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Shortly after dawn, the sound of shoes slapping against concrete filled the early morning air, as a dark-haired, slim girl jogged up the hill wearing running clothes and a set of earbuds. Through those earbuds, Amber O’Connell listened to the near-deafeningly loud, pounding music that was doing its level best to help her not think about all the things she kept irritatingly thinking about.
The whole point of this run was to help the girl clear her head, help her avoid thoughts of… of the horrible truth while she was supposed to be pretending to be a normal, everyday person. It was supposed to help her stop dwelling on all that bullshit.
But there was too much. Her thoughts were too loud even for the music to drown out, no matter how high she pumped the volume. As she ran along the sidewalk, with each foot that came down against the cement, Amber’s mind was filled with thoughts. Filled with the actual truth.
Silversmith was a bad guy. He worked for this… this Ministry. Everything Amber and the rest of the Minority–everything all the Star-Touched in Detroit did, it was only because the Ministry allowed it. This crime syndicate ran everything. They decided what the supposed heroes were allowed to do, how much they were allowed to stop. No matter what Amber or any of the other ‘good guys’ did, the Ministry won in the long run, because they controlled things behind the scenes. They took money from villains just to be allowed to operate in the city, they controlled the courts, the police, they had people inside the Touched teams to sabotage or simply spy.
There could have been someone on Amber’s team who was really reporting to the Ministry. Her supposed friends, her teammates, one of them might be–probably was a traitor. Everything they had been through together, everything they had accomplished or fought against as a team, and one of the people she was supposed to be able to trust with her life was a fucking spy, damn it!
But who? Which of her supposed friends was actually reporting to the bad guys? It could’ve been any of them, as much as Amber wanted to scream out loud that it wasn’t. Syndicate? He had four bodies, he could easily have one of them spy where he shouldn’t without being noticed. Wobble and Whamline? It could’ve been either of them too. They tended to hang out together the way she did with Jae, so did that mean they would’ve been in on things together if one of them was?
Jae. No, it couldn’t be her. Or Izzy. Amber knew them both too well. She hung out with Jae all the time, they were basically best friends by this point. And Izzy was a kid. And–
But that was the point, wasn’t it? The best spies were the ones you’d never expect. And this Ministry could have lied to either of them, Amber realized. They could’ve convinced Jae or Izzy that they were doing the right thing by reporting what they knew, like it was some kind of secret Star-Touched thing that no one was supposed to know about. And it wasn’t like Amber could just start asking them about it without giving the whole thing away if they were in on it at any level.
So she couldn’t ask them. Not without something more than she had. She couldn’t ask them and she couldn’t trust them. God damn it! She couldn’t even trust her best friend or the kid she’d grown really fond of ever since Izzy was put on their team. She couldn’t–didn’t… fuck.
Not knowing who you could trust was a really fucking shitty position to be in. Not knowing if you could even believe anything your best friend or the people you relied on to have your back in a life-and-death fight said? It made Amber want to scream out loud, made her want to start hitting things and not stop until she’d broken all the bones in her hand. It made her want to grab every single one of her teammates and shake them, scream in their faces, demand answers.
It made her want to do drastic things. Things she couldn’t do without giving everything away. It would betray Paintball, the poor guy. He’d trusted her with this and he was holding it together even after knowing the truth for longer.
That poor kid. He had to be like Izzy’s age, maybe a little older. And he’d been stuck knowing about this all by himself. No wonder he’d refused to join the Minority. Fuck. All that time he’d spent knowing that even Amber could’ve been a spy for the Ministry? How was he dealing with it so well? Because she already felt like she was going to explode. And that was before the whole insane Paige thing.
Paige. On top of everything else, suddenly Paige Banners was some kind of artificial lifeform. Seriously? There wasn’t enough shit to deal with, not enough insanity, now suddenly someone Amber knew in her real, civilian life was a biological android or something. And her real father was a supervillain living on Breakwater? She’d just–that was just such a giant–
Urgh. She’d known Paige for years. Years. And she’d never had any idea that the girl was anything more than what she seemed. Well, okay, her weird hatred of Cassidy Evans had been something. But honestly Amber had just written that off as something that started between Paige’s parents and Cassidy’s as the second-richest and richest people in the state. Like Glomgold and Scrooge McDuck. She’d just figured that eventually Paige would grow out of it.
