Author's Note for Returning Readers:
The prologue (previous section) was extensively revised and reposted just before this chapter was posted. You might want to reread it starting from the beginning.
“I'm extremely worried, Tony. It was bad enough that the gateway to the Negative Zone went haywire and nearly ripped itself straight out of the Baxter Building. But frankly it's the other... event that concerns me the most.” Reed looked at Tony's image in the viewscreen as he thought about how to explain the next part. Tony looked back, his dark, intelligent eyes suitably grave as he considered what Reed had just said.
“What other event, Reed? I registered several extreme variations in various power grids world-wide. My own armor had a similar problem. I thought it was some kind of inter-dimensional power spike. Is there more?” Tony had been madly researching the possible reasons behind this. With the agenda he had been slowly pushing through Congress, the last thing he needed was another threat to the world. Although, maybe another Skrull invasion might cause enough of a distraction that he could finish his work, he thought grimly.
Reed considered a moment, then continued, “Yes, there is. I registered some type of progressive decay in the quantum levels of the universe. I genuinely believe we were only moments from some type of quantum collapse of the multi-verse. I didn't tell the others since there wasn't anything I, or anyone else, could have done. It would have just distracted them at a critical moment. When the readings were approaching some kind of final event, I detected a resonant harmonic that was blending... everything. All of reality. At that exact moment, the seal of the Negative Zone gateway blew off, and the open event horizon turned green. Someone clutching a hammer fell through the portal...”
Tony started. Interrupting, he asked, “Thor?”
Reed's eyes met Tony's. Both men communicated silently. Reed considered his next words carefully. Finally, he shook his head. “It wasn't Thor. Instead, it was a girl. Small, blonde. At first appearance, nothing special. Before she hit the floor, the gateway was already back to normal. Every instrument that was registering the quantum collapse showed everything completely normal. It was as if nothing had happened in the first place.”
Tony asked, “And there's no evidence of what caused it in the first place?”
Reed shook his head, “None. What next? The hammer. Ben couldn't lift it. Sue couldn't move it with her forcefield. There's definitely a resemblance to Mjolnir. Similar size and shape. No script on it, so I can't be certain there's a link. Then there's the girl. She was in cardiac arrest when we got to her. It took a syringe full of adrenaline and CPR to get her heart started. I used the adamantium syringes I keep around for Ben on her. Which was good, because even with them, her skin resisted penetration. Anyway, after that she came around for a few seconds. She seemed dazed and confused. Everything was fine until she caught a glimpse of Ben. Before losing consciousness, the girl said something unintelligible, jumped up, and struck Ben hard enough with that hammer to knock him through a reinforced concrete wall. She's definitely a meta-human and immensely strong.”
“You don't think it's a coincidence do you? The almost-collapse and her arrival?”
“Tony, you know as well as I do, there are no coincidences. Not at a quantum level. Something's happening. I have the girl stashed in one of the bedrooms on the residential level. The girl's injured, but despite the cardiac arrest, I made the decision not to take her to a hospital, especially in light of how powerful she appeared to be. I sent Sue over to Alicia's with the boys, just in case. ”
“Reed, you made the right decision. The last thing we need is a potentially rogue meta-human running around. Do you know who she is or if we can communicate with her?” Tony cursed under his breath. When he went before congress next month, Tony didn't want any surprises, especially in the form of random blondes heralding the apocalypse.
At that moment, a voice spoke over Reed's shoulder. “Her name's Buffy. She sounds like she's from California. Hot girl. Looks way better in that nightgown Gwen left than Gwen ever did. She's taking a shower right now. Oh, and she requested a phone and food, not necessarily in that order.”
Reed whirled around. Standing in front of him was the youngest member of the Fantastic Four. Johnny Storm meet Reed's gaze with a irreverent grin. “Johnny, what did you do?”
Johnny laughed outright at the expression on Reed's face. “Reed, it's not my fault. There I was, just drying off after taking a shower, when the door opened. Standing in the door was Buffy. She...”
From behind Reed, Tony Stark spoke in a strangled voice. “Buffy?”
“Hey, Tony. Yes, her name's Buffy Summers. Not sure if that's short for anything. She was kinda snarky after she saw me naked...”
Reed gasped. “She what!?”
Johnny had the grace to appear abashed. “Well, I was drying off. It wasn't my fault. She didn't act too impressed with me, though.” This last was said in a disgruntled tone.
“So she wasn't too impressed with your 'package', ya flamin' punk? That sounds about right.” Ben Grimm's low gravelly tone was amused. He'd just come in to talk to Stretch about their 'guest.' Then he'd overheard Johnny talking about the girl seeing him naked. It was going to be too easy.
Johnny momentarily looked embarrassed, then a sly smile crossed his lip. “I'm sure you're right, Benji. Course, 'Buffy' wasn't too impressed with you when she knocked you through the wall.”
