"I don't suppose it's worth the price that I would pay. But I'm thinking it over anyway." – Duncan Sheik, "Barely Breathing"
Phil Coulson swallowed the Excedrin tablet dry. He knew that it was his third in as many hours, and that if he took more he was risking permanent liver damage, but so far it was the only way to get the headache to abate.
"What do you mean you have no idea where she is? I don't care! Listen, you low-rent piss-ant, if you don't have her report to me by the end of business today, you're going to be scrubbing toilets in McMurdo by end of business day tomorrow. Do I make myself clear, General? Good!"
The cause of Coulson's headaches, on the other hand…
Coulson sighed in relief as Norman Osborn stormed off rather than take his frustrations out on the nearest human being. Moonstone's 'resignation' the night before had been singular, and it could not be interpreted as anything else but a resignation. Not only had Doctor Sofer disappeared into the ether, she had left the moonstone itself on Gyrich's desk. It had been wrapped in a note that read "Fuck you, I'm done." Coulson had to hand it to the lady, she knew how to make an exit. But ever since, Osborn had been a little zealous about returning her to service.
At least Moonstone had been courteous enough to file a report about the incident before she walked away.
Coulson stood there. Taking it all in. To anyone who didn't know him, he would appear to simply be daydreaming. But he was thinking, considering all the angles. His ability to put pictures together from small clues was one of the reasons he was such an effective agent.
The recordings from the airbase's security cameras was being reviewed, and a comprehensive timeline for the attack was being assembled. He'd seen part of it, and would no doubt be reviewing the rest of it later. As one of the senior supervisory agents, he'd naturally been briefed in on Karen Starr's escape from custody, as well as the revelation that the person they'd held for eight months wasn't Karen Starr at all. Karen Starr had been dead for nearly two years, murdered by her pedophile rapist father. He had read the profiler's analysis of her behavioral patterns. And there was something puzzling.
What spurred this attack? Why now? He asked himself. Up until now, the only record of violence from Karen Starr – he'd decided to just go ahead and keep the easy reference – had been defensive in nature. She was attacked first, and only after being attacked did she fight in self-defense. This wasn't self-defense. This was intentional and if not premeditated, it was methodical at least.
So, let's review what happened. He turned, scanning the area with his eyes. Starting with the Thunderbolts' now-wrecked aircraft. He stared at it. Stared some more. Stared a little more.
"Sorry, sir?" One of the nearby agents asked him.
"Nothing. Just figuring something out."
No, it fits the profile after all. The attack didn't start here, did it? Out on the freeway, they sent Bullseye in first, naturally, with the rest of the Thunderbolts probably in support positions in case the first strike didn't cause the appropriate shock and awe. He grimaced. What was Sofer thinking? We have it on record from Samson that she had a heightened sense of loyalty and protectiveness toward her friends. Moonstone said that there were apparently two female bystanders caught in the attack. According to Bullseye, Starr was acting "lovey-dovey" with them. Were they friends? Lovers, perhaps? Of course they were. One or the other, it doesn't matter. The fact that her friends died in the attack would have spurred the retribution.
And of course, Coulson was certain the bystanders had been killed. This was Bullseye, after all. Coulson rolled that over in his head for a while. This just gets better and better. So, Bullseye attacks, her friends – and one or both might have been more than friends - get caught in the crossfire and are killed. So she leaves with the bodies. Bullseye told Moonstone she teleported. She would want to deposit the bodies of her friends somewhere safe…
"Agent Harker!" Coulson motioned one of his senior agents over. "I want you to check with every hospital in town. Check all the emergency rooms. We're looking for two young women, between say sixteen and twenty, with either stab wounds or injuries consistent with a car accident. Check all the emergency rooms in the city; don't just stop at the first one you find. Oh, and just in case, do the same thing with the city morgue and every mortuary in Los Angeles."
She deposits the bodies somewhere for safe keeping. Then she returns to the scene of the attack. But by then the Thunderbolts are gone. They've withdrawn back to the base and had only begun to get themselves ready to RTB. How did she track them down? Heightened senses of some kind? Telepathy? Who knows? Irrelevant. She tracked the team down.
He returned his stare to the wreckage of the plane. And now it makes sense. This was not a desperate criminal trying to get the law off of her back, and Screwhead there things. His eyes shifted to Osborn, who was screaming at some of the agents. This was vengeance for the death of her friends.
The girl's attack had been methodical, for all that it screamed its origins in outrage and anger. The fact that Starr had destroyed the plane while it was on the ground, and did so in a way that hadn't released any of the jet's fuel, told Coulson that Starr had the safety of innocent bystanders in mind.
She takes out Swordsman first, probably because he's closest and because Swordsman actually injures her. Which raises a question. Why didn't she kill the man who just cut her open with a sword? I mean, yeah, he's permanently disabled and won't be climbing back into the tights any time soon, but at least he's alive. So why not kill him? Or the two Air Force officers flying the plane? Or Songbird? Only Bullseye, Radioactive Man, and Venom were killed. Only those three. All the others were injured seriously enough to disable them, but left them alive.
He checked his watch. The forensics investigators had managed to get a pair of partial prints. One came from the indention in Bullseye's skull, while another was on the barrel of one of the submachine guns the flight crew had been issued. The second print, the one on the barrel of the weapon, had been pressed so hard it was now a permanent etching in the gunmetal. How hard do you have to squeeze a gun's barrel to leave fingerprints in the metal? He wondered.
"Agent Coulson." Coulson turned as the lead agent on the cleanup crew approached. "We're about ready, we've retrieved as much of it as we can, I think. We've gone over the area with a fine-toothed comb and if there's any more of the symbiote around, we're not going to find it."
