Chapter Fourteen

Smoke: Meeting at the place on Pulaski, 7p. Wear the outfit I got you, bring the welcome package. -Luke

Aiyana eyes the PLE uniform, running her fingers over the badge on it. Different from the others she’s seen only in that it’s made for a woman, and one shorter than both Smoke and Smith, she can’t shake the feeling that putting it on will be crossing a line she’ll later wish she hadn’t. It’s just a few pieces of clothing, but at the same time….

Uncomfortable, she looks instead to the ‘welcome package’ Smoke mentioned. The box had come not long after she’d left the police station and gone home, a nondescript first-class package with a return address somewhere in Montana. It had been heavier than she’d expected, but then, she’d expected a fruit basket.

Inside the box rests a set of metal armor. It isn’t a full set like the ones she’d seen in history books, but rather a set of arm- and leg-guards. Labelled ‘bracers’ and ‘greaves’ by easily pulled off pieces of clear plastic, they came with detailed instructions on how to put them on both under and over her PLE uniform. They were shined to almost blinding brightness, and were made of some metal Aiyana couldn’t easily identify. She’d stuffed the box under her bed until the text from Smoke, and had even managed to half-forget it was there until now.

“They’re serious about having you ready to fight,” Franz comments from the doorway, bringing Aiyana out of her thoughts.

“Yeah, I guess,” Aiyana shakes her head, “you’d think they’d give me a bulletproof vest instead of stuff from the Roman Legion.”

“Maybe they are giving you a bulletproof vest, and that’s why you didn’t get a chestpiece,” Franz suggests, stepping inside to pick up one of the bracers. “Or maybe parahuman fights in real life are as weird as the comic ones are.”

“God, I hope not. I don’t want to live in a world where someone dressed as a chipmunk is the most powerful person in the world.”

“She’s dressed up like a squirrel,” Franz corrects, “and it’s kind of a joke that she’s the most powerful person in the multiverse.”

Aiyana raises an eyebrow. “I thought you said it was true.”

“It is,” Franz says, avoiding his sister’s eyes, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not kind of a joke.”

Aiyana shakes her head, but leave it alone. “I’ll text you about the vest when I get there, now get out so I can change.”

[*]

It looks like any other office building: two stories, big open window out front, a sign that promises a business moving in soon. It’s white-washed that shade of off-grey that buildings default to when the owners move out, and there’s grass poking up in the cracks of the parking lot asphault.

Aiyana pulls into a spot next to two of the most sensible, boring cars she’s ever seen – much like hers, actually – and turns off the car.

It seems so unlikely, that a group of superheroes – her mind corrects that thought even as it forms; she’s sure the PLE thinks of themselves that way, but she’s far from convinced they’re heroes – makes their base in such an ordinary place. It fits with the cloak-and-dagger way they operate, but somehow she was expecting a big bronze tower, or for one of them to front a multi-billion dollar company. Going into this little shop that looks like it could be an insurance business sets her on edge, has her wondering what other expectations they’re going to shatter.

The front room is empty, and no one answers when she rings the bell, so she lets herself in, box in hand and uniform carefully hidden under her normal clothes.

The front room is small, with a desk and a doorway leading back into the building proper. If they actually end up going with a business front, she could see this as a waiting room, maybe with someone at the desk handling customers and a small bench for them to wait on.

Down the hall, Aiyana sees a cloud of black smoke leak out of a vent, condensing into Smoke. For all that she’s known the entire time he’s a parahuman, it still makes her stare to actually see his power in action. Unaware of her scrutiny, he brushes off the arms and thighs of clothes, and turns to face her with a smile.

“Hey,” he says, motioning her forward, “you’re a little early, so let me show you the place.”

The tour doesn’t take long. There are a few rooms on the ground floor that Smoke says they’ll be using for storage. The second floor has a conference room, an office for the guy running the show – “Agent Wire” Smoke says, with the ease of familiarity – and a workshop. The basement is half empty space – Smoke says it’ll be a training room – and the other half is split into a few small bedrooms that Smoke assures her they don’t have to live in, but will nevertheless need sometimes.

He ends the tour with her shoebox room, and turns to face her with a thoughtful expression. “Can you turn into me real fast? I need to check something.”

