiffany a quick grin and a quiet, "Hey".

She grinned back at him, patted him on the leg, and said, "Alex! Hey! Glad you found the place."

"So," Xander whispered. "I've never been to a Catholic service. What do I do?"

"Don't worry. Just follow what I do and you'll be fine." Again, Tiffany grinned at him. "It's sort of weird if you're not Catholic, but I'll steer you around the curves."

XxxxxxX

Author's Note: If you recognize it, it belongs to either DC Comics, Marvel Comics, or Mutant Enemy. The rest comes from the depths of my imagination.

Author's Note the Second: Sorry about how long this took. I did not plan on it being nearly a month between updates. I was contracted to write a history book that concentrates on northern Florida between the years 1890 and 1930, and naturally, the paying work comes first. Don't despair, though. I'm not abandoning this story. It just might take longer to finish than I expected.

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