Coulson nodded. "That's fine, Agent Ho. What's the condition of the symbiote?"
"Condition? Carbonized. We've detected no biological activity in any piece we retrieved." Ho was a tall, impressive looking man whose ancestors were Finnish. The first and only time Coulson had ever asked about the Asian surname, Ho had explained that when his great-grandfather came to the country, the intake agent at Ellis Island couldn't spell Holiskanavvi, so he'd unilaterally shortened it to Ho. "I'm going to say in my report that the symbiote is now a series of variously sized charcoal briquettes that have no further use as anything but barbecue supplies."
"Understood. Thank you, Agent Ho. Where is the other team in regard to the Radioactive Man's body?"
"We got him sealed in a lead-lined box. They're also making sure that there's no dangerous levels of contamination surrounding the spot where he, uh, died." Agent Ho pointed to where a second group of hazmat-clad agents were working."
"And the sword?" Coulson could see Normal Osborn standing over the hilt, but asked anyway. Osborn wasn't waiting for reports. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do: rant and rave at the people who worked below him.
"It's not going anywhere." Ho shrugged.
Coulson nodded. This was a waste of time. He didn't need to be down here, and Osborn certainly didn't need to be down here. So, the question was, why were they both down here? Making a decision, he sighed again. "Okay, wrap it up. I'll take care of Osborn."
"Steve?" Sue Richards stuck her head into the room he'd claimed as his personal space. "We just got sent something from that contact of yours in SHIELD. You'll want to watch this."
Steve Rogers, Captain America, marked his place in the book with a folded scrap of paper and rose to follow. He'd always been an aficionado of Abraham Lincoln, and Team of Rivals was shaping up to be a fascinating study of the 16th President's administration. But duty called.
"Okay, Sue, what do you have?" He strode into the secret base's command center, and he knew it. He couldn't help it. Ever since that day back in 1942, he couldn't just walk anyway. He strode.
"Security camera footage, sent through the usual cut-outs and back channels. Came from an airbase outside of Los Angeles." The Invisible Woman tapped a couple of keys on her computer, and the footage started spooling up onscreen. Rogers watched the destruction of the Thunderbolts, first from one camera angle, then another, then a third.
"Who is this girl?" Cap reached forward and tapped in a command. The footage replayed. "Obviously powerful. We're going to have to do something about her."
"Yeah, I'd love to recruit her," Sue said. Her eyes were glued to the monitor. "She's got to be at least as strong as Carol Danvers, given the way she tore that plane apart. She is shrugging off attacks from Moonstone and the Radioactive Man, so she's tough. And look at this part, where she sort of blurs forward. She has got to be moving as quickly as Quicksilver. Plus there's whatever she did to Venom."
"Recruit her? Sue, she's a murderer! A brutal one at that! Did you see what she did to Radioactive Man?"
"Yes, Steve, I saw. I also saw that she didn't kill everyone on the team. I'm not sure about her motives and I'm not comfortable with her killing people, but have you considered that she might have good reasons? You were a soldier, you know that sometimes you have to kill people to accomplish the mission. So… we need to figure out what her mission is." Sue was quiet. "We need to have people on the scene. So who do we send to Los Angeles?"
"Hold off. I want to get in touch with some people we have inside, get more information on the girl." Captain America closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. The headache was almost constant now. "If this was a one-time aberration, we can work with it. But if she's violent by nature, well, we may have to step in and help put her down. We can't let menaces just walk away free."
Sue Richards stared at him for a moment. "This from the man who recruited the Punisher to help with the cause?" she asked, smugly.
"And who fired him the moment he crossed the line." Cap stared at the screen as the footage began again. "Once we get solid intel on her, we'll put something into motion. And it will give the local scene enough time for the situation to cool down. You've got to know that SHIELD has invaded Los Angeles in force right now. They're going to be combing LA for any signs of her."
"You don't think she'd be dumb enough to stick around Los Angeles, do you?" Sue tapped the control, shutting off the video.
"I think she's too powerful to care. Let me make some calls and see what people know about her. Even if she's someone we don't want on our team, she's definitely someone we're going to have to deal with eventually. And start putting together a roster; if we're going to send people to LA, let's make sure they can handle this kid." And with that, he walked back to his office.
Sue turned back to the monitor and watched the fight again. "Kid. Nice to see you remember that she's just a kid, Steve," she said to no one. "Just a kid. I'd bet my last dollar that she's being hounded. Someone needs to find her and help her." Just that quickly, she made a decision, and then a call of her own. As she punched the numbers, she hoped that her old friend was still talking to her. They hadn't exactly parted under the best of circumstances.
The number rang. Then rang again. Then a third time. The ringtone sounded odd, but then this was an international call. Phones in Europe always sounded odd when you were calling them.
"Yeah?" Sue Richards closed her eyes at the sound of the voice on the other end.
"Ben? It's Sue… I know I've got no right to ask you for a favor, but I was wondering if you could do me a favor…"
The first thing Norman Osborn saw when he returned to his office in Washington was Tony Stark sitting in front of his desk, reading a file that was clearly marked EYES ONLY. The bastard was sitting in an over-complicated, high tech wheelchair, injured leg stuck out in front of him like a lance. And he was dressed in cut-off shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. It was what was on the t-shirt that really got Osborn's goat: it was a printed picture of Spider-Man punching out the Green Goblin.
Stark had returned his smirk with a glare. "So, Norman. Your secretary called my secretary and there was this thing and you requested a meeting, so here I am."
