The sound of someone aggressively clearing their throat made Amber O’Connell jolt a bit. That surprised twitch was followed by a brief, relatively minor shot of pain in her hand as her reaction made the mug she had been holding onto splash some of its hot coffee out. It was enough to make the dark-haired girl focus on where she was. Specifically, the rearmost booth inside Rosie’s Rascal, an old diner that had been around and owned by the same family since the sixties. Not that anyone called it Rosie’s. For unknown reasons, even though the name of the place was technically (and written on the sign and menus as) Rosie’s Rascal, everyone who went there regularly referred to the place as Rascals. Without the apostrophe, as in multiple rascals, not belonging to one in particular. Again, no one seemed to know why the moniker was pluralized that way when it wasn’t in the actual written name. It was just one of those things. You accepted it or you looked like a clueless tourist by calling it Rosie’s.
With a hiss from the coffee splashing over her hand, Amber reached out to pick up a couple napkins. Belatedly, she realized she had been staring off at nothing for the past… several minutes, at least. It was a thought that made her wince a bit while putting the napkins against her hand as she turned to see who had been so intent on getting her attention. It was an older guy in an old blue navy coat that had seen better days thirty years ago and was now more patches than original material. He wore a tattered old beanie over his head, and the scowl across the man’s dark-skinned face was enough to make his annoyance clear if his intensive throat-clearing hadn’t done the trick. “It’s Thursday. I sit there on Thursday. It’s time for pie.”
“Hey, hey, Earl.” The new (quite familiar) voice came from behind the man, as Jerry Meuster approached and put a hand out gently. “Come on now, let’s get you seated at this table right over here. I’ll spot you an extra slice of pie tonight.”
While the public knew Jerry as the Minority Star-Touched Whamline, at the moment he certainly wouldn’t have been recognized as such. Rather than his dark army camouflage costume and gauntlets, the red-haired, muscular boy wore a heavily grease-stained white shirt with blue pants and an apron with the name of the diner scrawled across it. The Rosie’s in ‘Rosie’s Rascal’ stood for Rosie Meuster, Jerry’s great-grandmother. His family had owned and operated the place for all these decades. Jerry himself had basically grown up in the diner, and still helped out whenever he wasn’t busy with Minority-related things. The fact that his family owned the place gave him a ready-made excuse to disappear anytime he needed to without worrying about explaining things to a boss.
Earl, however, shook his head stubbornly. “I don’t wanna go to another table. It’s Thursday. This is my table. It’s time for pie. This is where I sit. It’s my place. Our place. We sat here. She can’t, she can’t anymore. But I can. This is our spot. Thursday night pie. We sat here. I sit here.”
A sharp pang went through Amber that had nothing to do with the coffee that had spilled on her hand. Immediately, she slid out of the booth. “It’s okay, he can sit there. It’s not a big deal.”
Jerry looked uncertain for a brief second before giving her a grateful nod as she picked up her coffee and slid over into the next table. Mouthing his thanks, he turned back to the man in question. “Here we go, Earl. Have a seat. You want the pecan and a cup of decaf, right?”
“Pecan,” Earl agreed, head bobbing a few times sharply and definitively. “That’s what I have. It’s Thursday, I have pecan and coffee. Decaf, can’t have caffeine, bad. She said it was bad. I can’t have it. You’ll make sure, right? You’ll make sure it’s not caffeine. Has to be decaf. Has to be. Sh–sh-sh-she doesn’t want me to have caffeine.” With each repeated stutter as he tried to force the word ‘she’ out, the man jabbed two fingers none-too-gently against his forehead.
While Jerry gently agreed that he would get the pie and make sure the coffee was decaf, Amber found herself staring into her own mug. The same thoughts that had made her gaze off at nothing a minute earlier before Earl had interrupted were back. The same thoughts that had taken up permanent residence in her mind in the hour or so since Paintball had finished telling the story.
