Origin Story

But Today is a Very Different Day

Chapter Seven: But Today... Today is a Very Different Day

XxxxxxX

"Quit. Don't quit. Noodles. Don't noodles. You are too concerned with what was, and what will be." – Master Oogway, "Kung Fu Panda"

XxxxxxX

Spider-Man shifted in his seat, staring at the file he held on his lap. It was a copy of Karen Starr's file, helpfully provided by SHIELD. Notes on everything SHIELD had done with the girl while she was unconscious, everything the girl had said and done after she awoke. Notes on her escape. After-action reports from her fight with Iron Man and his team.

Unlike commercial jetliners, there wasn't a convenient drop-down tray-table on the back of the seat in front of him. He made a mental note to talk to Stark about including them in the next quinjet upgrade the team received. Spider-Man flipped through several pages, all the while balancing the thing on his knees. Luckily, balance hadn't been a problem for him since high school. He rubbed the back of his head for a moment, thinking. It wasn't as satisfactory feeling as it would have been without the mask, but one had to make allowances. It was a super-hero thing, he was sure.

Spider-Man looked up from the file, deep in contemplation. Something, he thought to himself, was very wrong here. He reopened the file to double-check something, then went back to thinking. Something is very wrong, but its just not coming to me yet. Despite his reputation as a jokester who couldn't take anything seriously, the truth was that Peter Parker was a highly educated genius. While not as smart in general as Tony Stark, the truth was that in some areas, Parker left Stark in the dust, intelligence-wise. And knowing about people, how people thought, and figuring out motivations and goals was one such area.

And to Spider-Man and his people skills, something about this entire situation stank like a fish market in ninety degree heat.

He turned to Wonder Man, who was dozing in the seat across the aisle from him. "Got a question for you, Simon."

"Sure, what do you need?" Wonder Man opened up one eye. He hadn't actually been asleep of course; he no longer needed to sleep at all. But when he wanted to be alone he always pretended. His teammates had figured out pretty early that this was a ruse, but they let him get away with it out of respect for the man.

"This girl... she pulled apart a set of shackles made of secondary adamantium, while wearing a collar specifically designed to neutralize super-powers. Right?" Spider-Man checked something else in the file before continuing. "The neutralizer collar was itself made of secondary adamantium. And she pulled these things apart like she was stretching out piece of taffy."

"Yeah," Wonder Man nodded. "So?"

"So..." Spider-Man hesitated for a moment. He had noticed that he somehow had gained the attention of the entire cabin, outside of Hank Pym, who was flying. "So, I'm thinking. The neutralizer collar is pretty standardized, and works by detecting and neutralizing anomalies in the human genome. But its got an upper level of effectiveness, right? I mean, past a certain point it just doesn't have that much effect anymore."

"Okay." Wonder Man sat up straighter in his chair. He had a moment of clarity where he thought he saw where Spider-Man was going, but wanted to see it play out. "So what's the point?"

"I'm thinking there's two explanations." Spider-Man held up two of the fingers on his left hand, then tapped one with his right index finger. "One, she's not human, or at least not entirely human. That would mean that the neutralizer collar never had a chance to affect her, and she was playing along the entire time."

"What do you mean, not human?" Wonder Man asked.

Spider-Man shrugged. "Maybe she's an alien, or..."

"What, like she's a Kree infiltrator or something?" Black Widow asked from the sidelines.

Simon chuckled at that, but rubbed his chin anyway. "As long as we're thinking non-humans, she could be an Eternal. Super-strong, impossible to hurt, flies, energy blasts, manipulation of matter enabling them to tear through adamantium... it fits."

"So what's your second thought." Wasp interjected, captivated by the conversation. It was a lot better than the novel she was reading. She couldn't remember who recommended Plum Lovin' to her, but when she found out, that person was going to pay and pay dearly.

"Well, my second thought's the really, really scary one. Maybe she is human, and maybe the collar was affecting her powers, but that she's so phenomenally powerful that even with an artificially reduced power level, she was still powerful enough to tear through secondary adamantium. I mean, maybe the collar never had a hope in Hades of really affecting her, and she was just playing along the entire time."

That thought hit everyone in the quinjet like a ton of bricks. For a couple of minutes, no one said a thing.

"Hank," Wasp finally said, coming out of the shock of Spider-Man's idea. "Do me a favor and confirm for me that Sentry is meeting us in LA, okay? If Starr's that powerful, we're going to need him along to deal with her."