If Ben Grimm could have blushed, he would have. It was even worse than he'd feared. He'd gotten knocked on his keister by someone named 'Buffy.' That was worse than either 'Blondie' or 'Barbie.' Ben wished the earth would swallow him up as he stared at the amused face of his teammate. Even Reed had a slight smile on his face.
“Can we please focus on what's important?” Tony Stark's cool tones rang out from behind them. All three turned and looked at the man on the viewscreen. “Johnny, you say she's taking a shower currently. What was her demeanor? Did she appear hostile? Did she demonstrate any other abilities?”
Johnny thought briefly before answering. “Reed, Tony, she seems... cool.” At the exasperated glances sent his way, Johnny hastily explained, “I mean she wasn't hostile. She was cute and funny. I kinda embarrassed her.” At Ben's questioning look, he grinned. “That nightgown I gave Sue for her was kinda transparent. So I could see her...”
“Johnny.” The tone of Reed's rebuke contained not a hint of amusement.
“Sorry, Reed. Anyway, she introduced herself as Buffy Summers. We flirted... okay, I flirted. She told me she wanted food and a phone. And no she didn't tell me who she wanted to call. Then she said she needed to pee and pushed me out the door. She must have jumped into the shower after that.”
Tony stroked his chin. “Johnny, did she ask about the hammer? Or anything else?”
“No she didn't. Not about the hammer or anything.”
Tony took that in, then asked, “Ben, how strong was she? Reed said she hit you with her hammer and knocked you through a wall.”
Ben shrugged. “Yeah, she did. I'm going to be a long time living down getting knocked out by someone named Buffy.” Ben sighed. “Stark, she's strong. Not Hulk-strong, but close. Stronger than me. That's my best guess based on what I have to go on. She cracked some of my ribs with that hit.”
Reed's brow creased in thought, then he took up the discussion. “She's extremely fast and agile as well. One second she was staring up at us, looking woozy. The next, she was on her feet and Ben was already headed through the south-side retaining wall. That wall is heavily reinforced concrete theoretically capable of standing up to even someone of Blastarr's abilities, at least for a short time. No wonder Ben was hurt. The force behind her blow was immense.”
“Do you believe she's dangerous?” Tony asked. He caught a glimpse of someone behind Ben. Someone he didn't recognize. Their mystery guest was here.Elsewhere in the Baxter Building...
Buffy was feeling better. She'd just finished the longest, hottest shower in history. She'd been surprised how hot the water was capable of going. It was practically boiling! Buffy had adjusted it well below that and grabbed some soap. Being clean was a great feeling. After drying off, Buffy realized that she had nothing to wear. Wrapped in an oversize towel, Buffy left the bathroom and headed back to the bedroom in which she'd woken. On the bed were draw-string sweat pants and a thick over-sized sweatshirt, big enough to cover up any naked Buffy-bits. On them was a note.
Sorry about the mutual peepshow. I'm dressed and figured you'd want to be, too. I don't have any clothes your size, but I figured these would do in a pinch. I'll see about the food and phone.
Your naked friend,
Smiling faintly, Buffy put on the clothes. While feminine in nature, they'd obviously been made for someone half a foot taller than her. Buffy looked at herself in the mirror. Everything appeared covered, even if she looked a bit refugeeish. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten since over a day before the battle with Glory. I'm going to get some food, Buffy thought. After that, I'll have time to figure out where I ended up.
Buffy walked down the hall, looking for someone, anyone. After opening several doors, behind which Buffy found nothing interesting, she finally located a stairway. Up or down, she wondered? Deciding to try up first, Buffy climbed. She went up one level and opened the door. Everything was dark and quiet there, the hum of electricity the only sound present. Let's go one more, she thought. Buffy opened the door to the next level. Ah hah! There were lights there and voices she could just make out with her sensitive hearing. Listening, Buffy headed towards the voices. She moved around a couple of pieces of weird machinery whose purposes she doubted she would have been able to guess in a million years. Stopping just behind a big silvery-blue one covered in blinking lights, she stared at the group of men standing around a TV with another man's image on it.
They were talking about her! Buffy focused intently as the brainy-looking guy with the silver accents in his hair talked about what had occurred after she was revived. She winced as he described how she had hurt someone named Ben, who must be the orange rocky guy. Then the guy on the TV-looking screen asked, “Do you believe she's dangerous?”
Buffy decided to interject. “Yes, do you think I'm dangerous?” She walked out of the shadows where she'd been lurking. She sent an acknowledging smile Johnny's way, then focused on the older man, who seemed to be in charge. Buffy wondered who the guy with the movie-star looks on the television screen was.