Or rather… since Cassidy had finished telling the story. Paintball was Cassidy Evans. All this time, all the things they’d done, all that worrying about how some boy in middle school was supposed to deal with the secrets he was keeping, and it turned out that the ‘boy’ was actually Cassidy Evans, the daughter of literally the richest family in Michigan. Not to mention Amber’s classmate, whom she had spent plenty of time with over the past few weeks. The entire time, the entire time she’d known Paintball, Amber had also been spending time with Cassidy. And she never knew, she never even slightly suspected that the two were the same person.
Part of that, of course, was the efficiency of the disguise. No one who knew Cassidy would think that she would willingly pretend to be a boy. It just… wasn’t who she was. She didn’t obsess over looking girly or anything, but it was pretty clear that being teased about it had bothered her for a long time. Which was why the thought that she would willingly and actively pose as one, to the extent of using a voice changer to even sound male, had never even occurred to Amber.
But it went beyond that. So far beyond. Yes, Paintball was Cassidy Evans, but her family was part of–no, her family was the Ministry. They ran it, they founded it, they were the leaders. They controlled the Ministry and through that they controlled the city and had their hands in almost every Touched (Star and Fell alike) who lived there, to one extent or another.
It was, to put it simply, a lot to take in. The whole situation was so much to deal with. She had no idea how Cassidy had managed by herself for so long before even being able to talk to Izzy about it. And speaking of Izzy, how was she dealing with this whole thing? She was a kid. Yeah, technically she was only a few years younger than Amber, but still. Those were important years! And not only was she dealing with the Ministry thing, that was coming right after that whole horrible bit with her mother. So Izzy had to deal with the fact that her actual mother had tried to do that terrible, fucked-up thing, and the people she was living with were the leaders of the Ministry. It was just–it was bad. It was a lot to deal with for anyone, let alone someone as young as Izzy was. Amber had no idea how she or Cassidy were acting as normal as they were. With everything that those two were dealing with, it was practically a miracle that at least one of them hadn’t completely lost it already.
Honestly, it probably shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. The Evans were billionaires, with a b. The idea that they had absolutely nothing to do with an organization built around profiting off of the Touched in the city, and controlling as many of the teams as possible was… naive, at best. Of course they were the Ministry. In hindsight, it was obvious. They’d built their entire empire around the concept of building up as much of Detroit as possible. Who else would have the kind of funds and resources it would take to bribe, blackmail, and control as many people as the Ministry obviously did? Again, incredibly obvious now that she thought about it.
Yeah, the whole thing was totally clear in hindsight. Well, not totally clear. She still had a lot of questions. Probably at least half as many as Cassidy herself had. God, Cassidy. What kind of pressure had that girl been under for all this time? It hurt to even think about.
And then, of course, there was the question that Amber had been asking herself ever since she first started to find out what the Ministry did. They chose whether to either allow or disallow crimes, and to help the bad guys who paid them get away with what they did. So, what about the man who had stolen that car and killed her father with it in a hit-and-run? She still needed–no, she still had to know if the Ministry had anything to do with how effectively he had disappeared. There had been no real evidence to find the guy, and Amber was convinced someone had helped him. What if that was the Ministry, if it was Cassidy’s parents?
And there was more than that. Even if they hadn’t intentionally allowed the man to escape, she refused to believe they couldn’t have used their resources to track him down. They controlled practically all the organized crime in the city, and she was supposed to think they were incapable of putting a tiny fraction of that toward making sure the man who killed her father faced justice? It might be different if they didn’t know her enough to actually know about her father’s death, but they did. They knew exactly who she was, and what sort of pain she had been through. They could have found the man. She absolutely believed they could have if they wanted to. Yet they hadn’t. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole reason they hadn’t was so that she would be motivated. Because of course, they didn’t only control the crime in the city. They controlled the heroes too. They had to make sure there were effective Star-Touched to serve as deterrents against criminals who didn’t pay their taxes or whatever shit they called it. What if they had seen motivating Amber to train and work harder as more important than actually finding her dad’s killer? What if she had been spending all this time playing their obedient little soldier, all while they used her father’s death as motivation for her? All while using her grief to manipulate her. The thought of all the time she had spent with Silversmith, looking up to him, learning from him, thinking he was… that he was such a good example–She’d wanted her dad to meet him. God, the thought made her eyes water as she stared down at that coffee mug. She’d spent so long wishing her dad was still alive, and a not-insubstantial-percent of that time wishing he could meet Silversmith. She thought they’d get along. She’d thought–she’d thought… God, she was so stupid.
