Origin Story

A Strange Place to Find a Noble Soul

Chapter 8: What a Strange Place to Find a Noble Soul

XxxxxxX

"How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a weary world." – William Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice"

XxxxxxX

For a moment, the Avengers who were still on their feet just stared as the girl rushed through the air, moving away at high speed. They looked at each other, as if unsure of what to do next. Then the Wasp immediately began issuing orders.

"Simon, get after her. Slow her down any way you can. Even if you can't stop her, maybe you can hold her up for a couple of seconds until help gets there. Hank, you too. Ares...?" She looked a question at the god of war, who was still getting to his feet.

Wonder Man and Yellowjacket immediately took off into the air, flying after the still-visible girl, whose glowing form was growing fainter and fainter in the distance. Ares nodded, took a deep breath, and then he too was moving. Within seconds, Ares was running faster than 80 miles an hour.

Wasp moved to where Spider-Man was helping Black Widow to her feet. The Widow looked pale and shaky. "Natasha, are you all right?"

"I think I'm concussed Janet. The entire world is spinning. I think I... I might need to see a doctor. And I think I'm going to throw up." Spider-Man hefted the Widow into a bridal carry and strode as quickly as he could toward the quinjet without jostling her too much.

The Wasp followed. She watched as Spider-Man sat Black Widow down as gently as possible, then lowered her head to a thirty degree angle. It was only then that he began to strap her into the seat. Without turning his head, the wall-crawler said, "Janet, now might be the best time to get the get in the air, I think. We need to get Natasha to the hospital."

"Right. Hospital." The Wasp sighed. "I guess Sentry is on his own for now." She sat in the pilot's seat as Spider-Man squatted next to the Widow, keeping an eye on her. As she hit the engine start switches, she opened her mouth to tell the web-slinger to strap down, and then realized how foolish she was being. His ability to stick to walls was so strong that the hull under his feet would give out before he moved an inch. Instead, she got on the radio. "Simon, Hank, this is Janet. We're going to be airborne in three seconds. Natasha needs a hospital. She got hit pretty hard and is dizzy and nauseous."

"Sounds like she's concussed. Take care of her, Janet. We're on this girl." The voice of her ex-husband sounded tinny over the radio. "She seems to be headed toward LA."

"Confirmed. I think she's headed to LA as well. I'm closing the distance on her, though. Shouldn't be too much longer." Simon's voice, on the other hand, sounded exactly as it did in real life.

The quinjet, being a VTOL vehicle, rose into the air slowly, but once it was moving it really moved. Wasp noted her altitude and bearing, then hit the jets. "Well, that's a coincidence. That's where we're headed."

Wonder Man's voice cut in. "Negative, Janet. Don't do that. Head for Marion Medical Center in Santa Maria. It shouldn't be more than six or seven minutes from your present 20."

The Wasp shrugged, knowing that Wonder Man couldn't see it. "Are you sure?"

Over the radio, Yellowjacket replied, "He's from around here. He'd know. Go to Santa Maria."

"Roger." Janet Van Dyne tapped on the quinjet's computer input keyboard, getting the GPS location of the hospital in question. "Rerouting to Santa Maria. Simon, I didn't know you were familiar with local hospitals."

"In between tours with the Avengers, I did some freelance crime fighting. It pays to know where the hospitals are during earthquake relief." There was a pause. "Damn this girl is fast."

After a moment of silence, she added, "I had to leave Sentry to take care of himself, Simon."

"He's a big boy. He can take care of himself."

"Right." Wasp just shook her head, concentrating on the piloting. The quinjet, for all that it was fast, was ungainly and not meant for maneuver, and in the words of Hank McCoy, drove like an over-bloated musk ox.

"Janet," Simon said after a couple of moments of silence. "You might want to check the reserve roster and find someone who's not only still friendly with us, but who won't mind dropping everything and giving us a hand. We're going to need some backup on this."

"That's a good idea, Simon. I'll get on that as soon as we get Natasha to the emergency room. Wasp out."

XxxxxxX

Xander wasn't really paying attention. As disarrayed as he'd left the Avengers, he wasn't too worried about what was behind him. Only what was in front of him. As fast as he was flying he'd be in Los Angeles within twenty minutes, and that was plenty of time in which to disappear into the city's teeming multitudes.

So, since he wasn't really paying that much attention, he was surprised when he felt the small shockwave pass over his body from the rear. It wasn't much, but it was just enough for him to perceive it. Somewhere, something behind him had just broken the sound barrier. It had to be one of the Avengers. Okay, Xander, think. Which of the Avengers can fly that fast, outside of Iron Man and this new jerk-off? Wonder Man, maybe?

