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Blackjack and Melissa
Pausing with a forkful of steak halfway to his mouth, Eric Abbot stared at his daughter for a moment. He had been doing that a lot, given his wonder and delight at the fact she was even able to leave her bed and come to this dining room in the first place. Such an incredibly simple thing on the face of it, yet a complete impossibility until very recently. He had found himself many times in these past few days staring with pride, love, and relief to see his beautiful, brilliant daughter finally able to move around and interact with the world safely for the first time since she had been infected with that horrific disease years earlier.
But this stare was not the same as those. Now, he gazed at his daughter with disbelief, taking a moment to find his voice lest it crack mid-sentence. “I’m sorry, you want to do what?”
Melissa, of course, didn’t need to eat. Nor did she get any benefit from it. That was the downside of her new condition. Yes, she could get up and move around without fear of breaking (at least permanently), but nor could she taste anything. Her body was entirely made of glass. She didn’t seem to need food or water, and a small test had confirmed that she had no need of oxygen.
Despite that entire lack of needing (or getting any benefit from) food, Melissa still insisted on sitting with him at the dinner table. Even now, she was watching the food on his fork a bit distractedly before looking up to meet his gaze. “Huh? Oh, I said I want to join Paintball’s team. Wouldn’t that be cool? I could be Stained Glass. Wait, no, there’s a better name than that. But really, Daddy, they’re all artistic and stuff and I can make things. Like a sculptor. There’s a word for someone who makes glass sculptures, right?” Shaking that thought off, she quickly added, “Anyway, I fit on their team perfectly. And Paintball’s so cool! Plus Alloy’s cool too. You want me to be with the cool people, right?”
Oh boy was there a lot that Eric wanted to say to that. Yet, in the end, he simply cleared his throat and replied, “There are several cool groups in the city, you know.” A part of him wanted to use his power to find the right thing to say, but he had promised himself that he wouldn’t abuse that just to interact with his daughter. If he said the wrong thing, so be it. At least their relationship would be real and not guided along on rails. He wanted everything he said to Melissa to be what he chose to say, not what his power prompted him with.
For her part, his daughter blinked a couple times before curiously asking, “Do you not want me to go onto Paintball’s team?” Her head tilted a little. “Is it because you’re afraid he might be against the Ministry?”
Choking just a little, Eric regarded her before quietly murmuring, “Sometimes I think you’re a little too smart for your own good. Definitely too smart for my good.” He took a breath before letting it out as he continued. “It’s more about the fact that they aren’t with us. They aren’t part of the Ministry’s organization, they don’t have anyone embedded with them.”
“And if I joined them, you would,” Melissa pointed out with a broad, clearly mischievous smile.
Pointing with his fork, Eric retorted, “You know what I mean. I don’t want you to be their in with that group. Not mine or the Ministry’s. Besides, you like them. If something went wrong and you had to choose between being loyal to Paintball or the Ministry… you don’t want that. I don’t want that.”
“But you don’t want me to join your team.” Melissa’s words were quiet, the faintest bit of hurt within them.
Setting his fork down, Eric reached out to take his daughter’s glass hand. “Listen to me, okay? The reason I don’t want you to be part of La Casa is because I don’t think you would enjoy it. Sometimes we have to hurt people. We try not to hurt innocent people more than we have to, and our targets… we do our best not to be monsters. But I know you. I know you wouldn’t enjoy it. You want to be a hero. You want to help people.”
After the slightest pause, Melissa gave a short nod. She met his gaze once more, offering a very faint smile. “I mean, a real hero would probably turn you in. But I think I can deal with only being mostly a hero.”
With a chuckle, Eric squeezed her hand. “Well, lucky me. But let’s talk about what team you can join.
“Because I think I know exactly where you can do the most good.”
Standing in the bathroom, nineteen-year-old Rubi Nilsen stared at herself in the mirror. Her skin was pale, and her dark blonde, almost brown hair limp and stringy. There were dark circles under her eyes, and when she tried to smile, it didn’t look real. She couldn’t even convince herself.
This was… hard. Taking care of her younger brother Roald and their little sister Emilee for the past year, basically from the moment she had turned eighteen, had been difficult enough by itself. She was barely out of high school and already couldn’t go to college the way she’d planned. She was working at a law firm, technically. Yet instead of becoming the lawyer she’d always wanted to be, she was cleaning their offices as an overnight maid. She scrubbed toilets, vacuumed the carpets, dusted their desks, emptied their trash, and anything else they needed.
