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.

 

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

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

Chapter Eleven

The person who steps out of the mirror is recognizably him. There’s the nagging thought that she’s gotten something wrong, but Luke honestly couldn’t say what. He studies himself, in awe.

Aiyana stays silent as he does, flexing the muscles in her new body’s arms and rolling her neck. She runs her hands over the skin of her arms, flexing underneath her own touch and grinning.

“You weren’t kidding about being a dancer, were you?” The voice that comes out of her isn’t quite his. It’s too high and airy. She starts humming, working her way down the register until she gets to about where his voice is.

“No, I wasn’t,” he replies, though his attention is definitely not on the question.

“Alright, start talking,” she says briskly, once she’s got the right range for his voice.

He blinks at her, unsure of what to say. “You want me to read poetry or something?”

“Yeah, that’ll work,” she says, and he thinks to himself that hearing amusement in his own voice is a little weird.

“I don’t actually know any poetry,” he says sheepishly.

“So read a news story off your phone, or I’ll get you one of my textbooks.”

He reaches for his phone and pulls up his news feed. There’s some story about a politician’s son gone missing, and he reads it aloud. Aiyana repeats some of the lines after him, her voice getting closer and closer with each repetition.

When he’s done, he pockets his phone and looks up, and sees a lazy grin on her face that he thinks is very close to his. (It’s a little creepy. He doesn’t think he’s ever smiled like that around her, so how does she know?)

“Satisfied?” She asks in his voice, and he nods.

Aiyana lets his body fade away. Unlike what movies and shows have led him to believe about shifting from one body to another, it isn’t a quick change, his body to hers in the blink of an eye. It looks kind of like pieces of clay falling off a statue, dripping off in pieces until it reveals Aiyana’s body beneath.

(He wonders what would happen if she became someone shorter than her. Would he watch the clay-like stuff rebuild her height?)

“I have to make a call,” he says into the silence. “Check in with my superiors.”

Her face closes off, and she nods, moving toward the back of the apartment. He tries not to feel disappointed; this is his job, and she doesn’t know the good parts of the PLE well enough to understand why it’s important. She’s not wrong for feeling the way she does, but neither is he for being an agent.

“Agent Smoke,” answers a gruff voice, when he puts in the call. His spine straightens, and he automatically starts scanning the apartment with his eyes, despite already having checked it over.

“Sir,” he replies respectfully. His superior, a man he knows only as Agent Wire, has been his handler since he started out in the PLE. They’ve built a good relationship over the years, Smoke thinks, for all that they’ve never met.

“Status report.” Comes the command.

“Aiyana Clarke, Codename Mirror, has not appeared to have any communication with Codename Predator.” He gives a quick rundown of their activities over the past day, up to and including the shape-shifting.

“Good thinking, Smoke,” Wire replies, “they’ll want to know about this. I’ve been told to inform you they’ll have a decision by tomorrow. Off the record, they were leaning toward just letting her go and keeping an eye on her. Mirror-walking isn’t something you worry about compared to the other parahumans we have to deal with. With the impersonation, though, I think they’ll take her in.”

“Into the PLE, or into jail?”

“Into the PLE. She’d be a flight risk in jail, and that secondary ability is too useful to let it sit around a jail cell.”

Luke isn’t sure whether he’s relieved or disappointed. He says goodbye to Wire, and putters around Aiyana’s house until Franz comes back and Aiyana emerges from her room.

The tension between he and they lifts enough that they make actual small talk at dinner, and he surprises a smile out of Franz. The entire time, Luke wonders if they’ll hate him when they find out Aiyana could have had her freedom if he kept his mouth shut.

Intermission

Chapter Ten

Aiyana studies her unwanted guest. It’s as much social gambit as it is gathering her thoughts and sizing him up, and her eyes flick between his as she thinks.

‘He takes his fitness seriously’, she muses, thinking on the hard physique hinted at by his current clothes and delivered by his skintight PLE uniform. Unlike Anna – Aiyana bites the inside of her cheek to guard against a wave of concern for her girlfriend and anger at law enforcement in general – Codename Smoke’s musculature seems methodical, less aesthetic and more functional. She wouldn’t be surprised if he is or was an athlete, and wonders what kind of gym facilities the PLE has.

