Chapter Four

The day before our next meet, I snagged a pen off my professor’s desk when I stayed behind to talk to him. It was just some crappy generic thing he probably had another dozen of at home, but I still felt guilty. For all I knew, that was his last pen for the day, and I’d just triggered some nervous pen-related breakdown.

Lame, I know, but I’ve always been kind of a bleeding heart.

When I got to the bar, some guy playing a guitar and crooning into the microphone sat on the stage I hadn’t even realized was there. The lyrics were awful – something about lost love and head trips and unhealthy relationships – but the actual music wasn’t too bad if I tuned out the words.

A lot of people would have done something when they spotted me – waved, called my name, something – but Predator wasn’t a lot of people. When I turned away from the stage to look at the rest of the bar, her gaze was on mine, and a jolt ran through me.

I didn’t see Flare, but I did see an empty seat next to Predator (and a drink in front of that seat that looked suspiciously like what I’d been drinking the night before). I took the seat and the drink both, perching on the stool without a word to the woman next to me.

“So what’ve you got for me?” Predator drawled when I’d gotten through a glass and she’d made her way through a beer and a half. The silence had been nice, actually. At some point she’d shifted so her thigh pressed against mine, and when I stole a glance toward her, her eyes had burned into mine, but it was the nice kind of sexual tension, the kind where you knew it was mutual and didn’t spend half the time second-guessing yourself.

I pulled out the pen, wrapped in a thick padding of paper towels and stuffed into my jacket. I didn’t know exactly how much handling was ‘too much’, so I’d entombed the thing as soon as I got back to my house, and I hadn’t touched it with my bare hands since.

Predator snorted when she took it, but didn’t comment. She shotgunned her beer, then ran her fingers over the pen, her eyes going glassy and unfocused.

I watched, curious, as she touched every part of the outer casing, then took apart the pen as quickly and easily as if she’d built it herself. She tapped the open end of the plastic tube of ink on the napkin to get a little bit of ink onto the paper, then dipped one of her fingers in it. Rubbing her thumb over the tip of her finger, she brought her hand up to her face and inhaled, then lifted the disassembled pen and inhaled again. I straight up stared when she touched her tongue to the upper part of the pen casing, not that she seemed to notice.

I was starting to have third and fourth thoughts about the whole thing when she abruptly wrapped the pen back up in the paper towel, shoved it in her pocket, and stood. She threw a bill onto the bar to pay for our drinks, and started to head toward the door.

“C’mon,” she commanded, eyes still vacant, “I got it.”

“Right now?” I protested, slipping my jacket on anyway. “I didn’t think we were going to do this tonight, I’ve got-“

“Right now,” Predator said, and stalked out of the bar.

[*]

It turned out she had driven to the bar. I’d taken the train; one of the few expenses my parents actually paid for was my train fare.

Predator was either one of those insanely babied rich kids, or she had a really good job. Her car wasn’t so nice she couldn’t have driven it into some of the borderline-shady parts of the city, but neither was it something I could see myself being able to afford it within the next five years.

I hesitated to get into the car with her, then decided that screw it, I’d already come this far. She gave off some unsavory vibes sometimes, but I didn’t think she’d do anything violent or touch me without my consent. She reminded me, overall, of some of the guys I’d gone to high school with: arrogant almost beyond belief, with an ego that demanded she wait until I came onto her.

“Nice car,” I commented when I was inside and realized the car was a lot nicer on the inside than it looked at a casual glance. It was definitely real leather I was sitting on, and the stereo face she took out of her pocket and fitted to the console looked like it could have paid my phone bill for months.

Predator grunted absently in reply, and turned the car on, shifting into reverse and driving away from the bar.

I tried to make small talk on the way to wherever we were going, but she responded only with monosyllabic answers or grunts. Her eyes stayed unfocused, and she occasionally took the pen out of her pocket to get a good sniff.

