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

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Chapter Fifteen

Luke falls into his chair in Wire’s office heavily. He reaches up to run his hand over his face, realizes he still has his mask on, and peels it off, dropping it onto the desk in front of him.

Wire enters not long after, sitting in his chair with only slightly more grace. His mask, too, lands on the desk, and the two of them exist in silence for a few moments.

“You’re right, she is going to be the biggest problem,” Luke admits, sighing heavily and reaching over to grab his phone out of the basket on Wire’s desk where he’d stuck it before the meeting.

Nodding instead of saying anything along the lines of “told you so”, Wire leans back in his seat, one hand propped up on the arm of his chair. “Followed closely by Abyss.”

Luke looks to Wire, startled. The other man rests his chin on his hand. “She does not like something about Mirror being with us, and I don’t know what or why. She clammed up the second she got the Director’s orders, and she’s been stiff around me since. She had a problem during our initial meeting when I mentioned Predator and Mirror, couldn’t take her eyes off of Mirror during the meeting, and shot right out of the room as soon as I ended it today.”

Not having noticed that, Luke frowns. He’d actually gotten through her file the other night, and nothing in it pointed toward her having any problems with probationary members. She’s been with the PLE longer than he has, and never in that time had she worked with a probationary member that she’d had problems with, or against someone who later become one. She hadn’t been one herself, and there was nothing about her having parahuman friends outside of the PLE. He knows the files don’t have absolutely everything about an Agent, but they usually pointed the way toward answers.

“She’s worked with shifters before,” Luke says, trying to work out the problem out loud, “with blinkers with a much bigger range and less limitations than Mirror. Shield was an independent long before he was PLE, and those two have worked together before.” His mind shifts gears a little. “The Director is black and she’s worked directly alongside him before. One of her teammates from PLE New York is openly gay and there’s never been any problems between them.”

Wire lets Luke speak, pulling his laptop into his lap and opening it.

“They haven’t exchanged two words, and it’s not like Mirror has a Name that implies she’d care that Abyss contracts things called demons,” Luke finishes, thoroughly baffled. “You think maybe she’s just against lying to someone with us?”

“I don’t think that’s entirely it, but yes,” Wire answers, eyes on the screen as he taps at the keyboard. “It seemed to bother her when I said we’d be aiming to arrest, or at least detain, Predator, but she didn’t start getting really…” he winces at the pun, “…wired until she got her orders.”

“What did the Director order her to do, anyway?” Luke asks, leaning forward.

“I don’t know,” Wire admits, “he just said Abyss would be handling it, and that she should have some space in her duties to do it.”

Luke lets that sit for a few seconds, then changes the subject to something more productive. “Mirror can’t copy tattoos.”

That gets an upward glance out of Wire. “That’s a really weird limitation. Did she say why?”

Luke exhales, shaking his head. “She said she doesn’t make the rules, she just works with what she’s given.”

Wire stares at him. “What.”

“That’s what she said. Swear to God.”

Wire reaches up to bury his face in his hands. “So no one’s told her about hard limits versus soft limits.”

“Apparently not.” Luke scrubs at one eye with the side of his hand. “I don’t know if the independents don’t know about it, or if it’s just her and hers.”

“If the locals think their powers are hard-wired, that’s a huge advantage to us.” Wire drops his hands, looks back down to his laptop. He resumes typing, this time faster. “It does bring up the question of how and when we tell Agent Mirror, though.”

Luke thinks on that. They can’t not tell her and expect her to be a productive Agent. They can’t really trust her right now, though. As much as he wants to trust her, he wouldn’t blame her at all for pulling a runner if Predator showed back up, and it’s a hell of an advantage to lose to the independents.

“We can let the Doctor tell her,” Luke suggests finally, “he probably would anyway.”

Wire nods. “Sounds good.”

They discuss the business end of running a PLE team for a while, finalize plans for what to do for the building, and both men leave feeling exhausted but accomplished.

[*]

Luke throws himself forward. He feels a brief displacement in the air, and hits a solid barrier between him and his target. He floods himself forward, spreading out over the barrier. It’s a dome, and he sends himself over it in roiling waves. The dome extends all the way to the floor– with a small gap just big enough for his smoke-form to get through.