"I requested a meeting with you two days ago, Stark."
"Yeah, well, I've been busy. What can I do for you today, Norman?"
Osborn fumed. "I assume you've seen the reports of what that… that thing your people allowed to escape did to the Thunderbolts?"
Stark stopped smirking, but retained the sarcasm. "I have, in fact. Got to tell you, I think you pushed the wrong button when it came to her, Norman. Apparently she has a temper. Who knew, right?" He dropped the careless demeanor. "You really screwed the pooch on that one, Norman. What the hell were you thinking, sending your wrecking crew after that girl? "Bull in a china shop doesn't even begin to cover this situation."
"If you and your people had done their jobs, we'd have had that thing under control by now. But no, you bleeding heart soft-headed –"
"Why do you call her a thing, Norman?" Stark interrupted.
"Why. Do. You. Call. Her. A. Thing." Stark spoke slowly, as if to a four-year old. He grinned when he was done, then caught himself and added, "Norman."
"What else should I call her? She's not human, we know that. She's certainly not Karen Starr, we have the body proving that much. She's a thing. A rampaging monster.
Stark just stared at the other man, open-mouthed. "Really?" He shook his head in disgust. "No wonder your wife left you. Norman," he began, abruptly shifting tacks. It was one of his usual conversational styles, and served to keep the other person off-balance. "… has it ever occurred to you that if we – the government, that is – had treated this girl as if she was just what she was, a teenaged girl, that maybe we wouldn't be here talking about how badly you fucked things up for all of us?"
"Now wait a damned minute!" Osborn blustered. "It's not my –"
"Of course it isn't, Norman. Of course not. It's not your fault at all. She's somewhere in the top levels of the Omega classification, and we all know how hard they are to handle. But what is your fault… well, it is your fault that you sent your team into a dangerous situation without properly preparing them, advising them, or warning them of the threat. And so it is your fault, in a way, that Bullseye, Venom, and the Radioactive Man were killed."
Osborn went to his sideboard and poured a brandy double. He started to offer Stark a drink, and then remembered who it was he was offering to. Osborn downed half the glass in a gulp, then sat behind the desk.
"I've already ordered SHIELD into Los Angeles. They're already scouring the city for the girl. I'm sure they'll find her by the end of today or tomorrow." Osborn took another sip of his brandy."
"Yeah, about that, you do realize you don't have authority to order SHIELD to do anything, right? The only reason I approved the order was because I know that they aren't going to find anything in Los Angeles." Stark closed the file he'd been reading and tossed it back into the man's in-box.
"Wait! The only reason you approved… you'd have hampered a search for a suspect we know to be dangerous? What possible reason would you have to -?"
"Nothing you don't know also, Norman. I'm just smarter than you are. The girl can fly faster than most jet fighters can. In addition, she seems to have a decent head on her shoulders. Why ever in the world would she stick around LA if, one, she could soon reach any point on the globe and, two, knew that we'd be coming for her and, three, knew that the first thing we'd do is flood the entire Los Angeles Basin with SHIELD agents whose sole mission was to look for her?" The smirk was back, and it just set Osborn off again. But then Stark knew that, and Osborn knew that he knew that.
"You can't –" But Stark interrupted again.
"Now, granted, if this was a television action show, she'd come up with some crazy plan about how no one would think to look for her in LA because everybody expects her to be there. But that's just stupid and ignores how real investigations work. So I'm thinking she's probably somewhere in Central America by now. Costa Rica is nice this year. They have great food, love the tourist dollars, have a rocking night life, and the surfing is amazing. Not to mention nationalized health care that would just love to patch up the two women who were injured in Bullseye's attack." Stark glared at Osborn. "You remember those women? The ones who weren't the target, and who were reportedly seriously injured? Those two? The innocent bystanders you endangered?"
"They were aiding and abetting. That makes them suspects, not bystanders."
"I DON'T FUCKING CARE, NORMAN!" Stark leaned into Osborn's face. "You don't try and harness a raging psychopath like Bullseye, someone who doesn't give a shit about anyone, who doesn't give a damn about collateral damage. You just don't! He was always a viper in your midst and sooner or later you should have expected him to bite you. Well congratulations, he bit you big time."
"So far you've been pretty good about keeping the fact that you're employing serial killers to do your dirty work, but this attack? It's going to get out, and when it does your ass won't be worth a plug nickel in Washington."
"So what, you want to let a murderer who killed federal agents go?"
"Oh, are they Federal agents now? I thought that official policy made them civilian contractors. That way the white-haired old men in Washington could deny they were ever a part of the government system."
"They were valuable assets." Osborn waved a hand, trying to dismiss the issue. "In any case, they were only doing their job. They're legally covered job, as ordered by legally constituted government agencies."
Stark was quiet for a long time. He wasn't a bleeding heart, and supported the death penalty. "Bullseye never should have been on your team. He should have had someone stick a needle in his arm decades ago. And the Radioactive Man? I forget, Norman… just when did he stop being an active espionage agent employed by the People's Republic of China to spy on the United States?"
"Right. And the fact that each of these men had, themselves, had individual body counts measured in the high double, if not triple digits?
"That's not the point and you know it!" Osborn collapsed into his chair. He'd gone from outraged to tired in one sentence.
"No, it's not the point. The point is, you went in and hit a hornet's nest with a baseball bat. And because of that, this kid's now going to be wanted for murder because she killed three psychopaths who were, themselves, mass murderers. Congratulations, Norman. You sent a serial killer to bring her in, and now because of your own negligence, she's going to be wanted for murder herself. I hope you're able to sleep well tonight."