Without changing his forward speed, Xander changed his orientation. He "stood up" mid-flight and turned around, effectively flying backward. Yeah, that's Wonder Man all right. The Avenger was perhaps a mile behind him and gaining. Xander looked past Wonder Man, turning his eyesight telescopic. About three miles past Wonder Man, Xander could see Yellowjacket flying as hard as he could. Xander blinked, and then noticed the moving shadow on the ground. Mister Mohawk was further back from Yellowjacket, running cross-country style at nearly a hundred miles an hour. The guy with the Mohawk was beginning to catch Yellowjacket.

For only a small moment, Xander considered going on the attack. Allow Wonder Man to catch up, grab the hero by the arm, and toss him into orbit. It was a good plan because of its simplicity. No muss, no fuss, and bonus points for it not being likely to kill the hero. He wasn't a real hardcore Marvel reader, but he knew his Avengers and Wonder Man always appealed to him for some reason. He didn't want to permanently hurt the guy. Its just that, outside of the asshole in gold and maybe the maniac in the mohawk, Wonder Man was the closest thing the Avengers had left who could possibly be a threat to her, Getting Wonder Man out of the picture would divert the Avengers off of his trail long enough for him to disappear from sight.

Thing is, Xander really did admire the guy, and putting Wonder Man into orbit would just make the mad-on the Avengers had for him right now worse. It was exasperating. He wished for a moment there was a can or a rock or a piece of trash that he could kick. The fact that he was in mid-air, flying backward at high speed, just made finding such an object that much more unlikely.

"God damn it.", Xander swore. He turned back around and flattened into the standard "lay down while flying" position for greater aerodynamic flow. According to his best guess, he was only ten or twenty minutes or so outside of LA. But he knew he could do better.

XxxxxxX

Wonder Man kept his eyes on the girl. Tracking her was easy, as she was still glowing just a little bit. She was only about a mile ahead of him, and he was gaining. Of course, he was pushing himself to the absolute limit. The belt-jets that allowed Wonder Man to fly fed off of his own internal ionic energy, and as such he effectively had an unlimited supply of fuel on which to run the jets. But if he tried to push any more of that energy through the jets, they'd begin to melt. The jets were red-lined as it was.

The girl was a curiosity, and to be honest he felt that what was going on with her was a crying damned shame. She was nice-enough looking for a teenager, and she seemed to have a pleasant demeanor. She certainly didn't have that "Hi there, I'm evil" vibe that most super-villains gave off. The entire situation felt wrong to Simon, and he really didn't know how to react. Up until the point that she fell out of the sky and into SHIELD's hands, this girl had her entire life in front of her. And that was now all fouled up because some judge decided that locking her away in a psych ward for the rest of her life would be the smart thing to do. Tony Stark put the SRA and the Avengers Initiative together to protect both the supers and the normals. At least so he said. But times like this, it just felt like an excuse to be a dictatorial asshole.

If he could, Wonder Man knew he'd rather be fighting alongside Captain America and the resistance. But Stark knew where Simon's bodies were buried. The billionaire had never actually made any outright threats, or even hinted at making any outright threats. No, Stark actually managed to be more subtle than that for once in his life, simply by making multiple speeches in which he remarked that Cap, and all of the "traitors" who supported Cap, would get the punishment they so richly deserved the second they were apprehended.

So now Simon was chasing down a teenager whose only "crime" was to be different. He'd never felt more ashamed of himself in his entire life than he did right now. Even during his short tenure as a supervillain, way back at the beginning, he never felt this bad about himself.

But he just didn't see any way that he could... "Oh shit!" he said to himself. The girl's airspeed had slowed very slightly because she'd suddenly gone upright and turned herself around backwards. She was staring at him as he closed the distance between them. Then she shifted her gaze to some point behind him. Not wanting to lose sight of her, Simon risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Hank Pym and Ares were nowhere to be seen. So... it was just him and the girl. A girl who had casually tossed one of the most powerful men on the planet into orbit.

Wonder Man watched the girl's face as he closed with her. She'd gone back to staring at him, almost emotionless. Her face betrayed a sense of irritation, but not actual anger. It was more the expression of a parent who caught their kid doing something messy, not the expression of a fugitive trying to escape custody. Nothing to do about it now. Only a couple of hundred yards to go...

The girl turned back around and flattened out horizontally all in one smooth movement. And then suddenly she was gone. Just gone. Not "pulled away from him swiftly," but "vanished" Out of sight completely. There was an explosion of dirt and plant matter sprayed up from the ground, just like the spray left by a racing boat on the water.

