Jerry Meuster

Commissioned Interlude 10 – Minority Guys (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. There was ALSO another chapter focusing on Jae and the Chambers twins posted earlier. If you have not read that yet, you can see it by clicking right here

Laki Sefo/Wobble

Present Day

The repetitive sound of a basketball hitting pavement filled the park early in the morning. A tall, lone figure was backlit by the rising sun as it came across the horizon. In the crisp air, he dribbled the ball between his legs and back again before rising up to shoot from the three-point line. The ball swished smoothly through the net before falling directly into the hands of a man who had approached from the sidelines. 

“Looking good, Laki,” the curly-haired blond man announced while turning the ball over in his hands. Thirty years earlier, Harris Mauter had been on his way to the NBA, before twisting his knee his last year of university. He’d taken to coaching basketball first for college before his own bitterness at his situation had seen him demoted to high school. There, he’d found his calling and become relatively stable and happy. Or rather, normally happy. Aside from when one of his most-promising young athletes went and threw their whole career away for nothing. 

It was that very athlete the man was staring at just then. Laki Sefo. Just sixteen years old, yet he stood six feet, seven inches tall. And unlike many youths who grew tall early, Laki wasn’t thin. He was well-built, and often passed for being an adult. Hell, the Samoan boy had been passing as an adult for a couple years. And the boy had talent. Incredible talent. At fifteen and only a sophomore the year before, he had led his public high school team to be state champions.

And then he quit. It happened shortly after the party to celebrate their final win. The boy, who was set to cruise on through two more years of high school before being snatched up on a full scholarship to any university he wanted ahead of an inevitable NBA career, had quit the sport entirely. No reason given, no injury, nothing. He still played like a champion, but he just… refused to. 

Catching the ball as the man tossed it to him, Laki quietly replied, “Thanks, Coach.” 

“Coach?” Harris tilted his head curiously. “I’m sorry, am I your coach? Was this entire past year a bad dream and you didn’t throw away everything for no reason?” 

Grimacing a little, Laki spun the ball around in his hands before shaking his head. “Sorry, Coach.” 

Harris paused, taking a breath before gesturing. “Look, kid, I drive by here every morning. And I see you out here a lot. Even watched you play a couple pick-up games. You’re just as good as you used to be. Maybe better. You say the word and you can come right back. Everything forgiven, same spot again. I mean, technically you’d have to try out and earn it, but we both know that’s not a problem.” 

Laki was quiet for a moment, still holding the ball. He knew just how badly the man wanted him to say yes. He knew… he knew how badly he wanted to say yes. He loved basketball as much as he loved anything else. And yet, in the end, the boy simply shook his head. His voice was soft as he repeated his last words. “Sorry, Coach. I… need to get to work.”  

With that, he turned and began to walk away, while Harris stared after him in disbelief. The man called out a question about where he was working, and that they both knew he still loved basketball, but Laki didn’t respond to either. He didn’t want to lie to the man. Not after already disappointing him. And he couldn’t tell him the truth about where he was working. He couldn’t tell him the truth about why he had quit the team.

He couldn’t tell him what had really happened, the night of the championship game. 

********

One Year Earlier

Lying on his back on the cement in his own backyard (well, his family’s backyard), fifteen-year-old (and already six-foot three) Laki held one hand out toward the basketball hoop attached to a metal post. A series of vibrations shot from his outstretched finger, carefully calculated to carry the ball through the air, directing it somewhat precariously toward and finally through the hoop. As the ball fell, he sent a stronger vibration that way, making it bounce the ball off the nearby garage wall and back toward him so he could catch the thing without getting up.

“Damn, dude,” another boy, standing closer to the gate leading out of the backyard, shook his head. He wasn’t nearly as tall as Laki, standing only five feet, seven inches. His blond hair was  fashioned into a faux-hawk, and he had a ready smile. “That shit’s cool, every time I see it.” Stepping over, he looked down at the other boy (Laki lying on his back was basically the only time he would be able to look down to see him). “Still can’t believe you got that lucky. Come on, your life is already perfect. You’ve got like, a hundred million dollar NBA career ahead of you and you find one of those orbs? So now you’re a superstar basketball player and you have actual superpowers. Save some for the rest of us, huh?” 