I figured it was a Name thing, that she had to focus on her ‘hunt’ in order for it to work. My mirror-thing didn’t space me out like that, but then, mine was done in an instant. Flare hadn’t talked during his demonstration, either; maybe sustained stuff needed too much concentration for them to make conversation.

We parked around the back of a convenience store, and Predator got out, locking the doors with a remote when I followed her lead. She started walking toward one of the houses in the area, and I bit my lip.

“We don’t really need to go up there, do we?” I balked, “I mean, I believe you.”

Predator doubled back and stood in front of me. “No, you don’t,” she replied, words staccato and eyes narrowed as she forced them out, “always gonna wonder… if I don’t prove it.”

As uncomfortable as the whole situation made me, I couldn’t say she was wrong. If I backed out now, I’d spend my nights wondering if maybe she’d just put on an act and driven somewhere out in the middle of nowhere to try to convince me. I’d find a way to doubt it even if we saw my professor in-person tonight, but the doubts would be a lot weaker.

I sighed and started forward. Predator reached for my wrist and wrapped her fingers around it carefully, as if she wanted to keep a hold on me, but didn’t have the mental computing power to casually grab me without possibly making it hurt. I flushed, but let her lead me without complaint.

(I’ll be honest; her leading me gave me a good excuse to check out her ass, and it was a nice ass.)

The house she led me to was pretty typical for the area: two floors, garage, a fence that wasn’t good for much besides letting people know where the property started and ended. Painted in some drab adobe color, the grass cut the exact same length as the neighbors’, it screamed suburbia even though it sat in the middle of the city.

Predator led me to a little secluded spot in the garden of the house next to the target house. It had a lattice that didn’t look sturdy enough to hold one person, let alone two, but Predator climbed it without fear, and when I hesitantly followed, the wooden structure didn’t even groan, much less collapse.

Just as soon as we got settled, she grabbed my arm again, lifting it to her face. She inhaled, eyes snapping up to meet mine.

For a single second, I was afraid. I’d never noticed just how wolfish she looked, the sharp slants to her face and her too-straight, too-white teeth. The look in her eyes wouldn’t have been out of place on a hunting dog, on a jackal, something that had found me and wasn’t going to let me go anywhere without sinking teeth into my flesh and tearing

Then the look vanished, and Predator went back to the wild but not outright dangerous woman I’d met not too long ago. She smirked, further dispelling the mental image, and then nodded to the window we had a direct view of.

On the other side- well. It was definitely my professor, sweaty and flushed and naked, with a woman I doubted was his wife. I knew he couldn’t see us – it was dark, he was busy, and it was a bad angle from his end – but I still flushed and started to scramble down the lattice.

Predator’s laughter followed me, and she jumped down when I got to the ground, landing lightly on her feet.

“I wouldn’t’ve pegged you for a prude,” she smirked, folding her arms over her chest. “Or do you just not like that guy’s pasty white ass?”

“I-” I flushed again, harder, “that’s my organic chemistry professor,” I hissed, trying to keep my voice down, “I don’t want to see him cheating on his wife! Or naked!”

“Calm down,” Predator laughed, reaching out to cup my face with her hands. She smiled, a gentler thing than her usual smirk, brushing her thumb over my cheekbone. “I didn’t know we’d be getting live-action porn when I tracked the guy.”

For a few moments, we studied one another. She stood close, so close I could feel her body heat. Her hands were warm against my skin, and I could smell whatever perfume – cologne, more likely – she used, something that smelled dark and earthy.

“Do you believe me, now?” Her voice was soft, face open.

I wanted to lean forward, to kiss her, but the hands on my face stopped me. “Yeah,” I said instead, “I believe you.”

There was a moment – a long moment – where she could have kissed me. If I’m being honest, it wouldn’t have taken much for her to convince me to have sex right there, in some stranger’s garden, while my ochem professor cheated on his wife in the next house over.

Then she let her hands drop, and the moment passed.

“Let’s get you home,” she said, face unreadable.

