"And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the LORD when I lay My vengeance upon thee." – Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), "Pulp Fiction"
"Okay, that was, um, useless. What just happened, anyway?" Xander stared at the staff-wielding sorceress. "I thought that spell of yours was supposed to send us to my home dimension."
Sister Grimm stared, open-mouthed. "Well, yeah! It should have!" Xander snorted. "No, Alex, you don't understand. My spells always work. Always. The only time they fizzle out is when I try to cast a spell more than once, and even then, there's some effect. I promise, this is the first time I've ever used a 'Send Alex and Louise to the Dimension from Which Alex Came' spell. So, it should have worked! It should have!"
"Well obviously, it didn't, did it?" Xander was angry and near panic. He'd been so close.
"Hey, Alex, it's okay. Calm down. She's trying to help." Louise put her hand on Xander's shoulder and rubbed it gently.
"Yeah. Yeah. Right. Calm. I'm calm." Xander took a few deep breaths. "God! I'm calm. I'm calm." He took another few breaths, then looked at Sister Grimm. "Your spell didn't work. Why what would make your spell fail?"
"Nothing. Only me trying to use a spell I've already case. But I told you, even then something happens. It just doesn't fail."
Xander opened his mouth to make a sarcastic retort, but was interrupted by Talkback, who had been watching the exchange. "What if the spell worked after all, but not the way you thought it would?"
Everybody else in the room stared at the young man.
"How do you mean?" Sister Grimm asked.
"Well, that's happened before. You cast a spell to do one thing, but you misword it, or you don't really want it to happen, or something distracts you and the spell works just fine, but instead of conjuring a wolf you conjure a Chihuahua or something." Talkback shrugged. "I mean, that's the easiest answer."
Sister Grimm was silent for a long time, staring at Xander. It made him uncomfortable after a while. "What? Do I have a booger coming out of my nose or something?"
"He's right. It's the only logical explanation. The spell actually worked somehow, just not like we expected it to." She sighed, one of those deep forlorn sighs people make when they realize they're going to have to do something unpleasant. "Yeah, okay. We need to go talk to someone. Chase?" Talkback looked at her quizzically. "I need your car keys."
Xander's first thought was So, Talkback's first name was Chase. Weird name. But then he stifled the thought. His best friend was a girl named Willow.
"Yeah, sure, Nic." The blonde man tossed Sister Grimm his keys. "It's parked where it's usually parked. Take care of my baby, now."
Turned out that Chase's 'baby' was a Mustang convertible, one of the early models. 1965, maybe, or 1966. Xander whistled over it. Even though the car was currently a rusted-out piece of shit whose primary paint color was Bondo, it was clear to Xander's eye that Talkback was at least trying to slowly and surely restore the car to its classic condition. He was just doing it in a weird way. Why bother getting the seats re-upholstered, for example, when the rocker panel was still spotted with holes and rust? But it wasn't his car. It was a sweet ride, though. Talkback had already replaced all the tires, restored the engine to perfect working order, and had apparently had some work done on the shocks and the suspension.
He let Louise sit up front with Sister Grimm while he took the back. The top was down, and as they accelerated up the Pacific Coast Highway, he took a moment to enjoy the feeling of the wind in his hair. His hair. Without thinking about it, he brought a handful of his hair around and looked at it. Golden blonde, and swiftly approaching waist length. Kara's memories – he still thought of them as being separate from his own memories – told him that once it got past a certain length, it stopped being as invulnerable as the rest of him and could be trimmed with a pair of scissors just like anyone else's hair. And yet he had just let it grow, because he thought it was prettier when long, and somehow that had made him feel better about himself. Better about being, physically, at least, a girl. He still refused to think of himself as female, but at least he could take steps to make it more palatable.
He was brought back to Earth when he realized Louise had asked their driver a question. He hadn't paid attention to the question itself, but the answer was clear enough that he could figure out what she asked. Xander leaned forward in his seat to take part in the conversation.
"We're going to see this guy I know. He's this immortal sorcerer guy and while I have him beat when it comes to raw power, he knows entire libraries of stuff more than I do. And he's the only wizard I can think of within an hour's drive who isn't also a psycho-killer."
"So where are we going?" Xander asked.
"Hollywood. We're going to the Magic Castle. If I remember right, he should be there. He's doing a week of shows there for the dinner trade."
"The Magic – wait – there's a magic castle in Los Angeles? And what do you mean he's doing shows? I thought you said this friend of yours was some sort of wizard?" Xander looked up abruptly, seeing movement in the sky above them. Some sort of radio controlled plane was passing over the highway.
Grimm smirked at him over her shoulder before turning her attention back to the road. "Yeah, well, you wouldn't believe how many stage magicians are the real thing. I think it's a side effect of the magic. We all tend to be show-offs. We want everybody to see how powerful we are and how clever we are. What better way to show off than to climb up on stage and use your real magic to pretend you'd doing fake magic, right?"
Louise suddenly had the giggles. "I guess it makes sense. I watched Penn and Teller on TV once. They were phenomenal." She turned to Xander, kissed her fingertips, and pressed them to his lips. "It was a cool show. Are you telling me they can really do magic?"
"Nope. Not them. They're just skilled illusionists. Amazing performers, but not a drop of real magic in them."
"How about Copperfield?" Louise asked.
"Nope. Another illusionist." This seemed to scandalize Louise, which caused Xander to giggle. He hated giggling. He glanced up again. The RC plane was making another pass across the highway.
"So, uh, what big name magicians would we have heard of who were the real thing?" Xander was curious, and it was a good way to pass the time.
"Oh, well, I don't want to out anybody, really. I mean, I'm going to be outing David, but that can't be helped." Grimm was quiet for a moment. "Oh, I know. Doug Henning. Everybody I've ever talked to about the great sorcerers of the past tell me he was one of the brightest lights. Great performer, friendly as Mister Rogers. His generation's Merlin, I shit you not. The man had more magic in his moustache than most wizards had in their entire body. According to Jennifer Kale – and she would know, let me tell you, – Henning was a one of the backup candidates for the Sorcerer Supreme title just in case Stephen Strange died. They used to call Henning the Rainbow Mage because of the eye-searing costumes he wore onstage. And then he died of liver cancer. Real tragedy."
Xander shook his head. The idea that a stage magician hiding their real ability wasn't that weird. The Power Girl memories told her stories of Zatanna Zatara and her father, John, both of whom used real magic to fight crime while maintaining a performing career. "What's this guy's name?"
She was quiet for a moment, then she stared at him through the rear-view. "Yeah. Listen. First rule of magic. Don't let anybody know your real name. Real names have power."
Xander stared right back. "But – I was there when Chase called you Nick or something. You let me know at least your first name, right?"
"Did I? Maybe." She smirked at him. It was almost like she was flirting with him. Xander looked at Louise, and Louise wasn't enjoying that aspect of their back-and-forth.
"So, uh, what is your name, then?" Louise asked.