They all turned back toward Spider-Man. "What?" the web-slinger asked. Everyone was looking at him as if he has a booger hanging out of his nose. "What's wrong?"

Black Widow smiled at him. "They're just not used to you being so insightful, Peter. They're used to the immature prankster."

Behind his mask, Spider-Man began to sputter. "I don't know why no one ever thinks I have a brain in my head. I'll have you know that I have Master's Degrees in both organic chemistry and physics, and I minored in Engineering. Give me another six months and I'll have my PhD."

"Really?" Wonder Man was one of the few people who already knew how brilliant Spider-Man really was, but at this point the joke was too good to pass up. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. "I, for one, never expected you to be so acclaimed in the academic world."

"Oh, shut up!" Spider-Man gave Wonder Man a friendly tug to the arm.

Yellowjacket brought the discussion back to the topic. "Okay, so you said maybe an Eternal? What are you basing it on?"

Wonder Man shrugged. "It was just an idea, but when you think about it, it fits. I've read the files of the older Avengers rosters. I mean, old members are always popping up, so I figured I'd get to know who might be showing up at our door. Remember Sersi? Amazingly hot indestructible amazon with super-strength and laser eyes who could fly. Just like this girl. So yeah, I'm thinking Eternal."

"But we know all the Eternals, right?" Spider-Man turned to the Wasp. "We do know all the Eternals, right Janet?"

The Wasp gestured in the negative. "Not necessarily. How many of them do we know who live on Titan? I mean, other than Thanos and Starfox? Could be thousands of them. But they are rare, and they generally don't fall out of the sky at random. I mean, its an idea, but its not as likely as you might think."

From the back came Ares deep, resounding voice. Even when he was talking quietly, the war-god always sounded like he was speaking through a megaphone. Of course, so did Thor and Hercules. "Have you considered that she might just be one of those mutant creatures you mortals are always whining about?"

Spider-Man half-turned toward Ares, who was behind him. "Well, the truth is we don't. I mean, she might be a mutant who was just too powerful to be neutralized. Of course, if she's a mutant, why haven't we heard from the people at the Xavier's school? Its like they're contractually obligated to get involved when the bad guy is a honking powerful mutant, right, what with the entire 'she's a mutant so she's out responsibility you don't understand the angst of mutant-kind so please kindly step back out of the way while we attend to this mess' vibe they've got going."

"I'd like to bring up something that no one here or at SHIELD seems to have considered." Black Widow sat forward in her seat. "What if she's telling the truth? Anyone thought of that?"

"What do you mean?" The Wasp asked.

The Widow sighed. "What if this person really is Xander Harris from another dimension where Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't a television show, but is real life. What if she really is a teenage boy who was stuck in the body of a super-powered teenage girl because of some misfiring magic spell. What if she really is just trying to get home. If all of that is true... and I know its a lot of assumptions... by continuing to hound this girl rather than help her get home, we're only doing more damage."

Wonder Man actually laughed at this. "Natasha, do you hear yourself? That's got to be one of the most ridiculous things I've..."

Black Widow interrupted him, raising her voice to ride over his interjection. "Spendthrift son of a multimillionaire runs out of money to cover his gambling debts, and in his desperation turns to a villainous agency known for its mad scientist tendencies." Realizing where the Widow was going, Wonder Man shut up and suddenly looked a bit ashamed of himself. But the Widow went on: "Said agency exposes this wastrel millionaire's son to assumedly lethal levels of a previously known type of radiation. Rather than kill the wastrel, his body was slowly transformed into a packet of cohesive energy, granting him great strength, endless endurance, and a resistance to harm possessed by almost no other being on the planet."

And when she was finished, she merely raised her eyebrow at him. Everyone was quiet, watching the two of them.

"Okay, point taken," Wonder Man said finally. "So are you saying you believe all this..." he waved his hand around, looking for the right term. "...stuff... about being from television show dimension?"

"No, actually, I don't. But I do think it needed to be brought up. After all, as I just pointed out, we've encountered stranger things that were at least as improbable." From off to the side, the Widow thought she heard Spider-Man mutter something about clones and old girlfriends, but she could have been mistaken. "In any case, whether or not we believe it, Ms. Starr does. Her actions will be directed by the assumption that everything she said about her background is true."

