The Inevitable Fight You Knew Was Coming
Chapter Six: The Inevitable Fight That You Knew Was Coming
"Heroes are ordinary people who know that even if their own lives are impossibly knotted, they can and do untangle somebody else's life. And then that one small act of helping another can lead to someone else rescuing them right back." – Jodi Picoult
"This so completely sucks."It was the first thing that came to Xander's mind to say. He hated the thought of what he was about to do, but at the moment he really couldn't think of anything else that would help the situation. Come what may, even if he was now out from under SHIELD's custody... for the moment at least... the truth is that he was still wearing a set of neon-orange prisoner clothes, one part of which was a shirt with a big black letter "P" on its back. He needed to change into some new clothes and he needed to change yesterday.
Sitting on the roof of the New York Public Library, watching the sun go down, Xander contemplated his options. His contemplations didn't get very far, as his options were thus very limited, what with not having any way to actually pay for new clothing. He thought the situation over, and came to only one real conclusion: he would have to steal something to wear. He hated the idea of becoming a thief, but the other options were just as bad, namely stealing the money to pay for the clothing. So did he want to become a thief of clothing, or a thief of money?
He found it ironic. He escaped from prison and in the three hours since his escape, he'd decided to become a criminal. It was a joke. A bad one.
He eventually settled on stealing clothing. Money, being money, was multi-purposed, and thus the loss of the money would hurt more than the loss of some merchandise. And he'd limit the thefts to just what he needed right now. He was sure that as a massively powerful superhuman, he'd have no problem getting some sort of temp job to live on while he figured out how to get home. Something would turn up.
It wasn't a plan he was proud of, but it was a plan.
Natasha Romanova brushed her hand around the oval-shaped hole that the escapee had left in the SHIELD facility's wall. This one had been a reinforced concrete load-bearing wall, not the cinder-block and drywall of the inner partitions. Their escapee had to be strong on the same level that Thor and the Hulk was strong.
"Okay, so what you're telling me is that this mutant girl whose been asleep for the past six months suddenly woke up and wrecked the place." The Widow glanced over her shoulder at Iron Man. Tony Stark was talking to some SHIELD agent named Understone, who was notably embarrassed by the entire thing.
"That would just about sum it up, yes." Understone grimaced. "We had no idea she was this powerful. Every test we performed showed we were dealing with someone about the same power level as Spider-Man. Obviously, she was ducking the test."
"You think so?" Black Widow muttered under her breath. She stood and dusted the powdered cement from her gloves. That was odd. Cement didn't powder normally, even when it broke up. It rendered itself into chunks. In order to powder under impact, a concrete wall had to be hit with a force comparable to jetliner flying full speed into it.
A low, amazed whistle came from the Widow's right. She turned to watch Wonder Man stick his finger into a hole in the wall up to the third knuckle. "Agent Understone, how many times did you say your agent shot this girl with the Hulk-Buster rounds?", she asked.
Understone seemed hesitant to answer. "She got three rounds off before she was disarmed. Starr yanked the pistol out of her hand before she was able to fire a fourth, and then destroyed it."
"Yeah, probably a good thing all around." Iron Man looked around, noting the location of the rest of his team. The only one not approaching was Ms. Marvel, and she was still doing depth measurements on the crater Doc Samson left in the wall. The good doctor had been transferred to the hospital floor with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder. "Spider-Man's a Delta. I'd say from the looks of it that she's an Alpha, but that force field you say she has..."
The Avengers leader motioned for his team to assemble, then turned back to Understone. "Okay, so... tell us about her."
"Karen Starr. Age 17, from Midvale, Ohio. She's got a juvie record. Nothing too extreme, but its there. Showed absolutely no evidence of superpowers as she was growing up. Disappeared two years ago and believed to have run away. Her parents apparently were happy about that. Their reaction to her being found was to ask us what it would take to keep her here. Samson diagnosed her as a paranoid schizophrenic with dissociative disorder. She thinks she's a character from a television show. Ever hear of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'?"
Wonder Man, Iron Man, and Ms. Marvel all nodded, while Natasha shook hers. She wasn't a television watcher. Occasionally a sporting event, or the Olympics, or a political debate, but not just casual television.
"Well, she's thinks she's really Xander Harris. Won't acknowledge a person named Karen Starr even exists. Samson thinks she was abused as a kid, and her power eruption sent her over the edge."
"She not only thinks she's a character in a TV show, she thinks she's the comic relief. The male comic relief. Well, that's a new one." The Widow could feel Stark smirk under his faceplate from where she stood. "Wonder why she didn't decide she was actually Buffy. You know, the hero? Don't people who think they are fictional characters go for the hero?"
"I wouldn't know, really. You'd have to ask Samson once he regains consciousness."
"Okay, in the mean time, we need to find out where this crazy girl is now." Iron Man said. "I assume she's lojacked. If you give me the frequency..."
But Understone was already shaking his head. "We put one of your nano-transmitters in nearly every single ounce of food we fed her, and it stopped transmitting within seconds of it being swallowed. It was like she was digesting them."
