Five Conversations and Breakfast

XxxxxxX

"Bottom line is, even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what are we? Helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can't help that. It's what you do afterward that counts. That's when you find out who you really are." – Joss Whedon

XxxxxxX

This was stupid.

Here she was, a grown woman, a police detective no less, standing on a rooftop waiting for a superhero to arrive. Like she was Inspector Bumstead from the Achilles comic book, meeting the Gladiator of Justice on a rooftop in the middle of the night to discuss not that she would ever admit having read the Achilles comic books. But it was true that Achilles had been one of the reasons she became a cop. Unlike the other members of the Guardians, he was just a guy. No powers. Just training and effort. The idea of him was cool. Self-trained athlete using nothing but his wits.

Of course, being a billionaire probably helped out with the gear. Just saying.

But still, she felt ridiculous. Up here, on a rooftop, 2:30 in the morning. Overcast, waiting for some teenage superhero to show up, and of course, when she does it'll probably scare –

"Detective Togorian?"

Togorian didn't quite drop her cup of coffee, and didn't quite yell like a little girl, but it was a close thing. The voice had come from behind her. Togorian whirled in place, and there they were. They weren't there just a second ago, but there they were now. God, she hated superheroes. There were three of them: the girl with the staff who'd given Togorian the cell phone, the tall blonde kid with the gizmos, and the little girl with the hats. Her memory failed her on their names for a moment, so she faked it with audacity.

"God, don't do that! Almost give me a heart attack!"

The girl with the staff… Togorian's brain finally came up with the name 'Madame Sinn'… smiled kindly. "Sorry about that. I didn't think we'd be coming in behind you when we teleported up here. What's the emergency?"

"We, uh, had an incident earlier today. A pimp and pusher named Marvin Stiggle and a couple of his boys got themselves roughed up."

The blonde guy and the kid… Togorian still couldn't remember what they called themselves, so she labeled them "Hat Girl" and "Glove Boy" in her head… looked at each other and shrugged, then turned to their obvious leader. "And how does that involve us, Detective?"

"Yeah, getting to that. Whoever roughed up Marvin and his guys really roughed them up. Marvin's missing a finger now, and the doctor said that it looked like it was torn off, not cut off. Know how strong you'd have to be to tear someone's finger off?" She looked right at Hat Girl. She'd seen this girl, this not-even-a-teenager-yet girl, lift a semi-truck over her head. Pulling a guy's finger off would have been child's play. "They were then shoved into the trunk of a Dodge Charger, the trunk was sealed somehow, and the Charger was torn in two. The trunk half was dropped in front of the precinct house."

Madame Sinn turned to look at Hat Girl, who shook her head. "Waddn't me, Nic. I was with Karoline all day at the pool, remember?"

Sinn turned back to the Detective. "Wasn't her. She was at the pool with her friends all day yesterday." Just like that. She started to turn away.

"Hey! Don't just walk off like that. I got someone with superhuman strength beating up pimps. Normally I wouldn't care, but this guy's in rough shape. Not only did finger get ripped off, but he and his guys were dropped to the ground from like four stories up. He could have died. I don't need any super-strong murderers in my town, and say what you like," Togorian pointed at Hat Girl. "She is the only one of you guys in town who's super-strong."

Sinn's face was amusing. It had that classic 'What are you, a dumbass?' look that made Togorian feel sheepish. "So, what… we're the only superheroes in town, so anyone roughing up a criminal has to be one of us? Let me tell you, Detective, we might be the only superheroes in town, but we're hardly the only superhumans. Bruiser…" Bruiser. That was Hat Girl's name. "… Says it wasn't her, so it wasn't her. Now, if you don't mind, we're going."

They couldn't just leave like this. She still had questions. "Wait!" Togorian called. "What if I need help bringing her in?"

The blonde guy, Glove Boy, smiled at her. "Then give us another call." And then the three just faded from sight.

Great. That had gone nowhere. Togorian sighed, wondering what do to next. If it wasn't this Hat Girl… Bruiser… whatever her name was, then who was it? She had no idea. So she went home, hoping something would come up.

The next morning, she woke up to word that Marvin Stiggle had regained consciousness while she was having her late night conference with the superheroes.

XxxxxxX

Togorian stepped out of the elevator and turned when she saw Mike Ramiwicz, her partner, waving her over from down the hall. As she approached, she could tell he was smirking.

"Morning, Inspector Bumstead! How's Achilles doing this morning?"

She rolled her eyes at him. "Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up, Mike. Just laugh it up. Next time we need information from a cape, you're the one waiting on the roof all night."

He continued to chuckle, but accepted her point. "Learn anything from them?"

"Just that they didn't do it, of course. He say anything yet?' She nodded toward the room that held Marvin Tiggle. A uniform stood outside the door, looking bored as he watched the hospital traffic.

"Not yet. He's in talking to his attorney. Lawyer was here before I was." Ramiwicz shrugged.

So they waited. After ten or fifteen minutes, the lawyer came out and approached them. "Good morning. I'm Will Cameron, Mr. Stiggle's attorney. Am I to understand he's not actually being charged with anything?"

Togorian and Ramiwicz exchanged a glance. "Well, I'm not going to deny that he's under investigation, but Marvin has no active warrants that I am aware of." Togorian began. "We're treating him as a victim of an aggravated assault, at least for now."

"Okay, good. That's good. Let's go in and you can take a statement from my client." They followed the lawyer into Marvin's room, nodding at the cop as they past. "Marvin, the police are here to take your statement, and maybe get a description of who did this to you. Okay?"

Marvin was a bruise from his forehead to his navel. He seemed covered in monitors and IV tubes and gauze. His head was bundled from what she knew was a fractured skull that the hospital had stapled together; she'd never heard of a thing, but apparently you could staple a skull back together. His hand, where his finger had been torn off, was wrapped the thickest. Only one of Marvin's eyes was open, the other was swollen shut.