The Wasp seemed to want to say something in response to that, but she stopped and tapped one side of the headset she was wearing. After a few moments, she spoke into her microphone. "Roger, SHIELD control. Thank you." She pushed the headset back so that it was hanging from her neck, frizzed out her hair with her fingers, and said, "Okay, NORAD's lost her. She hit southern California and her signal was lost in the noise. They think they've narrowed it down to only Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties."

"Only!" Wonder Man groaned, tossing his hands up. "Great. Yeah, that's only about eighty thousand square miles or so to search."

"At least its not the entire state, right? And it could be worse, we could be searching Alaska." Spider-Man couldn't help but laugh a bit at Simon's discomfiture. "Oh hey..." the wall-crawler looked around at his teammates. "I know Simon lives in southern California full-time, and I know a lot of you guys have been out here before, but this is my first time on the west coast. When we get this wrapped up, you think I could stick around a couple of days and see the sights? Maybe go on one of those tours of the stars homes? Or, I dunno... Disneyland maybe?"

XxxxxxX

The sun hung in the sky like a golden ball. The sky was had just enough cloud in it to be called poetically beautiful, and was the perfect shade of blue to be called artistic. The weather wasn't too hot anymore (though it had been earlier in the day; it was August in southern California, after all). The grass the perfect straw-colored yellow for wild grass in California, and had been cut short enough to be pleasant to sit on. The occasional bird-call and insect noise, combined with the ambient noise of the people Xander was watching, didn't distract from the vista before him. All things considered, it really was a beautiful day.

There was a lake where Xander Harris's home town was supposed to be. It was a beautiful lake. That had to be admitted right away. But still... it was a lake and not a town.

Not that he really expected anything else. Intellectually, he knew that Sunnydale didn't exist here. The people at SHIELD had told him this, and they really didn't have a reason to lie to him, so he had just sort of accepted it as gospel. No Sunnydale. His mind accepted it. He knew it was a fact. But it hadn't sunk in until he was here, overlooking the valley his hometown would have been filling had it existed in the Marvel Universe.

He'd finally hit the Pacific Ocean about midnight the night before. He figured out which way was south by putting the Pacific on his left, then turning around. That had lead to an hour of flying, looking for the bright lights of cities, and hopping from cityscape to cityscape had eventually led him right to Los Angeles. He then just backtracked north, following the Pacific Coast Highway. The first clue that his quest to just go home was going to be more complicated than just going home was the sign. It should have said, "Welcome to Sunnydale", but instead said "Lake Cachuma Reservoir State Park."

He'd landed on one of the bluffs overlooking the lake and taken a good long look around. A really good look, too, using the body's senses to their fullest. He'd even dove into the lake and spent a good half an hour prowling around the lake bottom just so he could say that the town hadn't been covered in all that water. It hadn't been, and there wasn't anything down there worth talking about. In point of fact, there wasn't any sign of the town at all. Sure, there were cabins in the area, and a small marina, and a small beach covered in signs that read, "No Swimming", but no town. No Sunnydale.

He'd known it wasn't going to be there. He'd known it. Going in, he'd known it. But he hadn't been emotionally prepared for it. Not really. It was one thing to know the facts, it was another to feel the impact of those facts.

The full weight of the isolation and the adrenaline and the fear and the stress and the knowledge that he was about as far away from home as he could possible be, added to the stress of an involuntary sex-change and the inherent problems involves, plus the extra added stress of being a fugitive from justice who'd escaped imprisonment and absconded had fallen onto his shoulders. He settled down beneath the shade of a small grove of pine trees and cried.

And then when he was done crying because of the stress, he cried some more because of the sense of loss.

And when he was done crying because of the sense of loss, he cried some more because... well, he didn't know why because. He just cried some more.

He normally didn't cry like this. Crying wasn't a normal part of his stress reaction, and hadn't been since his dad had laid into him when he was eight for being a crybaby. Ever since then, he'd been the "joke about the danger and run, but always keep a level head" type of person. The "simmering anger just below the surface lacking an appropriate outlet" type of person. The "finally snap and attack when pushed too far" type of person. He really wasn't the crying type, and this bothered him. The intellectual side of his brain was telling him that saying "I'm a teenaged girl now and I've got hormone problems" was sexist and stupid, but deep down he'd have to admit that this was his first thought.