"No." Grimm gave the other woman a quick glance. "Weren't you listening? Never ask a practitioner of magic for their name. Ask them – what you should do instead is ask them what they want to be called."
Louise looked at Xander, who shrugged. "Okay," Louise asked. "What should we call you?"
"You can call me Nico." Sister Grimm smiled, completely blowing her 'superhero moniker' out of the water."
"Is that short for Nichole?" Xander heard Louise ask as he sat back. He continued to listen to Louise and Nico banter without paying attention. Apparently, they decided they were going to be fast friends. He didn't know how long it would take to get to the magic castle, but he figured he owed himself some chill time. He sat all the way back, leaned his face up into the sun, and closed his eyes.
"Alex? We're here."
Xander snapped awake. He looked up at Louise in confusion. Without thinking he wiped at the crust in his eyes caused by rapidly drying tears.
"Come on, sweetie. We're here. Let's go meet this wizard guy."
Xander looked around, confused and trying to gain his bearings. Hadn't meant to drift off like that, but the sun was warm and invigorating and the wind was like a massage and he hadn't been able to help it. And during his little catnap, he'd dreamed. There was a thin, brown-haired girl with bright hazel eyes and an elfin look. The girl had been surrounded by a sort of hazy green aura, but for some reason, in the dream, that was just the way it was supposed to be. The two of them had been re-shelving books in the Sunnydale library. She'd been talking, telling him incredibly important things about himself, and about her, and about Buffy, and magic and the entire length of time and space, and she'd really sounded like she knew what she was talking about. The things she said, and the things she had showed to him, and explained to him were all very, very important things, and he remembered that at the end, he'd been crying. Absolutely bawling his eyes out. And he remembered, right before he woke up, that this glowing green girl had hugged him. And then she'd whispered in his ear that she loved him, and that she had faith in him.
He had no idea who this girl was. Just that she seemed friendly. She loved him. Funny how that was the only thing she said in the dream that he remembered.
"Right. Right. We're here." He carefully climbed out of the car and stretched, raising his arms up over his head. Louise whistled cattily and Sister Grimm just gawked for a moment. It puzzled Xander until he looked down. Oh, those. Yeah. He'd got so used to them being there that unless he was reminded, he forgot about them.
"Jeez, guys, let it go already." He rolled his eyes as he tugged his shirt down and slouched, trying to draw attention away from his chest. He motioned toward the castle, silently asking Nico to lead the way. As the sorceress did, she grabbed Louise's arm and leaned in. Xander rolled his eyes at the whispered question, and at Louise's nodding response. Up until that point, he'd always assumed it was only guys who wondered if a girl's tits were real.
They climbed a short staircase to the entrance, and were admitted by a doorman in a tuxedo who tipped his top hat to Sister Grimm. The entrance led into a small, carpeted foyer lined with book shelves and mirrors, but with no other exits. Without pausing, their guide stepped to one of the bookcases and said, "Open sesame!" directly at a carved wooden statue of an owl that sat on one of the shelves. The bookcase opened, and behind it was a grand gallery, with a hardwood floor and walls covered in portraits of the great magicians of the past. At one end was a grand staircase that rivaled the one that had graced the HMS Titanic, and three doorways led off it.
"Oh, Nico! How nice to see you again, my dear!" An older gentleman's voice called, causing the party to halt. The man in question came from one of the ground floor entranceways. Sister Grimm smiled, then held her arms out for a hug, which the man was only happy to supply. He was older, with silver hair and a bald spot, but his face held a gentle child-like nature and was open and friendly. Xander thought he looked a bit like a beardless Santa Claus.
"It's good to be seen, Ray." She drew the man over to her companions. "Ray, these are my friends, Alexandra and Louise. Alex, Louise, this is my dear friend Ray Bradbury." Louise shook the man's hand with a pleasant, 'nice to meet you', but Xander was suddenly having trouble breathing.
"Ray – Ray Bradbury? Oh man – " Xander didn't know how to react. Xander took the man's hand in his own and shook it gently. This was the man whose books began his travels down the Sci Fi Geek Road. It was The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles that led him to Heinlein and Asimov, and it was Heinlein and Asimov that led him to Star Trek and Star Wars! Bradbury's smile grew wider, and without explanation he reached into his breast pocket for a pen and what looked like a business card. Without pause, he wrote something on it and handed it to Xander, then turned back to Sister Grimm.
Xander stared down at the card, which read, it is always refreshing and wonderful to meet such an obvious fan. Thanks, Ray Bradbury. Xander just stared at it for a moment before putting the card carefully into a pocket. It took him a minute to realize that Nico was talking to him like Ray Bradbury – RAY BRADBURY! – was just another guy.
"I think I saw him up in the Houdini See, getting a bite to eat. He's performing tonight, which means he'll be chewing on that onion of his." Bradbury seemed to shudder. "I understand that stage magicians can be superstitious, but why follow superstition that give you bad breath, I'll never know. Anyway, I'm off. You three have fun."
Sister Grimm waved goodbye and started up the grand staircase, but Xander couldn't take his eyes off his favorite author, not until the man had walked out of sight. "Xander, come on." Louise pulled on his arm. "Nico says the guy we need to talk to is upstairs."
"What?" Xander looked around. "Oh, yeah! Sorry.'
"No problem. Ray's a good guy. I take it you have read his books? I've read a couple of them."
"A couple of – wow. Once I started reading his stories, I couldn't put them down. He's amazing." They walked to the next story up, then followed their guide down a narrow corridor. "When I was twelve I found a copy of The Illustrated Man in an old bookstore Willow had dragged me into… she used to drag me into a lot of bookstores. That's also how I found comic books."
Louise looked hesitant. "Was Willow your girlfriend back home?"
"What? No." Xander shrugged. "More like – Willow was the twin sister I wish I'd been born with. We've been friends since we were both six." His expression turned a bit grim. "I miss her a lot." Louise leaned in for a hug while they walked.
Finally, Sister Grimm opened a door and led them into an octagonal room dominated by a green felt-covered table, at which sat a man obviously eating his lunch. The man was dressed in a bright, lime green suit, had long black hair pulled back into a pony-tail with a piece of purple ribbon, and a thin, well-trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee. He was eating what looked like a plate of thinly sliced onions, occasionally dashing salt and pepper on them. From the smell, the onions were raw. Arrayed in front of his plate were what looked like Tarot cards, with the rest of the deck sitting next to his glass.
"David!" At Sister Grimm's call, the man paused in his eating, staring at them for a moment. Then he shoved another onion slice into his mouth. "There you are. I need your advice."
The man chewed and swallowed, then took a sip of something gold-colored that was in a champagne flute. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." He put his fork down and took another sip of his drink, all the while gesturing to the other chairs at the table.
As they were sitting, Nico said, "Xander, Louise, this is David Moondark. David, this is Alexandra and Louise." She waved casually at the man in the green suit. "David here wants to live forever. He's one of the bad guys. A black magician. Also, one of the founders of the Magic Castle."