From nine-thirty pm to five-thirty am she did that, before taking the bus home and arriving just in time to make sure Roald and Emilee were up and getting ready for school. She got them breakfast and sent them on their way. Then she would crash until around three pm, get up to be present for Emilee (Roald could take care of himself much more easily) so she could help the girl with her homework, then get dinner on. The rest of the afternoons and evenings were spent trying as best as she could to be a normal human being for a couple hours, before it was time to go right back out to work and do it again. While she was at work, either Roald was in the apartment, or the neighbor lady, Mrs. Kroothers. Someone was there at all times, just in case.
That was Monday through Friday. On the weekends, she tried to spend as much time with Emilee as possible. And Roald, when he was around, but that was less frequently ever since he actually got a job of his own. Regardless, she continued to take Emilee out to the park or to the dollar theater, anywhere they could go to give her little sister some semblance of a normal life.
And now Murphy (no one ever called her Eleanor) needed her too. Tyson… Tyson and Rubi were never exactly super-close, but they had been friendly enough. They had to be, considering the situation their families were in. But now he was gone. He had been murdered right in his own apartment, just downstairs. And the prison system wasn’t in the habit of letting convicts out to take care of their younger child just because the one who was taking care of them happened to die.
The social services lady had asked if Rubi thought she could take in Murphy too, or if she should put her in the system. But the tone of the woman’s voice, the thick folder of other people she was clearly already taking care of, and the very doubtful look on her face when she had brought up the possibility of getting Murphy placed somewhere had told Rubi all she needed to know. The odds of a mixed-race, teenage girl from a poor family, whose parents were in prison for selling drugs ending up in a good home were… low, to say the least.
So, she had told the social services lady that she had it handled. The look of relief on the woman’s face had been unmistakeable, and she had left very soon after having her sign a few things taking the responsibility away from her.
Now Murphy was living with them, sleeping in the same room as Emilee. They’d managed to convince a couple guys in the building to help them move the girl’s bed upstairs and into this apartment, and they were going to sell everything that Murphy didn’t want to keep. There was no room for it here, and they certainly couldn’t pay storage or a separate lease to keep that apartment.
The point was, with their parents in prison and Tyson gone, Emilee, Roald, and Murphy needed Rubi to be there. Even if the latter two were more capable of functioning on their own, they still needed her to be the adult. So she was. She put aside everything in the hopes that someday… someday Roald and Murphy would be adults too, and Emilee would be older and more capable of being alone. Rubi wasn’t putting aside college and a career forever.
And yet, even as she kept telling herself that, part of her wouldn’t stop whispering that it would be harder to go back to school and try to make something of herself years from now. She wouldn’t be going with her friends, she barely even saw her friends anymore. They had moved on. They were off to university, making new relationships, building their real adult lives and careers.
There were times when Rubi couldn’t help but feel a wave of despair, of anxiousness, of anger at their parents and at her siblings. She didn’t want to. She wasn’t proud of it, and she pushed the thoughts down as soon as they appeared, but they were still there now and then.
Was she a bad person? Was she selfish? Staring into her own eyes, Rubi tried to smile again. It didn’t look any better than the first time.
“Rubi?” It was Roald, just outside the closed bathroom door. “Can uh, can I show you something?”
A rush of terrified thoughts about what else could have gone wrong went through her mind, but she shoved them down, tasted what she hoped was a somewhat normal expression on her face, and opened the door. “Sorry, the milk didn’t go sour again, did it?” God, if they had to spend another four bucks on a gallon before she got paid…
Roald, however, shook his head. There was a slightly pensive, uncertain expression on his face. “No, no nothing like that. I just… um, you know how I said Murphy and me got jobs? Um. Here.” With that, he held up a wad of dollar bills. No, not dollar bills. Twenty dollar bills.
“What–Roald, what is this?” Rubi was staring at the folded up money.
“It’s for you–I mean for us. I mean for food and stuff,” Roald informed her. “Murphy and me both chipped in. There’s three hundred dollars there for groceries. You know, so we can get some good stuff. And uhh, here.” From his pocket, he produced another couple of twenties. “This should be enough to get a taxi or an Uber or whatever so we don’t have to try to carry a bunch of bags onto the bus. When umm, when I get back from school, I thought we could go out and pick up some stuff. We can drop Emilee off at Danielle’s to play for a couple hours and go get everything we need.”
