The first thing Avery realizes is that an extraordinarily large fist— connected to an extraordinarily large man— is descending towards her head. She leaps backwards, just out of his reach, and lets loose a string of very creative French expletives. The next thing she registers is the fact that her eardrums have been nearly blown out by an incredibly loud boom, and that the asphalt has cracked into a million pieces as a result of the wannabe-supervillain-of-the-week’s blow connecting with the ground. Her fists light up with flames, and she draws her arm back to deliver a punch (hopefully, one that’ll invert Mr. Rage Issues’ nose and set him on fire).
It’s a pity that fire-related powers are so goddamn visible, because Lara catches sight of her movement as she runs towards Rage Issues. “Avery, non-violent!”
“How am I supposed to be non-violent—” and great, Rage Issues is trying to hit her again— except this time, Lara slides between the two of them like she’s stealing a base, a glowing shield materializing around her arm just in time for Rage Issues’ fist to land on it— “when all I have to use is goddamn pyrokinesis?”
The reverberation from Rage Issues’ assault on Lara’s shield makes him stumble back. Lara stands, the shield disappearing into wisps of light, and summons a lasso in its place. She tosses it around the man— casually, like she’s roping in a runaway horse instead of fighting a guy with superstrength— and calls out, “Tell that to the Department, then!”
Rage Issues bellows incoherently. “Shut up,” Avery tells him.
He spares Avery one incredulous (and rage-filled) glance before he begins to thrash violently, his momentum almost making him fall backwards. To Lara’s credit, she manages to keep a hold on the rope for a solid eight seconds before it’s yanked out of her hands. You should try mechanical bull riding, Avery wants to say. However, there’s a more pressing fact to address: Lara’s glowing weapons all disintegrate after they lose contact with her. (Kind of a critical flaw, in Avery’s opinion.) Which means the eight-feet-tall man is charging towards them again. Lara conjures another shield, and the man suddenly changes course. He grabs Avery’s shoulders, lifts her into the air, and squeezes. Hard. Like, bone-breakingly hard. She estimates she’s got three seconds before her ribs give.
She looks him directly in the eyes. “Dude, really?” she manages to wheeze. And then she bursts into flames.
He howls and drops her, and Lara, coming from behind, lassos him again. The flames surrounding Avery flicker out as she hits the ground. She inhales deep lungfuls of air. Crisse, her ribs hurt. She watches, black spots peppering her vision, as Lara yanks the rope and brings Rage Issues crashing down. “Don’t think the Department will mind a few burns on his hands,” Avery says, staggering over.
Lara pulls the power-dampening cuffs out of her pocket and hooks them around his wrists. “Somehow, I don’t think so either.”
“Screw you—” is all that Rage Issues manages before Avery crouches down unsteadily and decks him in the temple. His eyelids slam shut.
“What’re we even picking him up for?” Avery asks, accepting Lara’s proffered hand and standing.
“Avery, do you even read the dossiers?”
Avery squints at her, partly because why in the fresh hell would she read the dossiers and partly because there are still black spots in her vision. “Why would I? We go in, we capture the violent criminal, we get paid. That’s kind of a job of a bounty hunter.”
“And you don’t follow the news, either?”
“Just tell me. The suspense is killing me.”
Lara pinches the bridge of her nose. “Uh, he breaks into houses, snaps the occupants’— well, he’s got superstrength, you saw it. And then he grabs all the valuables.”
“Now I don’t feel so bad about the burns.”
“Did you feel bad in the first place?”
Avery snorts. “No.”
They both look down at Rage Issues, and Avery flips him off.
Avery and Lara drag Rage Issues (his actual name is Bradley Henderson, but Avery can’t be arsed to remember that) up to the entrance of the portable Department-issued holding cells. The guards on duty nod as they grab Rage Issues by the arms. “Now that that’s taken care of, let’s go get a drink," Avery says.
“Your mother would very much not approve.”
“I don’t give a single solitary shit about her approval, and since when do you?”
“Since she hired me, which means she writes my paychecks.”
“She won’t notice if you don’t tell her.”