Wonder Man was tossed around violently by a cascade of shockwaves created by the girl's sudden burst of unimaginable acceleration. His ears rang from multiple sonic booms. The force of the air's implosion around where the girl had been a fraction of a second ago drove him right into the ground. He'd been swatted out of the air as easily as a butterfly caught in the backwash of a speeding semi-truck. Simon lay there in the dirt for a moment, trying to make sense of what he'd just seen. He picked himself up and dusted himself off as best that he could while working the entire event over in his head.

Even with the clearly visible wake the girl's passage through the air left behind, Wonder Man was halfway convinced she'd teleported. After all, he'd seen speedsters before and this was absolutely nothing like what happened when they went into overdrive. Quicksilver, the fastest person he knew about, simply wasn't capable of that sort of acceleration. He went over the course of events in his head again. The girl had figured out she was being pursued, took note of that pursuit, and then evaded said pursuit through the expedient of being massively faster than those who were chasing her. The fact that the girl had left an implosion of air that felt like a gigantic bomb had gone off in the area was just a side-effect of how fast she was moving.

Wonder Man tried to lift off and continue the pursuit, only to find that his belt-jets had finally eaten themselves. The entire belt looked like it was melting, slowly, and the burning plastic smell just added one more bit of fun to the evening. Simon looked around, just to make sure, then shrugged. What could he do? He took off the ruined belt-jets, then tapped his earbud. "Wasp, this is Wonder Man. I'm grounded. The girl is gone."

"Copy. You're no longer in pursuit," came the response. "Are you all right? Why are you grounded? Did she attack you?"

"Negative. I have not been attacked." He rolled the ruined belt in his hands. "She's faster than we expected. A lot faster. My jets couldn't handle the strain of keeping up with her and melted down. I think there might be a spare belt on the quinjet. If not, I'm a ground-pounder until I can get another one."

"Simon, this is Hank. I see you. I'll be at your 20 shortly." Despite no one being around to see, Wonder Man nodded in response.

Wasp's voice sounded in Wonder Man's ear again. "We're almost to the hospital. Looks like another parking lot landing. Their helipad isn't rated for an aircraft this size. Has anyone heard from Sentry yet?"

There was a round of no's.

"Okay, I'm going to drop Spider-Man and the Widow off at the hospital, then come and pick you three up. Hank, Ares, once you get to Wonder Man's location, hang tight. I'll be there as quickly as I can. We'll try and pick up the girl's trail if we can."

"Roger, Janet. We'll hang until you get here." Simon found himself a comfortable-looking stretch of grass and sat down. "Janet, I got to ask... what are we going to do if we can't stop this girl? I mean, why are we spending so much time on her? There have got to be dozens of truly dangerous criminals out there plotting to destroy the world, or to rule over big patches of it. But we're out here chasing down some scared, delusional teenager who hasn't actually hurt anyone except in self-defense as far as I can tell. This just feels wrong somehow."

There was a long pause. Then Yellowjacket spoke up. "She's a fugitive from justice, Simon. And you saw what she did to Sentry. How can you say that she..."

"What crime did she commit, Hank? Can you tell me?"

"How about escaping from lawful custody. That's a felony." Yellowjacket wasn't backing down.

Wonder Man was silent for a long while. Long enough for Yellowjacket and Ares to arrive. Both men found comfortable-looking spots and sat, waiting for the quinjet to arrive. No one said anything for close to ten minutes. Then Wonder Man broke the silence. "It feels like we're scapegoating this girl because she managed to embarrass SHIELD and the Avengers both."

Hank merely glared. "You know what, Simon? You're right. SHIELD is scapegoating her because she managed to get away. But me? I'm after her because she put my friends Carol and Tony in the hospital. Think about that for a minute."

"Don't make this personal." Ares finally chimed in. "There is nothing personal in this. It is unprofessional."

Another long silence.

"You're kidding yourself." Yellowjacket wouldn't look at the god of war, but his words were clearly directed that way. "In this business, its always personal."

XxxxxxX

Xander made sure to slow to something a little less hurricaney and a lot more manageable before he got too close to Los Angeles's outskirts. He didn't want to break any windows or knock any innocent night birds out of the sky. Or knock any buildings over for that matter. It occurred to him that he should have hit the afterburners a lot earlier in his flight. From the time he left Wonder Man in the dust to when he slowed to a few miles per hour over the Los Angeles skyline couldn't have been more than fifteen or twenty seconds. It certainly would have made it more difficult for the Avengers to catch him.

He stopped, just hanging in mid-air two thousand feet up. LA was huge. Very impressive. Scare. Xander took a moment to just look at the place, and he really looked. There were lights everywhere. Cars on the streets, stores that were still open. Offices where people were still working, even this late at night. Theaters. Restaurants. Entire rivers of moving lights out on the highways.