"Hey, Marvin. Nice to talk to you again," Togorian gave Marvin her best professional smile. She'd dealt with this jack-hole before, and having to be polite because this time he was a victim and not a perp was not something she could do instinctually. He was a scumbag, and she wanted to treat him like a scumbag. But she couldn't, not with his lawyer present. "So you want to tell me what happened to you?"

Marvin snorted. "Sure." His words were a bit mushy. Apparently three of his teeth had been knocked out while he'd rolled around in the trunk of the car. "Bitch beat the shit outta me."

"Bitch beat the shit out of you. Okay. Let's work with that." She pulled a chair up next to his bed. "Can you tell us what you were doing when the bitch beat the shit out of you?" Togorian got her notepad out and a pencil. She noted that Ramiwicz had done the same.

"I didn't do nothin' to that bitch. She just went crazy."

Ramiwicz chuckled, ducking his chin down against his chest. He shook his head, then rubbed a hand across his chin. "You didn't do anything. Man, how many times have we heard that from people with criminal records? My partner here didn't ask you if you did anything to her, Marvin. Just what was going on? What were you doing when this woman assaulted you?"

"I, uh, I was going to talk to this girl, Tiffany…."

"Yeah, I know Tiffany. Talked to her on some of the rousts." Togorian interrupted. "Hey, Marvin. You know Tiffany's last name?"

In his bed, Marvin shrugged. "She calls herself Tiffany Diamond, but I don't know if that's her real name. Anyway, I went down to see her some money she owed me. See if she was going to pay me back."

Togorian huffed. "Look, Marvin, we're not here to bust you, but we've both seen your jacket. You're a pimp and she's one of your whores. I've rousted her enough to know she works for you. So how about you stop bullshitting us and just tell us what happened, okay?"

Marvin looked to his attorney, who shrugged and nodded. "Okay," the man began again. "If you say so. Yeah, okay, she didn't work the last couple days or so. When she don't work, I don't get paid. So I went to talk to her about it day before yesterday."

"Wait." Togorian held up a hand. "You went to talk to her the day before yesterday? Not yesterday when you were assaulted, but the day before?"

"Yeah. Found her over near the pawn shop on Queen Street with one of her friends. Started talking to her about her not living up to her job and how she owed me money. And her friend grabs Jamal and tosses him all the way across the road, then hits my little brother Ray in the head hard enough to know him out. Then she grabs me around the throat and tells me Tiffany's working for her now and that if I know what's good for me I'll get out of the neighborhood."

The detectives exchanged glances. They weren't sure how much of this was bullshit, but they both recognized it would cause problems. Even the hint of someone new moving in on Marvin's territory would be problematic. Marvin worked for Boz, and Boz was thick with the Crips. Someone moving in on Crips territory could start a war.

"What did this friend of Tiffany's look like?"

"Little bit taller than I am. More muscles than I like on a bitch. Like she's a weightlifter. Blonde, hair past her shoulder. Blue eyes." Marvin grinned. "And the biggest tits I've ever seen that wasn't in a porn movie. Even bigger than yours." He gestured toward Togorian's chest, causing the detective to shift uncomfortably. She unconsciously pulled her suit jacket a little more closed than it normally hung.

But then it hit her. The girl she sent to the Convent. Tall, blonde, in shape, huge tits. Five hundred bucks and no shoes. And Marvin was saying she was trying to move in on his territory? She suddenly suspected that Marvin's tale was more than a little bullshit.

Ramiwicz rescued her. "So you went to apply pressure to one of your girls, and your girl had found herself a bodyguard? I bet that didn't sit well."

"Are you fucking with me? Sit well? Of course not. I can't let some piece of ass rough up my boys. So we went down to that camp that Tiffany stays at when she's not at the Convent. You know that freak show under the Interstate? I brought more boys with me, figured we'd all get business done."

"Tiffany lives with the homeless folks under the Interstate? That's the camp with the low-grade mutants?" Togorian asked. She knew that site, as well as a couple of other sites where the homeless gathered for mutual protection. Generally the cops left them alone until they were ordered to clean them out. "You know it?" she asked Ramiwicz, who nodded.

"Been down there once or twice during a roust. Just a bunch of folks trying to get by. Never gave me any trouble."

"Yeah. That the camp you're talking about, Marvin?"

"Yeah, that's the one." Marvin tried to shift in his bed, but the bandages on his arm kept him from using it effectively. "The one with the muties. That's where that bitch Tiffany stay when she ain't with the nuns. I figured she'd be there with her new friend, and she was."

"So this Tiffany is a mutant?"

"Barely." Marvin's laugh turned into a cough. When he could speak again, he said, "Barely. She got this trick where she can change her hair color to whatever she wants. Some big superpower, right? Anyway, I went down there and there was this guy down there, Aaron something. White guy. Real white."

"Yeah, I've talked to Aaron before. He tries to keep his nose clean." Ramiwicz said. "White guy." Togorian's partner snorted and shook his head. "He's a Mexican-American, as far as I know, but he's an albino." He shook his head again. "White guy. Right."

"Anyway," Togorian said, trying to drown out Ramiwicz's snickers. "You went to this mutant camp under the Interstate because Tiffany's new friend disrespected you in front of your boys and kept you from getting paid. I'm betting that Boz didn't like you coming up short for the week." Marvin glared at her at the mention of Boz, but she didn't even slow down. "So, what happened when you went down there?"

"That white-bread Aaron tried to get me to back off, but I ignored him. That's when that bitch came out of nowhere. She was crazy. I shit you not. She put the barrel of my nine right up against her forehead and dared me to shoot her. Said I wouldn't like what happened next."

"So Tiffany's new friend is a mutant, too?"

Marvin just nodded. "Yeah, and she ain't no joke, either. I watched her tear the back seats out of the car with her bare hands before she sealed the trunk up. Tore the care in two, too. And I shot her. Right in the face. She caught the bullet with her teeth or something and showed it to me."

That admission caused the cops to meet each other's eyes. "You're admitting you shot her?"