[*]

The drive back was less tense than the drive there. Predator put some hip-hop radio station on low, and we made actual small talk. I found out she was a private investigator, sometimes using her Name to facilitate, but more often just digging everyone’s private business up by hand. She asked about my classes and actually seemed to listen to the answers, though she readily admitted that she didn’t have any education past high school or any interest in ever going to college.

She was vague about her age, but I put together that she was at least twenty-one, probably closer to twenty-three or twenty-four. It might have bothered some people in my position, but I had long since come to terms with age just being a number. We were roughly at the same maturity level, both consenting adults, and that was the important part, to me.

When we arrived, she walked me to the door of my apartment. I jiggled my keys in my hands, eyes downcast and lip between my teeth.

“This was… weird, but it turned out okay,” I said hesitantly, feeling a flush rise unbidden to my cheeks when Predator just smirked.

She reached forward, hooking her fingers in my belt loops and pulling me toward her. Her eyes bored into me, stripped me naked, told me exactly what she’d like to be doing to me right now. I shivered despite the heat of her against me, and clutched my keys tight.

Her hands came up, sliding under my jacket and shirt to rest on the skin of my back. I bit the inside of my cheek, feeling my breath quicken and heart race.

“Well?” She asked, breath ghosting across my lips, “aren’t you going to invite me up?”

I invited her up.

Interlude

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Chapter Three

“Mirror, this is Flare.”

I eyed the guy Predator introduced.

He didn’t really look like a Flare, but then, I didn’t really think I looked like a Mirror, either. He wore a slick black leather vest that left his heavily-tattooed arms free, a pair of jeans that looked like a cat had gotten to them, and a belt with a Texas-shaped belt buckle. He was actually pretty short, only standing a few inches taller than me, but he was broad– broad-shouldered, broad-waisted, and muscular.

“Mirror,” Flare nodded, reaching out a hand. We shook, and I noticed that his hand was almost painfully hot. It wasn’t proof, per se, but it was enough that I’d hear them out with a little less trepidation than being constantly ready to dial emergency services and bail.

Predator had arranged the meet at what she called a para bar. She said it wasn’t exclusively paras and their hangers-on, but any ‘normal’ humans knew enough to keep their mouths shut. I didn’t know if I trusted that, but I wasn’t planning on outing myself, so it didn’t much matter.

“If you wanna come to one of the back rooms so Flare can strut his stuff-“

“No way,” I cut Predator off. “If it’s not happening here, it’s not happening. I know what happens to people in the back rooms of seedy bars.”

Predator looked like she was going to protest, but Flare chuckled before she could say anything.

“Girl’s got a point,” he drawled. He had a deep voice with a Texan accent, which I suspected had been tempered a bit by his stay in the Midwest. “I’d go into the back room with just about anyone, but if she’s like you say, she ain’t exactly got my knack for making people wish they ain’t put hands on me.”

“So, what, you’re just gonna whip it out in the middle of the bar?” Predator asked skeptically, taking a sip from her beer.

Flare shrugged. “Sure, why not? You asked me to show the girl what I can do, and everyone here knows what’s what.”

Predator flicked the fingers of her free hand at him, as if to say, ‘do what you want’.

He grinned, exposing perfectly white teeth, and held a hand up palm first. He kept it there for a few seconds – letting me check that there weren’t any wires or anything, I guessed – then his hand burst into flame.

I stared. I’d seen countless ‘firebreathers’ on parahuman sites, along with many more who had one fire trick or another that the poster below them had shown to be a hack, but this was definitely not that.

For one, all the ones I’d seen had used tricks that I knew took either quite a while to set up, or were very brief bursts of flame. This was a sustained flame that he’d had no time to prep for (that I knew, at least), and as I watched, he made the flame grow larger, then shrank it so small it was barely there. A few more seconds, and he danced the flame up and down his arm, then held one hand over the top of the other to transfer the flame to his other arm.