Chuckling easily, Laki pushed himself to his feet. “Sorry, Ken. Like I said, it just showed up while I was waiting for the bus. I didn’t exactly call for it. But tell you what, next time, I’ll make sure to ask the orb to stick around so you can touch it too.” 

With a snort, Ken retorted, “See, you joke, but I wouldn’t put it past you to find a second orb to get even more powers. That sounds just like you.” Checking his phone then, he added, “I gotta run. But I’ll be there tonight. You’re gonna win, right?” 

Laki, in turn, offered a broad smile and wink. “Can’t predict the future, dude. Grand Rapids has a pretty good team.” He let that sit in the air for a moment before laughing. “But yeah, we’re gonna smoke ‘em.” 

The boys exchanged high fives before Laki watched his friend head out the gate. Still antsy, unable to make himself sit still for the hour it would take before it was time to head out for the game, the tall boy decided to go for a jog. He could listen to music, clear his head, and get himself in the right frame of mind. 

Almost fifty minutes later, he was on his way back home after completing a nice loop. Earbuds blasting one of his favorite songs, Laki jogged down the street several blocks from his house. He would be home in a minute, and would have just enough time to grab a lift from his dad to the school. In that moment, the boy was mostly lost in his own world, thinking about how the game was going to go. And about how great it would feel for his team to be state champions.  

He was not so lost in thought, however, that he didn’t notice another boy approaching from the side, crossing the street with his hand raised. Slowing, Laki looked that way. He sort of recognized the boy as someone from school, and around the neighborhood, but they had never really interacted. 

“Uh, hey, Laki. Uh, hi.” The boy, black with a buzz cut and an oversized football jersey, started awkwardly. “I mean, you’re Laki. Of course you are. I just–um, my name’s Joe. Joe Pallamarti. We don’t-uhh, know each other or anything. I mean, you probably don’t know anything about me. But I live right down the street, we go to the same school, and–” 

“Hey, sorry, really cool to see you, Joe.” Giving the boy a casual smile, Laki started to move past him. “I gotta head out so I can get to the game. You gonna be there?” 

“Wa-wait!” Joe called out, face heavily flushed. “Look, I–fuck, fuck. I need your help, man.” 

His words made the taller boy blink, slowing a bit. “Uh, what? You okay?” 

Joe folded his arms against his stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Look, I–I was there, okay? I saw you touch that Orb the other day. I saw what you–I mean– I wasn’t gonna say anything. I’m not gonna say anything. Not to anybody. Never, ever. Not a fucking word. But I–I need your help. And I can’t think of anyone else to talk to about it.” 

Eyes widening through that, Laki gave a quick shake of his head. “What–hey, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you think you can latch on and blackmail–” 

“No!” Joe hurriedly insisted. “No, no, that’s not what–I swear, I won’t tell anyone. That’s not what this is–I’m explaining it wrong. Listen, I just need–” 

Laki put a finger against the boy’s chest, pushing him back. “Whatever kind of game you think you’re playing, I don’t want anything to do with it. If you try to fuck me over, you’ll regret it.” 

“No, I swear!” Joe’s voice was desperate. “It’s not about–I need… look, there’s this guy, he keeps harassing my sister. She told him off but he won’t listen and–and I’m afraid he’s gonna come back. I just want you to tell him to back off, that’s all. I mean, look–you’re huge. And with your–” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “With your powers, if you wore a mask or something, you could put the fear of God into him, you know? You could make him leave her alone.” 

Opening his mouth, Laki hesitated. “I don’t–that’s not… why don’t you call the cops?” 

“Don’t you think I tried?” Joe insisted. “They don’t listen. He hasn’t done anything, so they just said they can’t step in. Just–I know he’s going to come back today. Any minute now. If we could run over there, it’ll just take a–” 

“Whoa, whoa, now?” Laki’s head shook. “Hey, sorry. Look, maybe I can come help you out later, but not right now. Are you crazy? It’s the last game tonight, the championship. You know, that thing everyone at school is talking about.” 

“But if you–” Joe started. 

“Later,” Laki interrupted. “Seriously, come by after the game. We’ll go over and find that guy you were talking about. Make him lay off your sister. But I gotta go right now. I’ll see you then, dude.” 