It made Sunnydale look like Mayberry.

It was funny. Sunnydale was only a two hour drive away from Los Angeles. You'd think, with the big city being so close, he might have traveled there, either on his own or with his folks. But no. Such was his life that before tonight, the only experience Xander really had with Los Angeles came from watching television shows. But even then, the "Los Angeles" portrayed in those shows wasn't the real LA half the time; most television shows these days were shot in Vancouver or Toronto or Seattle, and not even Los Angeles. Which means, he thought to himself, that I don't know anything about Los Angeles at all. From his vantage point, he could see the Hollywood Sign easily enough. It helped that it was on the side of a mountain. He could also see the classic Los Angeles Police Department building. He recognized that from old Dragnet reruns. Dodger Stadium was obvious. Directly below him was the Capital Records building, which Xander couldn't help but think of the building Tommy Lee Jones knocked down to stop the lava flow in that otherwise forgettable disaster movie. And in the distance, with the help of some telescopic enhancement, he could see the spires of Disneyland's castle. He'd always wanted to go to Disneyland, but never had the opportunity. Maybe someday, if he was going to be staying in LA.

The rest of the city, and all of its people, were nothing but a pure mystery to him.

For a while, and for a lack of other things to do, he cruised through the skies of Los Angeles, doing what Willow always called "the tourist thing", just looking around at whatever there was to see. Trying to get a sense of what was where in the city. It was pointless in the long run, he knew, because he was getting a sky-eye view of the place instead of actually seeing it like someone who lived there. But it was a way of wasting time. Time he didn't really have to waste. The Avengers would be coming, he knew. It was just a matter of time, and he had to hide himself in the city somehow.

Xander flew to the busiest street he could find, outside of one of the freeways and landed in a dark alley just off of it. From there, it was a simply matter of acting like everyone else and hoping nobody noticed he was barefoot. The first street-sign he saw told him he was now on Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood Boulevard at night was all neon and stores and clubs and restaurants and offices and other places one really needed money to fit into, but there was enough of a crowd to lose yourself in, even after midnight, so that's just what he did.

It reminded him of Broadway in New York. It really did. For a moment, Xander wondered about the other really huge cities in America. Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston... did they all have that one street that never closed down? And then it occurred to him that if he really wanted, he could answer that question easily enough by just going to them and looking.

The problem of money reared its ugly head again. If "Xander Harris" was a fictional character in this world, a character on a television show... and then and there he made it his life's ambition to find this show and watch it to see what they got right and what they didn't... then getting a legitimate job might well be an insurmountable problem. If he was make-believe in the Marvel Universe, then his social security number was nothing but a random number. You couldn't even get a job at the DoubleMeat Palace without a social.

Thinking about it, he realized that it would actually be more likely that his social security number was actually assigned to someone else. That made him smirk. Oh sure. Let's just add identity theft to the charge of evading federal custody. Unfortunately, he might have to resort to doing that until...

What until? Until he got the hell out of this universe and back to his own? Until he realized he was stuck here and had to make a go of it? Xander sighed heavily. This was a problem he still had to work out. He was going to need a way to make money. Just because Kryptonians could go a while between meals didn't mean they could go without forever, and he'd still like to have a place to sleep that was out of the weather. Right now it looked like he would have to find an alley, or maybe a rooftop or an underpass.

Another set of clothing would be nice, including some shoes. That thought made Xander stop and wriggle his toes against the concrete. When he noticed that he was gouging creases in the sidewalk, he chuckled and stopped. So... shoes. And clothing. Even burger joints would refuse to hire him if he wasn't clean, and in clean clothing.

And they're going to expect me to dress like a girl, because I looked like a girl now. He sighed about that. If he was going to be realistic about his situation, he'd need clothing that fit the body he was stuck in, not the image in his mind of what that body was supposed to look like. A brassiere was going to be necessary, if for no other reason to keep his... the bodies... he couldn't believe was about to think 'his tits' as if they were actually his. Xander sighed again. 'His' tits were ungainly and got in the way. Hence, some sort of restraint for them. A bra was going to be necessary. Maybe a sports bra.

Xander stopped at a street-corner and looked up at the sign. Wilcox Avenue. Never heard of it. He looked around at his fellow pedestrians, and most of them looked like they had somewhere to go. He continued to watch them for a little while, even after the light had changed. Normal folks who looked as straight and narrow as they come. Goths. Punks. Obvious hookers. Partiers and club-hoppers. A female midget in a very revealing black cocktail dress being followed around by a camera crew. A guy wearing one of those sandwich boards that read 'Jesus Is Lord' on one side and 'The End is Coming' on the other side.