By the time he stopped, the rest of the bar was silently watching, even the bartender. From the kids in the corner who looked barely old enough to be in here, to the ancient guy down the bar, every one of them watched with me as he manipulated flame as easy as sleight of hand artists might run a quarter along their knuckles.

“Believe me now?” Predator broke the silence with a smirk, downing the rest of her beer and turning to fully face me.

I shook off the spell as best I could, taking my eyes off where Flare was smoothing down the hair on his arms and pretending he didn’t see people still staring.

“I believe him,” I corrected her, crossing my arms over my chest. “And I believe that either paras exist, or you guys are so good at running a con that I might as well believe.”

Predator huffed a huge, put-upon sigh, while the rest of the bar went back to their business. “So, what, you want me to find someone? I can track down just about anyone, if you tell me about them, or better yet, have something of theirs.”

“I don’t even know who I’d have you find,” I told her, turning to the bar and tracing my finger along the rim of my drink. “I mean, if you suggest them, how do I know you didn’t know who they were all along? And if I suggest them, how do I know you didn’t just, I don’t know, do a google search while I wasn’t looking?”

Predator snorted. “Google isn’t that good. If you leave out someone’s name and they’re not someone important, I can’t really find them on the internet.” She tilted her head, looking at me speculatively. “Tell you what. Next week, you bring me a piece of clothing from someone – one of your classmates, one of the professors, doesn’t matter – and I’ll find them. It won’t even take long, maybe a few hours.”

“You want me to bring you someone’s clothes so you can stalk them?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Look, I don’t know what you want from me. You won’t believe that I’m Named, even though I bring you someone that you do believe, who vouches for me-“

Flare lifted up his beer, nodding.

“-and I tell you I’ve only got one way to prove what I can do, then you shit on it.” Flare huffed, flagging down the bartender for another beer.

I sighed, shaking my head. “I just don’t know how comfortable I am letting you creep on one of my classmates.”

“It’s not them I’m interested in,” Predator said pointedly.

I flushed and toyed with my drink some more, trying to think more about consequences and privacy invasions and less about the heat in her eyes when she looked at me. I… wasn’t entirely successful.

“Fine,” I conceded, downing my drink. “I’ll bring you something of someone else’s, and you find them. Does it have to be a piece of clothing? It’d be a lot easier to borrow a pen or a sheet of paper.”

She waved a hand. “It can be whatever, so long as it’s fresh. Try not to handle it too much yourself or it’ll throw me off.”

“Fine. I’ll meet you here next week.” Despite Predator’s protests, I downed my drink and left the bar.

Chapter Four

Chapter Two

Back in high school, I dated a guy who was heavy into ‘paras’, or parahumans. They were, supposedly, people who could do stuff that broke all kinds of natural laws. At the time, I’d thought him kind of immature for being into it, and filed it away under the same heading I used for telephone psychics and tarot card readers. Now, I was either going crazy, or living something like what the para websites talked about.

It was easy enough to find the sites my ex had frequented. A lot of them were so far off the beaten path google had never heard of them, but once I found the more common ones, it jogged my memory for the hidden ones, and before long I found parahumans.info.

It kind of skeeved me right from the start. I mean, usually when something wasn’t a .com it was a .edu or .net, or something regional like Russia’s .rus. I hadn’t even known .info existed, and it took a couple minutes of googling before I accepted it was a legit web domain.

The site itself was badly designed, with lots of pictures right on the front, and an entire page of para-related videos that all loaded at once when you clicked the ‘proof!!!’ link. I was about to give up on that particular site when I happened upon the forums.

Unlike the main site, the forums were organized and none of the videos tried to load until you actually clicked the links, so it didn’t strain my poor low-speed internet. I faffed around a bit until I came upon a thread dedicated to Chicago’s paras.

It was mostly the same kind of stuff that had been on the other sites – someone blowing fire with a lighter poorly hidden in one of their hands, someone else saying they’d jumped to the top of a building that anyone brave and athletic enough could get to the top of – but one thread caught my attention.