She wonders why he’s asking now, as opposed to after the meeting, but she sets the box down on the bed anyway, calling up her big mirror.

It’s only the work of a few seconds before she copies him, and he stares at her for a few seconds, then rubs the back of his head.

“I don’t think that’ll ever stop being weird,” he admits, giving her a sheepish smile.

“That’s what my brother said,” she snorts, a small smile on her own lips.

“Hey, take off your shirt,” he says, recovering his professionalism, “I have to check something.” He freezes. A blush spreads across his face, but he manages to keep eye contact. “I’d never ask you to that if you weren’t, um, me, but-“

She cuts him off, holding in laughter. “It’s okay. Nothing you haven’t seen before.”

Once her shirt is off, he circles around, then stares at her back for a bit. Wondering if he found a new freckle or something, she turns her head to look at him over her shoulder.

“I’ve got a tattoo right here,” he taps a place on her shoulder blade, “but you don’t. Can you show me your left shin?”

She puts the shirt back on, and lifts her left pant leg. Mid-shin is a nasty-looking scar. Smoke frowns.

“Why do you have my scar, but not my tattoo?” He asks out loud. “You’d never seen the scar, but got it perfect.”

“It’s not really a part of you,” Aiyana suggests, unsure why he’s fixated on the tattoo. It’s important to know that she can’t duplicate tattoos, but couldn’t this wait?

“Tattoos leave scars, though,” he argues, “even if you sucked all the ink out, there would stil be a scar underneath.”

She shrugs, letting his image drop. “I don’t make the rules, I just use what I’ve got.”

He opens his mouth, then closes it. A few seconds pass between them, then he says, “it’s almost time for the meeting. Let me show you how to put on the armor, then we’ll head to the conference room.”

[*]

The armor doesn’t itch, or feel too heavy, or constantly remind her she is literally equipped for battle. She wants it to, wants to stop feeling so comfortable with the uniform they gave her, with the armor she suspects she’ll very much need one day. When she’d worn the uniform under her normal clothes earlier, it had been a constant, uncomfortable, paradoxically reassuring reminder that she was being forced out of her depth by the PLE. Now that she’s taken off the clothes on top of it, it stops bothering her the second she stops concentrating on it, and she hates it.

Everyone at the conference table has their mask on, and even the foreign sensation of having something cover her entire face can’t distract her from how weird this is, being a part of a superpowered organization. She still doesn’t think they’re the heroes, but the way everyone around her is taking this seriously makes her feel a little more super.

“Agent Mirror, these are Agents Mend, Shield, and Abyss. You’ve already met Agent Smoke, and I am Agent Wire, the senior Agent for PLE Chicago.”

Everyone at the table is wearing the standard uniform – except Wire, who has a jacket with a bunch of pockets, and Shield, who has backpack-style straps on his chest that lead to a shield on his back – and mask, which makes it hard to judge anything beyond general body type. She’s pretty sure Abyss is female and the other three are male, but that doesn’t tell her anything about gender, age, ethnicity, or anything else useful for her big mirror. She wonders if that’s not the intent.

“We don’t have any official assignments yet,” Wire continues, taking his eyes off of Aiyana and turning to the rest of the group, “but the Chicagoland area has about three million people, meaning there are at least nine other native parahumans running around besides Agent Mirror here, and we know just about nothing about them.”

Aiyana frowns as Wire goes on to say that they need to collect information on the local parahumans. He thinks there are only ten native Chicago parahumans, out of three million people in the city? She’s met at least that many while working with Anna, and she knows there have to be some who are hiding, or who haven’t yet become part of the community.

Wire passes around thin dossiers labelled ‘Flare’, ‘Hellfire’, and ‘Predator’. Aiyana looks in each of them, curious, and finds them severely lacking. They’ve got one grainy picture of Flare, awful artist’s renditions of Hellfire and Anna, and no first-hand witnesses to any of their powers. They know about Flare’s small fire manipulations, Anna’s tracking and durability, and there’s only speculation about Hellfire’s Name. If this is all the PLE can gather about Hellfire, who is one of the biggest cornerstones of local parahuman society, Aiyana is not impressed.