"Delightful as always, Sister." He returned her casual wave. "Charmed to make your acquaintance, ladies. What questions do you have? What would you like to know?"
Xander looked at Louise, who looked back at Xander. Xander was about to speak, when Louise interrupted. "Are you really a black magician?"
The man took another drink. "Certainly not! There's no such thing as black magic. That's just an example of semantic drift. The phrase 'black magic' is a translation of the word 'nigromancy', you see. And 'nigromancy' is just a corruption of the word 'necromancy,' the magic of the dead. It's not 'black magic' versus 'white magic.' I tend to think of it as live magic versus dead magic. But even that's just simplistic dualism."
Nico and Xander continued to stare at Louise, who was still staring at Moondark. "I see. I think I see. And, um, David Moondark isn't your real name, is it?"
Moondark nodded at her, smiling indulgently. "I see you learned the first rule. Names have power, child." He turned to Sister Grimm, still smiling. "Sister, you are positively fidgeting in your chair. I have to assume you didn't come here to have me share my basic wisdom with some new protégés."
"I cast a spell and it didn't work. I came for help figuring out why."
"Really. Were you using the staff?" Moondark pushed his chair back and stretched in his chair.
"For this spell? Yes."
"Oh? Something unusual with the spell in question?"
"Yeah, I was trying to send Alex back to her home dimension, and Louise was accompanying her. I've never tried to breach a dimensional barrier before, took a lot of juice. Thing is, the spell felt like it worked. But as you can see, they're still here."
"Hmm." Moondark stroked his goatee. It was a proper goatee, too: just the chin whiskers, nothing on the upper lip. It wasn't a Van Dyke, which so many people today mixed up with the goatee. He glanced at Louise, then almost instantly dismissed the girl. His attention turned to Xander, and the stare held for a moment. As their eye-to-eye contact continued, Moondark's eyes got wider and wider and wider and wider.
"Ah. Hurm." Moondark stood and paced for a bit. "I have to confess, I was seriously considering manipulating this little kaffeeklatsch to my advantage. Given that this involved you, Sister, I'm sure you understand." He turned to Xander and spoke directly to him. "But now that I have seen the powers that have touched you, young miss, I must confess that I'd much rather help you as much as I can. After that, I think I will be cancelling the rest of my shows." He waved vaguely at the array of Tarot cards in front of his plate. "I have the sudden urge to travel as far as I can get from this city."
"What the hell are you talking about, David?"
That caused Moondark to snort. "I'm surprised you can't feel the taint of chaos on this girl, Sister." He stepped to a sideboard and picked up the receiver of a house phone. "Yes, hello. Yes, everything is fine. Could you send up a silver bowl filled with spring water, some comfrey, some basil, and a consecrated dagger, please? On the usual card, yes. Thank you that would be fine."
Moondark sat back down. "So, young miss, which of them did you supplicate to gain your power? Given your look, that fair hair and skin, I doubt it was Coyote or Ti Malice. Loki, I would think, or perhaps Gwydion. Even Eris isn't out of the question."
"What? Who did I – supplicate? I didn't do this to myself, big guy. It was sort of done to me against my will. I, uh, it wasn't on purpose."
"Oh, I assure you that what was done to you was on purpose. The consequences of what was done to you perhaps weren't on purpose, but spell's like this don't happen by accident. Hmmm." Moondark thought about it some more. "Let me see your hand please?" He held his own out. Reluctantly, Xander laid one of his hands in the dark magician's. The man studied the lines and marks on Xander's hand, occasionally twisting it at the wrist, all very gently. "Most interesting. On the one hand, your skin and the muscles underneath it are as soft and pliable as my own. But then stressed, they become harder than marble." He glanced up at Xander. "And you say this was a spell someone else put on you? Hmm. Tell me about what happened."
"Uh, sure." Xander thought back. He could access the memories clearly, but it took a moment to gather his thoughts. "My high school principle ordered me and my friends to escort a bunch of little kids from the elementary school around for trick-or-treating on Halloween. Some public service take back the night keep our streets safe thing, you know?"
"Certainly." Moondark nodded. "I've done that occasionally myself. Most satisfying, emotionally, seeing the laughter of the children as they collect their candy."
"You have?" Louise interjected. "I thought you were a bad guy."
"I am a bad guy, Ms. Fulford. That doesn't mean I wish to hurt children, or that I cannot enjoy making them happy. Now – I'm sorry, my dear, you were saying?" Moondark nodded to Xander and waved his hand in clear 'keep talking' gesture.
"Oh, well, my friends and I, Willow and Buffy, I mean, we all went down to this costume shop. I had, uh, lost a bet to the school bitch – her name is Cordelia Chase, and she's constantly ragging on us, and I had this bet regarding a test in a class I knew I was doing better than she was doing. The winner would pick the other's Halloween costume, and we both knew we'd pick something as humiliating as possible."
He took a deep breath. Here it came. "She picked out this skimpy, really revealing costume for a female superhero from the comic books called Power Girl. Even came with fake boobs, a blonde wig, and a fake ass." Everyone else in the room was silent for a moment. Then Moondark's face cracked into a smile as he shook his head. Sister Grimm covered her mouth, but they all could hear her laughing behind it. Louise laughed as well, all the while patting Xander on the shoulder. Eventually, even he saw the humor in the situation. "Yeah, it was pretty stupid." And then everyone was laughing. While they were laughing, a waiter rolled a cart into the room carrying those items Moondark had ordered in through the phone.
"Why did you need fake boobs? I mean, look at you?" Louise was still laughing.
"Um. I didn't have these. I. Crap. Look, the truth is, until I showed up in this world, I was a guy. I was a guy named Xander Harris – short for Alexander. All man, through and through. Then I got turned into a girl."
"Wait, you're really a guy?"
"Louise, look – yes, on the inside, I'm a guy. I know I'm a girl on the outside, but in my head, I'm a guy."
Louise was staring at the floor. "I guess, I mean, if you still, I'm not into. Crap. Look, I don't think – you sort of, um. You kept this from me, and I'm upset. But we've been doing well lately, right? Getting to know each other. You'd have told me, eventually, right?"
Xander was quiet. "Yeah. Eventually."
"Okay. Good. You're still the girl I'm, uh, falling for, I mean." Louise took Xander's hand in her own and squeezed.
"Yeah, okay." Xander kissed the back of her hand. "Anyway, so sometime around, I don't know, seven or eight o'clock, I got this weird feeling all over and suddenly I looked like this, and I was capable of everything Power Girl could do, and I even thought I was Power Girl. And everybody else who bought a costume from this store turned into their costumes too."
He heard Moondark mutter to himself, "I'll have to remember that. Interesting way to cause a little chaos at the next Hollywood party I attend."