"I assure you, Mr. Stark, I'll sleep like a baby." Osborn returned Stark's smirk.
"I think the best plan is to get her to turn herself in. I don't think there's a power on this earth capable of reigning Karen Starr in if she doesn't want to be reigned." Stark stretched in his chair.
"She's not indestructible. She was cut by the sword."
Stark nodded. "Yes she was. So, got any more magic swords lying around?"
"No. But word has it that Reed Richards has Project Ragnarok up and running again." Again, Osborn's smirk matched Stark's.
But Stark wasn't smiling any longer. "She was defending herself, Norman! If you send that, that abomination after her…"
"She left the scene and came back. That's not self-defense." Osborn took another sip of his brandy, only to find the glass was empty. He stood and refilled it, ignoring Stark's raised eyebrow at the fact that the man was drinking in the middle of the business day.
Stark shook his head. "You're wrong, Norman. I'm fairly sure an argument could be made for diminished capacity. I've seen the tapes. All of them. Even the traffic camera footage and the footage from the drones you had monitoring the area."
"Yes, well. We'll see if she gets the chance to make that case in court, I suppose."
Alex shifted in her seat next to Nico's bed for the third time, feeling a little squidgy. If she had her way, she'd be sitting next to Louise in recovery, but they kept a tight lid on visitors in recovery, since the patients were still coming back from surgery. Nico was in observation, so things were a lot more relaxed.
She fidgeted again. It was uncomfortable. Alex was certain that she'd eventually get used to the damned things, but for now she was acutely aware of the fact that she had an absorbent cotton bundle shoved up inside of her. And the string was itching her up against the skin of her thigh. And she was still cramping.
The morning after her fight with the Thunderbolts, Alex had tracked down the emergency room doctor who'd been so nice to her and explained the problem. At first he scoffed at the idea of a seventeen year old girl who had never had a period. Alex tried to blame her powers, giving the doctor a rambling half-baked explanation, but eventually the doctor had just shrugged. In the end, he helped Alex out because Alex needed the help. The hour or so that followed was utterly embarrassing, but Alex forced herself to sit through it. It was half biology class, half how-to lecture. She'd have to live with being female, no matter what her memories told her, and this was just a natural part of being female. It wasn't embarrassing or disgusting, it just was. And Alex knew that if she repeated that to herself enough times, she might actually come to believe it.
That was yesterday. Things hadn't become any easier. Damned overactive sense of touch. Damned doctor telling her that she wouldn't feel it once it was in place.
"… Efforts to find you." Nico had been speaking, and Alex realized that she'd everything that she'd said due to ruminations about a fucking tampon. And then that realization caused her to blush.
"You doing all right, Alex?" Nico asked.
Alex could tell that she'd noticed the blush, and the fact that Alex hadn't been paying attention. "Sorry. Sorry. Just thinking, that's all. I'm sorry, I completely missed what you were saying." The other woman stared at Alex for a moment. It made Alex a bit uncomfortable, and she shifted in her seat again. "I, just. It's." Alex stopped and fumed for a moment. Her frustration had come out of nowhere. "God, is it always like this?"
Nico's eyebrows met, confusion in her eyes. Then they relaxed. "Ah."
"Ah? What the hell do you mean by ah?"
"Don't worry about it. It's nothing."
But Nico was laughing. Laughing at her. And it just made Alex more frustrated. "Just, tell me what you said, okay?"
Nico stifled her laughter. "I'm sorry, Alex. I shouldn't have laughed. I know how hard this is for you. You're like a boiling soup made of hormones right now. Don't worry, we all go through it. The only time its worse is when a girl's pregnant." She took another moment to collect herself, and said, "I was saying that we're going to have to find a way for you to hide from the government, because they're going to be doubling up on their efforts to find you. But if the guys you killed were working for the government – and hey, they were in an Air Force jet on an Air Force base, right? – then you could be charged with murdering federal agents."
Alex snorted. "That's funny. Bullseye, a federal agent. Or Venom? Hell, the Radioactive Man is a Chinese spy for fuck's sake. Why would the government employ him as an agent? No. I killed three people, but they were all multiple murderers. I didn't kill anyone who hadn't already killed lots of people. And I'd do it again." Alex was yelling, and every rigid surface in the room was vibrating because of it.
Molly stuck her head in the room, a confused look on her face. Nico waved toward the door, and the girl withdrew and shut the door. The two stared at each other for a moment.
"Look, Alex, I know. I know. I know. And I'm behind you. I mean, you saved my life, so how could I not have your back about this, right? I owe you for that, and when I get out of this bed, I'll do my best to give you a little back for that. I can't pay my debt to you all the way, but I'll do my best to do you a major." Alex started to speak, but Nico held a hand up. "You put murderers out of our misery, and Lord knows no one will be mourning Bullseye any time soon. I'm just saying things are going to get hard for you now."
Alex sighed. "Yeah, I sort of got that. They're going to be coming for me even harder. But I can't just fly off, you know? Not with Louise still here."
"Look, it'll be okay." Nico held a hand out. Eventually, Alex stood and took it. "I think I can do something for Louise when they finally let me out of bed. And then we'll help you get away. You'll need to go somewhere they won't think to find you, like Belgium, or Brazil, or Japan, or Australia or someplace like that. Some place not run by military assholes who think superhumans should be slaves of the establishment."
"I don't think I can hide out in some other country."
"Come on, Alex. Think about it, okay? I mean, seriously, think about it. If you stay here you're just making it easier for them to find you."