Rubi was still staring at the money. “Roald, that’s… that’s too much. You need to be saving for school. You can still go.”
Shaking his head, the boy replied, “It’s okay, we’re putting money away too, I promise. We’re doing okay at the shop, and… and we wanna help. Take it, please? And say we can go out today.”
Hesitating for another moment as she felt a wave of guilt that her brother had to contribute anything to keep them afloat, Rubi finally took the offered cash and nodded. “We’ll go as soon as you get home.”
“Good. I–good.” Roald coughed before gesturing. “I’ll make sure Emilee’s ready for school, then we’ll head out. You should take a shower and sleep, Ru. It’s… it’s gonna be okay. Hey, maybe we can even get some KFC on the way back. Emilee’d love that. It’s… it’s been awhile.”
With that, he headed back down the hall to the kitchen, leaving his sister to shut the door. Rubi turned back to the mirror, staring at the cash in her hand. Thoughts of cupboards that were full, of fresh milk that they didn’t have to drink past the expiration date just to make it last, of being able to give Emilee real fruit and vegetables, and even cookies that weren’t from the dollar store filled her mind.
That time, when Rubi met her expression and smiled, it was real.
Sterling and Elena
“Yes. He’s out of the city then?” Listening to his son’s response over the phone for a few seconds, Sterling gazed out the window of his office. Well, one of his offices, in one of his buildings in the heart of the city. Watching the construction site across the street, he was silent until Simon finished confirming that Luciano Munoz had indeed been escorted safely from the city and was set up in a place to lay low.
“Good.” His reply was simple, even if the thoughts running through his mind were anything but. “Head on back, and stop by the storage unit on Tulsbee to drop off the cash with Bowers. He’ll make sure it’s clean.” Another pause as he listened to Simon confirm that, before he signed off with, “Drive safe. And son… good work out there.”
With that, he clicked off the phone, giving a long, heavy exhale before tossing it aside. The phone landed on the desk with a clatter.
“Do that much more and you’ll have to get a new one,” Elena observed from the doorway. She stepped inside, closing the door behind herself before crossing over to the desk to run her hand over the phone in question.
Looking that way briefly before turning his attention back to the window, Sterling replied, “It might be a stretch, but I think we can afford it.”
Her hand left the phone as Elena stepped around the desk to be in front of him, brushing her fingers over his jaw tenderly. “I take it Simon dropped him off safely.”
“Safely,” Sterling echoed with a slight cough. “Yes, he’s safe. Though I can’t say the same about the people that impulsive piece of shit left in his wake.” His eyes moved away from the window to meet hers. “Those people are either dead, or mourning the ones who are.”
Gently using her hand to make her husband meet her gaze, Elena quietly spoke. “You must be upset, dear. You are generally better at controlling your language in the office.”
Sterling was silent for a moment, of course giving a heavy sigh. “This sort of thing is not why we started this. His contributions barely matter compared to what we bring in without him, and he provides nothing else of value. Sorry, provided. I doubt we’ll ever see him again.”
“Not to mention,” Elena put in, leaning up to gently kiss her husband before she continued, “his method of gathering the last payment for his extraction was a bit… attention-getting.” She glanced away to look out the window at that same construction site before turning to him. Her voice was darker. “He killed people he didn’t need to. Innocent people. That… that is not what we intended for him to do.”
Sterling gave a flat grunt, head shaking as he almost snarled the words, “I assumed he had money stashed away. Or people in his world who owed it to him. When I gave him the price for getting him out of the city and away from his… angry business partners, I didn’t…”
“You didn’t think he would be foolish enough to attract the attention of every law enforcement officer in the city with his wild, unhinged massacre,” Elena finished for him. “Because you are accustomed to working with people who hold more self-control than that. And more of an investment in keeping the city stable. Munoz was leaving the city. He had no reason to care about the chaos he was leaving behind, or for the damage he was doing to the people who are still here. We gave him a price and he paid it.”
Sterling stepped over to the window, putting a hand against it as he gazed down at the traffic below. His voice was soft. “Which is why we couldn’t go back on the deal.” He echoed her words then. “We gave him a price and he paid it. Even if we don’t like how. We have a reputation to uphold.”
Elena moved beside her husband and put a hand against his back while speaking. “Yes. This is no longer only about him. Were this an isolated situation, I would have said kill him the moment he showed his face. As you say, this is about our reputation. If others were to learn that we refused to honor the deal we made, we could very well lose our grip. Having control over this city is not something to take lightly, and if some of the people on the edges of that control were to learn that our word cannot be trusted, it could be disastrous. Which is a problem that would have spread through the entire city very quickly. We told him the price and he paid it. In the future, we will simply need to be a little more specific about limitations.”