"Fuck yeah! For all the good it did me! You got shit between your fucking ears, cop?" Behind the detectives, Marvin's lawyer winced, but it was too late now. "She spit the fucking bullet out onto her hand! Then she tossed me and my boys around like we were nothing." The pimp held his injured hand up. "This happened when she grabbed my gun! My finger was still on the trigger, for fuck's sake, and my finger just went with it when she grabbed it."

"Okay, so she took your gun after you shot her in the face. Then what did she do?" Ramiwicz couldn't seem to help the tinge of incredulity that colored his voice.

"She dropped me and Perry in the trunk of my car, ripped it in two, then sealed us in. Next thing I know, I'm waking up in here with both my legs broke, and the back of my head stapled together. Only reason I'm talkin' to you is because Perry broke my fall. He's even worse off than I am."

"Ripped your car apart with her bare hands. Right. Superhumanly strong, and she spit your bullet out. Wonderful. Did you happen to catch this girl's name?"

"Nah, I was too busy bleeding from where she ripped my fucking finger off."

"All right, Marvin. You get better, now." Togorian gave Ramiwicz the nod as she stood. "If we have any more questions, we'll call you."

"Call me, actually." Togorian had honestly forgotten that he was there before the man spoke up. The attorney handed both detectives a card. "And as always keep in mind that he's only willing to testify in order to put his attacker in jail. He won't be answering questions about anything else."

"We understand, counselor. This isn't our first rodeo." She led her partner into the hallway then toward the elevator. "Mike, how much of that crap do you buy?"

Ramiwicz was quiet until the elevator doors had closed. "What I think is that this asshole tried to beat up our girl Tiffany, but Tiffany found someone who could defend her. If he really shot this girl, then she could possibly argue self-defense."

"It isn't self-defense if she knew she couldn't have been hurt by the bullets."

"Necessary violence to protect bystanders, then." Ramiwicz shrugged. "Either way, even if we arrest her and the DA tries her, once her defense attorney let a jury know she beat up a pimp and a drug pusher, the trial is over and she walks. I think no matter which way this plays, what we're looking at is some homeless mutant girl who used her powers to stand up to a pimp we know is willing to mess up people badly." He looked over at her. "And I am not looking forward to trying to arrest a person who can tear a car in two with their bare hands."

"Yeah." Togorian leaned against the back wall of the elevator. "Yeah. Be hard to keep her arrested if she decided she didn't want to be arrested."

XxxxxxX

"Tony! This is a surprise! I didn't think you were coming in for another week or so." Tony Stark saw Janet's face light up when she saw one of her oldest friends in the world sitting at the conference table, and it made him feel a little bit better about everything. "How are you doing?"

"Hey guys, come on in. Have a seat." Stark watched from his wheelchair as the Avengers entered the conference room. They hadn't known he was coming, and this was the first time they'd seen him in person since he was released from the hospital. To most of the Avengers, Stark's appearance was a shock and a surprise. His eyes were still black, his face was still covered in bruises, and he still had tape on his nose. His left arm and left leg were still in casts (and the leg itself was extended straight out in front of him like it was a knight's lance).

"Despite appearances, I'm actually doing pretty well. The wonders of modern medicine." His eyes traveled over the Avengers until coming back to rest on the Wasp's face. Spider-Man, Wonder Man, Black Widow, Yellowjacket, and Ares. No sign of Sentry. He'd been petulantly hiding in his fortress since his encounter with the Starr girl and hadn't been talking to anyone lately. And Carole Danvers was still in the hospital. Even with her advanced healing, she was going to carry some scars from now on. And her hair; she'd cut off her glorious head of hair so it would grow in evenly.

Stark could see that everyone was surprised he was here. Even the clothing he was wearing were also a bit of a shock. When he wasn't in his armor, Stark was invariably in a tailored suit, or otherwise looked like he'd spent thousands of dollars on his tailor-made designer outfit. Today, he was dressed in a pair of cut-off jeans and a gaudy Hawaiian shirt that he hadn't buttoned closed. A wife-beater under the Hawaiian shirt and a single white athletic sock on his unbroken foot completed the ensemble. He looked more like Al Bundy than he did Tony Stark. But given the casts, this was just easier.

"Anyway, I'm not going to be here all day, I just wanted to drop by and let you all know. At Simon's request," he nodded toward Wonder Man, "I had a SHIELD investigatory team check into Karen Starr." He didn't look up from the file he held, but heard several sharp inhalations from his team. "I've got the results of their investigation here, and, um, it's a bit of a –" he interrupted himself, truly trying to figure out how to even start with this. Finally, he looked up and met the eyes of each other the other Avengers. "It's ghastly. Really horrible."

Stark pushed a button on the small remote and the monitor screen lit up. On it was a mug shot of a teenage girl. "Karen Starr. Age 15. Juvenile record for vandalism and pot possession. Considered a trouble-maker by her teachers and her principle, but still carried a 3.5 GPA. Her computer teacher, a Ms. Rothstein, one of the few teachers she had who didn't think she was a waste of time, said the girl had an intuitive grasp of programming languages and that she was encouraging Miss Starr to enter the field. Said she had potential to be a software engineer on the same level as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates."

"Tony," Spider-Man cleared his voice. "You're using a lot of past tense there."

"You noticed that." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah. You're sounding like she's dead. We know she's alive. She was in LA last we knew. What's up?"

Stark sighed. "Brace yourselves." He clicked the remote and the pictures changed to photos of an autopsy done on a corpse that had seriously degraded after being in the mud for years. "The investigators found the body of Karen Starr. They identified her through DNA taken from her teeth. She'd been buried in her dad's back forty for two years. We've got her father's confession. Apparently he'd been raping her since she was twelve, and when he found out she was planning on leaving he strangled her to death."

There was no sound from anyone. No sound at all. Janet's hand was to her mouth, and she looked vaguely nauseous. Spider-Man was gripping the edge of the table so hard that Tony was certain it was only seconds from snapping in his hands. Wonder Man stood suddenly and turned away from the table, staring blankly out the conference room's windows. They'd all seen horrors in their lives as crime-fighters and heroes, but no matter what they'd seen, none of them took the murder of a child lightly. Only Ares seemed unshaken, and naturally, it was the God of War who spoke first.