"Yeah, well… I get going some other place. I get it." Alex shook her head. "But I don't want to run to some other country. I'm not… I don't… how will I get by in another country? I mean, sure, here I'm living on the streets in an old abandoned school bus and scrounging for meals and clothes, but at least I know my way around, right? I know how to work it here. What would I do if I was in the same situation, but stuck in, I dunno, Bulgaria or someplace?"
"So go someplace where they speak English. Canada, or Australia. Hell, South Africa, even."
"Most of the places where they speak English would turn me over to the government the moment someone found out about me." Alex responded. She sounded gloomy, even to herself. "And South Africa has the same sort of problem as the non-English countries. I mean, sure, they speak the language, but Africa? Africa's different. Says so in all the travel shows I've seen. Be a cool place to visit, sure, but I wouldn't want to try and make a living of it as a homeless kid."
"Besides – and I know this is going to sound corny – but I can't let them run me out of my own country. I'm an American. Or, you know, I think I'm an American. My memories tell me I'm an American. It's my home. I shouldn't have to run from it." Alex was again beginning to get loud. "I don't want to see this country be that. Be a place I'd have to run from. That's not the America I learned about in civics class."
Nico was silent, staring as Alex calmed down. "I really don't like bringing this up, Xander, but you were never actually in a civics class, remember?"
Alex jumped to her feet. She opened her mouth to yell something, anything hurtful at Nico. She'd spent most of last night telling the older girl about her past, and about meeting Louise, and about everything. And Nico had accepted it and forgiven it and told her that she was still a real person, no matter what. To have it thrown back in her face… the fact that she was just a copy of… "Fuck you!" Alex whispered. "Fuck you. I… I trusted… you said." She had to get out. She had to get far away. Alex stepped to the door, but was brought up short by Nico's next words.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just had to get you to see my point and I didn't know how. This isn't Sunnydale, and the country your memories say you grew up in doesn't exist here. This isn't going to be easy, but I want to help you. You're my friend."
Alex just stood there, silent. And then she began to sob. Deep, wrenching breaths. The stress of the last two days had finally broke through. Bullseye almost killing Louise and Nico. Louise coughing up blood. The fight with the Thunderbolts. Becoming a murderer. The realization that the government was going to be chasing her for a long, long time. Louise still being unconscious. The knowledge that she wasn't a guy turned into a woman, but a woman who thought she was a guy. The realization that her friends were well and truly lost to her. Louise almost dying. The lack of any sort of stability in her life. It finally just broke through.
She wasn't sure just when she stopped crying, she found herself being held by Molly of all people. Cradled like a baby by a girl half her height. Nico had climbed out of bed and was gently rubbing her back. Chase was kneeling in front of Alex, holding one of Alex's hands. For a moment, Alex was confused, as she didn't remember getting into this position at all.
"You gonna be okay now?" Molly hugged her.
Alex just nodded and wiped at her eyes.
"Hey." Alex looked up at Nico. "It's okay. Anybody who went through what you did, its natural they'd be all stressed out like that. You're tired and you're scared and you're coming to terms with the entire 'who am I' thing. We get that. We just want to help you, okay?"
Again, Alex just nodded.
"Okay. Well, how about you go down and see Louise and let her know you're there and try and calm down some. Go see your girlfriend. I know you're worried about her."
Alex nodded again. Molly set Alex on her feet. "You're a good hugger, Alex. I like hugging you. You're tough enough to take one of my big hugs, and not many people can do that."
That caused a smile. "Thanks, Molls." Alex said. "Where's your hat?" The girl had come in with a bright orange top hat that matched the athletic jersey Molly had on, but there was no sign of it anywhere.
"Fell off. It's on the floor behind me." Molly shrugged. "Figured helping you was more important than maintaining my status as a fashion innovator."
"Oh definitely." Alex laughed again. "Okay, guys, I'm going down to recovery. Anything you want me to bring back?"
"Naw, 'm good." Chase said as he stood and stretched. "Oh, hey, we'll try and hash out some ideas for you, you know, about where to hide out and the best way to get there. Maybe we can figure out how to get you a car or an RV or something and you can drive to Canada or something."
"Yeah, that would be cool." Xander stepped out into the hall, closing Nico's door behind her. A tall blonde dressed in blue denim was sitting in a chair across the hall, reading a copy of People magazine. She reminded Alex of Buffy in a way, though this girl had Buffy all over when it came to height, she had the same sort of beauty. Not the classic beauty, but still.
"Um. Hi. I don't think we've actually met yet. I'm mean, introduced. I'm, uh, Alexandra. Call me Alex, though." She held out a hand to the other girl.
"Yeah, I know. I'm Karolina. Nice to meet you. You missed Victor and Klara; they were out here for a while, but she got hungry, so…"
"Right. No problem." Alex was a bit hungry herself. "I'll be back a little later, maybe. Going to see a, uh, a friend in recovery."
Karolina smirked, but it was a friendly smirk. "Yeah, Chase told me your girlfriend is in recovery. It's okay, I'm a member of the family too." The look of confusion on Alex's face caused Karolina to let out an "Oh. You haven't ever heard that phrase?"
Alex shook her head.
"Member of the family. You know." Karolina held up a closed fist in the universal "rebel solidarity" symbol that had been used in protest probably since the Dark Ages. Karolina leaned in and stage-whispered. "Lesbians of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but our chains."
"Oh. No, I, uh, never heard that one before. I'm sort of new at this."
"New at… ah… I get it. Lots of boyfriends, none of them worked out and you couldn't figure out why. Then one day you meet this girl and everything becomes damned clear. Yeah, that's not very uncommon, really." Karolina shrugged. "It's no problem. See you around, Alex. Let your girl know I think she's very lucky." Karolina sat back down and went back to her magazine. See you later."