There was silence between them for a moment, as Sterling considered his next words carefully before turning to face his wife. His hand moved to cup the side of her face gently. “Innocents have died before, many times under our watch and in response to our words. I can’t exactly say why this one bothers me as much as it does. But I know this is not why I wanted to create the Ministry, not why I wanted to do any of this.”
Elena spoke sympathetically, leaning her face against her husband’s hand. “It’s a very harsh cost. Honoring your word is not always the easiest thing. But our word is all that we have in this situation. We both know that if word were to get out that he paid his dues, met our request, and we refused to honor it, our entire system could be disrupted. There are very bad people in this city who do as we say, and allow us to maintain some level of control, specifically because they know that our word can be trusted. Which goes both ways. When we tell them no, they understand that there is no arguing against that. But when we give them a price and they pay it, we are beholden to our word.”
Offering her a soft smile, Sterling replied, “You keep talking about keeping our word and honoring the deal. But I know you don’t like this any more than I do. I know you, Love. You are as angry about what that man did to get the money as I am. And you know as well as I do that we didn’t even need the cash itself. This was a terrible deal on all fronts. Those people… there was no need for them to die.”
“You’re right,” Elena confirmed, “I don’t like it, and I wish it was different. That man can burn in hell for all I care about his future. As I said, were it entirely up to me and I allowed my emotions to take control, I would have told Simon to put a bullet in his head the moment he showed himself at the meeting.” She paused then before adding, “Or simply allowed Paintball and his companion to take him. Problematic as that would have been.” She sighed heavily. “But it is not about him. It is about everyone in the city who would react poorly to the Ministry breaking an agreement.”
“He shouldn’t even have known about us,” Sterling pointed out before turning to look out the window once more. “The cop who let him know how to contact us in the first place, his name is Aemon Kraft. I want a message sent to him. He is not to give that information to anyone else.”
Touching her fingers to his chest, Elena arched an eyebrow. “Do you want him to receive a message, or be a message?”
The impulse to answer immediately was strong, but Sterling restrained himself. Closing his mouth, he turned back to look out the window once more. A few seconds of silence passed before he spoke, but even then his words did not address the question directly. Rather, he quietly started with, “Do you remember when I Touched, back before any of us had a firm idea of what that meant? You and I were together, in that motel where we knew your father wouldn’t be able to find us, and we spent… we spent hours sitting in that room, just working out what I could do. My shapes were smaller then. I made you a metal pony, then said I was sorry it wasn’t big enough for you to ride. But you said that you didn’t need a pony, because with the power that I had, we were going to ride that all the way to the top.”
“I remember,” Elena confirmed quietly while tenderly running her hand along his arm. “And I remember that we spoke for a long time about what that meant. We saw other people with powers, some becoming heroes, some becoming villains.”
“And we talked about which one I should be,” Sterling finished for her. “We had a list and everything. Pros and cons for both sides.” He smirked a bit, dropping his gaze. “Seems so quaint now.”
“As I recall,” Elena murmured while sliding her hand down to take his gently, “we were discussing whether joining the burgeoning heroes or villains would most help us handle my father. Because whatever we wanted to become would never matter as long as he was around.”
Sterling gave a short nod of agreement, his eyes darkening a bit at the memory of that man and the long shadow he had cast over both Detroit itself and their lives. “It really wouldn’t have. He’d never leave us alone, and with the resources he had…” Swallowing a bit, he put his free hand against the glass of the window while squeezing his wife’s hand with the other. “That was why we decided to be both, to point the villains and the heroes at his organization from different sides.”
“Not the entire thing,” Elena pointed out. “Just the people we couldn’t turn to our side. The ones most loyal to my father. We had to remove them, or at least blunt their influence and power. We had to isolate him and create that vulnerability. And we never could have done it by ourselves, or even by siding with the heroes or the villains. We needed both of them, both sides of the law working together to break his organization while making sure there was enough left to use afterward, enough to build up from. We used both sides, even if they didn’t know they were working together. Different targets, different times, different methods. The heroes made their arrests, the villains claimed their territory, and Father’s organization was being hit from too many sides and angles for him to react. He was too mired in his ways, too accustomed to how it had always been. He couldn’t adapt to Touched emerging.”