She shakes her head, as if that will banish the irrelevant thoughts. She’s tired and scattered, knows she’s tired and scattered, and she still has to handle him before she can lock herself in her room and sleep for a week.

“You’re going to help me put my life back together,” she says without any preamble, trying to sound as confident as she feels (and trying not to sound as tired as she feels), “since you guys are the ones that made me miss a week of classes and work without notice.”

Smoke purses his lips, and Aiyana thinks she sees a flash of guilt in his eyes.

“I was just-”

“Just following orders?” Aiyana cuts him off, staring holes into his eyes. He doesn’t answer. “Do your orders say you can’t fix the collateral damage from trying to find Anna?”

“No,” Smoke says simply.

“Right, so you’re going to come talk to my boss and professors, and explain what happened,” Aiyana says, raising a hand to cut off any potential protests. “I know you can’t tell them what’s really going on, but you can say something about it being an ongoing investigation, right? And tell them that you had to keep me isolated for the past week?”

Smoke nods, and Aiyana crosses her arms over her chest, satisfied. “Good. So you’ll do it?”

“Only if you show me what you can do.”

Aiyana eyes him, waiting, but he doesn’t elaborate. Eventually, she shrugs, rolling her eyes. “Sure. After you talk to people for me.”

“Okay,” Smoke says.

[*]

She shows him the spare room and the attached bathroom, makes sure he knows where the snacks are – more out of respect for her brother than Smoke himself; Franz will kill her if she doesn’t treat a guest well – and collapses into bed for a nap.

Smoke sweet-talks her professors with an honest, wholly-sincere charm that startles her. It doesn’t seem right that a member of the PLE could sound that genuinely apologetic over the inconvenience he’s caused her. She thinks it’s an act at first, but when they get to her last professor and he doesn’t sound any less sincere than he did at first, she’s forced to admit it may be legit.

Some of her professors impose late penalties on her missing assignments, but all of them let her turn them in late, and make up the tests she’s missed. Aiyana attributes that about half to Smoke’s unexpected charm, and about half to his badge. She doesn’t honestly know if the school has a policy on how to handle students caught up in legal proceedings, but she’s glad she doesn’t have to find out and then fight her professors about it. Doing all her previous homework at the same time as her current homework is enough of a pain.

“What’s your major?” Smoke asks, as she drives them from the school to her work.

“Gender and Sexuality,” Aiyana answers, looking at him out of the corner of her eye.

He starts, as expected, and Aiyana smothers a laugh. “Not what you expected?” She asks.

“We didn’t have that major,” Smoke answers, “we had Gender & Women’s Studies, though.”

“Where did you go?” Aiyana asks, curious despite herself.

“University of California Berkley,” Smoke says, shrugging. When she’s silent, he continues, “for dance.”

“Dance?” Aiyana blurts, surprised.

“Not what you expected?” He teases, and this time her laugh refuses to be smothered.

“No,” she answers honestly, “I thought criminal justice, maybe.”

“Most of us were just regular people before we got powers,” Smoke says, “there’s one guy who was a cop before he was PLE, but he’s the only one I know of. The rest are from a bunch of different places.”

She doesn’t answer, pursing her lips. If not for their interference in her own life – and the fact that they’re established enough to have uniforms and ranks, but she’s never heard of them – she wouldn’t be horribly opposed to being in the PLE. She doesn’t think it’s for her, but the existence of the PLE raises the question of what she’s going to do with these new abilities. Anna used hers for her own benefit, and if Flare is out saving puppies with his it’s news to her, but could she just stand there if something’s going wrong and she can help it?

(She knows the answer for Anna is yes. Anna has a lot of finer points, but she’s unashamedly, undeniably selfish. If it didn’t benefit her in some way, Aiyana knows she’d let a building burn, or a man get mugged, even if it were happening directly in front of her.)

Uncomfortable with the turn her thoughts have taken, Aiyana asks, “what kind of dance?”

“You learn all kinds in the program, but ballroom is what made me want to dance for a living,” Smoke tells her, “it’s not popular right now like hip hop or breakdance, I know, but I like dancing with people, not next to them.”

They make small talk about professors and gen-eds all the way to her work, then, after Smoke has managed to charm her boss, they pick the conversation up on the way back. It’s nice. She knows it’s just the calm in the storm’s eye, but it’s still nice to have a chance to catch her breath before the weight of everything (Anna, the PLE, class) crashes back onto her shoulders.