"Yeah, you too."
A few minutes later she was softly stepping through the doors into the surgical recovery ward. It took longer for her to get to Louise's bedside than it had to move from the sixth floor to the third.
It was hard to look at Louise. She looked so pale and helpless. It was the loss of Louise's normal lip color that kept catching Alex's attention. Normally, Louise's lips were a bright crimson; the lipstick was a cheap brand bought at a Wal-Mart, and was really the only makeup Louise could afford, so naturally she wore it all the time.
The doctors had assured Alex that Louise was recovering nicely, and that there was no sign of complications or infection, but still, she looked like she was going to die at any moment. And there were so many tubes and wires. There were IVs in both of her arms, and a tube going in through her nose that was to keep her re-inflated lung aerated. Lots of electrodes hooked to wire leads that led to the various monitors, an automated blood pressure cuff, and a of course a catheter. It was scary and nasty and horrible. But it was still Louise, and in light of the revelations given to Alex by Moondark, she was the only anchor Alex had anymore.
And Louise did look a little better than she did yesterday. That was something. Not much, but something. Alex pulled the chair from behind a mobile table and sat down next to the bed. Alex carefully took Louise's hand in her own and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"Hey. It's, um, it's me. Just came by to see how you were doing." Alex stared at Louise's hand, held in her own. "I've been doing a lot of thinking. Thinking about a lot of things, I mean. I was talking to Nico and Chase and the gang about what happened. What it all means." She was quiet again. With gentle care, Alex traced the line of Louise's thumb, then around the curve of her palm. "We, well, more Nico than me, but both of us, we were talking about the fact that I, uh, I killed some people. Bad people, but I killed them just the same."
Alex took in a deep breath, then held it, then held it some more, then let it out slowly. A cheap way to calm yourself that had bubbled up from Xander's memories. Alex had no idea where Xander learned it, but it worked.
"Anyway, these guys I killed were villains, but they were working for the government. The military, I think. And they might try and hang me up for the murder of federal officers. If so, I'm in some deep shit." He sniffed, surprised to find his nose growing stuffy and his eyes watering. "I was just so angry! I wanted to hurt someone. I needed to hurt someone. And I did. I hurt them, and I didn't care." She swiped at her tear-filled eyes with the back of her hand. "I didn't care who I hurt, I just wanted to punish them for what they did to you." She took a long shuddering breath.
The tears were flowing now, and she made no more attempts to wipe them away.
"Nico and me, we've been talking about what she thinks I should do no. She figures that I need to run and hide. Just get the heck out of dodge and go far away and lay low. Maybe forever. Don't know where I'd go to hide, but the uh, the general opinion is that the run and hide scenario is my best bet." She began making small circles on the back of Louise's hand.
"I got to say it's a good plan. Find the right hiding spot, and I can ride out everything and hopefully the government never finds me." Alex brought Louise's hand up to her mouth and kissed it, then went back to making small circles. "I don't know if that's fair to you, though. You don't deserve to be hunted for the rest of your life. You don't deserve your life being ruined because you had the bad luck to fall for a guy…" She stopped talking suddenly, aware of the slip. Her thumb was motionless on the back of Louise's hand. Another deep breath. "A girl, I mean. So, uh, Nico suggested that I, uh, leave you here with her and her friends. They said they can keep you safe, and help you out so you don't have to go back to, to… you know."
Alex kissed the back of Louise's hand, then carefully placed it on the sleeping girl's stomach. "But, you know, I've been sort of thinking about it. About us, I mean. I've really been thinking about my, my feelings for you, and, you know, your feelings for me. And uh, our feelings for each other. I mean, I know we've, uh, only known each other for a month or so, but I, uh, I care about you." Another deep breath, this one let out in a huff.
"I love you. I know I love you, Louise. You're my girl. I mean, I don't know if I'm in love with you, you know? I don't know if this is love love, but I think, that uh, I think there's, uh, there could be. I mean, I want there to be. Having it all be romantic would be good, right? I've never been in a romance before. I think I'd like to. We could be, you know? Romantic, I mean."
Alex leaned forward and crossed her arms on Louise's bed, then laid her head on them. She turned so she could look up at Louise's sleeping face. "I hate what happened to you, Louise." Her voice dropped to an almost-whisper. "I never wanted you to get hurt." Alex closed her eyes and rested for a moment, feeling from the vibration of the bed the temp of Louise's slow breathing.
"So anyway, uh, after I sort of figured out I loved you, I started asking myself if this was for real. I mean, uh, are our feelings for each other real? Are we really falling in love, or are we just desperate? I feel love for you. I love you. I know I love you. I can feel it. But… but… you were in a really crap place, and I was in a really crap place, and maybe we just, uh, I don't know, latched on each other, you know? I was just sort of wondering. Just wondering if we, you and me, if we hooked onto the only people we know who gave a shit. You know?"
She stopped talking and just listened. To Louise breathing, and to the breathing of everyone else in the room. To the electronic hum of all the equipment in this and the surrounding rooms. To the slight whistling of oxygen pouring from the various bottles next to the patients' beds. Even to the murmur of conversation coming from the hallway.
"I think." Alex said, and took another deep breath. She opened her eyes again and was quiet for several minutes. When she spoke, her voice carried the exhaustion caused by an entire month of living with constant tension. "I've been thinking about it, I mean. The whole desperation thing. About whether our feelings are real."
