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.