As he started jogging back to his house, the other boy stood where he was, calling after him, “What if he shows up?!” 

“It’ll be fine!” Laki called back, already putting it out of his mind. He had other things to focus on. Couldn’t let his coach down. Couldn’t let his team down. Couldn’t let the scouts who would definitely be there that night down. 

Time to show how good he really was.

*****

Much later that evening, Laki was high off the adrenaline of leading his team through the championship. They won. They were indisputably the best team in the state, no question about it. He had been on fire all night long. It was the best game of his high school career. Those college scouts were damn sure to be calling. Things couldn’t get any better. 

Stepping out of the car after his friends dropped him off, the boy was about to head inside when flashing lights down the street caught his attention. Turning that way, he saw several police cars and an ambulance outside of a house in the distance. The sight made him frown, walking that way before he knew what he was doing. 

There was a small crowd of neighbors gathered around the house, held back by police crime scene tape. Ken was already there, glancing over as the other boy approached. “What a fucking nightmare, huh? I mean, uh, congrats and all. But…” He turned back to look at the house in the distance. “Fuck.” 

Laki was frowning even more. “What’s going on?” 

“You don’t know?” Ken grimaced. “Sorry to bring you down on your big night.” He nodded to the house. “That’s Joe Pallamarti’s house. You don’t know him, but he goes–”

“To our school,” Laki finished. “I know him. Why–what happened?” 

Ken shrugged. “Some guy his sister was dating or something. Sounds like she dumped him, so he came over, broke his way into the house, and uhh, things got ugly. Joe tried to get in the way, but uhh, he and his sister both got shot. They didn’t make it.” 

“Didn’t–” Laki reeled backward, eyes wide. “Wha-what the fuck do you mean, didn’t make it? He was just–he was–I–” He doubled over a little, voice hoarse. Bile filled his throat. “I should’ve… I should’ve…”

“Hey, hey, man, ease up.” Ken reached out, putting a hand on his friend’s arm. “It’s fucked up, but come on. You didn’t even know them, man. You were at the game, you didn’t know anything about it. You weren’t here.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, right?” 

**********

Damarko Myers/Syndicate

Present Day

Standing in front of what would look from the outside like a completely mundane tool shed in an out-of-the-way alley, Damarko Myers stood facing himselves. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say all four of him stood facing themselves.

Being a single person with four different bodies and separate minds was complicated. Two years earlier, there had been only one of him. Then the tall (though not nearly as tall as Wobble), dark-skinned and wiry boy had Touched. First there had been two more of him, though only one of the group could be solid at any given time. They had called themselves Trilogy. But six months later a fourth version had appeared, so their name had become Syndicate. Individually, they went by animal names to differentiate amongst themselves. Rabbit, Colt, Puma, and Armadillo.

In their insubstantial form, the various versions of Damarko could choose whether they were visible to everyone (though with a blueish-gray ghostlike appearance), or only to each other (including whichever of them was solid at the time). At the moment, they were only visible to one another. So, anyone who might have happened to look down that alley would see what appeared to be a lone Damarko, dressed in jeans and a long open flannel shirt over a black tee, tapping his fist three times against his other palm before showing one or two fingers to… apparently no one. That repeated a few quick times before he pumped his fist in the air, and then immediately vanished, only to reappear a few feet away. 

No, he didn’t teleport. That version (Rabbit) simply became insubstantial, while Colt turned solid. Snapping his fingers, Colt insisted, “Someday I’m going to figure out what my tell is, then I’ll win one of those games.” 

“Sure, buddy,” Rabbit retorted with a grin. “But until then, you get toilet duty.” 

“I dunno what you’re grinning about,” Colt shot back, “Trash duty isn’t that much better.” 

“Sure seems better to me,” Rabbit replied, shrugging. “But maybe that’s cuz the trash doesn’t go out for another three hours, and the restroom’s right now.” 

They, and the other two, continued to tease one another about what chores they had been saddled with that evening while turning to move toward the nearby shed. Colt, as the solid one, reached out to press his hand against the seemingly blank wall next to the door. As he did so, his palm activated the button, which activated the pinhole camera a couple feet higher. The camera was basically invisible. He only knew where to look in order to see the tiny hole it was looking through thanks to being told exactly where it was. The thing scanned his eyes, and there was a brief pause before the door clicked, allowing him to open it. 

