Chapter Seventeen

Luke comes through the door to Wire’s office ready to go: he’s got a small notebook in one hand with a pen stuck in the binding, and his mask is already off, hung from the fingers of his other hand.

“Everyone’s done with their visits with the Doctor–“

“We’ve got a Predator sighting.”

The silence hangs heavily. Wire sighs, Luke scrubs at his face with a hand and falls into a chair. Their breathing room, so precious and rare in their line of work, just vanished.

“Where and when?” Luke asks finally, setting the notebook on his side of Wire’s desk and flipping it open to a fresh page. He’s sure Wire’s got all the details written down somewhere – and probably copied for Luke’s use – but writing things down himself helps him remember them.

“Last night, Mend thought he saw her outside his window. He stepped outside – yes, I’ve told him how stupid that was – and she winked at him and disappeared.”

Luke pauses, his pen stilling on the page. “She what?”

Wire taps at a few keys on his laptop and runs a hand through his hair. “He says she moved so fast he barely saw her.”

“Shit,” Luke scribbles down more notes. “When did she become a blinker?”

“She’s probably not,” Wire demurs, shifting both himself and his laptop so Luke can see the files on his screen. “At least, not higher than D-class. Depending on how she’s interpreting her Name, she might just be as fast as a cheetah, or some other hunting animal.”

“Just?” Luke asks, reading the file called ‘Predator’. It’s got a new picture, one recently updated by an artist allowed access to the video of Aiyana’s testimony.

“Better than supersonic,” Wire counters, scrolling down a little. He pulls up another window, this one for an email to the Director’s right-hand man. “It’s unlikely anyone but PLE Chicago will have to deal with her any time soon, but they do still need to know that’s she’s either got blinker status, or that she’s working with someone who has the ability to blink someone else.”

Luke tilts his head, admitting that Wire has a point. He finishes his read – nothing new, not that he expected there to be – and leans back in his chair. “What now?”

Wire reaches into a drawer and pulls out a thin stack of paper. “Our original orders were to investigate a newcomer on the scene – a stage magician they think might be a parahuman – but as soon as the Director got my report, he changed them. Now our official orders are to find and detain Predator.”

Luke sighs in frustration. “Are we even sure Mend saw Predator? It could have been someone else.”

“His description matches what we know of her, and she’s the only parahuman we know of who can find people this quickly.” Wire twists the laptop back toward himself, then starts putting the finishing touches on his email.

“Do you think we should be worried about her getting her hands on Mirror?”

Wire shakes his head. “If she were going to, she would have already.”

“But we still expect Mirror to help us capture Predator.” Luke realizes he’s gone quite still, his eyes on Wire and pen hovering above the paper. He forces himself to move again, writing something meaningless down.

“Agent Mirror is on probation, and therefore exempt from assignments unless her powerset is critical to them,” Wire replies, his tone the bland, official sort one might expect from a police statement.

“You don’t think she’s critical to an assignment where we’re capturing her girlfriend?” Luke stares, no longer worried about looking less concerned than he actually is.

“Regulations say that unless her powerset is critical to the mission, she’s exempt,” Wire looks up, meets Luke’s eyes calmly. “Nothing about Mirror’s low-class blinking or any class of shifting sounds particularly critical to a tracking and brute-force capture mission.”

“Are we even going to tell her?” Luke knows his voice is rising, but doesn’t care. He loves his job, but he hates when they have to go about it like this.

The official tone stays in Wire’s voice. “All PLE assignments are classified. Probationary members have no security clearance unless and until the knowledge is considered critical for them to know.” Wire’s eyes say in no uncertain terms that this is the best he can do, that this is the best way to protect her while still getting his job done.

Luke collects his pen and paper, stands, and forcefully unclenches his jaw. “I’ll go tell the rest of our team.”

Wire isn’t fooled, and they both know it.

[*]

“Good.” Shield nods approvingly, looking up from his work bench. His shield lays face-down, and the scent of oil hangs heavy in the air as Shield applies it to the leather straps. “I grew tired of doing nothing.”

Luke shakes his head. “Training is important, too.” A beat, then, “have you thought about what the Doctor said?”

Shield’s eyes move back down to his work, his movements becoming sharper. “I have no one to test myself against, Captain. How am I to tell the strength of my mental defenses if no one can approach the walls?”

“Have you tried against Wire’s energy boost?”

“I have, and it did not stop his effect on me.” A piece of leather gets oiled unnecessarily hard. “I am not sure if it is because I know it is beneficial, or because my shield does not apply to the body working on itself.”

Luke nods in sympathy. One of the problems with having powers that depend on belief and interpretation is that unlike comic book powers, there are very few hard limits, and no reliable way to tell when something is a hard limit, or a soft one and can then be talked or thought around.