Sterling Evans was Silversmith. That in and of itself was enough to send her reeling. The man she had looked up to as a mentor for a long time was Cassidy’s father. Yeah, she’d already basically figured out before all this that the Conservator leader had to be connected to the Ministry, given how much sense it made with the way Paintball had been acting. But this was a step beyond. Silversmith was Sterling Evans, and the founder/leader of the Ministry itself, along with his wife.
All of which made that whole fear that they had had something to do with letting her father’s killer escape even worse. She knew Silversmith, she spent plenty of time with him, learning and training under his guidance. And she had looked Mr. Evans in the face. He had once told her in front of the school, while taking something in for Cassidy, how sorry he was to hear what happened to her father. And now… now after all that, he might’ve been responsible for helping her dad’s killer escape? Yes, it was hypothetical, but… but even the thought of it made her want to scream until her throat tore, and then vomit. And if it turned out to be true, if it turned out that Sterling Evans really had allowed that piece of shit to get away? She didn’t know how she would be able to restrain herself.
And yet, she had to. That was the whole problem. Just like Cassidy and Izzy, Amber had no choice but to play dumb. She couldn’t let on that she knew anything, no matter what. And the prospect of that, of having to go on playing good little Minority soldier was just… hard. But if Izzy could do it, she could too. She would push her feelings and apprehensions down and play the part. For now, at least. But in the meantime, she was going to find out more. They had that secret base under the mall to check out. She would look for answers there, and once they fixed Paige and got her and that twin of hers into separate bodies, she would ask both of them what they knew about what happened to her dad. Paige knew all sorts of things about the Ministry, she might be aware of that.
The point was, she was going to find out the truth. She had no idea what she would do with it once she had it, but she was absolutely going to get it, no matter what. And then… then she would go from there, somehow. But she had to know if the Ministry had intentionally allowed the man to escape (and profited from that directly) or simply neglected to bother finding him (and profited from it indirectly).
She was still stuck in those thoughts, and suspected she would be for quite some time off and on, when Jerry sat down across from her in the booth with a curious frown on his freckled face. “You okay?” he asked quietly. “You’ve been staring at that coffee for so long you could probably let a baby swim in it without any problems.” Belatedly, he amended, “I mean, heat-wise. There’s still all the problems you’d have from having a baby swim in coffee. Can they even–” He cut himself off with a sharp cough. “It’s cold, is what I’m saying. You want a fresh cup?”
For a ridiculous and clearly stupid moment, Amber considered telling him what was going on. Not about who Paintball was, of course. Just the Ministry stuff in general. She very briefly thought about it. But no, of course, that would be stupid. Stupid beyond belief, actually. She had no idea how much he already knew. She didn’t know how much anyone on the team knew. Except Jae. If Jae was involved with this stuff, Amber would eat every shoe in her closet.
And yet, she couldn’t tell her either. She had no idea how the girl would react, even if she really didn’t know anything yet. It was just–it was too complicated right now. Besides, she had promised Paintb–Cassidy that she would keep everything secret.
And if she wasn’t going to tell Jae, she sure as hell wouldn’t say anything to Jerry. They worked together, fought together. She’d trusted him to have her back in very dangerous situations, and he had always come through. Beyond that, she had spent some time here at the diner while off-duty, enough that no one would think him sitting down to talk to her was weird. But despite all that, there was no way she could trust the boy far enough to tell him the truth. She’d trusted Silversmith too, and look where that had gotten her?
All of that ran through her mind in a brief moment before she offered him a faint smile. “Thanks, that would be great. Sorry, I’ve just been thinking about my dad a lot lately.” That much, at least, was absolutely true. Which helped her sell the lie part of that response.