Technically, the other three versions of him were intangible and capable of going through the door before it opened. But the place had a lot of security against that sort of intrusion. Which they knew from past experience. If they did try to go straight in, it would have set off about a dozen different alarms, called in aid from various authorities, and just been a complete mess. Besides, simply going into the building like that wouldn’t actually accomplish anything anyway. So, they waited before heading in with their solid brother. 

The shed’s interior didn’t look any different than it should have. It appeared to be a completely empty small building. But, as the door shut, the Touched-Tech built by the Ten Towers Touched known as Switchshift went to work. A moment later, there was an audible ding, and Colt reached back to open the door once more. Rather than admitting them to the same alley they had just left, the quartet emerged into a wide, circular room with a desk to one side, a pair of double doors straight ahead with an enormous clock above them, and an elevator to the left. 

“Syndicate.” Smiling warmly, the blonde woman in her forties who sat behind the desk rose and emerged from behind it. “Or should I say… Colt… Armadillo… Rabbit… and Puma.” With each pronouncement, she pointed to one of the boys in particular. 

All four of them stared at her. The intangible trio had made themselves visible in those blue-gray ghostly forms just to test her (for about the thousandth time), and were still surprised by the results. Armadillo shook his head. “You know, someday we’re going to figure out how you do that, Ms. Esters.” 

His words made the woman smile. “Just like I told you before, I have triplets. You get pretty good at telling them apart with enough practice.” Her hand gestured back to the desk, where a framed photograph of the woman with her husband and the identical ten-year-olds was visible. “So, who’s doing what tonight, boys? I’ve got a porcelain ticket, an emerald ticket, tile ticket, and fuzzy ticket.”

Puma spoke up. “You know, no matter what cute names you give them, it’s still restroom cleaning, trash collection, kitchen clean-up, and vacuuming the clubhouse.” 

“Sure sounds like you’re the one with toilet duty,” she teased him with a raised eyebrow. 

“Nope,” Rabbit put in. “He’s in the kitchen. Colt’s the one cleaning the toilet. I’ve got trash. And uh, Armadillo gets to play with the vacuum.” 

“Well then.” Turning, Ms. Esters stepped over to a cupboard behind her desk and returned with a bucket, mop, and other cleaning supplies, which she handed over to Colt. In the bucket was also a box of large trash bags for Rabbit to use when the time came. To Puma, the woman added, “When you clean up that kitchen, don’t forget to really get into the inside of that microwave. Those hot pockets make a real mess. And you boys let me know if you need any help.” 

“I guess that means there’s no reports?” Colt sounded a bit hopeful. Anything to get him out of focusing on the bathroom. 

His words drew a sly, knowing smirk from the woman. “Nothing just yet, but you know how it’s been lately. Something could come in any minute.” Before he could smile, she added, “Which means you should get in there and scrub that toilet now, while you’ve got the chance.” Her voice turned to a stage-whisper. “Believe me when I say, it needs it. And you know the rules about cleaning the Clubhouse.” 

The Clubhouse was the term for the areas of the Minority Headquarters where the actual team members hung out, trained, played games, ate food, and generally stayed while they were on-duty but not patrolling or responding to a situation. The Minority Headquarters itself technically consisted of two other floors full of support personnel and office workers. It took a surprising number of people to run this team of teenage superheroes. There were two private practice lawyers and their assorted paralegals for dealing with civil cases and legal questions that arose, a handful of police officers who worked directly with the team and were assigned to the building, three people whose job it was to scour the internet for anything that could possibly either make the Minority look bad or potentially expose their identities, at least four full-time accountants, and a couple of technicians down in the lab picking through new toys that were either sent in from other Tech-Touched who wanted to help, or scavenged from crime scenes. In most cases, the latter were sent to bigger labs such as those used by the Conservators. But they did have a small place here. 