It was titled ‘Mirror’, and the thread starter was called ‘Predator’. I swallowed hard, and clicked.

‘Mirror, mirror, in her car

how I wonder what you are.

a’shiver in the parking lot

I watched as you and your lock fought

I’m no poet, gorgeous. I’ll be coming to have a little para-to-para chat this Friday after your last class lets out. You’ll know who I am.

Kisses,

Predator’

I stared at the screen. If there were words for exactly how creeped out I was, I didn’t know them. The post was dated earlier today, and while there were a lot of other people commenting on what a troll Predator was for doing this, the thread starter hadn’t said a word after the initial post.

I logged off the site and tried to distract myself with homework. Predictably, it didn’t work. First I find out I can do weird glass-teleporting stuff, then someone else finds out about it and sends me creepy messages through a site I’d never been to.

I have several unpleasant theories as to why, but for some reason it never occurred to me to just not go to my last class on Friday, or to get Campus Security to escort me to my car. After all, I’d hardly be the first person worried about a stalker, abusive ex, or mugger; Campus Security would be more than happy to walk me to my car.

Truth is, for all that it stressed me when I actually thought about it, I spent the next few days in a pretty normal headspace. I studied, screwed around online, and went to my one shift a week at the local grocery store. I teleported through my shower door a few times just to reassure myself I wasn’t actually going crazy, but other than that, it was just my life.

Then Friday came, and I met Predator.

[*]

The day started out pretty normal. I went to class, studied during breaks. My World Civ professor had a droning tone of voice that made my teeth hurt if I let myself linger on it, and as I was trying not to think about Predator and the ‘little para-to-para chat’, I lingered.

World Civ let out, and I shoved my books in my backpack and shrugged it on, dreading what came next. It hit me that I didn’t know exactly when Predator would be coming, just that it would be after my last class let out. For all I knew, Predator would be waiting on my doorstep when I got back, or would appear in my room or something.

I knew that them somehow getting into my room was ridiculous, but so was Predator knowing about the mirror thing. So was the mirror thing in specific, or paras in general. The whole thing was threatening to derail my ten-year plan, and that more than anything bothered me.

“The camera footage doesn’t do you justice.”

I jumped a half-foot in the air, whirling in place to face the voice.

Now, when I imagined Predator, I had this vague image in my head of a greasy middle-aged guy with horrific acne and coke bottle glasses. There may have also been one of those unmarked work vans in the background, and he was definitely carrying rohypnol. Stereotypical, maybe, but with the way Predator had approached me, I think I can be forgiven a little stereotyping.

The real-life Predator was a tall, muscular girl, with dark blonde hair pinned up in a tight bun at the back of her head. She wore a tight black blouse and tight black skinny jeans, with a dark blue windbreaker over it. I didn’t see it, but I could almost sense the weapon she kept on her person. She smirked lazily during my (involuntary) inspection, and I felt myself turning redder and redder.

“Mirror, I presume?” Not only was she drop-dead gorgeous, but her voice was the kind that made little old ladies drop dead away. Whiskey-smooth with just a little bit of purr underneath, she enunciated in ways that should have been illegal.

“Aiyana,” I corrected, nervously jamming my hands in my pockets. “Um… is there something I can call you that isn’t Predator?”

She laughed, reaching out to brush the back of her index finger against my cheek. (I shivered. I couldn’t help it.) “Predator’s the only name that matters, Mirror. You must be new, to think the old things will last into the new world.”

Why, yes, that is exactly the point my self-defense mechanism overrode my hormones.

“Wait, what?” I blurted out, stepping back. Before Predator could say anything else, I shook my head, cutting her off. “Can we not talk about this in public?”

She nodded, looking inordinately pleased with herself, until I added, “somewhere within sight of the security cameras but not within earshot.”

Her smirk turned into a frown at that, but she nodded again, and followed me out of the building.