Eventually, though, he reached a point where he was all cried out, and thus tired. The sun was getting lower on the horizon, and Xander felt emotionally exhausted. So he sat under the trees on the bluff and watched the lights go on in the cabins around the lake. He watched the people out in the boats pull into the marina and tie up for the night. He watched the picnickers pack up and drive off. The day was ending, and he had no idea really what he was going to do. So he sat for a while and just watched the world pass by.

Surprisingly, it worked. He actually felt, if not relaxed, at least less stressed. Soon enough, he started thinking. The last thing that anyone who knew Xander from Sunnydale would say about him was that he was introspective. In fact, they'd laugh at the idea of Xander sitting down for a good think sometime. But one of the things Xander who knew for a fact was that people tended to see what they wanted to see and nothing more. And not all that they'd see would be the truth.

This was an ironic thought, given his current situation.

So he sat and he thought. Just slowly pondering the problems he was facing. Thinking about the little things. Things like, Now that I know for sure that Sunnydale absolutely does not exist in this universe, what precisely am I going to do for food and shelter? That was followed by the realization that he hadn't really eaten anything in the last 24 hours and wasn't all that hungry. He also wasn't really noticing the temperature anymore, or the fact that after coming out of the lake he'd been sopping wet. So maybe food and shelter were optional now. And that lead to him thinking Well wait. Even if don't need shelter for the shelter anymore, I'd still like a place to sit down and watch some TV or something. Everybody liked to have a place they could go to get away from the world and put all their stuff, after all, and he really did want to have some stuff. Everybody wanted some stuff. George Carlin said that, didn't he? The only thing a person really needed to be happy was a place to put their stuff. That implied that all people needed was a little stuff to put in that place, right? So shelter was still a consideration.

That thought lead to Right now, all I own is a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. I don't even have a pair of socks. Maybe he should do something about that, while he tried to figure out how to get a hold of Doctor Strange, or one of the other wizards to be found in Marvel. He thought a bit longer and realized that he really couldn't name any wizards in Marvel other than Doctor Strange and Strange's arch-enemy, Baron Mordo. And his girlfriend Clea. He was sure there were others, but who they were he had no clue. Sooner or later he'd have to go back to New York and find Doctor Strange.

In the mean-time, all he had was the clothes on his back.

Surprisingly, that lead back to the I'm not a girl I don't want to be a girl thing. It was a rutting nightmare. It was a plague. It was a nightmare about a plague. Here he was, living a life-long dream, and it came with a cost that he wasn't sure he wanted to pay. Since he was a kid he'd dreamed about being a superhero. It was a game that he'd played with Jesse and Willow when they were kids. Always had been, since the day Willow's mom dragged the three of them into a used bookstore (even at six years old, Willow had been a bookworm) and there Xander had found an entire rack of old comic books. Most of them were torn, or were water-stained, or were missing their covers, but they were only a nickel apiece and Xander had fallen in love in a heartbeat. He still remembered the first comic book he ever owned. It was an old, dog-eared copy of a Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic that was older than he had been when he bought it.

Green Arrow. It had been Green Arrow who taught Xander everything he ever knew about being a hero: you didn't give up, no matter how hard it got for you; you didn't hurt other people if you could help it, especially people who were weaker than you. You watched out for people who couldn't watch out for themselves. And you absolutely positively did not compromise on what was right and what was wrong. Xander had swallowed every drop of this code of heroism. During his years of torment as the class loser, he had tried to live up to this code regardless of the cost to himself in cuts and bruises. And he did this even before Buffy arrived.

Buffy.

Buffy was the real deal; she was an honest-to-Betsy superhero. And in the proximity of Buffy, he finally had begun to feel like a hero, if not a superhero. Xander had jumped at the chance to help her out in her battle against vampires and demons. Are you kidding? And over time, he discovered that she relied on him to be the Scooby who never, ever gave up. Oh sure, he'd get scared... sometimes he'd get terrified... but he never let that stop him. Getting scared was normal. Giving up never occurred to him.

He was scared now. That was for sure. He was pretty sure he'd come close to killing two superheroes. At the very least, he'd put them in the hospital with serious injuries. Ms. Marvel especially. What he'd done to her was gross and disgusting and horrible all at once. He'd never seen third degree burns, but that was how he imagined they looked like.