What she is, a little bit, is worried. It’s in Anna’s file that she and Aiyana are in a relationship, but no one comments on it. To her, that says that someone – Wire, probably, since he’s in charge – has already told them about it, and told them not to bring it up. It’s possible none of them have made the connection, but given the choice between having to possibly fight alongside stupid teammates or secretive ones, she’d rather have the secrets.

“Alright, everyone, see if you can’t scope out some of the local parahumans. We’ve got another meeting next week, same day and time. I’ll get in touch with you sooner if we get an assignment, or any pressing information.” Wire nods to everyone, and waves them out. “Go get ’em.”

Aiyana expects him to ask to talk to her, but she’s dismissed with the rest. Smoke bumps her shoulder on his way out, and the rest look to her but don’t speak.

When she checks her phone on her way downstairs to get her regular clothes back on, she’s got a text from Franz.

Franz: How’s that bulletproof vest look?

She snorts and shakes her head, before sending one back.

Ai: I didn’t get one. Didn’t get any answers, either. Fill you in when I get there.

Flashback: Hellfire

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Chapter Thirteen

“Agent Smoke, I need to have a word with you. Please wait in the lobby, Agent Mirror.”

Luke sees Aiyana roll her eyes in his peripheral vision, but she leaves, and he’s left face-to-face with the legendary Agent Smith, Director of the PLE. He swallows, and tries to calm his racing heartbeat. It doesn’t work.

“The PLE is establishing a Chicago headquarters. You will be integral to this. Agent Wire will be here by sunset, the Doctor will be coming to examine Aiyana, and I’ll send a few Agents out to give you a small but well-rounded team.” Smith speaks calmly, confidently, his words stated as absolute fact. Agent Smoke finds himself nodding along without consciously deciding to do so. “You will have three days in Los Angeles to do what you need to do, and recommend your replacement. Agent Wire will be the senior Agent in Chicago, with you as his direct subordinate. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Smoke replies immediately. He stands when Smith does, and when the Director reaches out to shake his hand, Smoke feels a torrent of warm, giddly excitement pass through him. He had entertained ideas about what he would do with his own team (it’s technically Wire’s team, but with Wire’s abilities lending better to support, Smoke will almost certainly be the field leader), but never thought he’d get one so soon. Now he can call at least some of the shots, can do something about the dangerous parahumans he’s heard live in Chicago.

“Tell Agent Mirror her welcome package will be in the mail.” Smith says, heading for the door. He pauses, and turns sideways to smile at Smoke. “And congratulations on your new posting, Agent Smoke.”

Smoke nods once, then twice, unable to keep the smile off his lips.

[*]

“Shield, Abyss, Mend. Welcome to PLE Chicago.”

Three manilla folders sit in front of Wire at the conference table. Two more lay behind those, closer to him than the first three. To his immediate right is Luke, who shares the head of the table with him, and the three named Agents sit at various points along the rectangular table.

Wire himself is a tall, skinny man with hair the color of sand and skin one color away from chalk. He wears the same uniform Luke does, only with a white form-fitting jacket over it, complete with bulging pockets. His mask, like everyone else’s, is off, hanging off the back of his chair. He’s a fairly normal-looking guy without it, just a guy with a case of mask-hair and facial scars that suggest acne in his past.

“This is Agent Smoke, who will be field leader, and we will be occasionally joined by Agent Mirror, who is with us on a probationary basis.”

The mention of Mirror causes the first reaction in the assembled Agents; Abyss grimaces openly, Shield shifts in his seat, and Mend suddenly finds his hands very interesting. Luke feels his eyebrows draw togther as he watches them, wondering if they’ve heard about Mirror, or if any of them were once probationary members of the PLE as well. He hasn’t yet had a chance to get through all of their folders – Abyss’ folder by itself is going to take an entire day, talk about a woman with a complex ability – but he doesn’t remember seeing “rehabilitated” or “former probation” in anything he’s read so far.

“How probationary?” Abyss asks, leaning onto her elbows on the table. Luke, not for the first time, lets his eyes wander up and down her the pale skin of her uncovered arms. Her tattoos cover every available inch of skin from her collarbone down to her wrists, each one a name in a different font, color, or size than the one next to it. Most are small enough that he can’t read them from this distance, though ‘Baalberith’ takes up the entirety of her right inner forearm.