"Really? Whoa. That's weird."
Understone snorted. Yeah, a lot of things weird about this girl. She'd spend hours and hours in the afternoon just standing in front of the window. We assumed she was watching the city until we figured out she was standing there with her eyes closed. It was like she was asleep, just soaking up the sunlight."
"If I'd been kept inside for six months, I'd have done the same thing. I hate being cooped up inside." Iron Man shrugged. "So what were her observable powers?"
Understone consulted a data pad, for a moment. "It looks like a high-impact version of the standard FISS package." FISS stood for "Flight, Invulnerability, Super-Strength"; studies had shown that, aside from some basic level of super-strength itself, the FISS package, as it was called, was the most common superpower for someone to acquire when they had an Eruption. "Samson grabbed her and rather than punch him, she immediately started working on his fingers. He punched her a couple of times and she didn't even blink, just kept bending his fingers back away from her arm. Almost like she didn't want to hurt him." Understone waved to the crater in the wall on the far side of the now-exposed observation room. "Still hurt him enough to put him in the hospital. She also didn't react when people shot her, and was unaffected by tear gas. It was almost as if she simply decided to ignore everything we were doing."
"Flight, Invulnerability, Super-Strength. FISS. Right, well. That makes things interesting." Iron Man was quiet for a while. Then he turned to the Widow and said, "Widow, you're a girl... If..."
"I'm a girl? Oh, well-spotted."
"Heh. Yeah... so... if you were an insane teenage girl from Ohio who suddenly acquired superpowers and this was your first time in the Big Apple, where would you go?"
The Widow suppressed a chuckle. "Were it me, and I had access to money? I'd go shopping. Especially if I had... to..." She trailed off, staring into the distance as a very specific idea popped into her head. Turning to Understone, the Russian Avenger asked, "You had her in the standard prisoner uniform? Bright orange? Big white P on the back?"
Understone shrugged. "Sure. Standard procedure. Why?"
Black Widow didn't answer. She just turned to Iron Man. "We need to monitor for break-ins at clothing and department stores. If I was a teenage girl, with no money but with a burning need to get out of the bright orange clothes that mark me as a prisoner, I'd be looking to change my wardrobe."
He'd spent an hour or two looking for a clothing store that looked like it could afford to use a set of jeans and a shirt. Most of the clothing places he found looked like small businesses. But he'd finally found a store that he'd heard of, even growing up in California: Macy's Department Store. So he stood on the roof overlooking the store, just waiting for the lights to go out. While he waited, Xander watched the people walking by on the streets below. Tons of people. More people than he'd ever seen in one place in his entire life. Even Los Angeles didn't feel this crowded.
Eventually, the lights went out at Macy's and the store went dark, for the most part. He could see though the windows of the store's upper floor that there were still lights on, but this would do. He moved as swiftly as he could without attracting attention, then flash-vaporized the central part of the floor-to-ceiling window with his heat vision.
Then he waited. And waited a little longer.
He'd intentionally left enough of the outer edges of the windows to foil any contact alarms, and was waiting to see if anyone noticed the hole. When he was convinced that he'd waited enough, he stepped into the store.
The entire place was clothed in shadow, though that wasn't a problem, of course. It did give the entire place a sort of spooky feel. He'd alighted in the woman's department, and had no real idea where to go to get to clothing he could wear, though. He figured a little looking around was called for. For a moment, he wondered about the sizes associated with the body, but Power Girl's memories whispered them into his mind.
Menswear turned out to be one floor down. Xander took the stairs rather than the elevator.
Within a minute, he'd found what he was looking for. A pack of extra-large white t-shirts, a pack of boxer shorts (he cringed at the price tag before he remembered he was stealing the clothing), and some blue jeans jeans that the store was charging far too much for.
Xander took a quick look around. None of the guards he'd spotted earlier were nearby, though he had heard the elevator ding. Figuring that staying in one spot was not a good idea, he moved out of menswear and toward men's shoes. He'd need some of those too, and some socks.
Once in men's shoes, Xander took another quick look around and stripped out of his prison uniform. Just as he stepped into the boxers, the elevator doors had dinged and he heard, rather than saw, a couple of men step out of it. From what he could hear, he'd been spotted, probably by a security camera. Xander looked around in X-Ray and saw the cameras suddenly; they were hidden under black glass globes that he'd completely ignored when he came into the store.
It was very likely they'd spotted him the moment he stepped into the store. He hadn't heard any alarms, though there were sirens in the distance. Xander shook his head and dressed as quickly as he could.
He ad to admit the jeans and the boxers felt weird when he put them on. They fit, but they sort of didn't. Like they weren't made right or something. He'd just raised one of the t-shirts over his head when he heard a man's voice call out, "Freeze! Put your arms down and turn around!"
Xander sighed, but he stopped moving. "Which do you want? Do you want me to freeze or do you want me to put my arms down?"
"Put your God damned arms down and turn around. Now."
Xander turned. The two guards were there, both standing in ready poses with their hands on their sidearms. They were both glaring at him... but as he turned around Xander couldn't help but notice that they weren't concentrating on his face. Not that he was turned around. It puzzled Xander for a moment before he looked down, following the guard's gazes.