Tony Stark stared with interest as the girl or woman about whom they'd been talking walked in. She was small, he noted, no more than a couple of inches over five feet. Tony didn't underestimate her just because of her size. He'd seen human-size beings do things that boggled the imagination. She could be extremely dangerous. Despite that, Tony smiled at her. She was, as Johnny Storm had described her, extremely attractive, although there was a deep weariness in the eyes looking back into his. The look in her eyes was at odds with her apparent youth. It didn't lessen her attractiveness in the slightest. The girl moved with a lithe grace as she stalked forward. She walked like she was ten feet tall, tremendous self-confidence evident with every step. Tony had his pick of the world's most beautiful women, from fashion models to actresses. He didn't think he'd be adding a gorgeous, petite meta-human to the mix, but you never know. He smiled charmingly at the young woman, who smiled back. “Hello, there. Buffy, is it? My name is Tony Stark. Reed, here, was just calling me to ask if I could help solve the mystery of your appearance.”
Buffy smiled at Tony, but inside she was wary. She'd met more than her fair share of bad guys who could charm the pants off of you, Dracula among them. Tony didn't seem evil, anymore than the distinguished-looking older guy did, but both shared a certain confidence, approaching arrogance, that came across in waves. “Yes, I'm Buffy. I appreciate your help. Since I'm here now, if you want to know something, just ask.”
Tony smiled. “That sounds fine. Now about that...”
Buffy wore a slightly air-headed expression as she interrupted him. “Sorry, Tony, but I have
to eat first. I'm starving. Also, I don't want to talk to a TV, no matter how cute the person on it is. So how about after these guys rustle me up some dinner, you come over in person and I'll give you the 411.” Not giving Tony time to respond, Buffy turned to Ben. “Sorry about whacking you with the hammer. I hope you're okay?” At Ben's hesitant nod, Buffy took Johnny's arm in her hands. Looking up at him, she gave him a thousand-watt smile, saying flirtatiously, “Why don't we grab some food? Then you can take me to a phone.” She led the flustered young man out of the room, leaving silence in her wake.
Ben was the first to speak. “Flamebrain's right about one thing, she is hot. Gotta say though, Stretch, she doesn't seem like the sharpest blade. Not exactly brainy, if you know what I mean.”
Reed shrugged. “It's too early to tell. Ben, why don't you go with them and try and keep Johnny out of trouble.”
Ben looked at him. “And if she wants to use a phone?”
Reed shrugged again. “Let her. She's not a prisoner.” He watched as Ben walked after the pair, before turning back to the viewscreen. “Tony, when can you be here?”
Tony considered. “Reed, give me a three hours to wrap up what I'm working on. Then I'll head over there. Can you run some tests on the hammer in the meantime?”
“Of course. I'd planned to do that anyway. I'm using a plasmatic phase integration recyclotron to measure the quantum resonance of...”
Tony interrupted with a smile. “That's okay, Reed. You don't have to explain. Without the actual 'integration unit' in front of me, I doubt I would understand.” Tony was again reminded that despite possessing his techno powers and being the pre-eminent inventor of Earth, the man speaking to him was probably the most intelligent man alive. As well as the most versed in the pure sciences. Also, the only man able to make Tony feel clumsy. At least intellectually.
“Oh, okay. I'll see you in four or so hours then, Tony.”
“Later, Reed. Stark out.”
Buffy sat at the counter watching Johnny as he set out steaks. Potatoes followed, along with a loaf of crusty French bread. She frowned as he didn't start up the oven, but instead put his left hand over the steaks and his right over the potatoes.
“How do you like your steak, Buffy?”
“I'll take mine medium.” Ben interjected, looking over the cozy scene. He ignored the irate glance Johnny sent his way. Walking up to the big fridge, he carefully opened it and took out another steak and potato. He casually set them on the baking sheet in front of Johnny alongside the others. “No burning it, Flame-brain. Got that?”
Buffy smiled at the big, rocky guy. He seemed... nice. His eyes were the only part of him completely human. Still, she didn't know how she'd mistaken him for a demon. Despite his outward appearance, he felt completely human to her slayer senses. “You're Ben? It's nice to meet you. I'm Buffy, if you didn't already know.”
Ben grinned at the girl. She didn't seem to at all intimidated by his appearance. He hefted himself onto a heavy-duty stool next to Buffy. She patted him on the knee, then gasped as she stared at Johnny. Ben followed her gaze and saw Johnny cooking their food, using his flame power.
Johnny grimaced as he stared at Ben's steak. He'd hoped to have at least some time alone with Buffy. Lighting his hands, he began to cook the steaks and the potatoes. He heard the gasp from behind him. Turning his head, Johnny saw Buffy standing by the stool she'd been sitting on. Her eyes were wide and she pointed at him in disbelief.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” Buffy stared as the young man nonchalantly cooked the food in front of him using flames generated by his hands.