Xander pretended he hadn't heard that. "So anyway, Giles – he was our school librarian – Giles figures out what's going on, and he and I go to the costume shop. Giles seemed to know the owner of the shop. He was this guy named Ethan and he called himself a chaos mage." Xander was quiet for a minute, thinking. "Anyway, Giles convinced this Ethan guy to tell us how to break the spell by punching Ethan in the face repeatedly, then kicking him a couple of times while he was down. So, um, Giles did. Break the spell, I mean. He had to smash this little statue of the head of a god. Had two faces on it. The shop owner – his name was Ethan – he said that it was a bust of Janice. I don't remember a Greek god named Janice."
"Janice? Oh! You mean Janus?" Moondark shook his head. "Why would a chaos mage invoke Janus? It makes no sense."
"How so?" It was the first time Sister Grimm spoke in a while. "I'm not that conversant with Greek mythology. Never heard of a god named Janus."
"Janus wasn't Greek, he was Roman. Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, and thus also of doorways, gates, passages, change, time, and aging. He was also the god of progress. He was definitively not a god of chaos."
"Ethan definitely said it was Janus, though." Xander scanned his perfect memory again. "Yeah, definitely Janus. You said he was a god of change. Like changing us all into our costumes."
Moondark was quiet again for a while. "Perhaps. Perhaps. Well… that is interesting. I suppose it would have worked if he approached it as an opportunity for change and not an opportunity for chaos. In any case, let's see what we can find, shall we?"
With that, Moondark added the herbs to the water in the silver bowl and stirred it with the dagger. Then he made a small cut in his palm and allowed his own blood to drip into the water. He stirred it again, eyeing Xander. "Young miss, would you do me the favor of spitting into the water?"
Xander's eyebrows collected in the middle of his forehead. "You want me to spit – "
"Well, this isn't an enchanted dagger. It would be useless for adding your blood. Unless – and please don't be offended by this, but – you aren't menstruating right now, are you?"
"What? No!" Xander looked shocked and disgusted. "I, uh – I haven't actually had that, uh, happen. I mean, I guess it did while I was unconscious, but not since I woke up."
"Since you woke up?" Grimm asked.
"Yeah, I was in a coma for about six months."
"Ah. You're a guy inside a stripper's body, and you've yet to go through your monthlies." Grimm was laughing, while Louise was staring at Xander with wide, wide eyes. Moondark merely cocked an eyebrow at Xander, his face otherwise blank. Grimm stifled her laughter and asked, "So, sport, just out of curiosity, how long's it been since you woke up?"
"Uh, about three weeks, I guess?" Xander shrugged. "Why do you ask?"
Sister Grimm face-palmed. "Oh boy. Louise, your girlfriend's been awake for nearly a month and hasn't had her period yet. Take care of this poor girl, okay?" Louise was grimacing, obviously trying to not laugh.
Moondark finally spoke. "Yes, good luck, young miss. Now, since the dagger is unlikely to cut your skin, and since you won't have any menstrual blood available for at least the next few hours –" At Xander's disgusted face, he shrugged. "– I need you to spit into the bowl. A really good one too. Try to get as much liquid into it as you can."
Xander stared at the man, working his mouth to get a big mouthful of saliva. Then he hawked it into the bowl.
"Excellent. Thanks." Moondark continued to stir the water with the dagger, all the while repeating several words in a language Xander didn't understand. The words faded from his memory almost as quickly as Xander heard them, which was very strange. Within a few seconds, the water became cloudy and red, then abruptly cleared. Moondark stared into the bowl, making odd sounds of "huh," and "hmmm" and occasionally muttering words like "odd" and "wait." After a few moments, the black magician fell back into his chair. He tossed the dagger into the bowl almost neglectfully. He started chuckling then, but it was a dark, unpleasant sound. Moondark eventually covered his face in his hands and rubbed at his eyes ineffectively.
"Well?" Sister Grimm had been staring into the bowl.
"Well." Moondark started to speak, then restarted. Then sat there, and then again started. After the fourth time, he finally said, "So. Do you wish to hear the good news, or the bad news first?"
"Good news." Louise said. "Always good news first."
"Well, yes. All right." Moondark took a deep breath. "The good news is two-fold." He pointed to Sister Grimm. "First, your spell acted precisely as you wished it to. You asked it to send these two to the home dimension of the Young Miss here. And it did. She is, to put it bluntly, a local. This is her home dimension."
"NO! NO! That's wrong!" Xander was yelling so loud that everyone had to cover their ears. The stained glass in the windows began to vibrate and warp in their frames.
"CALM YOURSELF!" Moondark leaned over the table and slapped Xander in the face. He shook his hand from the pain of it, but it got Xander's attention. "Calm yourself. There is good news for you too. It isn't the good news you want, but there is good news."
"Yeah? What? You're full of shit if I believe anything you have to say after that, that, horseshit you just dropped all over us!"
Moondark sighed, trying to exude the calm that he wanted the young woman to feel. "The good news is this: you, or rather, the person you think you are but really aren't, the young man named Alexander Lavelle Harris, is alive and well in his home dimension. I saw him, in the vision bowl, fighting a vampire alongside his friends. He's still there, and in fact has never left."
"But. That can't. It isn't possible! I'm here! I know who I am! I'm here, not there! How could I be there if I'm here too?"
"Yes, well. Young miss, you are the result of a singular coincidence. You are what happens when you combine an Abstraction with an Artifact. You are unprecedented in the multi-verse, and as such, you break many of the rules of existence. Or rather, you are what the multi-verse did to preserve some of its basic rules of operation." Moondark stroked Xander's hair.
"What does that mean?"
"In every dimension in the multi-verse, there is one thing that is distinct about that universe, shared by nothing else in all of creation. In the case of your home dimension, that unique thing is possessing a Xander Harris who is upright, noble, and loyal. The Xanders in all other dimensions that have one are untrustworthy, lazy cretins, who back down from challenges. But not you. Thus, you are the unique abstraction." The magician took a deep breath. "Then there is Kara Zor-El. She is an artifact, a survivor from of a dimension that is otherwise destroyed. She is the only thing left from her home world."
Xander took some deep breaths. He couldn't think straight right now, and this goon in a green suit was saying… "So? So? What does that have to do with me?"
"Abstractions and Artifacts are both eternal constants. The idea of them cannot be destroyed, nor erased, at least not permanently. They will always exist, because they must. The spell this magus Ethan worked created a copy of not one, but two eternal concepts in the multi-verse. When the spell ended, had you not been who you were, you would have gone back to your normal life. Which, my dear, you did. But because the concepts were eternal, the magic couldn't destroy the copy it had made."
"So, I'm what, a side effect?" Xander's expression was getting gloomier and gloomier. A black depression was sneaking over his mind like a blanket. He could feel Louise hugging him, but it didn't matter, he could feel her physically, but nothing was registering emotionally.
Moondark sighed and stroked Xander's hair again. It was clear that he wasn't well practiced at being supportive, but he was trying. "I wouldn't put it that way. But yes, in a way you are. The magic of the spell couldn't remove the copy from existence, so it moved you to the closest dimension it could find that had neither a copy of Xander Harris, nor a copy of Kara Zor-El. This dimension, in fact. You were, in effect, born when you first appeared in this world."