Another sigh. "I killed him because he hurt you, and I killed the other two because they were helping the man who hurt you. I still remember… I mean, Xander Harris remembers… how helpless he felt whenever Willow or Buffy got hurt. I hate that feeling, but I know what caused it. It was love. And not just love, but real intense devotion, too. Xander loved Willow and Buffy. Differently, I guess, but with the same amount of intensity." The tears had returned, this time dripping down her face sideways and into the light hospital blanket covering Louise's body.
"So that's how I know I love you, because it feels the same as how I remember Xander felt for Buffy and Willow. And it's why I've come to a decision about leaving you behind and hiding to keep you safe and whether or not we're just being desperate. I've come to a decision about all of it. And what I've decided is, I don't care. I love you, Louise. I know we're not to the in love stage, but I want to be there. And I'm not running away from you. I'm not going anywhere unless you're going with me."
She paused, just to listen to the other girl breathe. "So get better, okay? I miss you."
Alex shut her eyes again and returned to listening. It was relaxing, and Alex found herself lulled. She felt herself slipping into sleep. She'd just decided to give it up, and allow sleep to take her, when she felt it. A hand, clumsily but gently placed on her head. Alex opened her eyes, and without moving at all, looked up at Louise's face.
She was still pale, and still badly hurt, but her eyes were open, if only in slits. But Alex could tell that Louise was looking into her eyes as Alex was looking into Louise's. One side of Louise's mouth quirked, just for a moment. It wasn't much of a smile, but it was a smile. And then she closed her eyes again.
Alex smiled, wondering how much of that Louise had heard. She was still thinking about it when she fell asleep.
Sue Richards was dreaming of her last anniversary. She and Reed had reservations at Grammercy Tavern, and afterward they were going to go dancing. It had been a fantastic and romantic evening. But in her dream, Reed had never showed, and she went through the motions of her anniversary night alone. For some reason, she could feel that there was something wrong, but couldn't put a finger on it. Even when the chef who was preparing the Caesar dressing tableside starting belting out a Johnny Rivers tune, she couldn't put a finger on it.
There's a man who leads a life of danger!
To everyone he meets, he stays a stranger!
With every move he makes,
Another chance he takes.
Odds are he won't live to see tomorrow!
Sue opened her eyes, awake finally. She listened as the song told about how the man's name was taken away and replaced by a number. With a sigh she reached up, turned on the light, and then grabbed the source of the song: her cell phone. She knew who it was from the ringtone.
"Do you have any idea what time it is, Phil?" She knew that Phil Coulson was usually much more courteous about people's sleep cycles, so this must be big. Even so, they had a certain level of familiar teasing to maintain.
There was a dry chuckle from the other side. "Well, I'd have to know your precise location for that. I can tell you that here in Washington it's just a couple of minutes past four in the morning. I'm sorry I woke you, Sue, but this was the first opportunity I had make the call. And it's urgent."
"Okay, what do you have?" She sat up in bed and grabbed the note-pad she kept next to her bed out of habit. Once upon a time, before she became a superhero, she was a fair-to-middling scientist herself, and it always helped to be able to write ideas down when they came to you in your sleep.
"You've seen the footage on Karen Starr, right?"
"The incredibly powerful teenage girl who pounded the Thunderbolts into paste two days ago."
"Oh, her, yeah. I saw it."
"Good. I'm forwarding you her entire file. Everything SHIELD has on her. You might want to talk the Captain into making contact as soon as possible." Sue could hear the tension rise in Coulson's voice as he spoke. "Gyrich has authorized Osborn to send in Project Ragnarok after the girl when they finally have locked down her 20."
"The Thor clone?" Sue's blood had turned to ice-water. "Oh, Reed, what have you done. He got the thing operational again?"
"Yeah, he and Pym have been working around the clock, and apparently they got the thing up and around again. And the moment they have a good idea where the Starr girl is, they're going to hit her with it. I'm thinking the collateral damage is going to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and maybe thousands of lives if that fight happens in a populated area." She could hear Coulson sigh. "I'll contact you again when I know more."
"Please do, Phil. I'll let Steve know."
The phone went dead as Coulson disconnected without saying goodbye. He never bothered to say goodbye to anyone he liked. She asked about it once, and he told her that it sounded so final. She couldn't disagree.
Sue climbed out of bed. She didn't bother getting dressed; she just threw a robe on, tied the belt tight, and left her room. Shortly, she was pounding on Steve Rogers's door.
The hand on her shoulder woke Alex up. It was one of the nurses. "Sorry to wake you, but visiting hours are over. You can come back in the morning."
Alex rubbed at her eyes, nodding. "Yeah, okay. No problem." She stared down at Louise with smile. Even as pale and hurt-looking as she was, Louise was still pretty.
"Don't worry, we'll take good care of her."
"I know. I'm just worried. I can't help it. She's pretty much my entire world right now."
The nurse nodded. "I take it the two of you are, um, involved?"
Alex nodded. "Yeah. Well, we're getting there. We've been, uh, dating for about a month now. And, um, I, uh…" Alex ducked her head. She wasn't sure why she was feeling embarrassed by it all. "Oh! She woke up. Not for long, but she opened her eyes a little bit and smiled at me before falling asleep again."
"Excellent. That's excellent news. I'll make sure to tell the attending doctor."
"Thanks. Thanks. I just want her to get better. She's sort of like sunshine for me. I can't get enough of her. Oh God, that sounded corny didn't it?" Alex shook her head at her self-generated schmaltz. "I'm sorry."
"No, that's okay. I think its sweet that you care for her that much. I'm sure she's lucky to have you." The nurse patted her on the arm, before turning back to the nurse's station.