This brought on a whole new raft of fears. The Avengers were no doubt going to be looking to get back at him for their own. They knew he was from California, and would likely come here to hide. But California was a big place, and he was just one person. He hoped he could stay hidden. In the comics they always found the villains eventually, but maybe if he kept his head down, he'd be able to pull it off. With his luck, though, it was only a matter of time before Thor or Captain America showed up to arrest him. Xander was pretty sure that since he was technically an escaped fugitive, the last thing he wanted was to be arrested. Of course, the words "no trial" and "imprisoned for the rest of his life" not only scared him, they pissed him off.

It would be cool to meet Captain America, though. Hey, it was Captain America, right? Even the villains respected Captain America! The Red Skull hated the Captain, but he respected the man.

He figured that his future was going to follow one of four alternatives. First, he could find a way to get his old body back and then go home, not necessarily in that order. This would be ideal, and the one he was going to actively work for. Second, he could find a way to go home but be forced to keep the body. This was not what he wanted at all. He didn't want that at all. That being said, he thought he could possibly deal with being a girl if he had to, as long as he had his friends around him to help him. At least he hoped so.

His third option was finding a way to get his body back, but being forced to stay in the Marvel Universe. This, like the second option, was not what he wanted at all. He wanted to go home and be with his friends. But if he was going to be stuck in the Marvel Universe, he knew he'd be better off in his own body instead of this one. He wouldn't be a superhero anymore, but he could live with that if it meant he went back to normal.

The last possibility was being stuck in a girl's body, and stuck in the Marvel Universe. He knew that this option not only meant that he'd never be a guy again, but that he'd constantly be on the run from the law unless the law changed, or else he somehow convinced other people that he wasn't a threat. Plus the entire girl thing on top of it. How the hell was he supposed to be a girl? There wasn't anything wrong with being a girl, of course, but it was a job you weren't supposed to pick up in the middle if you were a guy. The only good thing about the last option was that he'd be stuck in the body of a Kryptonian, and any way you cut it, being a Kryptonian had its advantages.

Somewhere, on a non-intellectual level, he realized just how screwed up this situation really, truly was. Whatever psychotic, sadistic bastard of a Higher Power decided this was a good idea needed a good kick in the nuts. What kind of loving God gave a guy his oldest dream, being a superhero, but slammed you in the wrong body, on the wrong side of the law, without any place to stay or any of your friends. It was too high a price.

He liked being a guy. He wanted to go home. It was just that simple. He was in the Marvel Universe, and how cool was that supposed to be? His dream had been fulfilled. Nightmareville.

It occurred to him that he was no closer to deciding what he was going to do than he was when he sat down.

Xander was still thinking when he finally noticed that the sun was down below the horizon and all the boats were in. A scattering of lights from the cabins, the park offices, and the traffic crossing the dam at the far end of the lake were the only lights. The moon was new, and when Xander looked at the sky it was like a that Van Gogh painting he'd seen in school once. He took a moment to truly open his eyes, and suddenly the sky was as bright as day, rippling with the colors of the various wavelengths that mortal man didn't have the acuity to sense.

He took a moment to locate the planets. He had no real idea where in the sky they were supposed to be, so he just concentrated and swept his greatly-magnified gaze around the sky until he spotted them. It was supremely cool that he could do that. Of course, even with his enhanced senses, the planets were little more than smudges of color on a black background, but it was still awesome.

For a little while, at least, the beauty of the sky drove the problems out of his head. They never show this part in the comics, he thought to himself. There are a few perks to staying Power Girl. Can't deny that. It was this thought that forced him to realize that was swiftly getting used to having, and using, superpowers. He hoped beyond hope that, when the time came to go home and get his own body back, that he could give them up without any second thoughts.

Could he give up the ability to have a private planetarium show every night, if he wanted one? How about never getting hurt or feeling cold or hungry again? Could he give up being able to fly, now that he'd not only flown but crossed the continent in a little less than three hours?

Oh well. Enough of this. Xander sighed deeply as he spoke to himself. Enough sitting around all mopey. If I'm going to do something about this, I should do something about it and not keep whining about it. With that, Xander floated gently up into the air, taking one last long look toward the lake. Toward, he admitted to himself, the place where his hometown was supposed to be, but wasn't.

He'd spent the day in peace, at least. He wasn't quite sure when he'd get another one.