"That's just –" Xander couldn't say any more. He just slouched in his chair. Louise moved over and pulled Xander's head down onto her shoulders. Xander gripped Louise's hoody and bawled into her neck.
His companions, on the other hands, had different ideas. "Why would Janus have put the copy of Alex's mind in a female body, and not in his own? Why aren't we talking to this Kara person?"
Moondark shrugged. "Janus is the god of change. What change would there have been in restoring them to their own bodies."
"Wait. I think I understand some of that. Most of what you've said has gone over my head, but I think I actually caught that last part." Louise looked up at Moondark. She was stroking Xander's back, trying to calm him down. "If your guess is correct about why this happened, does that mean that, somewhere, in some other dimension, a copy of Kara's mind is walking around inside a Xander body?"
"I wouldn't be surprised." Moondark stood. "In any case, I must make my goodbyes and get out of town." He motioned to the cards again. "Sister, my advice is to take cover and do so quickly. Something drastic is coming and it involves our young miss. I know she needs to sort herself out, but she only has so long to do so before it all falls apart." And with that, he was gone.
"He left his cards." Louise nodded toward the table.
Sister Grimm leaned over and scanned the array. Then she picked the cards up, and the rest of the deck, and pocketed them. "Cartomancy has never been my thing, but if he says something heavy is coming, then something heavy is coming."
Louise sighed. "Alex, honey?" She kissed the side of Xander's head. "Come on, baby, we've got to go."
Xander looked at her through teary eyes. "Is that still me? Am I still Alex? Or am I Kara? Or am I someone else?"
Louise nodded, but didn't try to answer the question. "We'll figure it out. Don't worry."
Louise Fulford glanced back at Alex, who was curled up asleep on the back seat. It seemed to Louise that even when asleep her girlfriend was still terribly stressed. She'd hoped that Alex would be able to relax into sleep, but it just wasn't happening.
"What do you think we should do?" Louise turned to Nico, whose eyes hadn't left the road since they started driving again.
"Me and Alex. What do you think we should do?"
"Talk to her. Help her through it. She's got a lot to work through. Might drive her crazy." In her rearview, a white van was charging up on her bumper. She hated drivers who were like that. Despite having miles of empty lane, they'd rather ride your bumper and get you to switch lanes rather than go around. "Can she get dangerous if she gets crazy?" Louise signaled and changed lanes. She might as well let the van guy be happy.
Louise thought about it. She ran the fight between Marvin and his goons and Alex through her mind a few times. "I – I don't think Alex would hurt me." Her voice betrayed her nervousness, though.
"You're not sure, though?" The van had passed her swiftly, but had then moved into her lane and slowed. "What the hell is this? Come on, asshole, stop playing games. I'm not in the mood."
The van had slowed even further, and Nico had slowed along with it. Louise glanced at the van in time to watch the door of the van slide up and out of the way. In the doorway stood a tall man in a black costume that seemed covered in a ring design. He looked vaguely familiar, and Louise's last coherent thought was that she thought she'd seen him on the news once.
Nico started screaming. "Oh fuck! Fuck! Fuck! We're fucked! Shit!" She jerked the car's steering wheel to the left, and the car went into a skid. Louise watched the man in the black costume throw something, but was too busy to notice. Nico was trying to shove Louise down into the floor board, or something, but Louise ignored her, dodged her, shoved her away, trying to get into the back seat because Alex was there.
"ALEX! Wake up!"
Louise had a split second to breathe with relief as she saw Alex's eyes open. Her girlfriend began to sit up. It was going to -
But it was too late. A fan of stainless steel rods, each sharpened to a spear-like point, hit the car in an arc. Some hit the body of the vehicle and stuck. One grazed past Sister Grimm's ear, leaving a bloody crease and knocking the witch out. Two went through to the engine block. One even bounced uselessly off Alex's body.
And one punched through Louise's back, just under her right shoulder blade. The car began a slide, but all Louise could see was Alex. The entire world had compressed into a tube, and all she could see was Alex. Alex was leaning forward, toward her. Louise knew Alex could fix this. Louise tried to breath, but it only made her cough. And after her cough, she wondered why Alex's face was suddenly covered in so much blood. The tube collapsed to a point. When the car started to flip, Louise was already unconscious.
What woke Xander up was the word "Fuck!" being screamed multiple times. He sat up as he felt the car go into a slide. He could feel by the car's vibration that something wrong had happened and they were going to crash. Louise was yelling at him, trying to reach him. Sister Grimm was slumped to the left, unconscious and bleeding from the scalp.
Xander moved. Louise's eyes went wide, then dulled. He got close to her and Louise coughed, and in that cough covered Xander's face with blood. In one motion, he tore the seat belts from Louise and Nico and pulled them in, close to his body. The car began its roll, and when he felt they were at the apogee of the roll, he leapt.
Xander turned, rolling in the air, and ducked as the ruin of Talkback's mustang bounced over his head. He rolled again, holding on to the two girls for dear life, and when close enough to do so, planted his feet. He continued to skid almost thirty feet, but stopped long before the corpse of the car did.
He lay Nico down. She was still breathing, and other than a cut above her ear, she seemed fine. He turned to examine Louise. He could tell she was hurt. His hands and shirt were covered by her blood.
"Well look at you. Usually when I kill things, they stay dead." The voice caused Xander to jerk in surprise. He looked up and met the eyes of a comic book character whose costume he'd remember anywhere.
Bullseye had attacked them.
"Don't worry about your BFFS, sweetheart. I wooonnnn'ttt mmmmmmmmmiiiiiiiii -"
Bullseye became a statue. The traffic around them stopped. Xander plucked the two women from the road as gently as he could and rocketed into the air. Behind him, the burst of air caused by his going from a standstill to multiple times the speed of sound knocked the assassin down and rolled him away. The van he'd been riding likewise was knocked over and skidded away. By the time Bullseye picked himself up and dusted himself off, Xander had vanished into the sky.
The landscape blurred around him. All Xander was seeing of it was green brown gray brown green as it flashed past him. The girls were slung on top of one another in his arms. It was hurting them, he knew, but he had no time to waste. He began scanning the landscape ahead of him and altered course, following the signs. In less than three minutes, he'd reached the Emergency Room doors of the medical center at the University of California, San Francisco.
Xander adjusted the girls so that Nico was over his shoulder and Louise was in his arms. He landed and entered the hospital. "Somebody help! Help! They're hurt!" Several orderlies, two doctors, and a nurse all came running, grabbing gurneys as they came. He put Louise down on her side, seeing the metal rod with which Bullseye had hit her for the first time."
"What happened?" It was one of the doctors. Xander ignored him until Nico was on another gurney. Both girls were rushed into treatment with other doctors. The first doctor, the one who asked him the question, asked it again.
"Car accident. We were in a car accident. It rolled. Flipped over and over."
The doctor put an arm on Xander's waist. "Okay, let's get you into a room and take a look at you. You could carry your friends in, but people are capable of a lot when they're upped on adrenaline, and you could be hurt too. Come on."