Beyond all that, there were even more people working in the various offices. Even a couple of public relations people to help keep their team looking good in the eyes of the rest of the city. To say nothing of all the special investigators they had. All in all, it was a very busy building. And those people had plenty of their own support personnel, employees who kept the building clean, delivered their mail throughout the offices, and so forth. All except for the Clubhouse itself. The area where the teenagers hung out. There was a very firm rule that it was up to the members of the Minority themselves to clean their area. They cleaned up their kitchen, their bathroom, took out their trash, vacuumed their own carpet, and so forth. Some might have said that they already did a lot of work putting their powers toward helping people, but the people who had instituted that rule wanted to make sure the teenagers didn’t end up thinking they were above everyone by having what amounted to servants clean up their hangout every week. They still got plenty of benefits, including a salary and a lot of free food (always good for growing teenagers). But cleaning up their own messes was non-negotiable.

Together, the four identical figures thanked the woman and turned to head for the elevator. The double doors straight ahead from the entrance they had come through would have led them to the office area where everyone else worked. Those doors were securely locked, and monitored by Ms. Esters or one of the other two who took turns at that desk, to stop anyone who didn’t have clearance from accidentally seeing the Minority members unmasked or fully in civilian clothes. She, and the other two, were essentially their… minders. And tutors when the occasion called for it. They stayed upstairs for the most part, leaving the Minority teens to carry on as they wished so long as they followed the rules. 

Syndicate didn’t head for the doors, however. They turned and walked to the elevator. Unlike the normal ones inside the main office, this one only went down to one area, the Clubhouse. 

Once they were on the elevator and the doors had closed behind them, the Damarkos glanced at one another. Puma spoke first. “She still reminds me of–” 

“–Alice,” Armadillo finished. All four nodded together, their expressions identical not only in physical appearance, but also in the pain that passed through them. 

The elevator doors had opened by then, but none of them moved. It didn’t feel right to do so. Not yet. Not until they had all lowered their heads, staring at their own feet for several long seconds as the memory washed over them.

Alice Mcgregor. Four years earlier, she had been the then-singular Damarko’s piano teacher. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, he had visited her house twice a week to take lessons and practice. He wasn’t an expert or anything, but he had gotten pretty good. Mostly because Alice was a good teacher. 

Then she was killed. Not at her house or anything. She had been mugged and murdered at a bus stop late at night. Damarko’s parents didn’t tell him the truth about it at first, of course. He’d had to read the details online. Something he still regretted doing. Worse, they never caught her killer. It was just a random attack. 

It was the memory of Alice’s killer escaping justice that had helped prompt Damarko to join the Minority when he eventually found an orb and Touched two years after that event. The Touching part itself wasn’t traumatic or anything. He had simply been playing lasertag with some friends, huddled behind cover, when an orb showed up right in front of his gun. He thought it was part of the room at first, a new special effect or something. But then he reached out to touch it and… well, things had never been the same. 

The point was, remembering reading about the savage murder of his old piano teacher, a nice woman who had given him chocolate and peppermint candy, two years before that moment had convinced all of the Damarkos to head straight to the Minority and sign up to help however they could. And now here they were. 

Raising their gazes to look at one another, the four gave an assortment of firm, silent nods. Their promise to help anyone they could reestablished, they turned to walk out into the Clubhouse, Colt dragging the mop and bucket with them. 

It was time to go to work. 

*****

Jerry Meuster/Whamline

A Little Over One Year Ago

Throwing open the door to his bedroom with a slam, the red-haired teenager rushed inside, already cursing. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Rather than anger, his tone was one of fear and desperation. He quickly began to yank his jacket off while kicking the door shut behind him. In a frantic rush that ended up being far less efficient than if he had taken his time, and nearly made him fall over repeatedly, the boy stripped himself down to being completely naked. 

Still cursing the whole time, tears in his eyes, he grabbed all the clothes and threw them into an old duffel bag. His shaking hands zipped it up, before he cursed even more emphatically and unzipped it to yank all his possessions out of the pockets. Then he zipped it back up, and stood while grabbing the bag. The boy was halfway back to his door before remembering that he was naked. Throwing the bag down, he raced to put on new clothes.

Once he was actually dressed, Jerry Meuster went to grab the bag once more before jerking with a yelp as his cell phone buzzed and vibrated from the pile of stuff on the floor. Staring at it as though the thing was a hissing snake, he hesitated before gulping as he grabbed the phone and checked the caller ID. A relieved sigh at what he saw escaped the boy before he answered. 