"Oh, for crying out... Guys... my eyes are up here, guys." In one smooth motion, Xander pulled the shirt over his head and down over his breasts. Their eye-line broken by the shirt, the guards stopped staring and started looking Xander in the face.
Though their eyes would occasionally take sudden, darting trips south.
The taller guard stepped forward and grasped her by the arm, while the other one said, "Okay, we've got her. Bringing he down now." into a radio microphone clipped to his shoulder. Radio Guard took a look around and picked up Xander's now discarded prison uniform, as well as the open packs of t-shirts and underwear.
Tall guard said, "The police are already downstairs. Let's go." He stepped back and tried to pull Xander along with him. Xander wasn't having any, and the man ended up tripping and falling when the hand around Xander's bicep slipped off.
"Look, guys... its a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and some underwear. I owe you. But I'm not going with you, and I certainly am not going to talk to the police. So adios, okay?" Xander spotted the closest window and headed for it. He made it three or four steps when Radio Guard tried to tackle him from behind.
For all the good it did him.
The man crashes into Xander like he was trying to bring down a concrete pillar. As the guard slid to the floor unconscious and obviously injured, Xander stopped and turned to the other guard. "I want you to know, I didn't cause that. Not my fault... you notice that I didn't even raise my hands, right?"
The guard stood wide-eyed, but shook his head. Whether he really understood or was just going along with anything Xander said couldn't be determined. Xander took a couple more steps before he stopped again at a raspy metallic sound that could only be the cocking of a gun.
Xander turned around again. The guard was standing there, with his pistol out and pointed. Xander signed. "If you shoot that thing at me, you're going to endanger not only yourself but your friend in here with a ricochet. And really, I think you need to help your friend more than you need to shoot me; I think he broke one of his collarbones and maybe gave himself a concussion. Get him to a doctor, okay?"
The man continued to stare at Xander for a moment, his gun still up and aimed. Then he blinked twice and seemed to take in his injured partner, and then turned his gaze on his gun. Good enough. Xander thought. And he turned again to the window.
Another application of heat vision vaporized the glass. Before he stepped out into the air, he turned and called, "I hope you're friend is okay. I didn't mean for him to get hurt. I just needed the clothes." And with that he stepped out into the air and began flying away. Xander hadn't really begun to pick up speed when he was struck from behind and found himself crashing into the ground.
A male voice, heavily modulated with an electronic tinge to it, said, "You were right, widow, she went for the clothes."
Xander stood, carefully, and turned. It was Iron Man. The Iron Man. From the comic books. As real as his own hands, and as big as life. A small part of him, the comic book geek who had always wanted to be a superhero was having a joygasm. How cool was this?! But behind the geek voice was another, quieter voice, telling him to be on his guard and pay attention to his surroundings and calm down.
Accompanying Iron Man were three other characters, all of whom he recognized from the Avengers comics. Wonder Man, Ms. Marvel, and Black Widow. The quiet voice at the back of his head, the one that spoke to him when he needed to remember something from Power Girl's life, the voice he thought of as "Kara" when he thought of it at all, was telling him to pay more attention to Wonder Man than the other three, as if he and only he were a threat.
Very carefully, Xander rose into the air so that he was level with Iron Man. The Avengers tensed as if to attack, but didn't actually leap into it. As usual, Xander lead with his standard response to stress: humor. "Iron Man. Hey! How are you?Nice to meet you! Wonder Man. Marvel. Widow. How are you guys? You wouldn't happen to know how I could find Doctor Strange, would you?"
Inside the iron suit, Tony Stark was feeling nonplussed. He hadn't really known what to expect when they left SHIELD's New York headquarters in pursuit of the escaped prisoner, but he was fairly sure that this presumed fearlessness, this laughter in the face of danger, wasn't it. He was expecting a teenage girl trying to get away from the authorities. What he was facing seemed more like a veteran soldier who was facing off with the enemy.
And the question... why would the girl be looking for Stephen Strange?
Starr was just floating there in midair, having recovered from his initial repulsor blast quicker than he'd seen anyone do outside of Wolverine, Thor, and the Hulk. This fact ran through his head a couple of times, and for a moment he wondered if he'd brought enough guns to the knife-fight. But that feeling passed as he reasserted his own confidence in himself. But the casual 'Hey how you doin'?' greeting from the girl had put him wrong-footed and he wasn't used to it. One thing was clear: the girl had no idea how much trouble she really was in.
Looking at the girl, the first things he noticed was that she was really very pretty. On his own personal ratings scale she was somewhere between Cosmo and Maxim. And she was built like a brick shithouse and while stealing clothes from Macy's had apparently neglected to snag a brassiere... Yowza, look at her... but then he snapped to the fact that in their briefing SHIELD made it very clear that this girl was still a minor. And besides, time was wasting. From the looks on the faces of his teammates, they didn't exactly know how to respond to the girl either. By this point, most criminals had either tried to run or had leaped into an attack.