"No, doc, thanks, but I'm fine. Just help my friends. I've got to go."
"Look, you could be hurt."
Xander growled in frustration and put one of his hands through the hospital's wall. His arm planted into the concrete wall up to his elbow. "Look! Trust me, I'm fine. Help them. None of this is my blood, I promise."
The doctor's eyes widened. He looked back and forth, then leaned in. "You're, uh, you're a mutant?" Xander stared, then nodded. It was easier than trying to explain. "And I guess you're, uh, invulnerable?" Xander nodded again. The doctor was silent, then whispered again. "Was this because, um, a bad guy? A villain?"
Xander took a deep breath and then nodded again.
"Okay." The doc nodded. "Look, you go do what you have to do. I'll take care of your friends. I'll even hold off on filing the report until you get back. Okay?"
"Yeah, thanks. I appreciate it."
"No problem. My, uh, my wife got caught in a crossfire between competing super-villains. I don't know if you're the hero who saved her, but I figure I owe somebody something. Go on. We'll do our best for your friend.
Xander nodded again, and then was gone.
"I can't believe she got away from you of all people." Moonstone said as she supervised Bullseye being restrained on the team's jet. Behind her, the rest of her team was strapping themselves down. "Especially after you rolled their car."
Bullseye shrugged. "Yeah, well, no one told me she could teleport. One second she was there, the next, poof, like smoke in the wind."
"She teleported?" This was the first time Moonstone heard about this happening. "Nothing was in Starr's file about teleportation. Great. I love incomplete intelligence." She turned to the flight crew. "Get us spun up. We're returning to base. We'll try again when we have a location for her again." She sat down in her own seat and fastened the seatbelt. She wasn't particularly looking forward to explaining to Osborn and Gyrich that they'd lost their target, but no one told them she could teleport.
The whine of the engines got loud enough to be heard over the plane's soundproofing. Moonstone watched through the window as the jet pulled away from the hangar and began taxiing. It was slow, but she knew they'd be in the air shortly. Under their charter, the Thunderbolts got priority at every airport in the country unless there was a declared disaster going on with another plane. In her head, she began composing her formal report to –
There was a loud BANG and a hole opened in the fuselage of the plane. The aircraft bent on itself from the impact, and in seconds the plane had acquired a V-like shape. The plane crashed to its belly as the landing gear collapsed. Moonstone stared at the impact point in a panic. Their target was standing on the metal sheet that used to be the outer hull of the plane, and empty seat flattened under her. She had dropped through the hull like a bomb. Their target turned slowly, scanning the occupants of the plane as they scrambled to get clear of the wreckage, taking everyone in.
The first to react was the Swordsman. He was closest to the target, and within the space of a second had one of his sword out and was swinging. At first, the target was dismissive, but yanked herself back as the Swordsman's blade slashed into the girl's right shoulder. The target staggered, obviously in pain, and Swordsman advanced for another blow. The girl caught her attacker's sword-arm with her left, the right arm handing limp. Moonstone heard the girl growl, "That's enough!" and suddenly Swordsman's hand was off at the wrist. The girl hadn't cut the hand off, or even pulled it off, but had simply squeezed the man's wrist until the flesh and bone separated under the pressure. His magic blade fell, point-first, through the wreckage of the plane to imbed itself in the earth.
Swordsman collapsed to his knees, shrieking at the top of his lungs. The girl flicked a finger into Swordsman's forehead and the man fell over, silent. Moonstone couldn't tell if he was dead or merely unconscious. The girl turned again, her eyes falling on each of the Thunderbolts in turn.
There was a sudden loud noise that started when their target's gaze landed on her and held there. Someone was yelling. It sounded like OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT! When Moonstone finally realized that it was she who was yelling, it surprised her, but she couldn't seem to stop it. The Thunderbolts field leader scrabbled at her seatbelt, but she couldn't find the release to make it let her go.
She had to get out. She had to get out. The target was advancing on her, and she had to get out. She finally exerted herself and the entire belt assembly tore from its attachment against the plane. The girl was still approaching, and Moonstone hurriedly thought, We can't fight her in the plane! We've got to get out! She shot upward as hard and as fast as she could, tearing her own hole through the hull of the plane.
She could see Songbird was in the air above her. Penance had bounced away as well, trying to gain maneuvering room. A patch of the plane's skin glowed green and melted away, and the Radioactive Man stepped through it. Neither Venom nor Bullseye were anywhere to be seen. From the front of the plane came the staccato sound of submachine gun fire. The pilot and copilot. Idiots! Sure, they were former Air Force pilots, but they were still just normal guys. The gunfire died out quickly and abruptly.
The girl crashed through the side of the plane into the open air like she was walking through a thin mist instead of reinforced aluminum hull metal. She stood there, floating some eight or nine feet above the ground, and took in all the remaining Thunderbolts arrayed before her. Her right arm was still hanging uselessly from her ravaged shoulder. Blood had soaked her clothing around the wound.
The first piece of scrap metal came out of nowhere and hit the target in the head. The girl hardly noticed the first two, but the third and fourth came so close to her eyes that she flinched backward. Bullseye appeared out of nowhere, and was flicking shards of scrap metal at her in fistfuls.
Later, when she was writing her report, Moonstone would remember thinking, He should have run. The moment he appeared, the Starr girl focused on Bullseye to the exclusion of all else. She ignored everything he threw at her. There was no more flinching. The target seemed to blur toward the assassin, and when Bullseye was in the girl's reach, the teenager pulled her fist back and punched the assassin in the forehead. Moonstone heard muffled POPjust before the impact, followed by the sound of metal impacting metal. Bullseye's corpse, for Moonstone was absolutely sure that the man was dead, was still standing, but his eyes had exploded outward from the pressure of the impact. The muscles in his arms and legs had begun spasming at random.
The girl shook her arm, and Bullseye's body spun away from her through the air. The assassin's forehead was caved in, the marks of the girl's fist clearly visible. Starr had hit Bullseye so hard that the adamantium lining his skull had permanently deformed. Moonstone blinked. His brain would have liquefied and flash-boiled inside his skull from that much kinetic energy transfer. Bullseye was down. Permanently down. No one would ever be hurt by him again.
She began yelling out orders. "Songbird, pincer movement with me. Penance, get in close and keep her off balance. Radioactive Man, burn her down. Find something that hurts her." Where the hell was Venom?
The target – the thing wearing the deceased Karen Starr's face, whatever it was – this rampaging monster who Osborn and Gyrich sent them against after casually dismissing her defeat of the Avengers as a fluke – this thing was going to kill them all. Somehow, she knew it.
Penance had bounced in and punched the target with as much of a kinetic boost as he could muster. For all his punch was ineffective, the counter attack wasn't. The girl backhanded Penance, sending him flying like a home run ball, up and out of everyone's sight. On his outward flight, he struck the edge of the building so hard that, rather than bounce away from it, crashed through it!