"If Karen Starr has been dead for two years, exactly who – or what – was it that fought us to a standstill two weeks ago?"

"Yeah, that's the question, isn't it? SHIELD's pulled some hairs out of the shower trap from the cell she was held in and have been working with Reed Richards on developing new techniques to analyze her DNA. So far, they haven't been able to sequence it, but they finally pegged it as non-human. Apparently it's a quadruple helix, where ours are only double."

More silence.

"So are we thinking alien?" Black Widow rose from her seat and placed a hand on Wonder Man's shoulder even as she asked the question. He turned to her and nodded, then turned back to the window.

"Right now it's anybody's guess. She might be a mutant; the DNA guys say that, just on a visual inspection using an electron microscope it's almost human DNA, just more so. There are some weird sequences, so maybe she's a mutant."

Yellowjacket had pushed his mask off of his face. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. "Maybe… maybe she's some sort of really advanced mutant. I mean, Magneto was always going on rants about how mutants were an advanced form of humanity, maybe she is to them what he thinks mutants are to us."

"I remember suggesting that she was an Eternal." Spider-Man jumped with a sigh. "But if she really has a quadruple strand, then we aren't dealing with a mutant. Of course…" his voice trailed off as he was thinking… "Have the DNA analysts double check her DNA lacing to see if it's really a quadruple helix or merely two linked double helix strands. If it's the first, we're looking at an alien species. If it's the second, then what we have is a mutant whose DNA is twinned. I wouldn't begin to know what that would do for her, but it would mean she's human."

"That only raises the question of why she's running around pretending to be Karen Starr." Wasp pointed out. "What do you think that's about?"

"She's not pretending to be Karen Starr. She never claimed to be Karen Starr, remember?" Wonder Man turned from the window and returned to his seat. "She claimed no knowledge of Karen Starr, in fact, and has constantly identified herself as Alexander Harris. What if…" He paused, thinking. "What if –"

"You're about to suggest she's really Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You're thinking alternate dimensions maybe?" At Simon's nod, Hank Pym shook his head. "Even… no, that's silly. First, Xander Harris was a guy, not a girl, so even if he popped in from another universe where, I don't know, the television show is real life and we're all characters in a bunch of movies or something, she'd be male and she's not. Plus there's the powers. I watched a couple of the Buffy episodes on Netflix after we lost her, just to do the research, right? Xander Harris never had powers like that. Sure, there was this one episode where he was possessed by the spirit of an animal, but it wouldn't have allowed him to beat us all down."

Silence again.

"Okay," Spider-Man could always be counted on to break uncomfortable silences. "So I guess we saddle up and go looking for her, find out what's what. Got to tell you, really not looking forward to that."

But Stark was shaking his head. "No, we've been taken off her case."

"What? What do you mean we've been taken off the case? Who else –" Janet Van Dyne's eyes got very large. She shook her head in denial. "Oh God, don't tell me!"

"Yeah. It's as bad as you think." Stark hesitated before continuing. "Once Gyrich got wind of the investigator's report, he had the case taken out of our hands and given to Osborne's department. She's officially no longer any concern of ours."

Both Wonder Man and Spider-Man were on their feet. "Are they out of their damned minds!?" Peter asked. "That pack of psychos? All they'll do is piss her off!"

"Pete's right, Tony. You've got to get someone higher up to call them off! They'll go in there with their bull-in-a-china-shop act, believing they can take anyone and everyone, and she'll mow them down. We'll be lucky if LA's still standing afterwards." Simon slammed his hand down on the table so hard the supports cracked.

"Who am I supposed to go to, the President?" Stark responded with a snort. He'd been a life-long Republican all his life, and was proud to be a Conservative. That said, he would have called George W. Bush a retarded baboon if it wouldn't be an insult to retarded baboons. The man never should have been elected to the oval office. But he had been. There was no way Stark could convince him to not send in Osborne's assassins; the man was too much of a cowboy. "This is going to happen, and there's nothing we can do about it."

He tossed the girl's file on the table. "Except pick up the pieces when the fires die down."

"Maybe we could get someone to issue an evacuation order once the fighting starts." Spider-Man sat back down. He was quiet for a moment, then put his head down, then slowly started beating his forehead into it, just hard enough to make a noise. "I cannot believe this." He looked up at Stark. "And we've been ordered to stay out of it, right?"

Stark just nodded.

Everyone just looked stunned. "Well damn." Black Widow summed up everyone's feelings.

"Mr. Stark, I had a question, unrelated to the upcoming combat between the Thunderbolts and Power Girl." Ares leaned forward. "What will happen to the girl's father, the rapist?"

"Life without parole. Given the usual reaction to child murderers in prison? I figure he'll catch a shiv before five years are up."

XxxxxxX

Xander had spent the night calming Louise down; she'd been convinced that Marvin, or some guy named Boz who was supposed to be Marvin's boss, would come gunning because of what Xander had done. He just lay there while she curled up under his arm and snuggled. He'd stroked her hair and caressed her back, and eventually she stopped shaking and fell asleep.

It was the most physical they've been in their short, strange relationship.

Xander hadn't slept at all. Instead, he'd stayed up, thinking about that very subject. Xander still wasn't sure if they were officially a couple, but it certainly felt like it. He liked Louise well enough, and thought he might eventually fall for her. His heart still twinged at the thought of Buffy, though he was forced to admit that chances were he'd never see her again, and even if he did it would be as a girl It wasn't quite fair. So maybe he should abandon his crush and live in the world he was in, because he might not get out of it.

The rest of the night was spent contemplating Louise, the rest of the folks in the camp, his powers, the memories from Power Girl that were leaking into his consciousness, the Avengers, survival, lots of things. At the end of the night, he hadn't come to any conclusions. He was fond of Louise, and thought they might end up being a thing, but right now, he was taking it one day at a time.

"Alex?" Speak of the devil and he shall appear.