“Keep trying, and stay ready. We have to find Predator to go after her, and there’s no way to tell when that will be.” Luke drops a hand on Shield’s shoulder on his way out, and heads out to find Abyss.

[*]

The scent of ink and industrial cleaner greet Luke when he walks into A Fool’s Pride. He’s greeted by a woman who is wearing more in body jewelry than his entire wardrobe is worth, and he cuts off her question – does he have an appointment? – by waving and walking into the back.

Abyss’ text told him to look for a room in the back with a blacked-out window, and the reason for the privacy is immediately apparent when he’s let in: the tattoo currently being inked is on the hollow of Abyss’ left hip, and she’s wearing very little on her lower half to give the artist freedom to work.

Luke flushes and jerks his head up to keep his eyes on Abyss’ face. A slight smile flashes over her face.

“Hey, uh, we’re all going out to meet Aiyana’s girlfriend,” Luke stumbles a little through his planned code, clearing his throat.

“Are we going to try and get her to work with us, again?” Abyss asks, tone casual even through the tension he can see on her face. When Luke nods, Abyss sighs theatrically. “Better not tell Aiyana the Boss is after her woman, again. She’s not going to take it well.”

“No way,” Luke agrees, holding his hands up. “She got kinda mean after the last time.”

Some of the tension leaves Abyss’ face. “Yeah, she kinda did, didn’t she? Let me know what time we’re going; I think Anna will like my new ink.”

Luke risks a glance at her hip. It’s only half-finished, but the outlined name there is Agares.

“Family of yours?”

Abyss almost smiles. “You could say that. I’ll text you about it later.”

They make meaningless conversation for a few more minutes, and Luke’s phone buzzes when he’s in the parking lot.

Beth (Work): Agares: demon dealing with runaway persons and earthquakes. Noble titles, too, but I don’t think that’s going to help.

He hums thoughtfully, slides his phone back into his pocket, and drives toward Mend’s apartment.

[*]

“Okay.” Mend’s voice is surprisingly steady, and he only looks away from Luke’s eyes half as much as he’s used to.

“You’re not worried?” Luke probably shouldn’t be asking that, but he’d expected some kind of worry, not this calm acceptance.

“If she wanted to hurt me, she would have done it.” There’s a calm acceptance in him that Luke isn’t really sure what to do with. He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be calm about someone like Predator stalking him, but Mend just seems to roll with it.

“Be ready,” is all Luke can really say at this point without feeling like he’s undermining Mend’s confidence.

Second Exterlude

Mend nods in response. “I will.”

Luke leaves.

 

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Fourth Interlude

“I’m working on projection and control, but it’s spotty,” Luke admits, inhaling deeply, then exhaling a thin stream of light grey smoke. “It comes out just fine, any way I want it, but–” his eyes focus sharply on the smoke. The center of it jerks some, then goes back to floating upwards and out, the way smoke typically does. “–when I try to get a hold on it outside my body, that happens.”

The Doctor makes a small noncommittal noise, gesturing for Smoke to go on.

“The thicker it is, the easier,” Luke breathes out a thicker puff, dark and heavy enough to obscure his features. This time, the center swirls, first one way, then the other. It stops abruptly mid-motion, losing cohesion and going back to normal smoke behavior. “But at some point, I always lose it. Any other kind of smoke is worse.”

He pulls a lighter and a piece of paper out of a pocket of his uniform, lighting the paper on fire. This smoke barely twitches when he looks to it. They watch as Luke tries and fails to coax any other movement out of the vapor, then waves out the fire on the end of the paper, setting both it and the lighter on the conference room table.

“Do you believe it is a question of skill, or internal limitation?” The Doctor speaks in Japanese, a language that has been giving Luke far more trouble than his first three. It doesn’t particularly matter that he only barely understands the words themselves; the Doctor asks the same question every time.

“I think it is skill,” Luke replies, switching to Japanese from English after long seconds of grasping for conjugation and sentence structure. “I improve, I have not stopped.”

“And your mental studies?” The Doctor asks this in plain English, and Luke sits up, frowning. The man never speaks in an Agent’s native tongue unless it’s important, and Luke himself has no idea what he’s talking about.

“What mental studies?”

The Doctor studies him for a few seconds, his face expressionless, then speaks rapidly. “Are you the blood in the vein?”

“No,” he says immediately, voice becoming slow, hypnotic. “I am the smoke upon the water.”

His head falls forward, dropping to his chest. His eyes close, arms limp at his sides. A thin cloud of white smoke rises from him all at once, rising quickly. When it hits the ceiling, his head jerks back upward, and his eyes snap to the Doctor.

“Why?” The voice that comes from Luke’s mouth is deeper, rougher, a voice that one could easily come from years of smoke inhalation. Smoke looks out through Luke’s eyes, showing none of the warmth of the man who entered the room.