Enough with the speculation and the appreciation of her decidedly ample physical gifts. Time to take control of the situation. Stark raised one of his gauntleted hands and lit the repulsor in its palm, just enough to show he was ready to shoot. "Okay, Miss Starr, fun-time's over. Time for you to surrender and play nice. We don't want this to get messy, now, do we?"
The girl didn't even blink. "You want to take me back to SHIELD, don't you?"
Iron Man rolled his eyes. "You are an escaped fugitive, Miss Starr. What do you think?"
The girl huffed. "My name is Xander Harris. I don't know any Miss Starr. And I'm not going back there. They promised me that if I cooperated, I'd be let go. I cooperated, they went back on their word. I'm not going back to them. What they want to do is wrong. You just can't lock someone up in a prison when they didn't do anything to deserve it. Says so in the Constitution. Even I know that." With that, the girl turned and began flying away.
"No," Tony muttered inside his mask. "Can't have that. No running away." He swiftly gained altitude to get the right downward angle on the girl and hit her with a double repulsor blast. The impact knocked the girl back into the street. Without pausing, he said, "Simon, Carol, you're up." He called up the file on Karen Starr and reviewed the quick list of known powers. Super-strength, dense musculature, some sort of force field, and she could fly. Estimated Beta Metahuman, upgraded to Alpha recently after tossing Leonard Samson around like a rag-doll. This was all right; both he and Ms. Marvel were both Alphas, and Wonder Man was an Omega, and three-to-one odds were pretty much unbeatable in such a situation.
At Iron Man's command, both Ms. Marvel and Wonder Man had leaped forward toward their target. Marvel had launched herself into the air and came down almost on top of the escaped prisoner, who was standing back up after her second face-first visit to the tarmac. The female Avenger used the momentum of her leap to increase the force of her punch as she lashed out, connecting with the left side if the target's jaw.
The girl's head was rocked to the side, but the blow, which should have knocked Karen Starr to back to the ground, didn't so much as pause the girl's efforts to get back to her feet.
Starr regained her feel, glared at Marvel, and growled out a sarcastic, "Ouch, that hurt." Ms. Marvel threw another punch, but the girl caught Carol Danvers' fist in one hand and held it there, effortlessly. Ms. Marvel tried to jerk her arm away, but it didn't so much as move. "Ms. Marvel. I thought you were awesome back when you were binary. Gotta wonder though." The girl looked quickly to Iron Man and then back to Marvel. "Do you go to his AA meetings, or does he go to yours." Ms. Marvel started to respond but abruptly cried out in pain. She dropped to her knees, her free hand furiously scrambling to gain some purchase on the Starr girl's hand, the one holding her own fist. "I didn't want to fight anAWWK!"
Ms. Marvel pulled her hand away and cradles it as Wonder Man grabbed their target in a wrestling hold. Simon had the girl's arms trapped in some back hold and had lifted her off the ground. Wonder Man pulled herself away from the obviously injured Ms. Marvel. Black Widow ran up and helped Carol get out of the line of fire.
"Okay, Miss... stand down. You're just making it worse... for... yourself..." Simon said through increasingly gritted teeth.
Iron Man lifted both hands toward the girl as, in amazement, she brought her arms forward and down, despite the hold that Wonder Man had her in. "Simon, what's going... "
"I... can't... hold her, Tony... she's too..." The girl broke free and whirled on Wonder Man. She threw a messy jab at Simon's head, and Simon caught her wrist, barely. She jabbed with her other hand, and again Wonder Man caught it. She jerked away, and Simon barely held on. As it was, she had pulled Wonder Man completely off his feet and was tossing him around like he was made of paper. It was all he could do to hold on to her arms.
Iron Man set his visual systems to maximum resolution and slaved his repulsors to his targeting computer. The second he had a clear shot... he fired. The girl, still in the middle of spinning and bucking, trying to get Simon to let go of her, was struck in the side and thrown bodily through the glass frontage of the Victoria's Secret. Wonder Man scrambled to his feet.
"Carol?" Iron Man asked, keeping his eyes on the shop where their target had landed.
"She broke my fucking hand just by squeezing it, Tony. She's stronger than I am."
"Yeah, the kid's stronger than me, too." Simon said. That shook them all to their bones. Simon was generally recognized to be one of the strongest people in the world. Maybe not Hulk or Thor strong, but definitely in the Top 10.
Iron Man started to say something, but the fact that they had begun to draw a crowd of looky-loos had to be addressed. He turned his external speakers up to max and said, "Folks, please stand back. Its for your own safety. We're apprehending a dangerous fugitive. Please keep well back." He could see dozens of cell phones being brandished toward the Avengers and their target. By midnight, he knew that video coverage of this fight will have gone viral.
The Starr girl climbed through the store window and stood there, glaring at them while she brushed glass off of her clothes.. "Damn it, I didn't want to fight anyone. I just wanted to be let alone so I could figure out a way home. So just let me go and you'll be rid of me soon enough."
"We can't do that." Wonder Man said. It was obvious that he was trying to be conciliatory. He stepped forward with his hands clear and raised. "So how about we go back to SHIELD, and we can all talk about this, and if you really need help, we'll see about getting you the help you need."