"Hey." Alex rolled, gently, so he was looking Louise in the eye. She was pretty, and there was a part of Xander that responded to that. "Sleep okay?"

"Yeah." Louise sleepily batted at her eyes, trying to wake up. "You?"

"Yeah, fine." He lied. No reason to make her nervous about their situation.

"M'glad." Louise rolled over, then snuggled back into him. He accommodated her by rolling onto the same side and putting an arm over her. Xander had to admit it was adorable, and waking up next to someone, or even having someone wake up next to you, was pretty cool. He closed his own eyes and dozed with her for a while, until it became too warm to sleep.

As usual, he woke before she did. He listened to Debby next door do whatever it was Debby was doing in there before carefully standing. As he was standing to stretch, Louise sat up. "You hungry?" Louise's question was almost drowned out by the yawn, but he understood her well enough.

"I could eat, sure. We breaking into the ice box or did you want to scrounge something?"

Louise held a hand up, allowing Xander to pull her into a standing position that had them so close they could feel each other's heartbeats. They stood like that for a moment. Xander's skin tingled where Louise's breath hit it. And just like that, Xander made a decision. He leaned his head down and kissed her, gently, but with enough confidence to send the message. He wasn't sure how long they'd last, but he'd be a fool to ignore that there was some attraction there. Louise kissed back, with just enough fervor for it to count as a staked claim.

"So, uh, I was thinking. I've got about fifty bucks saved up." She dug around in her jacket and pulled out a raggedy-looking coin purse. "I was thinking maybe we could go do fancy. Maybe Denny's? Celebrate, maybe? Because I owe you for getting me out from under Marvin, right? Helping me start new? Just a way of showing you how grateful I can be." She ran a finger down Xander's arm, her nail drawing just enough to cause a very interesting tingle. "I can be very grateful, Alex." She batted her eyes at Xander and smiled. "What do you think?"

"Wait! No. No, you don't…" Xander frowned just a little. "You don't owe me for that. You don't owe me anything. I don't need you to pay me back for anything. I didn't do it so you'd owe me. I didn't do it so you'd sleep with me. I just did it because you watch out for people you— you know – people you care about."

Louise's mouth "oh'ed" in surprise. "Oh, hey, I didn't… please don't be mad at me, okay? I was just thinking I could buy breakfast. Maybe say thank you."

"Well, okay…" Xander was still hesitant. "You… I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just I don't want you to go from being caught by Marvin to be caught by me. I'm not looking to manipulate you into anything, or force you into anything. I just – I just want to get to know you, and maybe you and I, maybe can have something. I mean, we'll see what happens, right?" He stopped talking, because she'd started nodding.

"Yeah, okay. See what happens." She sounded simultaneously happy and disappointed. "I didn't mean to, uh, you know. I just, I just haven't had a lot of real relationships, you know? Just, uh…"

"Yeah, I get it." Xander took her hand. "So, fancy breakfast?"

"I was thinking Dennys. Or maybe the Sizzler Breakfast Buffet, if you want a big variety? Probably Sizzler, 'cause it would be cheaper and its all you can eat, so we can stoke up and maybe sneak some out, right? Sizzler runs a $6 buffet on weekends." Louise picked through her boodle bag and found her ID and her money, then shoved the bag back into its cubby. She trusted her neighbors okay, but didn't trust trust them.

"Wait, it's the weekend?" At Louise's nod, Xander grinned. "I lost track. Um… this is going to sound stupid, but is it Saturday or Sunday?"

"Saturday. Church tomorrow."

"Right, Church tomorrow." Xander giggled. He hated when he giggled, because it made him sound like a girl. Which was a silly thing to be bothered by, given the circumstances, but it was a thing. "Hey, Sizzler it is, then. After you?"

"Why thank you, kind lady?" Louise gave him a quick peck on the cheek before leading him out of the bus.

"Pretty day today. Might get hot later, you think?"

Xander smiled. "Southern California in the summer? Hot? Pshaw!" He swung their hands back and forth, gently and playfully. "It is a pretty day. Doesn't look like a lot of clouds." They arrived at the bus stop and waited. "So where is this Sizzler, anyway?"

"I was thinking the one over by La Brea. You said you hadn't ever been in LA before, so I can show you the tar pits. They're kinda cool. And then by the time we're back we can hit the soup kitchen for lunch, then the Convent later for dinner. And in between," she wrapped herself around Xander and kissed him. "Maybe we can make out a little."

"Hmmmm." Xander tipped down and picked her up, easily supporting Louise's weight with one hand. "Choices choices. Sit around talking with Oz and the Flower Lady, or making out with you. I'll have to think about it." He shifted her so that he was holding her up with one arm.

Louise looked down at her feet. They were only a few inches above the ground. She turned back to Xander. "You might want to put me down before someone notices. Besides," she flipped her head toward the approaching bus. "Our ride is here." Xander dropped her, and the two of them hopped onto the bus. An hour and a half, plus one bus transfer later, and they hopped off the bus a block from the sizzler.

"And now I'm craving sausage gravy. Is that weird?" Xander scratched the back of his head.

"Nope, not at all. But where do you sit on the subject of pancakes, Alex?"

"Um. I usually sit at a table, I guess?" He wasn't sure what she was getting at.

"No, I mean, what do you like on them?"

"Oh! I'm a traditionalist. Butter and syrup. Maple syrup, not that fruity stuff. Especially if you warm the syrup before putting it on the pancakes."

"So no fruit syrups. Gotcha. Me, I like jams or fruit. Never really liked maple syrup."

Xander stopped and looked at her. "Really?" She nodded. "Weird, but okay. And how about –"

But Xander had stopped. He pushed Louise behind him, covering her body with his own. She peered over Xander's shoulder to see three people blocking their way. Her eyes grew wide as she recognized them. "Alex, I've seen these guys on the news. They'd fought the Wrecking Crew."

Xander gritted his teeth. The Wrecking Crew were Thor villains. They'd fought the entire Avengers team once. So, this might get sticky. He heard the sound of movement behind him, and spared a quick moment for a glance. So, seven of them, plus what looked like a dinosaur. One of them was a cyborg, another one was looking like he used gadgets, and a third one had an obvious magic staff. At least one of them was an alien, from what he could see of her skeletal structure.