Moonstone flew around the girl in a loop and began firing self-generated laser beams at her. Songbird looped the opposite way and hit the target with ultrasonics so loud that the tarmac behind the girl began to melt. Radioactive Man poured X-Rays and Gamma Rays into the girl.
Their target just stood there, taking it. The energies they were striking her with were hurting the target as much as if they blew spit wads at her. The girl watched until Moonstone and Songbird passed each other during their loops, took a deep breath, and blew. Both fliers found themselves trapped in a miniature hurricane, covered in rimefrost. Both, thrown off their flight path by the turbulence, crashed into the ground. The girl turned and blurred in front of Radioactive Man. There was another blur and the Chinese agent went limp; the girl's left arm was imbedded in his chest up to the shoulder, and her fist was sticking out of his back, covered in blood and flesh.
Moonstone tried to shake the cobwebs out of her head as she gained her feat. She wasn't steady, and felt like she'd been concussed. A quick shake of her head. Moonstone realized she lost track of the target and panicked, scrambling backward so fast she tripped and fell to the ground. Near her, Songbird was also climbing to her feet. Without warning, the target was there, standing in front of them, with a look of sheer disgust and hatred in her eyes. It was the girl's eyes which finally got to Moonstone. She felt her costume go wet and warm at the crotch, and there was the smell of fresh urine. It took Moonstone a moment to realize that her bladder had just released itself out of fear. Nothing for it. Fuck her team. Fuck the mission. She had to escape! She had to get away! She started scrambling backward on her hands and knees.
Songbird inhaled sharply, preparing to scream at the girl, but Starr was faster. She simply poked out at Songbird, catching her in just below the trachea with an extended finger.
"Shush." It was the only thing the girl had said so far throughout the entire attack. Songbird fell to her knees, holding her neck. Moonstone could see Songbird was still of breathing through her nose, but she wasn't making any further noise. Songbird's face went white and there was a thin but steady stream of blood dripping from beneath the fingers holding the new hole in her throat closed.
The target – the small functional part of Moonstone's brain laughed at this descriptor – took a step toward Moonstone, and the Thunderbolt's team leader closed her eyes and braced for death. Instead, there was a muffled scream. Moonstone opened her eyes to see the Starr girl struggling in the grip of the Venom symbiote. She was trying to pull it away from her face as the rest of her body was being completely engulfed.
Mac Gargan stood behind the girl in his underwear. His "living costume" had peeled off him all the way to just above his wrists, and Gargan was using it as a weapon. It was over quickly. One second the girl was struggling to escape, the next she was completely buried under Venom. She just stood there. There was occasionally a spasm, but the girl beneath the symbiote was motionless.
Moonstone was gasping for air. "You, do you – do you have her? Gargan, is she secure?"
"Yeah. For now. We need the nullifiers." Gargan said through gritted teeth. "I can't do this forever."
"Great." Moonstone got to her feet, still unsteady, and ran to Songbird. She pulled Songbird's hands away and looked. There was a huge bruise already spreading, and a dent – a dent! – In Songbird's throat, and a puncture wound that was bleeding profusely. Not a fatal wound, if it got treated in time, but damn if it wasn't going to hurt. And Songbird would never sing again. "Wreckage of the plane is spread all over the runway, and I'm supposed to find the nullifiers. Hold on."
Moonstone entered the wreckage of the plane. Before she began looking for the nullifiers, she put a makeshift tourniquet around Swordsman's wrist, using the man's own bootlaces. He was pale and cyanotic, but she had to try.
It took her nearly twenty minutes to find the nullifiers.
As she ran toward Gargan and their prisoner, she could see that the man was sweating. "Get those fucking things on her now. I can't hold her too much longer." But even as the man said it, Moonstone knew it was too late. The symbiote had engulfed the girl, and its familiar pattern of eyes and the spider symbol were in its accustomed place on the girl's body. But the thing's "eyes" now featured spreading patches of pink. There was a guttural sound, like a gurgle from a drain that came from the symbiote and Gargan screamed in pain.
Without warning, smoking holes burned through the symbiote, and the air was filled with the smell of burning flesh. The girl's eyes, suddenly visible again, were glowing bright red. Wherever the girl's eyes fell, things caught fire, starting with the symbiote itself. What the girl couldn't burn herself free of, she tore. Venom had come close, but in the end had lost. Gargan went down, his skin a mass of carbonization and new burn scars.
Moonstone took to the air. Fuck fuck fuck! She had to get away. She flew as fast as she could, only wanting to put distance between her and the maniac thing that had taken down her team. She hadn't moved ten yards when a vice made of iron clamped itself around one of her ankles. She felt the bones in her leg snap under the pressure of the grip. The vice pulled, and Moonstone fell out of the air so forcefully that it felt like God Himself had suddenly slapped her across the back. Her impact shattered the concrete and tarmac and let a hole ten feet across. And the Starr girl was there, still holding on to her ankle.
Moonstone panicked. "Please, don't kill me! Don't kill me! We didn't mean – We had orders to capture you! Whatever it was that pissed you off, we weren't going to kill you! Please! I don't know what happened! Bullseye didn't tell me!" She was babbling, but couldn't stop.
The girl was quiet, merely staring at Moonstone with those angry eyes.
"Please. I'm sorry. I'm sorry –" Starr raised a fist, the same fist that was still covered in Radioactive Man's blood. That had caved in Bullseye's impenetrable skull. The girl raised this incredible weapon of terror over her head.
Moonstone watched the girl take a deep breath, just staring into her opponent's eyes.
"I'm sorry." Moonstone's voice was weak, but the contrition she felt was real. "I'm so sorry." It was almost a whisper. She closed her eyes, knowing that at least the death that Starr planned for her would be quick.
"Bullseye put two innocent bystanders in the emergency room, trying to capture me." The girl finally spoke. Moonstone opened her eyes and found herself no longer under the girl's fist. "Your pet psychopath Bullseye engineered a car accident that almost killed two innocent people, and could have killed more people had the car accident spread to the rest of traffic."
She stood and put a booted foot on Moonstone's chest. Then she reached down, and with a flick of her finger pulled Moonstone's helmet from her head. "Now, who do you work for?"
The girl looked puzzled. "Wait, Harry Osborn?"
"N—no. Nor—Norman. Norman."
"Norman Osborn? The Green Goblin? That Norman Osborn?"
Moonstone nodded. She had no idea what the girl was talking about, but at this point Moonstone was willing to agree to anything. If the girl wanted to accuse Norman Osborn of being the Green Goblin, then far be it from her to disagree. Hell, at this point Starr could claim to be the Emperor of Mars and get agreement.
"What genius at the government gave the Green Goblin control over a villain team?" Moonstone didn't have an answer for that. "Never mind. You said Gyrich. Henry Peter Gyrich? The guy who was involved with the Sentinels project?" Again, Moonstone nodded.