"Yeah, SHIELD told me about the help they want to give me. Life in prison in a looney ward because they think I'm crazy. No thanks." The girl leaped into the air again, and this time everyone had to scramble to react in time. Simon managed to snag the girl's ankle and he swung her as hard as he could into the ground. She left a crater some five feet across on impact.
Iron Man and Wonder Man stood over her. "Karen Starr, also known as Power Girl, under authority granted to me by the Avengers Initiative, and in compliance with Federal enforcement provisions of the Superhuman Registration Act, we are placing you under arrest. You will immediately stand down, cease any resistance, and surrender. Do you understand?"
Iron Man hoped she was going to comply. Later on, he would admit to himself that the girl's physique had distracted him. It was a weakness he knew he possessed, but he never liked to admit it, and sometimes it interfered. He was just a sucker for a beautiful woman, and this girl was gorgeous. His natural tendency to womanize sometimes... and this was painful for him to acknowledge... interfered with his professionalism. So he stared at her as she regained her feet once more, thinking she was likely going to surrender. When he later remembered this moment, he had to admit he had been staring at her tits; the fact that he'd been staring at a kid just made him feel even more guilty.
But he had been so busy staring at her tits that he hadn't noticed when, while she was on her hands and knees, the Starr girl's fists had clenched, leaving finger-sized gouges in the pavement of 34th Street. It meant that he didn't notice when the girl started growling. When the girl stood up for the third time, and started to move away from them, Wonder Ma n was right there to punch her across the face.
But this time the punch didn't land. This time, the girl grabbed Simon's arm, moving faster than they ever suspected she could move. The girl spun, then threw Simon into the storefront she had just climbed out of. Wonder Man impacted the shop's back wall and went through it as if he was diving into water. A continual crashing sound let Iron Man know that he'd gone through at least one more wall beyond that.
The Starr girl's face was a mixture of anger and regret, almost as if she was just as surprised and shocked as her actions as they were. "You going to leave me alone now, or are..."
Iron Man hit her with both repulsors, set to full blast. His target was slammed backward into an empty pick-up truck. The impact caved in the trunk's front end and shattered its windshield. Before she could really react, Iron Man jetted forward and blasted at her again, hoping to get the target tangled in the truck's wreckage and give Wonder Man a chance to return to the battlefield and get back into the game. At first it seemed to be working, but when his repulsors stopped firing to allow for the 1.34 second-long recharge time, Starr had recovered.
The girl seemed to shrug the truck's wreckage off of her, then punched her way what was left of the vehicle's radiator grille to grab the engine block itself. She lifted the truck with one hand. Iron Man again struck Starr with his repulsors, but this time the girl didn't flinch. He might as well have shot her with a Nerf dart gun for all the effect it had.
"You know, I tried to be nice. I really, really tried to be nice. But you couldn't just leave me alone!" More quickly than Stark thought possible, the Starr girl swung the truck overhand at him as if it were a club. The first strike knocked him into the frontage of the Gap store, across the street from the Victoria's Secret. The marble frontispiece cracked and disintegrated from the power of the impact. As Iron Man rebounded from the support column, the girl was on him again. This time the strike was from overhead, and he was knocked into the street. And then again, before he could react, he was hit a third time. Then suddenly he was lying prone and the girl was standing over him, slamming the truck into him again and again as if the street were a wooden plank, the truck a hammer, and he himself a nail. The overwhelming force of the impacts eventually overloaded his armor's ability to cushion him, and Tony Stark blacked out.
Broken hand or no, Ms. Marvel wasn't going to let some teenaged girl smack down her teammates with impunity. Their admittedly scant briefing about this girl mentioned superhuman strength, but it absolutely didn't say she was this strong. She was beginning to think that they'd lost this fight before going into it. But it didn't matter. The target was beating down Iron Man, likely in order to kill him, and she couldn't allow that. If this went on too much longer, Stark could die. Ms. Marvel could already see his armor being permanently bent and deformed in spots.
Ignoring the pain in her hand, Carol Danvers lept toward the target, crying out, "Hey! Get off him!" She shoulder tackled the girl, and it was like hitting a pillar of stone. Nevertheless, it caused the girl to drop the truck she'd been using as a bludgeon. The two women rolled onto the street several times before stopping with Ms. Marvel on top, almost straddling Karen Starr. The Avenger pressed down on the younger girl's neck with her arm, careful to not put pressure on her broken hand, while using the other hand to land rabbit punches on Starr's face.
Starr gritted her teeth between punches, and when Carol hauled back to hit the girl again, Starr said only one word.
The girl's eyes flared red and Ms. Marvel felt like she'd been dropped into a sauna. The air around her head heated up causing her to sweat for a moment. There was an almost physical impact from the heat beams, and Ms. Marvel rocked backward. Marvel's ability to absorb energy came into play, filled, was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of energy being poured into Marvel's body, then gave way. Marvel's skin began to redden and blister.