If this turned into a fight, Magic Staff Girl was going down hard, first.

"Hey. Hate to bother you, but we need to talk. Now." The girl with the staff had appointed herself spokesman for this group, and had taken a tone that said they weren't going to brook disagreement. Xander didn't mind talking, but if it came down to it, he was going to brook a lot of disagreement.

Xander stared back at her. "Louise," he whispered. "If this becomes nasty I want you to run as far as you can as fast as you can. I'll find you."

"Alex, no!"

"Just run, Louise. Please." Xander turned his attention to the girl with the staff. "Okay, you want to talk. So talk."

"Last night we were contacted by a Detective, wanted to talk to us about some dude named Marvin who got busted up. Wanted to find out how and why he ended up in the emergency room, and thought Bruiser here did it." The girl with the staff waved toward the little girl with the fuzzy hat. "Now, none of us really give a shit why some pimp got himself beat down, but we don't like it when one of ours gets blamed for something someone else did, y'know? So… let's talk."

Xander watched her, just standing there. Thinking. The girl in the hat, Bruiser the girl called her, was clenching her fists and looking pissed. He really didn't want to get into a fight with any superheroes, especially not one that Louise could get caught up in. So he did what he did best: he changed course.

"Fine. We're going to the Sizzler to have biscuits and gravy and pancakes. You're welcome to come with." With that, he took Louise's hand and started toward the Sizzler again. The little girl in the hat stepped in front of the two of them, and without even pausing Xander scooped her up and threw the girl over his shoulder. He tossed a "You coming?" toward the rest of the group.

"Hey, put me down, you bozo!" The girl was beating on Xander's back, and he could tell from the impact that she had some strength to her. He ignored it and kept walking toward the Sizzler. "Put me down, damn it!"

The tall blonde guy, who Xander had labeled Gizmotron, jumped into Xander's way and put a hand up. Xander noted that the hand was covered in a ridiculously oversized high tech gauntlet. The gauntlet's palm and fingertips started to glow a bit in the infrared spectrum, but Xander figured the dude wouldn't shoot while he was holding the girl. So more casually than he felt, Xander brushed the guy aside without comment.

"Hey, kid, what's your name? I'm, uh, Alex." The girl kept beating on his back. "Hey, calm down. What's your name?"

"Guys! Damn it, guys! Stop her! Stop, damn it! Put me down!" The rain of blows continued, a bit harder this time. Kid had some pretty respectable power behind the punch. Not compared to what Xander could produce but not too shabby nonetheless.

"Hey!" It was Magic Staff Girl. "Hey, put her down!" Xander could see it clearly. He'd thrown their game. They expected him to either be cowed or else to start fighting. They weren't ready for someone who simply did not take them seriously.

"Not until she calms down and tells me her name."

"Bruiser. Her, uh, her name is Bruise-Bruiser."

"Right. And my name is Power Girl. This is my sidekick, Lady Clairol." He pulled the door of the Sizzler open and held it for Louise, whose eyes were huge but who was saying absolutely nothing. The girl over his shoulder had stopped thrashing, apparently realized there was no way to get out of Xander's arms until Xander decided to let her go.

The heroes were still outside, apparently wondering what to do next. Xander approached the seater and smiled. "Hi there," he checked the girl's name tag. "Hi there Anequa. Three for the Buffet?" He turned to Louise. "I know you said you'd get it, but I'll pick it up this time since I recruited the third, okay?"

"Yeah, okay." Louise was still wide-eyed.

"Cool." He addressed the girl on his shoulder. "Hey, you cool with the breakfast buffet?"

"What? The girl seemed had finished calming down. She half-heartedly hit Xander in the back one last time, then seemed to give up. "Why aren't I hurting you when I hit you?"

Xander shrugged with the shoulder not carrying a semi-struggling girl. "I'm tougher than I look, that's all. You hungry?"

"But I'm strong. I can lift a semi over my head."

"I can too." Xander said. "But we were talking about breakfast. You interested?"

"Please put me down?" Xander couldn't tell if it was a demand or a request. The girl had given up struggling and just hung there on his shoulder.

"Sure. What's your name?"

"Molly."

"You hungry Molly?"

"Um, okay."

He put her down, gently. "Hey, Molly. I'm Alex, this is Louise. Thanks for joining us for breakfast. Got to say, I'm loving the hat!"

"Um." Molly was glancing back and forth between Xander and the door. Xander glanced over and saw her teammates still arguing outside. They seemed to take turns glaring at him through the door, so he made sure to wave every time he spotted it. "Um. Thanks, I guess?"

"Sure. You like biscuits and gravy? I am in the mood for some biscuits and gravy." Xander and Louise followed the seater to their table. Molly followed along blankly, every once in a while shooting looks toward the door.

"Um." As Xander and Louise sat, the girl seemed hesitant. "You're, uh, you're buying me, um, breakfast? Really?"

"Yeah! Got to love the Sizzler, right? Huge buffet, lots of food. Not the greatest, but they're not too expensive, so it's all good."

"Yeah, but…"

"But? But what? Oh hey, what do you want to drink?" Their waitress arrived. Molly stared at the door again, then sat down. "Molly? What do you want to drink?"

"Can I have some orange juice?"

"Let's have an orange juice and two cokes, please? And if you could bring me a pot of coffee, I'd love you forever." Xander glanced at the door. The rest of Molly's team was filing in, and had been confronted by the seater. They were glaring at Xander, but he just gave them a friendly wave. He stood up. "Time for those biscuits and gravy!"

Louise joined him at the buffet bar. He kept an eye on their table, and knew that Molly's friends had commandeered another table. The girl herself was standing next to their table, talking rapidly and gesturing back and forth between him and Louise and the table. Every once in a while her eyes cut toward the breakfast bar. It occurred to Xander that none of her friends had paid for the buffet. They just sort of floated past. The girl looked hungry, so he gestured her toward the food, which at least got a smile out of her. The girl, Molly, began stepping toward the bar in that over-exaggerated way a pre-teen has to make a point.