“Actually,” comes a cheery third voice, making Avery’s entire body catch fire in surprise, “she has a direct feed of the security cameras. She’ll notice.”
“Jesus Christ, Greenthorne, we need to put a bell on you,” Lara says. “Avery, could you—” she motions at Avery’s body, which is still blazing with fire— “it’s really bright.” Avery lets the fire die down. “Thanks. Anyway. Why are you here?”
Greenthorne shifts. "No reason."
Lara narrows her eyes. “Are you going to ask the prisoner to be your test subject?”
“No.” Greenthorne fidgets with her cuffs.
“Are you sure?”
"Why would I not be?" Greenthorne asks.
“That was rhetorical.”
Greenthorne furrows her brow. “We should ban rhetorical questions.”
Lara snorts derisively, and Avery has to agree with her. “Lare-bear’s right. My mother would have a stroke.”
While this conversation is happening downstairs, Eleanor Knight is in her top-floor office, proving her daughter right. She is perched in her blood-red leather chair; across the (massive, heart-of-oak) desk from her sit Department of Extraordinary Crimes agents Lila Reid and Matthew Clark, clearly uncomfortable. Whether this stems from their view of the multitude of taxidermied animals on the wall behind Eleanor, or from the fact that they're sitting on chairs meant for kindergarteners, it's uncertain.
“Do I look like a fool to you?” Eleanor asks. “You think you can take advantage of me?”
Clark opens his mouth. A mistake. “Ms. Knight—”
“Do not interrupt me!”
“What did I just say? Ugh. Tell the Department to send smarter agents next time. Now, I will not accept a penny less than fifty thousand for this exquisite catch.”
“Well, the Department only authorized forty-five grand,” Reid says, even though they go through this routine practically every week (for all her bitchiness, Eleanor Knight runs the best bounty-hunting organization on the East Coast).
“Ha! That’s a joke.”
“I’m afraid not,” Clark says.
Another mistake. A howling noise fills the room, and Eleanor’s irises disappear as bone-white specters start to swirl around her. “What?” Eleanor asks, the specters congealing into one malevolent mass.
“I’m sure we can cut into overhead,” Reid says hurriedly.
The specters dissolve, and Reid and Clark release their death grips on their tiny little chairs. Clark cautiously lifts his briefcase onto the table, and Eleanor pops it open and pokes her raccoon-like hands through the contents. “I knew the Department would see it my way. You two can see yourselves to the holding cells, can’t you? And before you try to answer that, Matthew, that was rhetorical.”
She relaxes in her chair, and Reid and Clark stand up and leave. “Gotta get down there quick so her delinquent kid doesn’t scorch the guy’s face off again, eh?” Reid whispers to her partner.
“What was that?” Eleanor calls, her icy voice even frostier than normal.
“Pleasure doing business as always, Ms. Knight!” Clark replies. If they walk out of there faster than before, then nobody can blame them.
Reid and Clark arrive downstairs in record time, and when Avery turns and sees them, her nose wrinkles like she’s just stepped into a field covered in horse manure. Well, at least they’re giving her a chance to prove a point. “Hey, assfaces, how many rhetorical questions did my mother use in your little negotiation? It’s for science,” she says, pointing at Greenthorne.
Reid rolls her eyes. Clark’s a little more subtle in his disdain, electing to simply cross his arms. Reid ignores her question in favor of asking, “Is the prisoner’s face intact this time?”
“Hey, that particular prisoner was trying to choke me to death!” Avery says.
Reid scoffs. “You are just a pile of excuses.” Avery’s hair catches on fire (well, the quick-to-anger thing does run in the family), and it takes all her restraint to keep it from spreading to the rest of her body. Reid recoils the tiniest bit. “Don’t make me arrest you, too,” she snaps.
Clark frowns. “Hey, ignoring Knight’s bullshit, wasn't there another person here, like, a second ago?”
Avery turns, her fire flickering out. Lara doesn’t even bother to look— she just pinches the bridge of her nose and says “Goddamnit.”
Avery snorts. She’s got more than an inkling of what’s going on, and she loves it. Stick it to the man, Greenthorne!