And then Ms. Marvel was on fire. Carol Danvers felt like she'd been locked in a microwave, getting the worst possible sunburn imaginable. She smelled her own hair charring, and her costume started to smolder. But she couldn't see anything. Her entire world had gone white, and then gone black. She fell face-forward in pain, screaming.
The entire fight, from start to finish, took less than five minutes.
When Ms. Marvel fell, to Natasha Romanova it seemed that the Harris girl lost all her steam. Their "target" seemed to collapse, falling to her knees and sucking in deep, almost sobbing breaths. It was almost as if she was shedding adrenaline with every breath.
Black Widow kept the target covered with her widow's sting. It was just a glorified taser, so she was absolutely sure that the weapon would be utterly useless, but it somehow made the former intelligence agent feel better about the fact that the girl was ignoring her. "Karen Starr," she said, trying to get the girl's attention. "Power Girl."
The target looked up at her as if seeing Black Widow for the first time. The younger girl shook her head. "Do you really want to get into it with me? After..." a wave of the hand, taking in the street-turned-battlefiend. "...after this?"
"Not really. But I can't let you hurt anyone else."
"Don't worry, not my intention. I never... I never wanted to fight anyone. I just wanted to find a way home. You people started this." The girl stood and walked to where Iron Man was lying, partially covered by the destroyed pick-up truck. With a casual flick of her hand, the truck went skittering across the street. The target bent down toward Iron Man, and Black Widow fired her sting. "Stop!"
As expected, the two needle-like projectiles fired by her weapon bounced ineffectively away after striking the girl's body. The girl didn't even notice. Instead, she picked Iron Man up by his left shoulder. The way the man's arm hung loose, it was clear that the shoulder was dislocated, and the arm itself broken. The girl hooked a pair of fingers under the face-plate's seam, and with an almost casual movement, the entire front of Tony Stark's helmet peeled away from his head like the lid on a can of sardines. The girl then repeated the action downward, peeling the chest-plate away from Start rather than merely disconnecting it. Even Black Widow could tell that the metal suit was ruined.
"What are you doing?" she asked the girl?
"Don't worry. This way it'll be easier for the paramedics to get him help when I leave. You may not have noticed, but they're right over there, but they're not getting any more closer until the threat is removed. I guess that would be me." The girl lay Tony down on the pavement more gently than the Widow would have expected and patted Stark on the cheek. "Tony... Tony... wake up Mr. Stark."
Stark's eyes fluttered open and he immediately grimaced in obvious pain. "Sorry about your arms, Mr. Stark, but I didn't start this fight. You did."
The girl turned back to the Widow and it occurred to the last Avenger standing to be grateful for being ignored. She looked over at Ms. Marvel with the eyes of someone trained in battlefield medicine. The front half of Ms. Marvel's hair was gone, burned down to the scalp. Her face, arms, and shoulders were covered in blisters and blackened where her costume had been burned into her skin. Very casually, presenting no threat to the girl, she moved over and felt for a pulse. It was there. Weak, but it was present.The Starr girl took another deep breath and took a step toward the Widow, who scrambled back as quickly as possible. Again, she brought up her widow's sting to cover the "target", for all the good it would do her. Starr knelt next to Marvel and seemed to study her for a moment. Then she looked toward Romanova. "I didn't mean to do any of this, you know. I just wanted to be left alone." The girl sighed in what seemed to be honest regret.
"That does not matter now. What happened happened." Natasha Romanova swallowed deeply before continuing. "We both know I cannot fight you, and I cannot stop you if you flee, but you should know. The rest of the Avengers will be here shortly. Surrender. Let me take you in. It will be better for you if..." The girl started shaking her head, so the Widow stopped talking. There was no point. This girl was determined to be left alone.
The Widow signed. "Okay. Your name is Karen? Can I call you Karen?" She lowered her arms, trying to appear harmless. "Karen?"
"Xander. My name is Xander."
Right... the girl is delusional. "Okay, Xander... I don't want to see anyone else hurt, but there is going to be a response to all of this. You do know this, correct? We cannot just let you go."
Harris stood and took a deep breath. "I just want to go home. I'm sorry for all this, but I am going to go home. I didn't ask to be here, and I didn't ask to be in this body, and I didn't ask for superpowers. It all just happened. But I'm not going to be punished for existing. That's wrong. And I'm not going to let anyone stop me from getting home." She took a look around at the crowd that had gathered, and the policemen who were keeping the bystanders back. "I was supposed to be taking some kids trick-or-treating, that's all. I want to be back home, eating Halloween candy and making jokes about other people's costumes. I didn't want any of this." She turned back to the Widow. "Tell them that."
The Widow nodded. "All right. I will tell them."
"Before I go, I have to ask you a question. Do you know where I can find Doctor Strange?"
What Natasha Romanova didn't expect was to be interrogated by her own team.
"No, Janet, I emphatically did not 'just let her go.' How was I suppose to stop her? Can you tell me that? She had just put down Iron Man and Ms. Marvel and threw Wonder Man so hard that he crashed through three separate buildings. What was I supposed to do, break some of my bones on her?" The rest of the team, except that lunatic Sentry (who was missing) and Spider-Man (who was apparently sympathetic) was glaring at Black Widow as if she, and not the Starr girl, had been the one to put Tony Stark and Carol Danvers in the hospital.