He gathers himself at the edges – sending little bits of himself in as they find gaps might tip off the person inside – and flows in all at once. The target is inside, and Luke surrounds him, pulling himself together in a submission hold.

“Bang.” Luke says, two fingers held in a ‘gun’ position against Shield’s head.

Shield grumbles, shrugging Luke off and stepping forward. He jumps, grabbing the straps of his shield and releasing it back into shield-form, out of dome-form.

“Work on making it air-tight,” Luke advises, as Shield dons his shield.

“I have to breathe,” Shield raises an eyebrow, crossing his arms.

“You’ll be fine with just the air inside for at least a minute, and you can hold your breath for longer than that,” Luke says, “long enough for you to come up with something, or for one of your teammates to get rid of the airbourne threat.”

Shield inclines his head, conceding the point. “Anything else, Captain?”

Luke doesn’t bother hiding the broad grin that results. ‘Captain’ is an unofficial title – officially, every Agent is simply that, with only the Director as anything else – but one he’s wanted every since he first heard it.

“Come back in for team training tomorrow.” Luke dimisses him, and prepares for the next Agent.

[*]

“Again.”

Mend forces his body through the kata once more, his jaw clenched and sweat running down his face. He manages to complete it without a major error this time, though he immediately bends over, hands on his thighs.

“Good,” Luke says encouragingly, nodding. “You’re good for today. We’ll do firearm practice later in the week, and make sure you keep up with your independent cardio.”

He gets a nod in response, a gulped breath, and Mend straightens himself back up forcefully. “Yes, sir.”

Luke rubs the back of his head. “Mend, you don’t need to call me sir. I’m only in charge when we’re out in th field. Just make sure you’re here at five so I can work with Abyss.”

Mend nods again, wheezes out another breath, and starts his cooldown stretches.

[*]

Luke frowns, tilts his head. “What do you do when you’re alone?”

If not for the utter neutrality of her eyes, he would say that her eyebrow lift is amused.”Who says I’m ever alone?”

Before he can respond, her body convulses. In one jerky motion from abdomen up to head, her body rolls, and her hands come up to her mouth. At the top of the wave, her head comes forward, mouth opening wide. A thick, oily stream of black floods out of her mouth, pooling in her cupped hands. She begins to speak to it in a harsh, unfamiliar language full of hisses and tapped consonants. Abyss raises one hand and runs her fingers through the mass, which rolls over her fingers in thick, clumpy blobs that look like they should leave disgusting residue, but her skin is just as clean afterward as it was before.

Luke looks to Mend while Abyss coos at the… demon? The other man has his brows drawn together, lips pressed together in a smile that’s trying harder to be tolerant than it may ever succeed at.

“Does she do this a lot?” Luke asks in an undertone that’s about half-meant to break Abyss out of whatever it is she’s doing.

Mend turns to Luke. He tries to broaden his smile, but only succeeds in grimacing. “This is the tame one. The other one… we all end up hoping she doesn’t have to call the other one.”

He should really ask her to show him one of her other contacts, but in the end, he doesn’t really want to see the rest of them, if they’re anything like this one.

[*]

“Where’s Agent Mirror?”

Luke half-smiles at Abyss’ question, sliding on his mask. “She’s non-combat while she’s on probation.”

There’s a few seconds of silence, then Abyss shrugs. “It’s not like we need another non-frontliner. We’re already Team Bubble.”

Luke opens his mouth to contradict her, but she’s right. Mend is a healer, Shield is a defender, Abyss a projecter. Luke can work as their offense, but he’s little-to-no-use against anyone with a Name that gives them durability, or speed. Abyss’ demons are really their heavy hitters, and if she gets knocked out, they become unreliable.

Team practice goes along those lines: Shield creates a bubble with his shield-dome, Abyss calls out what her demons can and will be doing – she refuses to call on them unless necessary; Luke can’t really blame her, considering the prices some of them exact when used – and Smoke flows around targets and hits them with precision strikes of his body. Mend, of course, stands ready to heal anyone or anything that needs it, and while he spends most of team practice standing in Shield’s dome, they all know he’ll be crucial in the event of a real fight.

“Alright, guys, that’s enough for today. Go settle into your lives and see what you can find out about the local paras. We’ll get back together next week.”