“Yeah? No, I’m not fucking kidding! It was an accident, asshole! I was just fucking around, the dude wasn’t even supposed to–yeah. Of course not, how fucking stupid do you think I am? But I’ve gotta get rid of the clothes, right? You know, for like, evidence and shit. No, I didn’t throw it away. I’ve gotta–yeah. Fuck, fuck. Just meet me out by the school. I don’t know, it seems like the right place. Whatever, just fucking meet me there! And bring some gasoline!”  

Clicking the phone off, he gave one more look around the room before racing back out, letting the door slam behind him once more. A shout came in from the far side of the house about not slamming things, but he ignored it for the moment. There were more important things for him to focus on. Like not ending up in prison. 

*****

Jogging across the school parking lot several minutes later with the duffle bag on his shoulder, Jerry approached another boy who was standing there waiting for him. The second boy was slightly taller, a Latino teenager with long dark hair. He turned as Jerry approached, jolting a bit. “Fuck, you scared the shit out of me. That’s the clothes?”

Shaking the bag on his shoulder, the other boy gave a quick nod. “Well, I didn’t leave them at home. Did you bring the fucking gas, Jorge?” 

“Over there.” Jorge nodded to a red gas can, sitting next to a large metal trash container that was chained to the ground. “You sure you need to burn them? I mean, you didn’t like… get blood on you or anything, did you?” 

Giving the other boy a sharp look, Jerry retorted, “I’m not taking any chances. You think I want to end up in prison just because some guy was too fucking stupid to live? I was just screwing around, having a little fun. He’s the one who–” Cutting himself off, he made a growling sound in the back of his throat before walking over to dump the contents of the bag, and then the bag itself, into the large trash barrel. That done, he stooped to pick up the gas can and began to empty it over the clothes. Once they were all thoroughly doused, the boy held his hand out. “Gimme your lighter.” 

After a brief hesitation, Jorge stepped over that way and passed him the flip lighter from his pocket. “Be careful with it, I–” 

Taking the thing, Jerry simply flipped it open to get a small flame and then tossed it into the can. Immediately, there was a whoosh as the contents went up. 

“–like that lighter,” Jorge finished, staring at the tall flames. “Damn it.” 

“No evidence,” Jerry insisted, watching the fire burn. “We watch this for awhile until we’re sure it’s all gone, then we’ll put it out. Gardener’s still got the hose attached to the school over there. We make sure it’s all destroyed. Can’t have anything tying me back there.” 

The two of them stood there silently for a few minutes of silence, both lost in thought. Finally, Jorge spoke in a soft voice. “Kinda feel shitty about that guy, huh?” 

Jerry didn’t respond for a moment, his eyes locked onto the flames. His eyes closed, head tilting a bit before he quietly replied, “Yeah, shitty. That guy shouldn’t have been out there. Shouldn’t’ve… fuck. It’s all so fucked up, you know? Why the fuck did he have to be there?” 

Jorge opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it and remained silent. His eyes moved back and forth between the flaming barrel and the other boy, a thoughtful look crossing his face before his gaze rose toward the sky. 

“We clean this up,” Jerry finally announced after another few minutes had passed, “and then we never talk about it again. You understand? Once we’re done with this, it never happened. We don’t talk about it, we don’t write anything about it, we do nothing about it. It’s over. We erase it with the fire, right?” 

After a moment of silence that made Jerry move his gaze from the barrel over to his friend, Jorge finally gave a short nod, his own voice barely audible against the crackle of the flames. “Right. We erase it and walk away. 

“It’s over.” 

*******

“Three weeks, man!” Jerry snapped. “We burned those fucking clothes three weeks ago. It was over, remember? It was over! We said we weren’t going to talk about it again, so why the fuck did you bring it up?” 

The two boys were standing in an alley several blocks from the diner that Jerry’s family ran, late into the evening. It was almost midnight, as they stared at one another, expressions barely visible through the light of the distant streetlamps. 

“Why?” Jorge echoed. “You know why! You know what they found!” 