“Masks on with her until you’re told otherwise,” Wire says, “she’s one of the most accurate shapechangers we’ve got solid information on. Otherwise, she’s just got touch-teleportation through reflective surfaces.”

“Literal Name, then,” Mend comments, still looking down at his ungloved hands. He glances up to meet Wire’s eyes, then back down at the table. A round, freckled man whose pudge is only just starting to give way to muscle Luke assumes the PLE training regimen is putting on him, Mend is a man easily overlooked. Luke figures he’ll be good if they need someone to interact with the natives out of uniform, especially in the heavily Polish and Irish areas.

“So far,” Wire answers, flipping open one of the folders closer to him, “all we know about her is the touch-teleportation and the shapechanging, but she’s implied she has other tricks up her sleeve.”

No one comments on that one. A parahuman with more tricks up their sleeve is par for the course, as all of them well know. In Luke’s experience, teams have a good idea of what their teammates can do, but not all of that goes in the official reports. Even if everyone were completely open with everyone else, the best Agents are constantly experimenting, researching their Names and thinking up ways for their powers to interact with others.

“Our first official assignment will come after the Doctor has had a look at Agent Mirror, but we’ve got standing orders to be on the lookout for Mirror’s girlfriend, Predator,” Wire hands the opened folder to the left, where Abyss takes it and starts flipping through what little information they have on her. “She’s involved with some of the criminal element in Chicago. The official stance is that Mirror only unintentionally assisted her in crimes, believing she was a private investigator using her Name to track down information.” He pauses. “Agent Mirror is not to find out about any of the information we may get on Predator. Part of her probation is that she’s to report any contact with Predator to us, but the Director doesn’t think she’ll stick to that if Predator contacts her any time soon.”

“Why do we have someone we cannot trust in our ranks?” Shield speaks for the first time, leaning back in his chair. The sharp angles of his face are set into distaste, and he folds his arms over his chest. The metal shield strapped to his back hits the wood of his chair with a light tap, and he shifts to get comfortable against it.

“It’s either take her in, or take her downstairs,” Wire says, referring to the extensive prison facilities the PLE is forced to maintain, “and the Director thinks she’ll be fine after we catch Predator.”

“So, we arrest her girlfriend and then expect her to play nice?” Abyss asks disbelievingly, handing the folder to Shield.

“We do what’s necessary to keep her with us,” Wire says, a warning tone to his voice, “we can’t afford to have a shapechanger like that out on the street, and it would be a waste to throw her in prison.”

That brings a tense silence to the conference room, one Wire breaks after a few seconds. “Our police contacts are Officers Gonzalez and Jones; they’ll be handling any petty crime we come across.”

Shield frowns, handing the folder to Mend. “Are you asking me to ignore a murder if it happens right in front of me?”

“I’m ordering you not to expose yourself,” Wire says, his tone carefully neutral, “and to report any non-parahuman crime you may encounter to Officers Gonzales and Jones.”

“Does anyone have anything power-related they need taken care of right away, or any special needs?” Luke asks. He looks to Abyss, but doesn’t honestly know if the others have anything about them that has to be considered from day one.

“I need a discreet tattooist,” Abyss says immediately, “I have to cut right through one of the names,” she taps one of her tattoos to show Shield what she means, as he’s the only one of them who doesn’t know her abilities, “to call on my allies, and I know Mend’s healing doesn’t heal the ink back up into perfect alignment. They won’t answer if the tattoo is anything but the exact way they demanded.”

Wire nods and reaches into an interior pocket of his jacket, taking out a pen and notebook. “Anyone else?”

“With a healer on hand and my shield bonded, I am fine,” Shield says shortly.

Luke looks to Wire. They both know Luke doesn’t have any particular needs, and Wire will take care of his own supplies. Communication between them on that front passes in an instant, and Luke turns to Mend.

“Mend?” Luke asks, leaning forward onto his forearms. “Do you need anything to work with?”

Mend shakes his head. “I’m fine, but everyone else needs to start taking in more protein and calcium. I make healing go faster, but I don’t create skin and blood out of nothing. I can’t fix Smith’s equipment, either.”

Wire frowns. “Have you ever tried fixing anything a different creator parahuman made?”