Everyone else files out, but Abyss lingers. Luke turns to her, head tilted.

“Hey, can you… give me Mirror’s address?” Abyss shifts a little, pulls her mask off and lets it hang from the tips of her fingers. “Oh, and I’m going to give her some crap, basically see-through excuse about you guys wanting me to hang out with her. You know, the kind that basically screams ‘I’m your new babysitter because you can’t impersonate me’.”

The whole thing pulls at him – Luke hates lying, hates that they have to do this with Aiyana just to make sure she can be trusted – but he gives her Aiyana’s address, and adds it to the pile of things that make him wonder if Aiyana will hate him when she finds out about them.

Chapter Sixteen

Flashback: Hellfire

For a woman with a Name as evocative as Hellfire, the woman herself was pretty normal.

Hair colored the too-black that spoke of a dye job, a steel stud piercing the crease between her upper lip and cheek – a Monroe, Aiyana remembered vaguely – clothes that were trendy but covered more than current fashion normally called for. White, like the boards insisted, with gold-flecked brown eyes as the only truly striking part of her. She was on the attractive side of average, Aiyana supposed, but not anyone that turned heads on the street.

“I’m Hellfire,” the woman said, when it became apparent that Anna would not be introducing her to Aiyana.

“Aiyana,” Aiyana replied, shaking the proffered hand. She nearly started when she realized Hellfire didn’t run as hot as Predator or Flare; she’d honestly just assumed it was a Named thing.

Hellfire blinked in surprise. “That’s a pretty Name. What language is it in?”

Hearing the capitalization in her inflection, Aiyana shook her head. “My Name is Mirror, I just prefer my birth name.”

The other woman’s eyes flicked to Anna, and the two of them shared a moment of silent communication too fast for Aiyana to make out.

“Aiyana, then,” Hellfire said amiably, dropping Aiyana’s hand. “I ordered appetizers in advance, since this place takes forever.” She flashed a quick, almost-apologetic smile. “I hope you don’t have any common allergies Predator somehow forgot to tell me about.”

Anna scoffed, Aiyana reassured her that she wasn’t allergic to anything she knew about, and the three woman made their way to the table Hellfire had gotten for them.

After a few casual introductory questions from Hellfire – how had she met Predator, what was she studying and did she like it, the usual icebreakers – Aiyana let herself fade out of the conversation, watching the two of them interact.

With Flare, Anna challenged, poked at him, and he let it roll off of his back. She tried to push his buttons unsuccessfully, and he successfully pushed hers by not letting it get to him. With Hellfire, every time Anna flashed her teeth, Hellfire responded with something subtly cutting in return, only the light in her eyes letting on that what she’d said was a slight. Anna was the flash, the open threat, Hellfire the subtle danger, the power behind the scenes, only acquiring a warning tinge in Aiyana’s mind after she’d watched her for a while.

Just when it seemed like lunch was heading toward a wrap without any of the seriousness Anna had implied when she’s said Aiyana had to meet Hellfire, Anna stood, pushing in her chair.

“Call me when you’re done,” she said shortly. She bent over to press a lingering kiss to Aiyana’s lips, dazing her long enough that she could slip away without protest.

Aiyana blinked, trying to shrug it off, and turned to Hellfire.

“Not the subtlest, your girl,” Hellfire commented wryly. She tapped the menus she’d apparently snagged off of a waitress when Aiyana had been busy with Anna’s goodbye. “Dessert?”

The two of them ordered small desserts, and Hellfire fixed Aiyana with a steady gaze when the waitress left.

“Knowing Predator, she brought you in out of the dark as little as possible,” Hellfire started calmly, folding her hands in front of her, “and only brought you to see me because she couldn’t keep you out of the loop any longer.”

Aiyana frowned, torn between wanting to say yes, to get answers, but not wanting to slight her girlfriend.

Hellfire waved a hand. “It’s fine, you don’t have to say anything. It doesn’t really matter how it happened, she asked me to be your guide, so I will. I’m guessing she hasn’t told you what a guide is, or what they do?”

At that, Aiyana shook her head.

“I teach you what the Named are about, what the new world is, and generally serve as a mentor while you’re getting used to our world.” A flashed smile, brighter than Aiyana thought she was capable of. “You can ask me anything, and I’ll either answer or explain why I can’t.”