And here he was, in a stolen pair of jeans and a t-shirt, with no shoes, wondering how to proceed with his life.

Xander kept walking, taking note of his surroundings. A 24-hour drug store, a coffee bar, a magic shop selling tricks and costumes. A hair salon. A two-man busker team who was doing a really fantastic rendition of "Who'll Stop the Rain" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

He was beginning to feel very "country mouse" in this big city.

XxxxxxX

By the time the Avengers arrived, the girl they hunted was long gone. This was what they expected. Janet landed the quinjet at the Los Angeles SHIELD facility, and the team disembarked for a quick debrief before heading toward assigned quarters, or in the case of the Black Widow, the facilities infirmary. She was still on a medical watch due to her concussion. Most of the team was exhausted and frustrated, except for Ares, Sentry, and Wonder Man, who were all merely frustrated.

Which made their debriefing that much worse. The team had expected to make a quick report to the local agent-in-charge. Instead, what they got was an interrogation via video-conference by Maria Hill, the Director of SHIELD herself.

"So what you're telling me is that one again, the Avengers was unable to contain a teenage girl." The contempt she felt for the heroes at this point was clear on her face.

The Wasp, who had been the focus of Hill's open contempt, wasn't having any of it. "Feel free to spin this any way you want, Director Hill. You're going to do that no matter what anybody says. We both know the truth, though. You sent us against an Omega-Level metahuman after telling us she was just an Alpha. You can't blame us for the fact that someone who is stronger than Sentry and as hard to hurt as the Juggernaut is difficult to capture. And let's not forget that she's apparently faster than Quicksilver."

"How were we supposed to know?" Hill's anger was still simmering. "For most of her stay with us, she was unconscious. In the three weeks she wasn't, she never once demonstrated this sort of power. It wasn't until after she walked out of our medical facility..."

"That should have been your first clue!" Wonder Man interrupted. He was holding the girl's file. "She just casually walked out. She ignored being shot by Hulkbuster rounds, and imbedded Doc Samson so deep into a concrete wall that the man had trouble prying himself out. And he can lift tanks, remember?"

"Simon..." Wasp put a hand on his arm. Wonder Man just nodded, still fuming.

Wasp turned back to the camera. "Tomorrow morning we're going to start a search of the city. My guess is we aren't likely going to find her unless she does something stupid and flamboyant like taking down a bank or holding a school hostage, and your own psychologist says she's not the type to do either thing. So until we know more, you're going to have to be patient." And with that, she deactivated the feed, ending the conference.

"God, I hate that woman!" Janet van Dyne fumed. The other Avengers around her busied themselves with whatever was around them. All except Simon. But then Simon was indestructible, immortal, and fearless.

"Janet, I wanted to show you something." He gestured with the file. "This is everything we know about Karen Starr before our dust-up this evening. I'm trying to figure out what she did wrong to attract this attention. I mean, sure she escaped from custody, but seriously... everything in this file says that she never once violated the law, which makes me wonder why she was in custody at all. Since when is falling to the ground a crime?"

"She was an unregistered metahuman. The SRA..." Janet began.

"And at the first opportunity, she registered. Karen Starr, aka "Alexander Harris", aka "Power Girl", is in all regards in compliance with the Superhuman Registration Act. She's even scheduled for Hero Boot Camp, though for some reason I doubt she's going to show up for training now."

"But..." Janet began again.

"No. Janet, seriously, this girl's crime was apparently 'found naked in a crater in Nevada.' She hasn't done a thing to warrant being held in custody against her will, much less done anything worth having us being sicced on her. She's been railroaded for some reason. No one asked her how she ended up in the upper atmosphere in the first place. No one asked her how long she's had her powers. Or how she got them." He took a deep breath, obviously bothered by it all. "Its like some nameless bureaucrat at SHIELD has decided that, since she's an unknown metahuman with mental problems, there's no real reason to treat her with the care that a scared teenaged girl might need. So why are we assisting in this witch-hunt?"

"Because she broke the law, Simon. She broke the law."

"Yeah? Ever hear the phrase, 'had to go to prison to become a criminal?' What law did she break? Escape from lawful custody? Sorry, since when is 'found naked in a crater' a crime? SHIELD was holding her unlawfully, in full violation of her rights. They had no reason to arrest her, much less hold her or decide to send her to the Gulag." Wonder Man leaned in close. "She. Was. Innocent."

The Wasp wouldn't meet his eyes. "Well, we certainly put an end to that in a big hurry, didn't we?"