“I'm sorry, Buffy. I should have told you. The same cosmic rays that gave Ben his rocky appearance changed all four of us. I got the ability to generate flame, completely wrapping my body in it. It even lets me fly. Ben's super strong. Reed is able to stretch his body in any shape imaginable. Sue can...”
“Sue? Who's that?” Buffy inquired cautiously, still wary of the flames Johnny was producing.
“Sue's my sister and Reed's wife. She's has the power to become invisible and project forcefields. Anyway together, we're called the Fantastic Four. Our code names are The Human Torch, The Invisible Woman, The Thing, and Mr. Fantastic.”
Buffy's brow creased in thought. Fantastic Four. Where had she heard that. Buffy looked over at Ben. “So you're Mr. Fantastic, I take it?”
Ben looked abashed. “Nope. I'm The Thing.”
Buffy gave his arm a squeeze. “I don't think you're a thing. You should come up with a different name.”
“Like what?” Ben asked doubtfully.
“I don't know. Maybe Rocky? Ooohh, how about Orange Crush?” Buffy pouted at the laugh she got from Johnny.
Johnny was having trouble putting the steaks, now done, on plates, he was laughing so hard. “Orange Crush? Maybe we should call you 'Rocky Crush.'” Johnny managed to get the platefuls of food to the counter where he set one each in front of Buffy and Ben, keeping the last one for himself.
“Yuck it up, flame-breath. We'll see who's laughing when I tear off your arms and leg.” With that, Ben dug in. Wow, he thought, this steak is pretty good. Guess Johnny didn't want his 'girlfriend' to think he was a jerk by burning it.
Buffy listened to the interplay between the two. It reminded her of the friendly bickering that had taken place among the Scoobies. Suddenly she missed them all, but especially her mom and Dawn. Silently, she ate the food in front of her, not tasting a bite, unaware of the tears slowly trickling down her face. Sorrow made the food she ate sit like a lead in her stomach. I'll never see any of them again, she thought. Buffy sat, consumed by her memories of other times, only coming back to life when she grew aware of eyes upon her. Looking up, she saw both Ben and Johnny staring at her. Self-consciously, Buffy wiped her wet cheeks with her napkin.
“You okay, kid?”
The gravel-voice of the man called the Thing shouldn't have been capable of expressing so much empathy, but it was. Red-eyed, Buffy met his gaze. Blue eyes, full of understanding, stared back into hers. Buffy rapidly blinked away more tears. “I'm okay. I was just thinking about my family. I'll probably never see them again. And it hurts. I really miss my mom. She died about two months ago. It was so hard on my sister and me.”
“It's always hard when you lose people. All you can do is just try to live day by day.” Ben felt awkward, dispensing what felt like Hallmark Card advice, but his words seemed to cheer up the young woman.
Buffy smiled at Ben. He seemed really nice. And eerily familiar all of a sudden. Trying to rack her brain, Buffy took a drink of water. Halfway through, she choked. Spluttering, she managed to get out, “You're the Fantastic Four!”
Johnny raised eyebrows at Ben, who shrugged. “I just told you that.”
“No, I mean, you're all comic book characters. Oookay, I'm starting to freak out here.” Buffy remembered the comics that Xander had his nose buried in so often back in high school. She'd ragged him over it, until one day she'd actually picked one up that he'd left behind at the research table in the library. It had been far more entertaining than she'd expected. It had also been about the Fantastic Four.
“Err... comic book characters?” Ben was trying to figure out what was up with Buffy now. She seemed to be getting agitated.
“Comic book. You're a comic book where I come from. Oh my God, are there more, err... what do you call yourselves? Superheroes or something?”
“Well, some people call us superheroes. More commonly, these days we're referred to as meta-humans. What do you mean about us being comic book characters? I mean there is a comic book of the Fantastic Four. I think we get royalties for it or something.” Johnny frowned as he considered whether or not they received royalties.
“You're not getting me. There aren't superheroes, or meta-whatits where I'm from. There's only regular people.”
Ben had been listening to Buffy's panicked rant. Now he interjected, “If there aren't any superheroes, then what exactly are you? You pack a mean punch for being a 'regular' person, Buffy.”
Oh crap, Buffy thought. I'm so not going over the whole slayer gig right now. Nervously, she said, “No superhero here. Just regular Buffy. I go to school and take care of my sister. There's nothing unusual about me.”
Buffy whirled as a voice spoke at her back. “Then you wouldn't mind explaining how 'regular Buffy' was almost responsible for the destruction of the entire meta-verse?” Buffy stared at the ghostly figure now in front of her. Okay, she thought, who the hell is this guy and why is he all white and see-through, like Casper the Friendly Ghost? Wherever she was, it was turning out to be even weirder than Sunnydale...