[*]

“So?”

Aiyana sighs at Smoke’s prompt. She had been hoping he’d forget, but luck, it seems, is not on her side. She makes a snap decision not to show him the other thing she figured out she can do, but he already knows she can impersonate people, so there’s no real harm in a demonstration.

“Stand up,” she says, resigned.

The two of them rise from the remnants of their early dinner.

She leads him into the empty space in the middle of the dining room where her glass pane used to stand, and holds up a hand. Smoke stops moving obediently. Aiyana takes a deep, clensing breath, and concentrates.

Her hands raise to level with the top of Smoke’s head. She pinches her first three fingers together, hands touching, then draws them apart in a straight horizontal line. Smoke’s eyes widen as a thin black line appears in the air, but he stays silent as Aiyana moves her hands to the side as far as she can reach. Fingers still pinched, she brings her hands down to the ground, crouching so she can touch the carpet. The line extends downwards with her hands, and she opens her hands when the line touches the carpet.

There’s a few beats, in which Aiyana stands and Smoke studies her with undisguised curiosity. Then, she swipes her hand downward carelessly in the space outlined by her earlier motions. The air itself ripples, then the entire space thickens into a recognizeable upright mirror.

Aiyana nods to herself, willing her mental image of Smoke to appear on the mirror’s surface. A second later, it does, and she frowns when she realizes something about it is off. Instinct leads her to look through the mirror (she files away her ability to do so in the back of her mind as something to think about later), and she touches the very tips of her fingers to the parts of the image that don’t match the man on the other side.

When she’s fixed the line of his jaw and the length of his hair, she performs one last visual check to make sure everything’s accurate. Satisfied, Aiyana steps through the mirror.

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Nine

“Ai? Where have you been?”

A tall, muscular man, light-skinned and blonde-haired, rushes to the door the second Aiyana opens it. He wraps his arms around her tightly, and Smoke watches as she lets her head fall forward onto his chest, going slack for the first time he’s seen.

“God, do you know how worried I’ve been?” The man – Franz, assumedly, since her records said she was living with her brother – scolds, holding her out at arms length to get a good look at her. “You look like crap, Ai, is this because of-”

Spotting Smoke, Franz steps in front of his sister, bristling. “Who the fuck are you?”

“My babysitter,” Aiyana answers tiredly, before Smoke can say anything. “Assigned by Parahuman Law Enforcement, in all their infinite wisdom.”

“By who?” Franz demands, looking over his shoulder at her.

“I’m Agent Lucas Kim, Codename Smoke, from Parahuman Law Enforcement,” Smoke – Luke – holds out a hand to Franz, smiling. He tries to make it a relaxing smile, disarming the way he’s seen his fellow agents smile, but judging by the suspicious look on Franz’s face, he fails.

Franz takes his hand slowly, as if Luke is going to dissolve his skin or something. Being fair, there probably is some parahuman out there somewhere who can do that, but Luke isn’t him.

The tension lasts until Aiyana mumbles, “I haven’t eaten all day,” which breaks the standoff and gets her shooed into the kitchen and Luke reluctantly allowed into the apartment.

He cranes his head to take in the place: Aiyana had gotten into it a little back at the station, but not enough that he has a good mental image of it. The cramped living room Franz hustles Aiyana past is exactly as boring as she mentioned: it’s got a small television, a gaming system – with a small library of sports and party games in a glass cabinent to the side – and a DVD player, with a couch that looks like it doesn’t get much use.

The kitchen/dining room he likes. It’s decorated in blues and metallic greys, with a dark carpet in the dining room part and shiny white tile in the kitchen part. An assortment of spotless pans and pots hangs over the counter separating the kitchen from the dining room, and the whole place smells like roasted marshmallows. The cabinets are futuristic metal, the appliances all look like they’re younger than his car, and the kitchen table is made of a warm, sturdy wood that he figure is probably oak or something.

(He wonders, a little, how they afford it all. Franz is in high demand according to Aiyana’s file, but Luke doesn’t think that makes enough for all this. He knows Aiyana made good money with Predator, but none of the stuff looks new enough that she would have gotten it in the past year. Maybe their parents are wealthy, but he doubts it. Franz and Aiyana don’t have that sort of air, and he’s good at picking that kind of thing out.)