"Well..." an exasperated pause. "You should have..." Another exasperated pause. "Why didn't you...?" A huffy sigh, and then the Wasp gave in. "All right. You couldn't have stopped her. Didn't SHIELD warn you she was powerful?"
"Actually I talked to that Wonderstone guy during the clean-up," Spider-Man chimed in. "Apparently, until she decided to take a walk, Karen Starr was cooperative and pleasant and friendly and never gave SHIELD the first clue that she was capable of snapping an adamantium cable in two with her bare hands." He tossed the cable in question onto the table. "Any of you guys no anyone this side of Sentry or the Hulk who can do that? Anyone?"
No one answered, because no one had to. The entire room falls silent as they ponder the implications.
Finally, the Wasp stood and clapped her hands together, once. It got everyone's attention. "Okay, here's what we have. According to SHIELD, the radar net has tracked a fast moving, dense body moving through US airspace east-to-west at just under Mach 2. We're assuming this is Starr, because the object's profile matches the profile when she first appeared in the sky over Alaska. Right now, she's over Ohio." A map of the United States appeared on the briefing monitor, with a red flashing dot indicating their presumed target and her estimated position. "The FAA has ordered her likely flight path cleared of all non-military traffic so she won't bump into any jetliners filled with convenient potential hostages. We don't want this to get worse than it already is."
She hit a button on the remote, and the map became footage of a the girl's session with Leonard Samson, talking about her home life. "Based on what the girl told Black Widow, she wants to go home. Thing is, her home is in Midvale, Ohio... which she passed about thirty miles back with no signs of stopping. We're guessing she's heading for California because of the entire Buffy the Vampire Slayer thing? The show took place in southern California, that's where the fictional character she's adopted as her identity is from, so we think that's where she'll roost."
"What is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer?" The question came from Ares.
"Right. For those of you who don't know, Karen Starr is a schizophrenic who believes that she is actually a character from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran from 1997 to 2000 before being canceled. It was about a valley girl who fought vampires along with her friends. One of those friends was..." the Wasp hit the remote again, and the picture changed. "...Alexander Lavelle Harris, played by actor and stand-up comedian Ryan Reynolds."
From where he sat at the end of the table, Wonder Man spoke up. "I remember that show. A friend of mine did some stunt work for them. Lots of martial arts and weapons work. So you think she's going to California to get back to the show, somehow? How?"
"She was asking about Doctor Strange. She demanded I tell her how to get to him. I refused. I expected her to torture it out of me, but she did nothing. Just flew away." Black Widow shrugged. "Perhaps we should alert Stephen that the girl is looking for him."
"According to Wong, he's 'unavailable', which could mean anything. But Wong didn't expect him back any time soon." Wasp shrugged, then looked at her watch. "Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if she wasn't going to try and find Sunnydale, the town the show took place in. Its not there. SHIELD checked. There is a 'Sunnyvale' in California, but its up near San Jose. According to the show, Sunnydale is closer to Los Angeles. SHIELD is going to be using satellite imagery to keep track of her location once she hits California. If she doesn't go to where this Sunnydale place was supposed to be, especially if she lands inside a large city, she'll meld into the population and will be gone."
"So we're chasing her?" Spider-Man asked.
"That's the assignment."
Black Widow shifted in her seat. "Will Sentry be coming? I haven't seen him in a couple of days." Almost under her breath, she added, "Thank Christ."
"I've sent out a coded alert. Hopefully he'll join us in California." Like Black Widow, the Wasp wasn't sure whether she should be happy or frightened by having Sentry along on this or any other mission. "Okay, wheels up in ten. Get ready and we'll meet in the hangar. Hank, please get the quinjet spun up. We'll leave as soon as everyone's assembled."
Yellowjacket nodded at his instructions and left immediately for the hangar. The rest of the team rose and moved out. Spider-Man hung back, and was the last person in the room aside from the Wasp. He had a question for the team's deputy leader. "Janet, tell me something. From everything we can tell, this girl's just a scared kid who got in over her head. Why are we treating her like she's Ultron?"
Her answer was dry and filled with sarcasm. "Politics, Spider-Man. Politics and public relations. She embarrassed SHIELD by escaping from their custody, and thus is seen by certain people in the government to be following in Captain America's footsteps.
"Yeah?" The web-slinger held the door for her as they exited the room. "So?"
The Wasp just sighed. "So. Now they expect us to help make an example out of her."
High above the Midwest, in the cold, stark air of the upper atmosphere, Xander Harris was weeping. The constant flow of tears were boiling away into the air from the friction of his passage. His nose ran, but the since that liquid was denser than the tears, it merely dried on his face. Not that Xander noticed. He wasn't noticing anything, really, other than the approaching Pacific Ocean. He certainly wasn't noticing the temperature, or the brightness of the moonlight, or the fact that he was flying fourteen miles high through the air.