XxxxxxX

The Avengers had taken over a conference room in the Los Angeles federal building. It was only temporary. They'd been waiting for SHIELD to tell them when their target was making a move of some kind, but so far there had been nothing. And unfortunately it was almost a "by definition" thing that superheroes, who wouldn't be what they were if they didn't secretly crave the action, hated to just wait around.

"Ah, man, I hate just waiting around." Hank Pym handed a can of Coca-Cola over to Spider-Man, who was already working on his second slice of pizza. The yellow-clad hero grabbed a slice with one hand while, showing a talent for ambidexterity, he popped open a can of soda with the other. Spider-Man just nodded in return. The webslinger opened his mouth to comment, but was cut off by the late arrival of the Wasp and Sentry. Sentry moved through his teammates with all the grace and precision of a shark swimming among reef-fish, and the other Avengers suddenly got very quiet and deliberate, as if they were afraid to accidentally break something, or accidentally set something off.

As Sentry settled into a seat at the far end of the table, Spider-Man cleared his throat, then quietly sand, "Hale, hale, the gang's all here..."

Wasp shot Peter a scathing look, but before she could actually say anything, the phone on the conference room table buzzed twice. Black Widow, the closest Avenger to the phone, reached out and tapped the "talk" button, putting it on common speaker. "Yes?"

"We got her." It was Teague Marsh, the agent-in-charge of the Los Angeles SHIELD facility. "She popped up on a traffic control radar out at LAX. LAX called the Air Force to confirm they had a flight in the area, and the call was transferred to us. She's over Santa Barbara County, moving southwest. Subsonic. Wherever she's going, she's not in any hurry."

"Thank you, Agent Marsh." Wasp turned to her team and gestured, making the whirling 'everybody up' sign. "Let's saddle up, guys." She looked over at Sentry. "Robert, if you don't mind..." Sentry looked up at Wasp and nodded. "I need you to intercept the target. We'll follow along and meet you there. Just keep us updated on her location." Sentry looked pained, but nodded. He left the conference room and headed right, obviously headed toward the stairs to the roof. The rest of the team followed in his footsteps.

XxxxxxX

Xander was a mile in the air and headed south-east. While drifting over the lake, he'd come up with a plan of sorts. Step one was get to Los Angeles. Step two was to figure out Step Two once he got to LA, and hope that Step Two included finding a place to stay and maybe a temp job until he figured out what he wanted to do, just so he had some money in his pocket and a roof over his head.

Money, he had realized, was going to be a real problem. If the judge was right, and I'm nothing more than a TV character in this world, my social security number is- His conversation with himself was abruptly cut off when a glowing, man-shaped freight train slammed into him bodily at somewhere north of Mach 4.

XxxxxxX

Wasp listened to the radio for a moment, then turned to report to her team. "Okay, Sentry is engaging. He estimates he'll have the Starr girl under control in less than a minute." All around her, the other Avengers just nodded.

And then Spider-Man had to go ruin it. "So what's the plan if he doesn't have her under control in less than a minute, boss lady? This was a girl who tore through adamantium, after all."

Janet van Dyne sighed. For a guy who joked around so much, Spider-Man could really be a bummer sometimes. "That's why we're following him in. Just in case he needs backup."

Spider-Man nodded, as if agreeing. "Great. We're his backup. Perfect." He muttered just low enough to keep anyone else from hearing.

XxxxxxX

Xander bounced at least six times before rolling to a stop. The first couple of bounces sent him nearly fifty feet into the air and covered a good quarter mile. The ones after that were shorter and shorter until she was merely rolling along the ground. He rolled for nearly five hundred yards. Luckily, it didn't hurt that much, though it was getting his clothing dirtied up like nobody's business.

He was careful as he stood back up. Xander dusted the dirt and plant matter from his clothes and hair as best he could, then looked up. Standing in the air above him, looking down at him with an expression of sneering contempt, was a man in a gold and black costume, sporting a blue cape. They held their respective positions for several seconds, neither moving or speaking a word. Finally, it was Xander who broke the silence. "You're new, aren't you? I mean, I have no idea who you're supposed to be. Are you an Avenger? Did someone decide to add a cheap Superman ripoff to the Avengers?"

The man in gold continued to sneer. "Save the insults, girl. I'm here to bring you back to SHIELD. Give up now and I won't have to hurt you. You can't win, so you might as well not even try tOOF!" From a standing start, Xander had leapt into the air. He slammed into the newcomer, leading with his right shoulder and striking the man in the abdomen from below. It was a move guaranteed to knock the air out of someone.