“What the hell is going on?” Clark asks.
Comprehension slowly dawns on Reid’s face. “Christ. Where’s the prisoner?”
“If it were up to me to assume?” Avery says, unable and unwilling to hide her grin. “Stashed somewhere in one of the labs.”
Clark and Reid both look absolutely pissed.
“Find him, and find him before two hours are up, or you won’t get paid,” Clark hisses.
“Wait. You mean you haven’t paid us already?” Avery asks, putting her hand to her mouth in an Oopsie! motion.
Pissed has turned into full-blown murderous. Avery can tell that Lara’s struggling to contain her smile. “FIND HIM!” Clark bellows.
“Or you’ll never work for the Department again,” Reid tacks on, her voice venomous. Oh, merde, that’s a curveball, Avery thinks, her self-satisfied grin falling. “That’s what I thought,” Reid snarls. “You have two hours.”
The hallways of T.I.G.R.I.S. are long and high-ceilinged, even below ground, where the labs are. Avery rounds a corner— and walks straight into Lara.
“And why exactly are you on the floor I'm supposed to be searching?” Lara asks, completely unfazed.
“Got bored. Figured I'd come find you,” Avery replies.
Lara shoots Avery an inscrutable look. “Well, you can help me look—”
—and then comes the sound of an oh-so-familiar voice, echoing through the halls. “WHERE IS SHE?”
Avery and Lara look at each other. Lara’s expression is much more easy to decipher this time. It reads: Shit.
“Which one of us d'you think he's talking about?” Avery asks.
“Well, given that you set him on fire—”
Their discussion is cut short by Rage Issues thundering around the corner. His eyes blaze with— well, rage, and every single vein on his body seems to be popping out.
Avery frowns. “Is it just me, or…”
“Greenthorne definitely did something to him,” Lara says.
“YOU!” Rage Issues roars.
“Which— dude, we still don't know which one of us you're talking about.”
The man doesn't respond— instead, he charges at the two of them. Lara charges straight back, dropping into another baseball slide and summoning a lance, her standard technique, meant to take out the knees. Personally, Avery prefers just punching and burning, but she can't deny that Lara's method works.
Except for when it doesn't. The second Lara's lance touches Rage Issues' legs, it flickers out, and she goes sliding past without touching him.
Rage Issues whips around and focuses on Lara— “YOU!”
“Her?” Avery says—
—and then he's thundering in the direction he came from, towards Lara. Adrenaline shoots through Avery, and she dashes down the hall. The benefit of being a hundred pounds lighter is that she catches up quickly. She lets her arms catch fire as she leaps into the air, trying to trap him in a stranglehold and kick his knees out at the same time, except— oh, merde, she thinks as he whips around and catches her around the stomach. Her fire's out. When did her fire go out?
“Aves!” Lara calls.
He throws her into the ground. She groans through her gritted teeth— all the trouble she'd gone to earlier to avoid broken ribs was for naught. Something has definitely cracked. Her vision starts to swim, black spots flashing in and out.
She rolls to the side on instinct, hissing from the pain, just in time to dodge Rage Issues' fist. His hand comes down again, but this time it's open— and her split second of confusion is all that he needs to get an advantage. His palm slams into her shirt collar with enough force to knock the wind out of her. She tries to set herself alight.
It doesn't work. It's as if she's wrapped in whatever the non-flammable version of cotton is. She tries again and again, and nothing happens.
Icy fear spears her heart.
His fist careens towards her face again, and then— CLANG!
A fire extinguisher hits the side of his head with enough force to knock him off of Avery entirely, and she crawls backwards, her ribs burning. Lara offers Avery her non-fire-extinguisher-occupied hand and pulls her up— “Owwww—” to which Lara replies with a glance that’s half sorry sorry sorry and half let’s go, idiot. They limp a few feet away.
“Hey, quick Q,” Lara says, watching Rage Issues slowly haul himself up.
“Yeah, shoot.” Talking hurts.
“Are you just— like, unable use your powers when you're near him? By any chance?”
“Yeah. Terrifying, eh?”