But now? Now it turned out that Paige was a biological robot or whatever. So why had she been drawing attention to herself by hating Cassidy so openly? Was it a flaw, or a… was there a reason for it? What was the point of being such a bitch specifically to Cassidy and no one else? Because that was just weird. It had been weird before, but now it was really weird.
Fuck, she had no idea. Which was even more frustrating the more she thought about it and came up with no actual answers. Lots of questions, but no answers. It was like there was one huge, crucial key to this whole thing that she was missing, a central piece of the puzzle. And without that central piece, none of it would fit together no matter how hard she shoved at them.
Yeah, she really needed to scream and hit something. Unfortunately, there was no one who deserved it in front of her. And even if there was, Amber was pretty sure it wouldn’t actually help anything. It might make her feel better for about two seconds to walk up to Silversmith and try slugging him, but in the long run it would make everything a hell of a lot worse.
She wasn’t that stupid. She would keep it under control, would stop herself from pulling some insane move that would accomplish nothing except for getting herself, Paintball, and Pack in some deep shit that would be impossible to get out of. She had to bottle up those impulses.
But the real shit, the real thing that was pissing her off so much, the thing that made her want to grab a baseball bat and just start screaming at the top of her lungs as she used it to hit Silversmith over and over again had nothing to do with the Paige situation. It was something a lot simpler and a hell of a lot more personal.
Did they know where the guy who killed her father was? The piece of shit who stole that car and hit her dad before magically disappearing with absolutely no trace. Did he really just get lucky and leave no evidence of who he was? Did no traffic cameras pick up his face, no witnesses see anything about him? Was this random fucking cocksucker really that lucky?
Or did he have help? Did he pay money to this Ministry to make his problem go away? Did Silversmith help him just to make sure Amber was motivated to join the Minority? Was her entire recruitment, after getting her powers, fueled by making sure she never found the man who had killed her dad? Was it possible? Of course it was. She had powers. The moment they knew what she could do, Silversmith or any of the other Ministry fucks could’ve looked into her history, found out what happened, and made sure she never found the asshole no matter how hard she looked. Or he could’ve gone to them first. Either way, there was a chance the Ministry was covering up who this guy was, that she could have found him by now if it wasn’t for them. And that chance, that possibility, was more than she could stomach. It was a possibility that drove her to try to drown out those thoughts with the pounding music, with running until she couldn’t breathe, until she wanted to pass out.
If that was true, if the Ministry had helped the guy who killed her father escape or hide… what would she do? What could she do? Bring them to justice? They were the justice. From what Paintball had said, they controlled everything important in the city, if not the entire state. She would have to have absolute proof, a dump truck full of evidence. And she’d have to take it right to–to someone above even the state level. FBI? One of the other Conservator teams in another state that wasn’t compromised? Or a different Star-Touched group. Maybe a lot all at once.
Regardless, none of that mattered right now. To do any of it, they needed a lot more information. And evidence, of course. But they needed information to begin with. They needed to know who they could trust, first of all. Finding out which people were working for the Ministry, so they knew who they could safely bring into things, that was the overwhelmingly first priority.
And that meant getting into that base under the mall. That was the only actual lead they had at this point, aside from whatever Paige might know if they could wake her up. Because she had to know something important, right? Paintball had said that Paige knew a lot about the Ministry. So if they could wake her up, if they could… could fix her or whatever, they might know more.
And what the hell was with all the P names? Pack, Paintball, Paige?
Okay, Amber might have been a little tired by that point, possibly. Doubling over by a tree at the top of the hill, she panted, taking the bottle of water off its slot on her hip before taking a long swig. Fuck, it was too much. The problems, the implications, all of it kept rebounding through her head until she couldn’t even think straight. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, right there in the middle of the sidewalk.
That… might attract some attention. She was pretty sure Silversmith and the rest of the Ministry would notice if she just started screaming incoherently like that. And she probably couldn’t do much to expose or stop them if they managed to commit her to the nuthouse or whatever.
So, Amber kept it under control. Gulping water and breathing in and out until she felt herself calm down a little bit, she focused first on the music, allowing that pulsing, pounding rhythm to drown out everything else just for a few seconds.
Then she shifted her mind, gradually, back to the thoughts that might actually help. The mall and Paige. Those were the two options they had right now. Finding a way to infiltrate the secret Ministry base could get them answers. She doubted there was anything as handy as a simple list of everyone who worked for them, but there had to be something useful in there, right?