"Oh you think?" The Wasp noted Simon's sarcasm. He was normally a friendly, jovial sort of guy who might give you a bit of a prod once in a while, but never through gritted teeth. It was a sign of how deeply Wonder Man was taking all this. "I'm coming to the opinion that all of this could have been avoided. Its like with the Hulk. If the Army had actually listened to the beast once in a while when he said he wanted to be left alone, there'd be a lot fewer abandoned buildings in Arizona, you know?"

"Anyone who triumphs before his enemy's threats become real wins the war." Ares's voice interrupted their head-to-head. Both Janet and Simon turned to see the Greek god approach. "Sun Xu. A very wise man, for a Chinese mortal. I have thought on many occasion that it was he, and not Guan Gong, who should have entered the August Portal of Heaven and become the god of the arts of battle for China."

"That's interesting, Ares, but what..." Simon began.

"I overheard what the two of you were talking about, and felt a need to add my opinion. Yes, the girl was an innocent. Yes, the girl was treated shabbily, but what's to be expected? She's the daughter of peasants, and such folk have always been the grain ground to powder by the mills of the powerful. Now, though, now she's one of Echidna's children, with a vast and dangerous potential for destruction." Ares poked Wonder Man in the chest, trying to get his point across. "The Nemean lion might have merely been acting toward its nature, but that didn't mean it shouldn't have been put down. She's not an innocent girl, anymore. She's a nuclear weapon waiting to explode. Treat her as one. Don't let this ridiculous 'compassion' you are feeling for the 'poor forgotten girl' let you forget that we still can't find Sentry."

Ares nodded to Wasp. "The rest of the team has left for the hotel. I drew the short straw to notify you. Good night, Janet." He nodded to Wonder Man. "Simon."

XxxxxxX

Xander continued to wander. The taller buildings, glitter, and neon of earlier had given away to a more open area. It was still busy, and still featured the occasional club, but wasn't as populated. There was more trash on the street, and more homeless people. If he hadn't been trapped in the body of a Kryptonian, he could potentially be worried about his circumstances. This was verging on the type of area that vampires loved to use as hunting grounds.

Which is why he nearly jumped ten feet into the air when a voice came out of nowhere.

"Hey, beautiful! How you doin'?"

Xander turned around to find himself being followed by a pair of young men, maybe in their late 20s or early 30s, whose clothing style made Xander believe that these guys were seriously into Miami Vice. Pastel colored sport coats over t-shirts, and tan denim slacks. Both men were smiling at him in the same way a shark smiles at an amberjack. The one on the right was busily looking Xander up and down, while the one on the left actually took his eyes off Xander's tits to meet Xander's gaze and smile.

"You look like you're new in town," Right-Side Guy said. "Wha's your hurry, sweet thing? Where you goin'?"

Xander couldn't help it. He actually burst out into a laugh. He slapped a hand over his mouth to keep it from escaping, but enough got out for the other men to hear. The sound puzzled the pair.

"Wha' chu laughing for?" Right-Side Guy asked. "Wha... oh... is our accents, right? Yeah, we always get shit for our accents."

That just made Xander laugh even more loudly. The man had actually pronounced it "Ox-Scents". Xander just couldn't help it. He giggled; he hated giggling, but since he got stuck in this body, it had happened more and more often. Apparently, Power Girl had been a giggler. "I'm sorry, guys, but here I was, walking down Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles and a couple of stereotypes from the movies come out of nowhere to talk to me. Really. Thanks. Its been a day and this has been the best part of it."

Now that Xander had stopped walking and had turned around, the men had shifted their gazes to his face... with the occasional sharp dip south to remind themselves of the mountain range that Xander was carrying around under his shirt. For some reason, Xander found their attempts at not checking Xander's chest funny, too. That Xander was aware, he'd never been 'checked out' before by anyone, be it a guy or a girl.

Right-Side Guy smiled back and shook his head. "Okay then. If it make you happy, go right ahead, beautiful. You're cuter when you smile, anyway."

Left-Side just nodded. "Hey, we ain't tryin' ta scare you and we ain't gonna bug you or nothin'. We just wanted to talk to you, that's all. We saw you walkin', lookin' like you do an' all, and thought you might need a little help. I mean – you got no shoes, you in dirty clothes. But you seem pretty fine under that grunge, so maybe Francisco and I can help you out." Left-Side paused for a second, then continued. "He's Francisco." He pointed to Right-Side.

"He's Sanchez." Right-Side pointed to Left-Side. "And yeah, we just wanted to help you out a little."

Xander's eyes narrowed. "Help me out how, exactly?"

Right-Side, the one named Francisco, held up his hands as if to say 'Its all good' and grinned. To Xander he was radiating a sort of sleezy friendliness. "Well, we figure you look like you just jumped off a bus or maybe you thumb your way here to good ol' LA, but now you ain't doin' so well. So hey, how about we clue you in to a unique career opportunity that could have you making up to a hunnert thousand dollar a year if you work it right."