Grimacing, Jerry gave a short nod. His hand moved to touch hers briefly. “That still sucks, Amber. Did they… I mean, did they find something new? I just–not that it couldn’t be on your mind anyway, but I just thought if they’d picked up some new evidence, or something that could’ve–I mean…” He made a face, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, never mind. Stupid question.”
After a brief hesitation, Amber swallowed. “No, no new evidence or anything. Just started thinking about him a little bit, and when I do that, it’s hard to stop.” She gave another very faint, wavering smile, trying to look as normal as she could. “It’s–okay, it’s not fine. It sucks, just like you said. It’s fucking awful, and I can’t–I can’t stop–” Cutting herself off, she exhaled, placing both hands flat against the table while making herself speak as clearly as possible. “I’d love some hot coffee, thanks.”
“Sure thing.” For a brief moment Jerry hesitated before meeting her gaze. “And seriously, Amber, if you ever want to go talk about him, I’m down for that. Just to listen. I don’t–when I was little, my grandma died. I was only a kid, but I remember her. I remember how much it hurt to be at the funeral. And I remember it helped if I could talk about her. I just–sorry. It’s nothing compared to you and your dad. And I’m not exactly a therapist or even much of a friend. But like I said, if you want to talk about him, I can be quiet and let you say anything you need to.”
Swallowing back the lump in her throat, Amber nodded. “Thanks, Jerry. If I need to talk, I umm, I’ll keep that in mind. And you’re wrong, you are a good friend. I just… I think I need to be alone right now so I can think.”
Giving her a very slight smile of acknowledgment, Jerry stood and took the cold mug away. He stepped over to fill it up with fresh, hot coffee and set that down in front of her before quietly telling the girl it was on the house. Then he moved to help another customer on the opposite side of the diner.
Not wanting to waste a second cup of coffee after how nice the boy had been, Amber made sure to sip from it while sitting there. She still had far too many thoughts and emotions running through her mind to be entirely healthy, but she tried not to get completely lost in them. Whatever ended up happening, whatever she found out about her father’s death and how much the Ministry had known about it, she would deal with it. She just had to take things one step at a time, and the first step was actually getting into that base.
Well, okay, the first step apparently was making sure Cassidy and her new sidekick/partner didn’t end up getting themselves killed by investigating that girl who was supposed to know something dangerous about Pencil. Not to mention Pack. She… she couldn’t let anything bad happen to Pack either. And that whole situation made things even more complicated.
With a long, heavy sigh, Amber took another gulp of coffee before glancing over her shoulder. The old man from before, Earl, was sitting in the other booth. His attention was centered on the half-eaten piece of pecan pie in front of him as he poked at it with a fork. He was muttering to himself, something about responding to words his obviously late wife had said at some point in the past. There was a tremor to his voice that made Amber flinch. She had no idea how long ago his wife had passed away, but he was obviously still deep in grief. How long had they been married? How long had he–
It was none of her business. Making herself turn away to stop gawking at the man so he could have the privacy he deserved, Amber focused on her own coffee once more. For a few seconds, she just stared at it. Would she be like that guy, sitting here thinking about who she had lost? Would she end up trapped in her memories like that?
No. Not her. She didn’t blame Earl at all. Whatever happened to his wife, there was obviously nothing he could do about it. But she could absolutely still do something about her father. She could find out the truth, and make sure whoever was responsible got what they deserved.
With that in mind, Amber drained the last of her cup and set it down before rising. She left a ten dollar bill on the table despite what Jerry had said and gave the boy a nod before heading for the exit. A moment later, she passed through to the street, as the little bell above the door gave a friendly jingle.
Once out in the open air, Amber looked both ways while taking in a deep breath. Yeah, whatever happened next was obviously going to be dangerous, terrible, and hard. But at least she would be doing something. At least she would actually find out the truth, and handle whatever came with that. But for now, she was going to go home and try to get some actual sleep.
Because the next few days were going to be pretty damn busy.