“Sarcasm, that's— ow, my ribs.”
Lara shoots her yet another indecipherable glance before hefting the fire extinguisher. She takes two steps towards Rage Issues, brings the fire extinguisher down towards his head—
“No!” someone, whose peculiar Central European accent identifies as Greenthorne calls—
—Lara's attention divides for a millisecond, and Rage Issues bats the fire extinguisher away. Something in his arm cracks as it connects— Avery feels a sense of smug satisfaction at that, she won't lie— and he howls. Avery darts forwards, doing her best to ignore her ribs screaming and her vision wobbling, and delivers a roundhouse kick to his face. He topples.
“Don't kill him, he's our test subject!” Greenthorne calls, reminding Avery of her presence.
“Oh. Right. That idiot is here,” Lara says.
“What the hell did you do to him, moron?” Avery wheezes. She trains her eyes on Rage Issues, who rises from the ground once again. Crisse, he's like the Hulk.
“I'd argue that—”
“Shut up and tell us what—” Avery jumps backwards, out of reach of his wild swing, and her world tilts on its axis— “the hell you did!”
“Well, I altered the particles in his bloodstream—”
Lara ducks under another punch. “What does that mean?!”
“Why can't I roast him like a marshmallow?!”
He swings again, even more uncoordinated, and as Avery stumbles away, the black spots coalesce at the corner of her eyes. She's never been good at staying on the defensive— maybe this is her body's way of reiterating that point.
“He's shielded from your abilities!” Greenthorne hollers.
“WHAT?!” Lara cries. Avery would nod, but she’s not sure her brain could handle it.
“Basically immune. It's like another superpower.”
“WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!”
Something in Avery’s mind clicks. “Hey, if it's basically another superpower—”
—he swings again, grunting like a hog, and grabs Lara around the shoulder. He drags her towards him, and wraps one enormous arm around her throat. “Nobody move!”
Avery freezes. “Y'know, I think—”
Lara’s voice comes out strangled as she says, “Just—”
“Lare-bear, shut up, let me—”
Greenthorne takes a step forwards. “I need to take some more of your blood, though—”
“Don't move!” Rage Issues roars.
“Sweet Jesus,” Avery whispers, exasperated. Her ribs are broken, for Christ's sake, and she is having a hard time thinking, and nobody is letting her ask the one question she has. And on top of all that, her closest friend in the world is being held hostage by some idiot pumped full of steroids.
God, she is so angry.
“Lare-bear, get your ducks in a row.”
Lara's eyes widen minutely. Avery can't blame her— get your ducks in a row is the keyword for one of their most potentially disastrous tactics. No shield, idiot! Lara mouths.
Avery raises her eyebrows and presses her lips together— I know that, moron! She raises her foot a centimeter and then grinds her heel into the ground. Lara's eyes follow the motion and then widen even further. Do it, Avery mouths. Lara pauses. Trust me, Avery thinks.
In this exact moment, Avery is sure of three things. One: if Rage Issues' shield is "another superpower" of his, then using it with too much intensity will make him pass out. Two: He may be on steroids, but she's trained herself (i.e. tried to see how many Molotov cocktails she could make and then drink in the span of three minutes) enough to be just as strong. Three: If something happens to Lara, she will literally, not figuratively, exile herself to a cave in Iceland and never return.
Avery gives her a thumbs up, sets herself on fire, and leaps towards him.
She's not fully aware of whatever Lara is doing, but she hears howling and bones crunching (both someone else’s and hers— she’ll be surprised if she makes it through this conscious). She throws her arms around Rage Issues' neck like a child hugging her father and brings up her knees to hit him in the chest like a very vicious child attacking said father. That same suffocating sensation presses down on her skin. She wills herself to burn even hotter in response, to burn through whatever's choking her fire.
One of them is going to break, and it will not be her.
Her vision fades away completely. A buzzing sound fills her eardrums. She keeps trying.
For a second, she loses faith—
—and then her skin is ablaze, and Rage Issues is falling to the ground.
She extinguishes her fire, her eyesight slowly restoring itself. "I win," she says, grinning dazedly. "Suck it."