And then it was Left-Side's turn to talk. "Now, we ain't hustlin' you, and we ain't gonna try to pimp you or nothin' and we ain't involved in drugs, so we ain't trying to get you high so we can, you know, do stuff to you. We ain't nutballs or nothin'. We jus' saw you walkin by and I say to Francisco, 'Francisco, a girl look like that, she might have a future', you know? So can we talk to you about the future?"

Xander just stated at them. They still weren't reading as threatening, but there was a definite slime-factor here somewhere. On the other hand, what were they going to do? Whip out the kryptonite and chain him to a wall or something? "So what do you mean, talk about my future?" Right-Side opened his mouth to respond, but Xander interrupted. "Specifically, what are you talking about?"

Francisco closed his mouth, then smiled wider. "Good! Good! We're negotiatin'. This is good. Anyway, you look like you got it a little rough right now, am I right? I figure we'd make you a deal. You give us jus' one hour of your time, sittin' in a bright lit public place, maybe get sumpten to eat, right? You listen to our proposal, we give you five hunnert dollars. That five hunnert cash, and all you got to do is listen to us. Hey, you don't like what I say, you walk and I still give you five hunnert, and that's got to be enough for you to get some clean clothes and some shoes and maybe a room off the streets for a couple of nights, 'cause I got the feelin' that right now you ain't got no place to go. Am I right, beautiful?"

"We won't even aks you to get into a car or nothin'." Sanchez had been nodding along while Francisco spoke, but now took over the narrative. "We was thinkin' we can all go right over there to the Denny's and you can get sumpten to eat. Lookin' like you do, you muss be hungry, right?" The man pointed past Xander's shoulder toward the next intersection. Xander looked in that direction and could clearly see the restaurant the man was indicating. "I mean," Sanchez continued. "I ain't ever been homeless myself, but I remember bein' poor, and bein hungry is the worse part of it, right?"

"You're going to buy me dinner, and all I have to do is listen to you." Xander stared at them some more. "You'll buy me dinner and pay me five hundred dollars just to listen for an hour. What's the catch?"

"Hey, no catch! No catch at all!" Francisco actually looked insulted. "Sanchez and I are respectable businessmen, and we like to treat people fair. For a person of your obvious advantages, let's just say that we believe you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar, am I right?" Xander had noticed that the man's eyes had dropped to his chest when Francisco had said 'advantages.'

Xander thought about it for a moment. He could use the cash, this was true. He needed more clothing, and a night in a room would be nice. And as he'd already noted, its not like the men could hurt him.

"Okay. One hour. A meal and five hundred dollars. Let's go."

XxxxxxX

"You're joking!"

"Nope. We're bein' serious right now."

Xander ordinarily loved the Denny's pot roast. Right now, his was growing colder and colder on the plate. The 'business proposal' dropped on him by Francisco and Sanchez had done the impossible. It had stopped him from even thinking about eating.

"You're really not joking about this?"

"Oh yeah, totally serious. Look, no offense here, but a girl built like you're built? You know, long legs, great ass, and tits big enough to land airplanes on? You could write your own ticket! You'd probably pull a thousand a scene, right? And that's just for straight sex." Sanchez took another bite of his steak. "Double it for a girl-on-girl scene. And if you get into the more exotic stuff like anal or a DP-scene? Maybe four, five times as much. Of course, if you're into the really kinky stuff, the money could go sky high." He took a sip of his coffee. "But I gotta tell you straight. Newcomers to the biz really gotta avoid the really extreme stuff ." He raised a hand, as if warding something off. "Not until you got a lotta experience under your belt. Or, you know, if you already into that scene, know what I mean?"

Francisco was nodding along, but he stopped, suddenly. "Hey, um. Alex. You need to eat, you're dinner's getting' cold. Don't say nothin' yet, just go ahead and enjoy the dinner." That comment caused Sanchez to suddenly look embarrassed. He'd been talking straight through and apparently never noticed that Xander had only taken a single bite of his dinner.

Xander ate his pot roast. It was still pretty good, despite being just a little bit above room-temperature. You had to go a long way to make Denny's pot roast anything but excellent. As he ate, he thought about the proposal. What surprised him was that, as sleezy and disgusting as the suggestion had been, the two men hadn't cajoled him, lobbied him, or did anything other than make the offer. They explained how it would work, what the pay was, what the work schedule was like, who he'd be working for an with, if he took them up on it.

Sanchez even had a copy of a financial statement showing what sort of money there was to be made, and had even mentioned insurance, including dental.