I led her into the parking lot. Despite the real lack of Security when I’d done my mirror thing the first and second times, the parking lot was pretty heavily monitored in most places. I stopped about where I judged no one coming out would hear us, but stood directly in the line of sight of no less than two of the cameras.

“What the hell is all this ‘new world’, ‘old world’ stuff?” I asked before Predator could speak.

She scowled, but answered, “it’s the world the Named will bring about.” (I could hear the capitalization in her tone, and a shiver ran up my spine. It was not a good shiver.) “We’re beyond regular humans, most of us far beyond even cutting-edge technology.”

“Who are the Named?” My fingers itched for a notebook and pen. It felt slightly ridiculous to want to take notes on something so outlandish, but this was something intruding into my life, and I wanted all the information I had to be as accurate as possible.

She chuckled at that, a teacher condescending to repeat a lesson the favored pupil should have learned already. “We are. Paras, Named, superheroes- supervillains if you’re feeling saucy. They all mean the same thing: we’re above everyone else.”

I took a step back. “Some fancy mirror tricks don’t mean I’m above anyone. Besides, I don’t have any proof you’re anything but a normal human being. For all I know, you’re some… some government agent trying to get me alone and take me to a lab somewhere.”

More chuckling, and her eyes smoldered. “Oh, I would love to keep you all tied up, but I’m not with the government. I’m just… an interested party.”

“Okay, prove it,” I lifted my chin, “do something a regular human couldn’t.”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t work like that. I’ve got one of the more low-key Names. I can track, I can take a lot of punishment, and I’m stronger and faster than anyone but Olympic athletes, but I don’t have one of those flashy Names.”

I took another step back. “Until you can prove you’re a para, I’m gonna assume you’re some creep who hacked into the school cameras and decided to screw with some poor college student.”

I watched a couple different emotions flash across her face: shock, anger, and finally irritation.

“I just told you, I’ve got a low-key Name.” She folded her arms over her chest, cocking a hip. “I don’t know what you’re looking for, but I can’t breathe fire or scale buildings, and I’m not getting in a fight just because you’re a skeptic.”

I shrugged, crossing my arms over my chest in turn. “Until you’ve got proof, I’m not going to believe you.”

‘You’re hot and all,’ I thought to myself, ‘but I’m not even sure I believe paras exist.’

Silence settled, and she attempted to stare me down. When it didn’t work, she grumped (yes, literally grumped) and rolled her shoulders.

“What if I got someone with a flashy power to come show you?”

“That’d be a start,” I allowed.

She flashed a feral grin. “Great! I’ll be back in contact as soon as I get a hold of an acquaintance of mine.”

“Back in contact how?” I asked warily.

“Well,” she drawled, “I can try one of those missed connections type posts on parahumans.info, or….”

“Or?” I prompted, raising an eyebrow.

“Or you could give me your number,” she grinned, reaching into an inside pocket of her windbreaker and taking out a top-of-the-line phone.

I eyed her. “My number. I don’t even know your name.”

Her grin didn’t falter. “You know the only Name that matters.”

Truth be told, I’d given people my number without knowing much about them. Cute boys at parties, girls in the G&S department. I usually put them under names like, “Carrie party with the crazy shirtless guy” or “John 9in”, but the thing was, none of them were claiming to have powers straight out of comic books. I could get a restraining order if I needed to weed some crazy bitch out of my life, and my brother was big and imposing enough to dissuade any attempts to stalk me at home.

“Or I could just track you down again,” Predator suggested, with a too-casual shrug.

“No, phone is fine,” I took her phone when she gave it to me, and punched in my number. She took it back, and then I belatedly realized what she’d said. “Track me down again?”

“Sure,” Predator grinned, “I got wind of a Naming in the area, so I decided to go on the hunt. Found you, didn’t I?”

I frowned, suddenly a lot less sure about giving her any way to continue being in my life. “And how did you hear about my… naming… exactly?”

“I’ve got sources,” she waved off my concern, and turned to walk away, “I’ll text you when I talk to my guy. Kisses, Mirror.”

Chapter Three