Xander smiled at that. He turned back to the bar and loaded his plate with some fried potatoes, some grits a split biscuit, some sausage patties, some shredded fried chicken, and some sautéed mushrooms. Shortly sausage gravy covered everything. Turning toward the table, he had to suddenly juggle his plate to keep it from pouring all over Magic Staff Girl, who was standing in his way.

"Whoa! Careful there!" He managed to keep his breakfast on the plate without slopping it all over either her or himself.

"Just what is going on?" She sounded indignant. The indignation increased as he stepped around her and headed to the table. "You can't just pick someone up and drag them into a restaurant like that!"

"Breakfast, just what it looks like." He shrugged in the direction of the girl, Molly, who was piling her plate high with waffles.

Magic Staff Girl followed behind him. "You bought her breakfast. Why did you buy her breakfast? What the hell are you doing? We need to talk to you!"

"Okay, so we can talk. But my, uh, my girlfriend and I are hungry, and came here to eat." He shot a quick smile toward Louise, who returned it. "Don't take this the wrong way, but money is kinda tight for us, so even coming to a low-grade place like this one is splurging, so we're going to enjoy it while we're here, okay?" He smiled up at her, then took his first bite of his food. For an el-cheapo breakfast buffet, it was manna from heaven. Louise sat down across from him a moment later, her plate stacked with pancakes and scrambled eggs. They ate in silence for a bit before Molly joined them. Molly looked a bit sheepish, but her feelings didn't keep her from digging into the waffles. "You're welcome to join us, but I think they're going to want you to pay for the food first." Xander bobbed his head to the right, toward the entry point where the manger was standing with the seater. Both were staring at the kids who'd invaded their restaurant and were now harassing paying customers.

Magic Staff Girl's mouth opened and closed. Then opened and closed again. Then she and her crowd, minus Molly, stomped off toward the cash register. Louise's eyes bugged out at Xander. "What the fuck are you doing? These guys are seriously badass!"

Xander took a huge bite of his breakfast, chewed, swallowed, and smiled at her. "Don't worry. My strength is that of ten men, for my heart is pure." He waggled his eyebrows at her.

"Yeah?" She laughed. "Pure what?"

"I'll never tell." He smiled at her again, then continued eating. Molly was contentedly finishing her waffles, while Louise was slowly picking apart her pancakes. Magic Staff Girl came back and took the fourth seat at Xander's table, while the rest of her team claimed one nearby.

"Okay, now we're all official." It was a snark, but as such things went, it was moderate. "What the hell was pulling Molly into this place all about?"

Xander dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, then considered ignoring the question in favor of getting more food. Instead, he answered. "Molly was in my way and was going to try and stop us from coming in here. I didn't want to fight because Louise and I wanted to celebrate with breakfast, so I figured I'd invite her in." The rest of her team was at the other table. They'd all grabbed some food, but for the most part they were pushing it around on their plates, not eating it. They were paying attention to the byplay between Xander and this Sister Grimm girl, but were letting her do all the heavy lifting when it came to the conversation.

Except for Molly. Molly was eating more waffles. She'd added some of the banana sauce to them. And what looked like chocolate chips.

Sister Grimm followed his eyes as he glanced at Molly. She leaned forward. "Molly was hitting you. You just took it. I know how strong she is. How are you not a bloody lump right now?"

Xander shrugged. "I been hit harder."

"So not only are you strong, you're tough enough to take one of her punches." Xander could see the girl doing some math behind her eyes, and he did not like that at all.

"Was there a point to all this or did you just want to join us for breakfast?" He wanted to resolve whatever this was, but he wasn't going to just sit there and let the girl plan his demise.

The question broke her line of thought. "Yeah, like I said, we had some detective talk to us about that guy Marvin. When one of us gets blamed for things we didn't do, I go looking for answers. Like why Marvin got put in the hospital, and why someone tried to frame Molly for it."

"Well," he took a sip of his coke. "I think it's unfortunate that someone thinks Molly here beat up Marvin, but that part of it really isn't my business." He set his glass down. "Look -" He paused, thinking. "What do I call you?"

"Huh?"

"Your name. I can't just call you 'hey, you."

"Oh. I call myself Sister Grimm. Do you really call yourself Power Girl?"

"No, that's just a name the registration people wanted me to use. I actually call myself, ah, 'Alex'. 'Cause, you know, it's my name." Xander blinked at her. "Don't tell me you really thought Louise called herself Lady Clairol. Did you?"

"Uh."

"Right. So, like I asked, what do you want from us?" Xander was eyeing the breakfast bar again, and this conversation was getting stale.

Magic Staff Girl – it didn't matter what she called herself, this is the label that stuck in Xander's head – shrugged almost apologetically. "We got told that some super-strong girl had put a pimp in the hospital, tore off one of his fingers," this caused Xander to wince slightly, "and tore his car in two before dragging it to the local police precinct. We're just about the only real superheroes out here, other than some independent operators. Call it a professional interest."

"Okay, makes sense. Marvin was self-defense. He came in waving a gun around. Could have hurt people. So I stopped him. I'm not going to apologize. I mean, guy's still alive, right?"

"That's it?"

Xander goggled a bit at the girl's question. Then he looked at his plate again. "Hey hold on a second." He stood up and headed to the bar. When he was back, it was stacked with pancakes and bacon and all of it covered in maple syrup.

"Where were we?" he asked around a mouthful of pancake. "Oh yeah, you asked a question. Yeah, that's it. I'm not interested in either fighting bad guys or knocking over banks. I just want to watch out for people I care about. Not saying I won't jump in if I see, I dunno, Electro attacking a bank I'm walking past, or if there's a fire or something, but I'm not going out looking for trouble. I'm just looking for a way home."

Xander took a bite of the bacon, then spit it out. Tasted like ass. He was about to eat some more of his pancakes when he stopped. "Hey, how did you find us, anyway?"