But porn? Really?

He finished his plate and rather than meet the eyes of the two men, he just stared at it for several minutes. Then he took a deep breath and let it out slow.

"Look, guys. I, um, wow. I mean, um, thanks for the pot roast and all, but I don't think I could. Um. I mean, look. I'm still a virg-" His voice cut out as he realized he was about to say to two complete strangers. The one secret that no teenage boy over the age of 15 would ever admit to. Of course, as far as Francisco and Sanchez were concerned, they'd been talking to a teenage girl. So when Xander uttered this nugget of information, both of them suddenly sat back in their seats. Their faces grew very serious, and they seemed to study Xander as if he was a very interesting lab specimen.

Francisco looked to Sanchez, who looked right back. Then the two of them looked back to Xander. "Francisco," Sanchez said with a sigh. "I do believe we forgot to aks Alex here one really vital question." He studied Xander some more. "I mean, lookin' the way you do and all, we both just assumed. But you, you're still a kid, ain't you?"

"I'm not a kid." Xander's response was phrased as if he considered the question a joke. "I haven't been a kid in a while."

Sanchez sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand. "I mean you're still under 18, right? You're under 18."

"I turn 18 next January." Xander knew that it was the middle of August.

"Shit." It was Francisco's turn to pinch his nose. Sanchez pushed his plate away, then let out the longest breath that Xander had ever seen anyone take. The two men looked at each other again, then shrugged. "Okay, Alex. In that case forget everyting we jus' said to you. Preten' we been talkin' about why you ran away from home and how it'll be okay and you can always go back to your mami and papi and work shit out, okay? Preten' like we haven't been tryin' to talk a minor into bein' a porn actress, okay? 'Cause that's all kinds of wrong. Now, we ain't mad at you or nothin', its our fault. We should'da aks you how old you are and we forgot. We run a clean business. No drugs, no STDs, no kids."

Francisco just nodded. "An' don't worry, you still get the five hunnert. In fact, here." He pulled his wallet out and counted out four hundreds and five twenties. He also searched around among the business cards he carried in his wallet and pulled one out. Xander took the cash and the card. Glancing at it, he saw that it read 'Saint Bridget's Convent", and had an address and a telephone number.

At Xander's curious look, Francisco explained. "Its a convent. You know, with nuns? They take runaway girls for short term. Its a soft bed and at least one hot meal a day for a a week as long as you're willing to sweep around or mop or do dishes and put up with a little church."

"You Catholic, Alex?" Sanchez asked. Xander shook his head, causing Sanchez to chuckle. "Don't worry, you will be." He paused and looked Xander straight in the eye. "Look, kid, they're strict about no drugs, and if you end up trickin' and drag something bad back wid you like an angry John or an STD or heaven help you some hopped up gang banger got the idea he gonna be your pimp, you be out on your ass faster than you can call on liddle baby Jesus to help you. But you keep your nose clean... well, its better than the alternative for a week, okay? You go there and stay safe. And call your folks and let them know you're alive, okay?"

As the two men stood, Xander said, "I really don't know what to say?" And he really didn't.

"Say you'll go there and be safe, okay?" Sanchez put his coat back on. Francisco had never taken his off. "And hey, who knows. Maybe in January you come back and talk to us and we get you on to some real money. But if not, you go try and have a good life, okay?" He waved over at the waitress. "Hey, let me have the check, okay? And you bring this liddle girl a piece of pie or somethin'. She needs it."

Francisco put a gentle hand on Xander's shoulder. "If I see you in a month out on some street-corner, tryin' to earn enough cash for your next hit of smack, I'm gonna be real disappointed. Call your folks. Even if you don't think you can go home, they need to know you still breathin', hokay?" Xander just nodded. "Good. Now get yourself some clean clothes and some shoes. You squirrel the rest of that cash away. Its not for you to get high on. Its for you to take care of yourself. Hokay?"

Xander nodded again.

"Good. See you aroun', Alex." And with that, the two men stood and walked out of the restaurant.

XxxxxxX

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

Author's Note the Second: As I said in the original version of this story, Francisco and Sanchez are based on real people. I have changed their names to protect the smarmy. Despite the sleezy nature of their business, they really are pretty good guys and watch out for the women who work for them.

Author's Note the Third: For those of you who expressed regret that the last several chapters seemed to mirror the original and that I hadn't been adding a lot of new material to the story, keep your patience. The next chapter begins a stretch of utterly new and original material that you haven't read before in the original story, having to do with Xander's stay at the convent, what he does afterward, some of the friend's he meets, and how he runs into Nico Minoru and the rest of the Runaways, and precisely what that meeting means for the future of the Marvel Universe.

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