“Can’t do it,” Mend says, his eyes darting from one of his teammates to another, “I don’t know why, but it doesn’t work. I can piece together Shield’s, um, shield sometimes, if he lets it go, but it doesn’t always work and we don’t know why.”

“I’ll have the Doctor look into it when he gets here,” Wire decides, pen moving. No one looks particularly happy at having the Doctor involved, but no one says anything against it, either.

Luke and Wire give everyone a few moments to remember anything else they may need, then Wire speaks. “One last thing: this isn’t LA or New York, where every police chief in the city knows about us. Gonzalez and Jones are the only two we know and trust with the PLE’s existence, and the civilians around here know even less. Parahumans dot info says there’s a parahuman community here, but we don’t have any information on it. We’re playing everything close to the chest until otherwise noted. Got it?”

Everyone nods, and Wire waves them out with a hand. “Tomorrow the Doctor arrives to evaluate Agent Mirror, and the day after that we’re going to have a full team meeting, her included. Stick to your cover stories, get settled into your new places, and find excuses to meet one another with your civilian faces on. Dismissed.”

[*]

“What do you think of the team so far?” Wire asks the next day, as the two of them move things into Wire’s office. The PLE bought them a two-story-plus-basement building and gave them the funds to equip it at their discretion, but they still had to either hire movers or put things in themselves.

Luke gives it a bit of thought, running his hands through his hair. He hadn’t had a chance to finish reading everything about everyone (Abyss in particular), but he’d gotten through at least the first page of all their files.

“I think they’ll get it together, but at first it’s going to be rough,” he says, wedging a file cabinet into place.

Wire nods. “I think integrating Mirror is going to be the hardest, but there’s already plans in motion for that. Straight from the Director.”

Luke pauses, turning to look at Wire. “What plans?”

Wire looks at Luke for a few moments, then shrugs. “Abyss is handling it.”

Abyss?”

For all that she has one of the most flexible Agents Luke has yet seen, nothing he knows about her screams ‘I can handle team conflict’ to him.

“The only reason she’s effective is that she talks things that call themselves demons into making contracts with her, Smoke. I think she can handle one unfriendly college student.”

Luke wants to say that Mirror – Aiyana – isn’t unfriendly, she just distrusts them because they did some borderline shady things to grab her, but he keeps it to himself. Wire isn’t just his contact any more, he’s his commanding officer, and Luke knows he doesn’t yet know Aiyana like Luke does. He will, and then there won’t be any need for plans ‘straight from the Director’.

(He hopes.)

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Twelve

“Aiyana Clarke, Codename Mirror.”

The man sitting in the police meeting room chair stands, unfolding himself from his seat. He strides toward Aiyana, a smile in his eyes, and holds out one hand.

“Agent Smith, Director of Parahuman Law Enforcement.”

Aiyana sizes him up, not bothering to hide what she’s doing.

Agent Smith stands taller than just about anyone she’s met, though not as wide as his deep voice would suggest. He wears what she assumes is the standard PLE uniform, the same whites Smoke wore when they first met. She knows it shouldn’t, but it reassures her that the Director of the PLE is dark-skinned, and that the first Agent she met is Asian. Chicago is pretty good about racial equality, but she’s well-aware that not everywhere else is.

She takes his hand warily, not responding. He knows who she is.

“I’ve heard a bit about you,” Smith says after a few seconds, not seeming bothered by her silence. “Enough to offer you a place in the PLE.”

“What’s the alternative?” Aiyana asks, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Incarceration,” Smith says calmly, folding himself back into the seat and gesturing for her and Smoke to sit down across from him, “but I’m hopeful that you’ll choose the PLE.”

“I’m not sure why you think I’d want to work for you, after the way you’ve treated me.” Aiyana considers standing out of some petty defiance, but decides to sit. Standing through their entire conversation might make her feel better, like she’s got something up on him, but sitting is both more practical and less combative. They’ll get into the combative part later, she’s sure.

“It may feel excessive, but the procedure is necessary for dealing with parahumans we know very little of,” Smith’s voice is smooth as silk, reasonable, and Aiyana wonders if it’s part of his Name, or something he’s trained into himself. “I do regret the necessity.”