“Mental wellbeing check,” the Doctor replies crisply, folding his arms over his white lab coat.

“Does my being seem well enough to you?” Smoke doesn’t blink, doesn’t vary his tone. He straightens slowly, methodically, cracking joints as he goes.

“It will not seem well enough to me until you cease this pointless game.” The Doctor’s tone, in contrast, drips with disapproval.

“Pointless?” Smoke chuckles. “Are you not the one who insists on constant self-improvement, Herr Doctor? What better opportunity than this, than working so closely with those women, whose Names grant them such insight?”

“What will you do when they no longer trust you?”

“What will you do when you choke upon your hypocrisy?”

The two men stare at one another for long moments. Then, the Doctor’s lips thin further, and he gestures in one sharp, dismissive moment.

“Return to hiding, spectre.”

“Have fun while I’m gone, Doctor.” Smoke’s head drops once more, body limp, and when he stirs once more, it is Luke who blinks out of dark, confused eyes.

“Get more sleep.” The Doctor says, and leaves the room.

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Sixteen

A woman’s voice, teasing, friendly. A man’s, surprised but open. The woman asks a question. The man replies, cautious but with an undertone of curiousity.

Aiyana rolls over, yawns, sits up. The conversation continues through her yawn, just indistinct enough that she’ll have to actually get up and investigate to hear what’s going on.

“-not sure I should wake her up.” Aiyana comes in at the tail end of Franz being almost-believably reluctant.

“Oh, hey.” The woman in the doorframe leans to one side, smiles at Aiyana over Franz’s shoulder.

Franz steps to the side with a confused, ‘who the hell is this?’ look on his face when he turns to Aiyana.

Truth be told, Aiyana doesn’t know. The woman looks vaguely familiar, but Aiyana knows she doesn’t know anyone with that amount of ink on their body. Her hair is that shade of dishwater blonde that a lot of people – including Franz – have within a shade or two, her eyes are a forgettable brown, and her height and weight are both average. She seems a little more toned than most people her age – mid twenties? – but not so much so that’s it’s really a defining characteristic. If not for the tattoos, she’d probably just be “that girl with the spiky hair” until Aiyana got her name down properly.

“Hey, Aiyana.” The woman cocks her head to the side. “Our boss asked me to stop in.”

Aiyana knows everyone at the grocery store by name, and she sighs when she realizes who this must be. “So, you’re–“

“—Beth.” Abyss gives another smile, this one a little more pointed. “I’m also still standing in your hallway.”

Franz’s eyes flick between them, and when Aiyana nods, he lets Abyss in. He shuts the door behind her, steps back, and crosses his arms over his chest. “So, you’re from the PLE.”

His tone has ‘protective older brother’ written all over it, and Aiyana rolls her eyes. She steps forward and reaches for Abyss’ arm with the intent to drag her back into the office. “Come–“

Abyss twists her arm so that Aiyana’s fingers close around her wrist instead, and she offers a half-smile. “I don’t let our kind touch my ink, thanks.”

Aiyana blinks, and starts to pull her toward the back, slowly at first, but with more confidence when Abyss doesn’t resist. “Franz, we’re going to be in the office.” Her tone has ‘bug off’ in it, and he huffs in return, but doesn’t protest.

“Alright, why are you here?” Aiyana asks, when they’re in the office and the door is firmly closed.

“Luke has things to do,” Abyss shrugs, falling into the desk chair.

“So you’re a babysitter?” Aiyana leans back against the door, arms folded.

“Think of me as a language tutor.” She gives Aiyana a slow, lazy half-grin.

“A language tutor?”

“Unless you already speak Esperanto,” Abyss reaches into the pocket of her jeans, pulling out her phone.

Aiyana stares. “Esperanto?”

Abyss flicks a few things on her phone, turns the screen back off, and slides the phone back in her jeans. “Yeah, Esperanto. The Doctor refuses to speak English, and you should probably know how to tell when he’s insulting you during your evaluation.”

Aiyana’s eyes narrow. “What evaluation?”

“The one in an hour, back at base?” Abyss rolls her eyes when Aiyana’s face stays blank. “I should have known they didn’t tell you. You’re going to meet the Doctor. Nobody at our level knows what his actual Name is, but it’s ‘Doctor’ in some language. He’s a Name specialist. He’s also an asshole.”

“Great,” Aiyana grumps.

“So, the word for ‘incompetent’ is….”

[*]

Aiyana leaves her uniform at home on Abyss’ recommendation, and they drive – separately; they may work together, but Aiyana doesn’t trust Abyss quite yet – to Chicago PLE headquarters. Abyss shows her to the conference room, which is apparently where the Doctor will be evaluating her, and falls into a chair where she can watch Aiyana and the Doctor.