“So, since I can ask you anything…” Aiyana trailed off, then resumed when Hellfire nodded encouragingly, “what can you do?”

“You’ve met Flare, seen his stuff?”

Aiyana nodded.

“I can do everything he can, but better.” Hellfire paused for a second. “Well, not the emotional part.”

“Emotional part?” Aiyana pursed her lips, not liking the sound of that in the slightest.

“You should ask him for details, but the simple answer is that he can cause brief, intense flashes of emotion.” Hellfire waved a hand. “They don’t last long, but they don’t need to.”

“When you say everything he can, but better-”

“Everything.” Hellfire said firmly. She gave Aiyana a half-smile when she saw the almost-affronted look on her face. “It doesn’t sound fair, I know, but real life isn’t like the comics, where almost nobody has directly overlapping powers.”

“You read comics?” Aiyana asked, blinking.

“If you’re smart, you will too,” Hellfire advised. “Chances are, someone in a comic somewhere can do something like what you can, and they’ll have thought of different uses for it than you have.” Anticipating Aiyana’s question, she continued, “I’ve picked up a few tricks myself.”

“I wouldn’t have thought hellfire would be a common power.”

“It’s really common among villains, actually, and even a few of the minor heroes have it. They don’t really channel it the way I do – unless you take a look at an actual devil from hell – but they put it to creative uses.” A small, not-very-nice smile crossed Hellfire’s face for a few seconds. “I can’t really show you here, and I try not to call on it unless it’s necessary, anyway.”

“Have you seen anyone blink themselves through mirrors?” Aiyana asked wryly.

“No, but there are a lot of shapeshifters.” Hellfire flashed another half-smile at Aiyana’s surprise. “Predator told me what she could about what you can do, hon.”

“Alright,” Aiyana leaned back in her chair, “so tell me about these shapeshifters.”

“First and best is Mystique….”

Chapter Fifteen

Posting Delay

Due to holidays, birthday celebrations, Dungeons and Dragons, my new job, and several minor life things (in roughly that order, even), The Named will be resuming normal posts on 2 Jan. Sorry about that.

In an attempt to tide you over, here’s the origin of The Named.

Before I knew anything else about the characters, world, or plot, I knew Named would be a superhero story revolving around a late-teens early-twenties woman who could teleport through glass. I had this really badass-seeming mental image of her running up the side of an office building by flickering from one side of the windows to the other so fast she didn’t fall. She had pistols in both hands, and was shooting at some bad guy either flying by the side of the building, or standing on top or something.

I also knew she had an ex-girlfriend who had an uncanny amount of charisma, and that one of her teammates could turn into smoke. (I honestly didn’t think about the “smoke and mirrors” thing until I started publishing chapters online). They were close, the mirror-girl and the smoke-boy, and for some reason their teammates/superiors knew that mirror-girl’s ex-girlfriend’s shenanigans, and the smoke-boy consoled the mirror-girl when she got upset about their ribbing.

Despite it working particularly well for Worm, I didn’t want to have big superhero teams. I wanted a centralized authority, but smaller groups; the original ‘team’ for Named consisted of mirror-girl, smoke-boy, and someone who make giant domes. (If that person will still exist in Named is up for debate; I don’t even know what kind of Name would allow for such a thing.) I liked the idea of only a couple supers at a time working on something, and on big flashy battles being rare and lethal.

The big problem hit when I started getting into the twenties with my page count for Named. I started to lose steam, and feared losing all the mental work I’d done. I remembered a forum serial story I’d done that worked well (until it didn’t, for reasons that won’t impact Named like it did that serial), and decided to post the first chapter of Named before I lost interest entirely and it languished in my original work folder like so many others have.

I’ve since found that I work best in a forum-esque format. I do really very well when I have people to bounce ideas off of, and even better when complete strangers drop in with their completely uninfluenced views. It’s a weird way of working, I know, but that’s just how I do. Named took off, popular with my friends if not with the internet at large, and the rest is all thoroughly documented on this site.

Phew. That ended up being longer than I meant it to. As an aside, feel free to post any nagging concerns or world-related questions on this post. Named would have far more holes than it does if not for you guys poking at things, and I really appreciate the feedback I’ve gotten so far.