“Anna’s in trouble with the law,” Aiyana says, collapsing onto one of the chairs. She leans forward so her elbows rest on the table and cradles her head in her hands. “They called in some cloak-and-dagger agency called Parahuman Law Enforcement, and they picked me up in-between classes when they couldn’t find her.”

Luke wants to protest that they’re not cloak-and-dagger, they just keep to themselves because it helps them do their job, but it’s not his place. He’s just here to make sure Aiyana doesn’t try leaving the city (or the country), not do PR for his bosses. Instead, he takes a seat across from her, trying to hide his discomfort and likely failing.

“And held you there?” Franz asks, pulling down a pan and hunting through cabinets for cooking oil.

“Yeah,” Aiyana replies tiredly, “they said something about being an accessory, and ‘aiding and abetting’, but they didn’t read me my rights, and wouldn’t get me a lawyer. They said if I told them everything I knew about Anna – Predator, actually, they didn’t even know her name – that they’d see about making a deal.”

“So you made a deal,” Franz replies neutrally, retrieving what looks like sourdough bread from the fridge, with a sleeve of lunch meat. He glances to Luke. “Do you want a sandwich, Agent?”

“Just Luke,” he corrects, trying on a smile again. “And a sandwich sounds really good.”

Franz nods sharply, turning back to his sister.

“No,” Aiyana looks up, a razor-sharp smile on her face, “I bogged them down in details about our awkward early days until I had enough information to impersonate them once I got out.”

Franz smirks back in return, slapping together sandwiches. “That’s my girl.” He puts the first sandwich in the pan. “And then?”

“Then I reminded them how much they don’t know about my powers, and implied some things about what I might be able to do.” Aiyana’s eyes flick to Smoke, and her smile fades into a thoughtful expression. “They decided that they needed ‘time to decide what to do with me’, and sent me home with a babysitter.”

Luke keeps quiet, even though it’s definitely his cue to chime in. He’s beginning to like the two of them, but his job comes first. He’s been told not to tell her or anyone else anything they couldn’t learn from the PLE’s website. The best way to do that, he figures, is to keep his mouth shut.

“So what now?” Franz asks, pressing down on the sandwich with a spatula.

“I don’t know,” Aiyana admits, looking back to him. “I don’t know where Anna is, or if she’s even done anything. I’m not about to take the word of people who yank innocent people off the street and break all the laws about how to handle suspects.” She shakes her head. “I get the feeling they’re going to try either locking me up or recruiting me.”

(She’s right. Luke’s superiors aren’t enthused enough about her abilities that she’s a ‘capture on sight, casualties be damned’ kind of para, but there was some cautious hope in his orders. They’ll be a lot more insistent about it once he reports the bit about impersonating people; even if she’s lying to throw him off, there’s always the possibility it could become true with enough training and experimentation. Para powers are so unpredictable that even the oldest find new stuff they can do.)

Aiyana pauses, then twists to look behind her. “Where did you put the glass?”

Luke furrows his brow, following her gaze. The only thing in her line of sight that she could possibly be talking about is a window that still has glass in it.

“Kara let me stash it in her living room,” Franz replies, looking down at the sandwiches. “Mom and Dad came by, and I… didn’t really want to deal with that on top of trying to cover for you.”

Aiyana turns back around to face the table, and the three of them sit in awkward silence until Franz finishes their sandwiches. If it’s still awkward during their meal, Luke doesn’t notice, because the sandwich is amazing. PLE cafeteria food isn’t bad, especially compared to what he ate in college, but this is so much better than that. If Franz ever decides acrobatics isn’t for him and opens a restaurant, Luke will make special trips to Chicago just to eat his sandwiches.

When they’re done, Franz apologizes profusely to his sister but says he has to get to work.

“It’s fine,” Aiyana waves off his offer to have her come with him, “if the PLE wanted me dead, they would have killed me already.” Franz does not look reassured by that, but Aiyana shoos him out the door. “I need to have a talk with him, anyway. Go on, go do gravity-defying stunts for all the creepy old men who want to check out your ass.”

Franz protests, but gathers his things and leave with one last suspicious look at Smoke. Aiyana locks the door behind him, and they are alone in the apartment.

Chapter Ten