Rolling his eyes, Jerry’s head shook. “And I’m telling you, they can’t trace it back to me. I didn’t leave any evidence in there, okay? Nothing they can use. I wiped the whole thing off. Even if they got some fabric or whatever, we burned my clothes, remember? They’ve got nothing. We’re fine!” 

Turning away, Jorge groaned, putting his hands to his face. “I never should have gotten involved. I never should have showed you how to do any of that. I should’ve–fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

“Hey!” Jerry reached out, grabbing the other boy’s shoulder. “Just calm down. It was an accident, okay? It was an accident and it’s over. Nobody knows I was there, and nobody knows you had any involvement at all. We’re cool. We’re safe. It’s all good.” 

“All good?” Jorge made a face, pulling his shoulder away before turning to look at his friend. “Dude, you fucking killed a guy. How is that all good?” 

“It was an accident!” Jerry snapped, voice rising to a near-shout before catching himself. “It’s like I said, total and complete accident. I didn’t know he was there, okay? I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t–fuck. I didn’t mean for any of that to happen. But I’m not going down for it just because he was in the way. So calm down. They don’t have anything tying me to that. All we have to do is keep our heads down and not say anything. This’ll blow over. Hell, it’s already blowing over. They’ve got more important things to focus on.”

Jorge fell silent, clearly choosing over his words before looking up once more. “Listen, if they do track you down, it’s gonna be really bad. Straight up murder charges or whatever, cuz you ran and you hid it. But if you, you know, negotiate with them and get it down to accidental manslaughter or–” 

“Why the fuck would I say anything to them?” Jerry demanded. “Like I said, they’ve got nothing. They can’t find me. They can’t track me down. They don’t even know who the fuck I am. I don’t need to negotiate them down from murder to manslaughter, because they can’t get me for either of them! They don’t know who I am!” 

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jorge stammered. “I’m just saying, if we talk to them about how it was an accident, and like–” 

“We?” Jerry interrupted once more. He took a step that way, eyes narrowing. “The fuck do you mean ‘we?’ You mean me? It’s my fucking ass on the line, dude. You’re my friend, right? So we don’t say anything to them, right? Because that’s the way we make this go away, right?” 

Jorge took a deep breath before exhaling. “Right.” Turning away to stare at the brick wall once more, he added, “Maybe we can send something to his family. Like, anonymousl—” 

In mid-sentence, the boy gave a sudden grunt of surprise and pain, jerking violently. 

“Shhh.” Jerry held a hand clamped over the boy’s mouth, shoving the knife deeper into his back before bringing it out to stab again, then a third time. “Shhh. I told you. I fucking told you to drop it. I told you not to bring it up again! Now you’re talking about sending shit to his family? You wouldn’t let it go, would you? You wouldn’t–” He brought the knife back out and then stabbed it in again one last time. “–let it go!” 

Stepping back, he let the body fall to the ground, panting as he stared down at it. The knife was still buried in the boy’s back, and he reached down while taking out a handkerchief to wipe off the handle. Once that was done, he looked around the empty alley quickly before stepping back to fumble with his phone until it was out of his pocket. His fingers dialed 911, and Jerry stammered, “Pl-please, come quick. Please, my friend–it’s my friend, we were mugged and–and they stabbed him. They stabbed him in the back—he–he’s not breathing! Please, come quick! Please!” 

In mid-plea, the boy saw something out of the corner of his eye. Ignoring the operator’s requests to stay on the line, he disconnected and turned his head. 

An orb. A glowing orb was floating right next to him, as though staring at the body on the ground. Seeing it, everything else seemed to wash away. Slowly, he raised his hand and reached out toward the orb. 

Soon, Jerry Meuster would have his own superpowers. He would choose to join the Minority, as everyone there would believe the orb had come to him in the wake of witnessing his friend’s murder. Which, of course, was technically true. He would even have a pretty good time playing superhero for awhile, much to his own surprise. 

Although his surprise at how much he enjoyed being a member of the Minority was nothing compared to when he found out just who one of his teammates was. After all, in all of his planning how could he possibly have expected to find himself working side by side with Amber O’Connell…

The daughter of the man Jerry had hit and killed while joyriding in a stolen car.  

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Interlude 17B – Amber (Summus Proelium)

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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. 

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