The Doctor himself studies her, wide eyes darting this way and that over her. He wears an honest-to-god lab coat, white with dark blue stitching, and she can see bulges in his pockets from here.

“Kio estas tio?” The Doctor’s head turns to Abyss, one finger raised to point at Aiyana.

Abyss replies in lazy Esperanto that is still too fast for Aiyana to follow, and the Doctor rolls his eyes.

“As far as we can tell, he’s asexual,” Abyss says unhelpfully, when Aiyana eyes the Doctor for moving closer. “He just wants to know everything about all of us.”

Despite coming closer than she’d like him, his manner reassures her that he’s all business. He keeps his touches light, cursory, motioning for her to twist this way or that while he mutters in what she’s pretty sure is still Esperanto. He asks Abyss things occasionally, to which she replies off-handedly, and Aiyana feels a muscle in her eyebrow twitch when they show no sign of switching to English.

The Doctor touches her ear, then freezes. His eyes flicker over her face, focusing and unfocusing. He moves his hand to her brow, holding his palm over it as if testing for fever. After a few seconds, he jerks his hand back, cradling it in the other as if he’s been burned.

He whips his head to stare at Abyss, then begins speaking in a voice that starts calm and level, gradually increasing to barely-contained fury. When his tirade ends, Abyss stares at him. Her response is short, flat, and in English: “What.”

The Doctor turns back to Aiyana. “You have been manipulated.” He has a slight European accent, but his English is perfectly understandable, and he huffs when Abyss mutters something about his sudden ability to communicate clearly. “This is more important than forcing self-improvement on my coworkers.”

“Yeah, I already knew I’d been manipulated,” Aiyana raises an eyebrow. “Smith blackmailed me.”

“No, girl, I do not mean it in such a mundane sense. You have been acted upon by another’s abilities.” He frowns disapprovingly. “One of them, I am disgusted but not surprised. The other is new to me. I suspect the one for which they watch. Your lover, the one who walks with murderers.”

“You think Anna– Predator– used her powers on me.” Aiyana wants to say that Anna wouldn’t. Her mouth even opens to tell him as much, but she closes it again. There’s always been something shady about the way Anna found her in the first place. She’d claimed a source she couldn’t reveal, but it would make a lot more sense if she’d set it up herself.

Then again, Names are fairly strict about what the Named can do with them. She’s seen some creative interpretations, but nothing about ‘Predator’ suggests she’d be able to push events like that.

“What kind of manipulation?” She asks finally.

“The first, from the one I have seen before, was docility, cooperation. The second…” He purses his lips. “…lust.”

Aiyana clenches her teeth. No, no way. She could believe that Anna set them up to meet, she could even believe that Flare used his small manipulations to bring them together that night at the bar, but Anna using her powers to make Aiyana want her? No, impossible. She’d thought the other woman was attractive from the moment they met.

“You’re wrong.” She wants to rail at him, to tell him just how wrong he must be, but she keeps it to herself. She doesn’t think Smoke would jump the gun and restrain her just for getting mad, but she doesn’t know Abyss, doesn’t know her powers or have even a hint of her orders. It could be that one shouted word will get her locked up all over again.

“I am not wrong about the manipulation, but I admit my thoughts on the source are only speculation.” The Doctor’s tone is even, the anger from earlier gone.

“What did you mean, about the manipulator you recognized?” Aiyana asks, trying and failing to unclench her jaw.

The Doctor gives her a long, measured look, then lifts his chin. “Take in more protein and calcium. Your Name is restructuring your body, you require the materials to support the change. More calories in general; you have lost more weight than is healthy.”

“Wait, what?” Aiyana asks, but the Doctor sweeps out of the door without giving an answer.

“Everyone’s Name changes them,” Abyss stands, stretching her arms over her head. “The Doctor says mine was mostly mental, but some people get a lot of physical changes.” A beat, then, “I’ve never heard of it being anything harmful. Shield is straight muscle now, Smoke is unbelievably flexible, and one of my old teammates would get stabbed, and start healing around the knife before it was even taken out.”

Aiyana frowns. “That’s not what I meant.”

They look at one another for a few seconds, Aiyana searching Abyss’ eyes, and Abyss studying her in turn. Finally, Abyss says, “it’s shitty, what they’re doing to you. I feel for you – and obviously so does the Doctor – but our hands are tied. There are some questions we can’t answer until you come off of probation.

“And until then, I’m just supposed to accept someone’s messing with my head?” Aiyana glares, folding her arms over her chest.

Abyss stares right back, and something about her gaze makes Aiyana look away. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

They leave. Abyss follows her home, then takes off without so much as a goodbye. Aiyana collapses onto her living room couch, and tries to think about nothing at all.

Fourth Interlude