With his opponent momentarily dazed, Xander grabbed the man by the right wrist and swung him into the ground. Keeping hold of the wrist, Xander again swung the man in gold, this time over Xander's head to drive him into the ground again. And then again. Finally, in a twirl that was so fast it temporarily disrupted the local ground-level wind currents, Xander threw the man in the gold suit as far as he could.

The man's appearance had shaken Xander to the core. Sure, he suspected that the Avengers would eventually catch up to him, but he figured that he'd have at least a week before they found him, not merely hours. But there was no time to worry about it now. He had to get out of here.

Well, at least that should take care of this guy. I hope he "GERK!"

The man in gold was back, flying into Xander at high speed. The man grabbed Xander by the neck and lifted him off the ground with one hand as he flew. "That was a very stupid, stupid mistake, young lady." Those words were soon followed by a golden flash as Xander's attacker brought his free hand around in a clenched fist and slammed it into Xander's face. Xander's vision blurred for a moment, and blood spurted from her nose. It was all accompanied by a crunching noise that told Xander that the nose in question was well and truly broken. The man hauled his free hand back for another go.

Xander decided, then and there, that he'd had enough. Just enough. Events lately had sucked beyond the telling of them, and Xander was tired of it. Being attacked twice in 24 hours, this time by some arrogant jackass that Xander had never seen or heard of before, brought a new feeling to the fore in Xander's mind. It wasn't shock, or stress, it was anger. Raw anger. In the immortal words of Popeye, I've hads all I can stands, and I can't stands no more.

The man hauled his fist back for another go. Still hanging from the man's other hand, Xander brought his own hand up and caught the man's fist. Xander held it in place for a moment, just because he could, then shoved the man's fist away. He brought his other hand up and started gouging at the man in gold's eyes. That got the intended reaction; Xander found himself dropped like a hot rock to the ground. The man in gold dropped to the ground as well.

The two stood and considered one another for a moment before Xander spoke. "You know what, buddy, you're right. Someone's made a big mistake tonight. But you're wrong... it wasn't me." In his head, Xander was trying to figure out a way to put this asshole down, but hard.

The man in gold moved in to punch at Xander, but he ducked aside. He tagged the man's face twice with quick jabs. He wasn't able to put as much power as he wanted into the fast punches, but Xander had to smile when the gold-clad newcomer's nose started bleeding. The man brought his fist around again, and Xander ducked back, then shoved the man's arm around so hard that the newcomer was spun bodily around.

Then Xander kicked the guy in the nuts, trying to put as much push into the kick as he could manage. Xander felt a strange sense of gratification as the man in gold sank like a submarine with screen doors. He rolled his eyes at the man's groans. He turned and took four steps, poking gently at his nose, which still hurt like a bitch. Then he cursed. The rest of the Avengers had arrived.

"I just can't catch a break!" he said. Xander gingerly wiped blood from his upper lip as the heroes arrayed themselves in a rough horseshoe in front of him. He thought he recognized all of them, though he wondered who the guy was that looked like Spider-Man; Spider-Man wasn't an Avenger, as far as he could remember. Was Hank Pym back in the Yellowjacket suit? And who was the joker with the guns and the Mohawk?

"Okay..." It was almost a wheeze. His nose was beginning to interfere with his breathing. "I take it the gold guy was with you. If we're gonna do this, let's do this. Who's next?"

The Avengers rushed him, obviously trying to bum-rush him. Xander ignored Wasp and Yellowjacket; he couldn't even feel their attacks. He ducked under Wonder Man's charge and brought up his arm just quick enough to barely miss clotheslining Spider-Man, who managed to leap out of the way in time. The webslinger sprayed a mass of gray-white goop into Xander's eyes, blinding him for just a moment. In response, Xander cranked his visual range up into the X-Ray, and suddenly he was fighting a group of skeletons. A quick burst of heat vision and his vision was clear.

The guy with the Mohawk had yet to move. He seemed to be studying Xander.

Black Widow managed to grab Xander's wrist and twisted, bringing leverage into play. Xander flipped into the air over the Widow's shoulder, then stopped in mid-air. As gently as he could in the middle of a fight, Xander slapped the Russian martial artist on the back of her head; the blow was hard enough to send her sprawling into the dirt.

The guy still hadn't made a move.