Alex turned and headed for the elevators. "Nope, I'm the lucky one." She didn't know if the nurse had heard her, but it didn't matter. Alex stretched while waiting for the elevator to arrive. She had no idea how long she'd been asleep, but it was probably long enough that she'd have been really stiff had she not had the entire Kryptonian package.
The floor bell rang and she stepped into the elevator, sharing it with two nurses who just nodded and continued to stare at nothing. This was one of the reasons why she really didn't like hospitals. Everyone was so unfriendly. She knew that nurses could be nice and all, but if they didn't have to be, they never seemed to want to be. The thought occurred to her that it might be a coping mechanism, but it passed through her mind without actually catching on anything and sticking.
She found herself back at Nico's room in short order. Karolina had been replaced by two people, on a tall, thin-looking guy and the other an entirely different young girl as Molly. Alex guessed these were the missing Victor and Klara. The girl was curled up on the couch, her head in the young man's lap. Victor, assuming that this was Victor, looked at Alex sharply for a moment and then just nodded at her. Alex looked at the young man quizzically. For some reason, she was getting the same high-pitched whine from him as she did from television sets, or the hospital's monitors. Alex stopped and looked the man over again, this time shifting her vision to the high range.
Well, that would explain it. This Victor guy, again assuming that this was Victor, was as much machinery as he was a human being. Alex shook her head and smiled. Cyborgs. Who'd a thunk it? "You know if NIco's still awake? She wanted me to come back and talk to her. I didn't mean to be so long."
"Should be. Go on in." Victor shrugged toward the door in a gesture of ultimate cool and uncaring, but Alex wasn't sure he was pulling it off. She noticed that his voice has a very slight, very slight electronic buzz to it, but Alex was pretty sure that unless your ears were tuned so high that you could hear grass grow, you'd never notice.
"Cool." Alex tapped on the door before walking in. There was something a little funny about the scene presented before her. Chase was lying on his right side in the hospital bed, fully dressed and facing away from his bed partner. Karolina, also fully dressed, was snuggled up to his back and had wound an arm over him. Her hand was under his shirt. And both were snoring.
"They started off facing opposite directions. K shifted about half an hour ago. I took pictures. Blackmail material, you know?" Nico was sitting in the lounge chair, reading a book. The lamp next to the chair was the only light in the room. "So how was Louise?"
Alex's smile widened. "She woke up. Just for a second or two, but she smiled at me. I would have been back sooner but I fell asleep. It was nice."
"Good, I'm glad." Nico bent the corner of the page she was on and closed her book. She held it her lap. Alex could see that it had a lion on the cover, but couldn't read the title. "While you were gone the bunch of us – well, everyone but Molly and Klara, they went looking for ice cream – talked it over. I mean, you're going to have to hide out, at least for a little while. And if you're dead set on not leaving the country…" Alex shook her head, causing Nico to sigh. "Yeah. Since you're dead set on not leaving the country, we think you should get as far from California as you can. Chase and Victor suggested Hawai'i. Karolina was arguing for Vermont or maybe Puerto Rico."
Alex started to say something, but Nico kept talking. "I can't remember who, but someone had this brilliant idea where you'd go back to Los Angeles and hide right under their noses, because that would be the last thing the government would expect, but we figured that was way to action-movie for it to ever work." Nico sighed. It looked to Alex like she was hesitant about continuing. "Anyway, I was reading this book after you left, and after the guys and I had this talk, and it gave me an idea. You know, about how maybe we could get you safe and sound and out of the government's hands for good. So I made some calls to some friends, just to see if there was anyone who could help you out with it – my idea, I mean – since I'm not going to be able to."
"You didn't –"
"Nope, never once named your name. Just asked in generalities." Nico put the book down on the table. Alex glanced at the cover to discover it was an omnibus edition of the Chronicles of Narnia.
"And Narnia gave you the idea?" Alex thought about it. When it clicked, she couldn't keep the shock off of her face. "Wait. I thought that it wouldn't work! How –"
"But it did work. I tried to send you to your home dimension. This is your home dimension, so the spell worked just like it was supposed to. I sent you here. I figure we should send you where you wanted to go. To the, uh, the Buffy world, wherever that is."
"Yeah, I guess that would… no one would be looking for us. And I'd certainly be in a good position to help with the, uh, monsters and such." Alex sighed. "Okay, so all I have to do is hide out for a month or so while Louise recovers, and then you can send us… what's wrong?"
Nico was shaking her head. "Actually, I don't think I want to try it again myself. I can't cast the same spell twice, and this is really similar to a spell that I've already cast successfully. I'm happy to speed up Louise's recovery. I mean, I figure I can arrange her to get out of here in a couple of days all fixed up, but sending you guys to another dimension… I don't want to risk it."
Alex's face fell. "Well shit."
"No, hey, the world isn't ending. Like I said, I was asking around." Nico smiled. "And one of my contacts gave me a possibility. It would mean a trip to Florida. Alex, have you ever heard of Jennifer Kale, or the Nexus of All Realities?"
Author's Note the First: If you recognize it, it belongs to Marvel Comics, DC Comics, or else Mutant Enemy. If you don't, it's likely mine.
Author's Note the Second: "Secret Agent Man" was a song recorded in 1964 by Johnny Rivers. It was written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri as the theme song for the American rebroadcast of the British television series "Danger Man" (in America, the series was retitled "The Secret Agent") from 1964 to 1966. The song was released in the US as a single, and peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. I thought it made a suitable ringtone for Sue Richards to assign to Phil Coulson.