He doesn’t say he’s sorry, or that he’d do any of it different, Aiyana notes, just that he doesn’t like that they had to do what he says is necessary.

“I don’t see how voiding my Miranda rights is necessary,” Aiyana counters, raising an eyebrow. “Or refusing to tell any of my relatives where I am.”

“If you knew the kind of parahumans we have dealt with in the past, you would understand why we take the precautions we do,” Smith replies, unruffled. “If you accept our offer, you’ll see why what we do is so important.”

“What kind of parahuman could possibly warrant keeping me for a week without telling my brother I’m safe?” Aiyana asks, leaning forward over the table. She holds up a hand to stall any potential protests about confidentiality. “I’m going to either be working for you, or locked up where I can’t tell anyone. You can humor me by telling me why I was treated so badly.”

“About a year ago, we had a parahuman who had ‘programmed’ his girlfriend into taking measures if word ever reached her that he was being held by the police,” Smith tells her, “though I will admit it is unlikely you have that same power, ‘Mirror’ doesn’t give us a solid idea of what you’re capable of.”

A smirk curled Aiyana’s lips, one she would have recognized as Anna’s, had she seen it on her own face. “It doesn’t, does it?” She pauses, then says, “so, you want me to come help you kidnap innocent people off the street, hold them in a cell for a week, and then possibly incarcerate them?”

“What happened in your case was unusual,” Smith assures her, his dark eyes steady on hers. “We needed information on Predator and her employers. We still need it, but by now you’ve made it quite clear we won’t be getting it from you.”

“You keep telling me why you need me, or why you’ve done what you’ve done,” Aiyana leans back in her seat, folding her arms across her chest. “What you haven’t told me is why I should help you screw up more people’s lives.”

“We do what is necessary to protect the American people,” Smith says, spreading his hands, “but I understand your skepticism.” He pauses for a few seconds. “How about this: you join us on a trial basis for a year. We were already looking into expanding to Chicago, but this will give us a good excuse. You finish your degree, train with the Agents I’ll station here, go on a few low-danger runs with them.”

“And what if I still don’t agree with you at the end of the year?” Aiyana challenges him, chin up and eyes hard.

“Then we revisit the issue,” Smith says calmly. “You have nothing to lose, and an entire year to gain.”

There’s a few seconds of silence between them. Aiyana looks to Smoke, who hasn’t said a word. He returns her gaze levelly, something she can’t read in his eyes. She files it away for later (assuming there is a later for her in which he matters).

“On these low-danger runs,” Aiyana returns her gaze to Smith, searching his face, “would I be expected to participate? Are you going to ask me to help you destroy people’s rights, or just watch as you do it?”

Smith’s voice cools a few degrees. “You don’t have a choice, Miss Clarke. You’ll either help us uphold the law and protect the people, or know we’re doing it as you sit in jail.”

‘So the lion finally shows his teeth,’ Aiyana thinks to herself, turning the problem over in her mind.

“What makes you think I won’t run for it sometime during the year, or after that?”

The chill in his voice remains, and he smiles coldly. “If you did run, we would have to question those close to you to make sure they weren’t a part of your evasion of justice. Professors, relatives, friends. It could take quite a while to make sure your powers weren’t having any lingering effects on them. It would be a shame if your brother’s reputation in the local circus community suffered because he was unable to make good on his commitments for some months.”

“That’s extortion,” Aiyana balks, feeling anger rise in her.

“No, Miss Clarke, that’s an explanation of due process.” Smith leans back in his chair. “You’ll find that the Parahuman Law Enforcement Agency has quite an expansion of legal powers when it comes to parahumans, compared to the normal police.”

The silence weighs heavy between them, and for one wild moment Aiyana considers making a run for it. She can grab Franz on the way, and they can get their parents somehow– but she knows it for an impossible fantasy. Even if she could collect everyone she cares for and get them all to leave, they would have nowhere to go. In a world where anyone on the street could be capable of reading your mind and turning you in, they would never be safe.

“Fine,” Aiyana says finally, defeat registering in her mind, though she refuses to let it show in her face. “One year, and we have this talk again.”

“I thought you might feel that way.” The chill drops out of Smith’s voice, and he smiles as he did when she first entered. “Welcome to the PLE, Agent Mirror.”

Chapter Thirteen