Xander turned back to the other Avengers just in time to catch a punch from Sentry, who'd recovered from the nut-shot Xander had laid on him. For a moment, Xander's vision blurred, but he recovered fast enough to give Sentry a double pump in return. Again, he pitched the man in gold toward the horizon. The Wasp and Yellowjacket were now aiming at his eyes, so he swiped at them randomly. It was powerful enough to generate a breeze strong enough to knock them tumbling out of the air.,

Wonder Man and Spider-Man each grabbed Xander by an arm and dragged him to ground level. Wonder Man pulled Xander's arm back in an arm lock, while Spider-Man kicked at Xander's legs. Having no better idea of how to respond, Xander picked each man up and slammed them into one another. This took care of Spider-Man, so Xander punched Wonder Man in the face twice, then tossed him in the same direction he'd tossed the man in Gold.

The man with the Mohawk finally moved. He brought his hands together and cracked his knuckles, then leapt at Xander. Xander moved out of the way of such a clumsy attack, only to find that the man had grabbed hold of Xander's shirt in passing. Suddenly Xander found himself in the dirt. This new joker was standing over him. Before Xander could react, the man had brought a heel down directly into Xander's solar plexus.

The man backed away quickly as Xander climbed to his feet. The guy just stood there, waiting. Waiting for Xander to make a move, obviously. Xander obliged him, tossing the same punch that had earlier cause the man in gold's nose to bleed. Mohawk stepped inside Xander's arm, blocked Xander's punch with both hands, and twisted, and once again Xander was flying through the air toward an impact with the earth. And then Mohawk followed, leaping after Xander's flying body.

Mohawk still hadn't said anything. But he had a grin on his face like he was enjoying the fight. Xander righted himself in mid air, and as the man's leap ended started throwing blow after blow in the man's direction. Mohawk managed to block or dodge all of them, and continued to do so even as Xander's blows gained speed. Without warning, the man had grabbed Xander by the shoulder and was flipping him again. This time, Xander reacted the same way he reacted to the Widow's shoulder-throw. He stopped in mid-air. Using the man's own arms as a lever, Xander pulled the man into the air, then punched him in the gut.

Mohawk collapsed around Xander's fist, the breath driven out of his lungs, and slid to the ground.

"Okay, anyone else? Anyone else want some?"

"I think I do, yes." A voice sounded from behind Xander. He whirled to see the man in gold standing there; obviously in pain, but standing. The man in gold was holding out one hand, which was glowing the same color as his costume. "I am the Sentry! I have the power of a million exploding suns! I am always two seconds ahead! I always win!" And with that, he unleashed a great, burning beam of energy from his hand that struck Xander square in the chest.

Xander stood there in wonder. The bruises that had begun to form from this Sentry guy's initial attacks faded instantly. His nose, which had definitely been broken, stopped bleeding and healed itself. The various little scratches and scrapes were gone. And Xander felt fresh as a daisy, like he'd just stepped out of the shower. He felt hyper, like Willow after a cup of coffee. Almost intoxicated.

The man in gold, Sentry, stared at Xander in confusion. For his own part, Xander stared in wonder at the world around him, taking especial interest, for just a moment, in his own right hand. He stared at it back to front, then front to back. Xander had just noticed he was glowing. Just a little bit. A soft white radiance.

The guy who called himself Sentry growled, then rushed forward, intent on body-tackling Xander. Xander laughed, then almost casually back-handed the man in the face. Sentry went head over feet and landed in the dirt. Xander stared at the other Avengers for a moment. Several were climbing to their feet, though some more quickly than others. He laughed again, not sure why, but he laughed. Then he reached down and grabbed a big bunch of Sentry's costume in one hand. Xander looked up at the sky, then hauled back and threw the man in gold skyward as hard and as fast as he could.

The Avengers who'd regained their feet, Black Widow, Wonder Man, Yellowjacket, and the Wasp, were all staring at Xander. Xander stared right back at them. His gaze finally fell onto the Black Widow. With an intoxicated sigh, Xander waggled a finger at her. "Now was that nice? I told you I wanted to be left alone, right?" The Widow nodded. "Good. I'm glad I told you. Now, you can probably track me to LA, so I'm not even going to lie about where I'm going. I don't want to have to do this again, okay, so I'm headed to LA. You guys stay here or leave, I don't care. Just don't bother me."

And with that, Xander lifted off like a rocket.

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