For the moment, he'd just let go and allowed the stress to take control. Everything had come to a head, and the pressure and the stress he's been under since waking up was finally bubbling to the surface. Oh sure, it had been fun thinking of how cool it would be since he was a superhero now. But then he'd actually got into a fight with real superheroes, and those real superheroes wanted to throw him in prison for life just because he existed.
The game was no longer fun.
The hard part was, he really couldn't figure out which part was worse. That he was apparently trapped in a different dimension? Yeah, that was bad. Hugely bad. That he'd been in a coma for months? That was also bad. That he'd been apparently thrown ten years into the future? That was horrific. His friends probably thought a vampire had got to him a long time ago. Ten years. That was plenty long for someone to be declared dead.
He didn't want to be declared dead. He liked being alive. He liked his friends. He wanted to be with his friends. He wanted to be with Buffy and Willow and Miss Calendar and even Giles. Hell, he would be willing to put up with Angel if it meant getting back to his friends. Ten years. Were they even alive anymore? What would they do if he wasn't around? Who would cheer Buffy up if he wasn't around? Who'd prod Giles into thinking outside of the Box? Who'd convince Willow that she wasn't worthless, and that someone cared about her? Who?
But even the ten year gap couldn't hold a candle to the truly, truly maddeningly terrifying truth of the body he was in. At first, it had been easy to ignore the fact that the body he was stuck in had different parts than what he was used to. It had been weird, but no big deal, and sort of cool in a sexy way. At first. Just a little.
Okay, let's be honest... he was a teenage boy, and getting up close and personal with the lady parts had sort of been a lifelong goal, and hey, there they were! And no one could really object to his playing with them, since they were his, right? At least as long as he wasn't rude about it.
But after a while, the reality of the situation began to weigh on him. The longer he was stuck in this body, the less it felt like he was stuck in this body and the more it felt like just a body. It was like, his actual maleness was slowly wearing away as he got used to the idea of inhabiting a female body. It was, slowly but almost inexorably, feeling like he wasn't going to be staying Xander Harris, but rather was turning into a mix between Xander and Karen and Kara.
He'd seen a mirror. It would have been easier if he'd been nothing more than a female version of himself. He believed this to be true. Had he been just himself, plus girlness, he could have handled it better. But no. He wasn't a female version of himself. No, he was blonde, and beautiful, and had fantastic cheekbones, and long hair, and eyes the same color as the sky on a perfect spring day. And his boobs were way too big and he was muscled funny and it threw him off balance and what the hell was he supposed to do?HE WASN'T A GIRL. HE DIDN'T WANT TO BE A GIRL.There wasn't anything wrong with being a girl, of course. He liked girls. Boy, did he like girls. He loved girls. Did that make him gay now? If he was stuck inside a girl's body... if he was going to be a girl from now on... if he couldn't find a way to change back... if he was a girl and still liked girls, was he gay now?
Would he slowly start liking guys?
No. He still liked girls. He'd always like girls.
Well, he assumed he liked girls.
No, he definitely still liked girls.
WHY DID HE HAVE TO BE A GIRL?
The tears started again. He couldn't help it. He was crying, and crying like a little...
No, he wasn't going to think that. That way lead to madness.
A sudden thought, coming out of left field, scampered across Xander's consciousness and it almost caused him to drop out of the sky. It scared him so bad he started shaking, and cranked the stress up so high that he started to dry heave, sending him into free fall. He eventually did vomit, just in time to catch himself and resume his course west.
Did Kryptonian women menstruate?
And if so, what in the name of all that was holy was he supposed to do about it?
Fuck that, how soon would he have to deal with it?
He was a guy, what did he know about getting a period? And he couldn't just ask someone. How do you broach that subject? A doctor? Yeah? A doctor who wouldn't look at him funny when he came in, admitted he was a seventeen-year-old boy stuck in a girl's body, and never went through a period before?
What was he going to do?
His thoughts turned back toward home. He couldn't remember how far it was from the east coast to the west, but he knew he was flying faster than sound (the boom was a while ago) and could see the Pacific Ocean ahead using his telescopic vision.
There had to be someone in this world who could get him home. He couldn't think of any Marvel superheroes who could move from one dimension to another except Doctor Strange and that Watcher guy on the moon, and the Watcher's schtick was never interfering. He knew he could get to the moon, no problem. But how to convince Mr. No-Interference to help?
So no luck there.
And then the sobbing started again.
He hoped he hadn't permanently crippled Iron Man and Ms. Marvel. He hoped not. It was never his intention to hurt anyone.
But everyone knew which road was paved with one's good intentions.
Author's Note: If you recognize it, its probably either Mutant Enemy's toy, Marvel Comics' toy, or else DC Comics' toy. If you don't recognize it, its likely mine.
Author's Note the Second: A hearty thank you goes out to Erin, Laquanda, and Linda, in the casual menswear department at Macy's Department Store, located on Harold's Square in Manhattan. They were kind enough to have a very strange (for them) conversation with me, and described for me just where their department was, and what could be seen outside their window, and how high up they were should someone jump through that window.