“And when we were done with that,” Sterling noted, “when we drove your father out of the city and took control of his organization, it felt natural to just keep doing what had gotten us so far to begin with. Instead of choosing between being heroes or villains, we became both. We sat in the middle, directing things, building a network, a web that was even more ingrained in the city than your father’s. We are both sides. Even if those sides are diametrically opposed.”
He was quiet for a moment, but Elena didn’t speak up. She gave him time to work his way through his thoughts until the man finally exhaled. “I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to be Silversmith and nothing more than that. I think I could be proud of that.”
“But?” Elena prompted after a moment, hearing that unspoken word at the end of his sentence.
“But,” he replied, “I would be Silversmith in a very different city. Without the Ministry directing things, I truly believe this city would be in a much worse position than it is. We do allow crime to happen, but it is controlled. It is guided. If we did not do what we do, this city would have been a free-for-all for the past twenty years. You’ve seen what happened in other cities that were in our position. You saw what happened to Atlanta. They had the opportunity to rise or fall like we did, and they fell. Last I heard, the city was divided between five different warlords and their Conservator team can barely keep up with the absolute worst of the problems. It’s utter chaos in that city. I won’t let Detroit become another Atlanta.”
“Even if it means you can’t just be the shining hero?” Elena murmured softly, leaning in to put her arm around him from behind as she kissed his shoulder while the two of them stood in front of the window.
Sterling gave a slight nod. “Even if it means I can’t just be the shining hero. Still, sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. I am Silversmith, leader of the Detroit Conservators. And Minister Gold. Some people I save, and others… others die because of the crime that I allow to happen. I might as well have killed them myself. I–” He cut himself off from going down that road and sighed. “You’d think that after two decades it would be impossible to feel guilty about that anymore.”
“You’re human,” Elena reminded him. “Whatever being Touched has done to us, it hasn’t changed that. And you’re not a monster. You’re right, people do suffer and die because of the choices we make. But if we did not make those choices, if we were not here, it’s exactly as you said, the city would be worse.”
She continued after leaning up closer to him. “And if we didn’t allow crime, if we tried to stop it entirely instead of simply controlling and directing it, the city would explode. Like a pressure cooker with no vent or safety valve. We would be in the same position as Atlanta. Our city would not have advanced nearly as much as it has. Yes, we have done some bad things, arguably unforgivable things. But I believe the city would be worse without the Ministry.”
Taking in a deep breath before letting it out slowly, Sterling finally spoke again. “We’re not exactly suffering either. We have made a very good living in this position. Our actions, our choices don’t come from some altruistic position. We’ve helped make Detroit what it is, and we built an empire in the process, out of the groundwork laid by your father. It’s just that… there are days, like this one, when I see the unnecessary mess created by that… piece of shit, and I just wish that all I had to do was bring him in. Or make sure no one ever sees him again.”
“That latter option is not exactly the hero way,” Elena gently pointed out.
With a nod, Sterling turned from the window, gathering her up against himself. “You’re right, but as we’ve established, I’m not really the sort of hero who always plays by the rules and lets the bad guys go back to a nice prison cell.”
Producing his phone once more, the man hit a button on it and waited with it held to his ear. After a few seconds, he spoke. “Z. Luciano Munoz made himself into a problem. He caused a scene, drew attention. I’m going to give you an address. It’s out of the city. Get him out of there, take him somewhere and dump the body. Make it look like a robbery he fought back against. No trace of you, no trace of any Touched involvement. No, he doesn’t need to disappear. He needs to be found, so his victims get closure. But… maybe let it take a few days. Yes, that sounds right. And Z… thank you.”
Disconnecting, he hit another button and was immediately connected to someone else. “Patience, it’s Gold. Lieutenant Aemon Kraft, the cop who sent Munoz our way. No, he doesn’t need to die. But I want you to make it clear that he is not to tell anyone else about our business without permission, no matter his reasoning. And Patience… make sure he understands the message.”
Both calls done, he put the phone away and looked back to his wife. “You disagree with removing Munoz?”
“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I have no love or like for that man. He deserves what he gets. But does that make you feel any better right now?”
Considering that for a moment, Sterling finally shrugged. “Ask me again after it’s done. And maybe not. Maybe ordering the death of that man won’t make me feel better about the lives he ruined or our own part in it. Maybe him dying won’t solve anything.
“But I’ll tell you this much. I sure as hell won’t lose any sleep over it.”