"Sympathetic magic. Took me forever to find the finger, but once I had it, it led me right to you." Magic Staff Girl finally took a bite of her toast. "So you're looking for a way home? Any reason why you can't just hop a bus?"

Xander turned to look at Louise. "Please don't freak on me, okay?"

Louise suddenly looked worried. "Why? Are you, like, an alien from another planet or something?" She swallowed hard. "Not that if you – I mean, I still would –"She wasn't exactly looking at Xander.

You don't know the half of it. But Xander didn't say that. Didn't even let his face move in reaction. "I'm uh, actually, I'm from another Earth. A parallel Earth. The town I was born in doesn't exist here. I just sort of appeared here last Halloween. There was this sorcerer, and he did this spell, and the next thing I know I'm here."

"And you're trying to get back there." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah. I had friends and a life. It wasn't perfect, but it was mine. And now I'm in a strange place surrounded by strange people, and I'm living on the street and I just want to go home." The tears surprised him. "So much about this world just sucks. My world was horrible, but I knew where I stood. Nothing's been the same since I got here, and I want my old life back. Everything here just sucks."

"Everyth… Everything? Everything sucks?" Louise stood up, her eyes huge. "I need to go. I need to go. I just – I need to go." She didn't quite run out, but it was close.

"Shit." Without another word, Xander followed her. He stepped out of the restaurant, searching for her. She wouldn't have gotten far, and she hadn't. Louise had stopped at the edge of the parking lot, just sitting on the curb, crying. She looked up at Xander as he approached.

"Everything sucks? Even me? Even…" she waved her hands in the air. "This? Our, whatever this is? I care about you. I want to care more about you. I want to get to know you, Alex. I want to see if maybe we can be a thing. Can we – and you tell me this all just." She stopped abruptly, looking away again. "You just want to leave? When were you going to tell me?"

"Actually, I was going to ask you to come with me. Come with me, and you'll have friends, and a home, and you won't have to worry about food or shelter or getting sick." Xander knelt and took the girl into his arms. "You're my friend, and you've treated me like a person, and I think you're great. And yeah, we can see where it all goes.'

She smiled beneath the tears. "Not worrying about where I'm going to sleep would be nice. But what if we don't work out? You still want me to come with you?"

"Sure. My friends wouldn't kick you out onto the street if we didn't work out. And besides, me going back home isn't too likely, right? I mean, how many sorcerers do you know who could open up a door to home?" Xander helped her stand and hugged her. He looked back at the restaurant. Magic Staff Girl, Molly, and the rest of their friends were watching them from just outside the door. "I think our breakfast is over."

Magic Staff Girl had her arms crossed in front of her, watching them. After a few minutes of mutual staring, she finally approached. "I think I might be able to help you get home. If you want me to, I mean. And if you can trust me."

Xander studied her, but couldn't figure out if she was bullshitting him. Everyone stared at him, staring at her, staring at him. Finally he bobbed his head once. "Yeah, okay."

"Good." Magic Staff Girl smiled at him, and for the first time felt some warmth from her. "Come with us then."

XxxxxxX

"Got to say," Xander quipped as he took in his surroundings. "I never once would have suspected that the La Brea Tar Pits had a secret headquarters beneath them."

The blonde kid, the one Xander thought of as Gizmotron but had introduced himself as Talkback, laughed. "We actually think of it more as a lair than a headquarters. It's more personal that way. More homey."

"I can see how that would be." He leaned into Louise, who was snuggled up into him. She was still stressed and frightened and nervous, but wanted to go home with him. He wasn't going to let anything happen to her, even if this burgeoning whatever it was didn't work out. "So, how does this work?" Magic Staff Girl was using the butt end of her staff to draw out a circle in the middle of the lair's main space. "Just for concentration purposes," she'd told him when she began.

"I haven't exactly done this sort of thing before, but it shouldn't be something out of my reach. You stand in the circle, I send you home. Hocus pocus, alakazam, and abracadabra. Magic. Pretty simple, really." She shrugged. "So come over here, and stand in the circle, and we'll get this done."

They did. Magic Staff Gir… Sister Grimm, held her staff before her and the entire room was suddenly bathed in a greenish light. It scared Xander for a moment, who had always associated green with being sick and injured for some reason he couldn't quite articulate. But this light was warm and familiar and welcoming somehow, as if it wasn't a herald of illness or injury, but rather was the mark of a friend. It was the feeling of being embraced by your mother, your sister, your daughter… Louise smiled up at Xander and brought his hand to her mouth and kissed its back. "It's really going to be all right, isn't it?" she whispered to him as the power of Sister Grimm's magic swelled around them. "I feel… I feel like…"

And before she could finish the thought, Xander and Louise had vanished in a flare of warm green light.

XxxxxxX

Nico Minoru wiped the sweat off of her brow as she stared at the empty space the two young women had just occupied. That was the first time she'd ever invoked that sort of power, and it had surprised her when the energy she summoned up to open up a doorway to Alex's home dimension had neither felt cold and boring or searing and destructive, but actually felt alive, warm, and friendly.

She smiled at her teammates. "So, what are we going to do for the rest of the day?"

Chase just smiled. "I dunno. We could always go down to the –"

There was a loud noise. It sounded almost like a horde of human voices were simultaneously screaming out "SCHWOOK!" before fading into silence. A wave of pressure knocked everyone to the ground. Molly was the first to climb back to her feet, and she could just stare. Louise and Xander were back, standing in the circle.

"… like there's something out there that cares… about…" She trailed off as she noticed their surroundings. Xander was just as surprised. There had been a green flash, and then nothing.

"Okay, that was, um, useless. What just happened, anyway?"

XxxxxxX

Author's Note: The stuff you recognize belongs to Marvel, DC, or Mutant Enemy. The stuff you don't recognize belongs to me.

Author's Note the Second: My longest chapter yet. But I wanted to get all of this stuff out of the way so I couldn concentrate on the next chapter. It's entitled "Ragnarok", and it's a bit of a game changer.