"Anyone else?" A shake of the head. "Okay. Now then. I ought to kill you, but I'm not going to." The Starr girl stared into Moonstone's eyes. The anger had turned into a dull sheen that was even more frightening than the rage. "You're the bad guy in the movie who the action hero doesn't consider important enough to kill. You're the guy who gets to stay alive and relatively unharmed, because the action hero – that's me – needs him to carry a message back to the people behind it all. That's Norman Osborn and Henry Gyrich. Think you can do that? Or should I just pop your head like a grape?" The girl leaned in, putting pressure on Moonstone's chest.
She barely managed to nod. The air just wasn't there. Moonstone could breathe, but only just. The pressure the girl was putting on her chest was almost enough to cause her ribs to snap, but only almost. She was breathing in short sips. Then she felt the slap. "No, stay with me, Moonstone. You don't get to fall unconscious yet." Moonstone's eyes grew wide. "Yeah, I know who you are. Your message is simple. I want you to point out to your bosses that I could have slaughtered all of you. All of you. Even the two jerks with the machine guns. With the single exception of yourself, the only people here I killed were the people I knew absolutely were murderers. I even left Eddie Brock over there alive when I killed the Venom symbiote." The vague thought that the girl wasn't up to the times flickered through her head. But the Starr girl was speaking again. "Tell your bosses to leave me alone, or the next time I'll visit them in person. I don't want to fight. I'm not robbing banks and I'm not hurting anyone. Leave. Me. Alone."
The pressure on her chest increased. No, please! Just a little more air! Please! I promise, I'll be a good girl! I'll stop! No more fights! I'll go straight! I'll – I'll - I'll teach Middle School science in Iowa! Please, just a little more air!
And then there was nothing but blackness.
It came as a pleasant surprise to Moonstone – no, she needed to stop thinking of herself as Moonstone. When she awoke in a military hospital, five hours later, Karla Sofen was pleasantly surprised.
She spent an hour planning how to register her teaching credentials in Iowa. It had only taken her twenty minutes to find a county that needed science teachers at their middle schools.
"Hey, Alex. We were looking for you."
Xan… no… well, he – she – wasn't sure anymore. What the hell do you call yourself when you find out that you are not the person you thought you were? For now, Alex would work. He – No. I'm not Xander Harris, and I'm not Kara Zor-El. I'm not a guy turned into a girl. I'm a girl with a guy floating around in her head. Better get used to it. She cringed, honestly in pain. The stomach cramps had come out of nowhere. At least her shoulder had stopped bleeding. Shit, that hurt. The body had becoming more and more comfortable, but it had betrayed her. And why the fuck did I forget that Swordsman had a magic blade?
She - she decided to make a concerted effort to call herself that, and to stop thinking of herself as 'Xander'; she was going to be Alex from now on, Alexandra. She hadn't decided on a last name, but was honestly considering Zorel, or maybe Zorrel, as a nod to her other half. Or maybe she'd just stick with Harris. Alex looked over her shoulder at Talkback. "I've been up here, thinking and trying to deal. It, uh, been a shit day."
"Tell me about it. You guys killed my car. I loved that car. It was going to be so cherry when I got done with it. No idea what I'm going to do now." Talkback was smiling when he said this. He had been ribbing her about the car since she got back from the fight. It might have been irritating, but it got Alex smiling, so Chase figured it was a good thing.
Alex turned back toward the Pacific Ocean. On the one hand, her memories told her it was just the same old ocean, she'd seen it a thousand times before. But not really. She was less than a year old, and this was the first time she'd watched the Pacific roll in and out. She had to admit, though, that the roof of the UCSF Medical Center was a good spot to just sit and think all day.
Talkback – who now insisted that Xander call him Chase – held a hand out and helped Alex to her feet. "Nico woke up. She's asking about you and Louise. I figured you might want to talk to her. Give her the news."
"Sure." She dusted her hands off, and her ass, and gave herself a quick once-over. Alex grimaced. Her shirt was still blood-stained, but at least she'd been able to wash her hands and face. "I need some new clothes. And a shower."
"I know how you feel. Me too. I feel like my eyes are boiled right now." He pulled the rooftop access door open for her. "C'mon. You can go tell Nico about what happened with the Thunderbolts, and then give her the good news about Louise. Maybe figure out what we're all going to do from here."
"We?" Alex gave him a weird look.
"Hey, you saved Nick's life. Killed my car, but you saved her life. As far as I'm concerned, you're family."
That caused Alex to smile. It was the first time she'd smiled in a while. She still needed to work out her shit, and who the fuck she was supposed to be, and what she was going to be doing with Louise, and how she was going to keep the fucking cops and the Avengers off her, but she figured having one new friend was a good thing.
Alex winced as the cramps shot another wave of pain shot through her. She tried to hide it and nearly stumbled, and Chase noticed.
She shrugged. "I guess."
She glanced at him and shrugged again. "Uh, no. Not exactly. I mean, my shoulder hurts, yeah, but. Um. I, uh, I think I'm getting my period."
Everything in this chapter, starting from the phrase "Louise Fulford glanced back at Alex...," and ending with "…five hours later." was written with "The Suicide Mission", by Jack Wall and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, from the soundtrack of Mass Effect 2, playing in the background on constant repeat. If you ever need to write something that involves a desperate struggle between life and death, righteous fury, and a roaring rampage of revenge, I heartily suggest this piece of music.
As for the page quote, no, it's not a quote from the Bible. and no, I am not misattributing it. Even though, in Pulp Fiction, Jules Winfield claims he is quoting Ezekiel 25:17, the actual Ezekiel 25:17 reads "I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them." So, you see, the quote from Pulp Fiction isn't from the Bible at all.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Magic Castle in Los Angeles is a private club whose members are all professional stage magicians. The first floor of the Magic Castle is open to the public, and features a restaurant, a gift shop, art galleries, a museum of classic magic tricks, and several different performing spaces, including a full-sized theater. Many famous and up-and-coming magicians regularly spend time at the Magic Castle, and they are generally delighted to show off their routines for the tourists on demand. The upper floors of the club are only open to members, their families, and their guests, and include a private library, several conference rooms, a private dining room, and even a couple of hotel rooms that members can rent in the short term if they need accommodations while they're in Los Angeles. The Magic Castle also houses one of the largest collections of stage magic memorabilia, and is a tribute to the art of stage magic.
After my first performance as a stage magician, when I was 11, my grandfather bought me a membership and I've been a member ever since even though I retired as a performing magician after High School. Before the car accident that disabled me, I would often make a point of going to the Magic Castle whenever I was in Los Angeles and doing a quick card routine, a mentalist routine, a cup and balls trick, or even the occasional clack-clack routine (a series of coin tricks) for any tourists that are visiting that day. Even though I can no longer do these tricks, I still love stage magic.
And yes, up until the day he died, Ray Bradbury was also a member of the Magic Castle. In addition to being one of the greatest writers of the last hundred years, he was also a talented amateur magician. He was a kind and supportive man, and I am proud to have been able to know him, if only in the context of the Magic Castle.