But that was the problem. How did they get in there without exposing her powers? Because Amber could teleport into the place easily enough. But they’d have cameras, they’d see her, even if she was in disguise. And the second she used teleportation to get in and any other power to get out, they’d know who she was.
Unless she didn’t use any other power. What if she pretended to only have teleportation? It wasn’t like her ‘porting had any specific tells other than only moving north. And she could couple it with something else, some sign to throw them off like… like a flash effect.
Hey, yeah, that was a thought. If she could get some kind of device that gave off a colored flash whenever she hit a button or something, and only used it when teleporting, they’d start looking for someone who gave off that colored flash when they teleported. That could throw suspicion off her.
And if… wait, wait a minute. If she got one of the others to act as though they had her power, say…. have a disguised Pack take her hand and pretend she was the one turning intangible to walk them through a wall or a door, that could throw them off too, possibly.
It was worth thinking about. Using her powers while throwing in different details to send the Ministry barking in the wrong direction. See how they liked being tricked. She’d have to think about it some more, maybe look into what sort of things they could get a hold of that would help. But it was a thought. She’d share it with Pack and Paintball too, see what they could come up with along the same general idea.
Lost in those thoughts, Amber almost missed the commotion happening ahead of her. The music in her ears was loud enough that she didn’t hear it at all. Not at first. But from the corner of her eye, she saw a car that had stopped basically in the middle of the street. Early as it was in this residential area, there weren’t that many cars to begin with. But that one had stopped short.
Blinking up, the girl saw a black sedan with dark windows. All four doors were open, as several people had gathered around one other person. All of them were Asian, and as Amber muted her music, tugging the earbuds out, she heard them talking in Chinese or something. Whatever it was, they were all clearly arguing. The three surrounding the other were all dressed in dark suits, two male and one female. All older. The one being talked at, who was doing just as much yelling back at them, was a younger female, maybe a year or two older than Amber at most.
She had no idea what they were saying, but there was a lot of yelling and a lot of hand waving going on. It was clearly an intense argument that was getting more intense by the moment. Amber was afraid someone was going to start swinging. And judging from the vehement voice coming from the lone girl, it might well have been her.
Fuck, what was she supposed to do? Could Amber intervene without exposing anything about herself? She wasn’t in costume or anything. She wasn’t That-A-Way, she was just Amber O’Connell, high school student. There was no reason for anyone to listen to her, especially not a group like this. So what could she actually do? Should she try to at least speak up? Maybe these people would calm down if they knew they had an audience.
Fortunately, before Amber had to make that decision, and before the whole situation escalated any further, another car showed up, slowing to stop beside the first. This one had diplomatic plates. In fact, Amber recognized it. And she recognized the man who stepped out of the passenger side. It was Tomas Jackson’s father.
Why was the UK diplomat here now? It was kind of weird enough that there were international diplomats in Detroit anyway, but Amber understood that was because of how much Touched manufacturing was in the city. A number of other countries had put a lot of money and resources into helping to build up this place, so they had a vested interest in keeping an eye on it. It was a whole thing.
But why was the guy here right now? Was this a whole UK-Chinese thing? Or Japanese, she still wasn’t sure exactly what they were. Maybe Korean? They could be–focus, Amber.
For reasons she couldn’t explain, she had already ducked behind the tree and the partial fence that was there. It was weird, but she felt like being seen watching this was a bad idea.
Mr. Jackson stepped out of his car, saying something in… whatever language they were speaking to the people there. There was a whole spiel of back and forth between those three, Mr. Jackson, and the girl they had been arguing with. Finally, Mr. Jackson stepped that way, gesturing for the others to step away while he said something more quietly to the girl and handed her something. It looked like a phone. She took it, held it to her ear and listened for about twenty seconds, then seemed to deflate a bit and handed it back.
Things were calm then. Mr. Jackson said something to the other three Asian people and they moved to get back in their car. But he gestured to his own vehicle, and the girl they had been arguing with moved that way rather than following her other companions. Mr. Jackson opened the backdoor, and she moved to get in.
Then something else weird happened. As Amber was watching, the girl… wasn’t a girl anymore. Her hair, facial features, and body shape shifted, until it was a boy getting in the car. She just casually shifted her sex before stepping in the vehicle, like taking off a hat.
Mr. Jackson looked around, but Amber had already ducked back. She listened until both cars started up before peeking in time to see them drive away together.
Okay… that was weird, right?
Because that seemed kind of weird.