Laki Sefo

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/Wobblef

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 2B – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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“Paint powers, seriously?”

The somewhat dubious question came from Laki Sefo, the tall boy that most in the city knew better as Wobble. Though they wouldn’t have recognized him as he was now, lounging in a recliner in the Minority’s headquarters without his iconic emerald battle armor. They might recognize him as the boy who had led his public high school basketball team to become state champions as a sophomore the year before. He’d quit the team this year, earning as much enmity from the people who had cheered him on through two previous years as they had given him praise before. His fans were decidedly not happy about Laki’s decision to stop playing.

But it wasn’t as though he could tell them that he didn’t have time to play basketball with all the superheroing he was doing. Even if Amber would have liked to see the looks on their faces.

As for the dark-haired girl herself, she was sprawled over the couch on her stomach, with her chin resting on one end and her feet propped up at the other. Her eyes were fixed on the television several feet away that was facing the end of the couch rather than the front of it. A game controller was held tightly in her hands, while she focused on the screen. “Uh huh,” she replied to Laki, squinting a little in concentration, tongue poking its way out of her mouth briefly.

Amber and Laki were the only two current occupants of the Minority base as it was their night to be on duty. At the moment, being ‘on duty’ wasn’t so bad, since they were spending it in the lounge part of the base. The lounge amounted to a large room filled with several couches and chairs surrounded by televisions and game systems, with a pool table on one end and a foosball table at the other. A couple well-stocked refrigerators and a microwave were along one wall. They may constantly put their lives on the line, but at least they had entertainment and snacks.

Besides, it may have been only the two of them officially on duty, but if anything important happened, the others would be called in.

Anything, that was, beyond Amber’s seventh straight attempt at a particularly difficult fight in her game. Her fingers moved quickly over the controls, as she struggled to pull it out that time. “Come on… come on…” The music abruptly turned dour, and she cursed. “Oh, fuck you! Really? What kind of cheating bullshit is that?!” Muttering a few choice words under her breath, she looked over to the boy, who was waiting patiently with one eyebrow raised.

“Maybe,” Laki offered, “you need some more advice from Izzy?” He was referring, of course, to Isabel Amor/Raindrop, the youngest member of their team.

“I do not need advice from Izzy,” Amber retorted while pushing herself up from the couch. “I can totally beat that guy. I just need to clear my head first.”

“And you don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than you at a game,” Laki lightly teased while remaining in his relaxed position, one leg up over the arm of the chair.

Amber squinted at him, but ended up dutifully echoing, “And I don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than me at a game.” She stuck her tongue out at him then while tossing the controller back onto the couch, her expression quickly changing to one of eagerness. “But yeah, dude! Apparently he calls himself Paintball. Which is cool. We couldn’t really see much with that helmet and all, but I’m pretty sure he’s like… fourteen? Probably a freshman. Hey, maybe he goes to your school. You should keep an eye out for people that changed a lot, or keep skipping, or… you know, whatever. Just keep an eye out.”

Shrugging, Laki straightened in his seat finally. “Why? If he doesn’t want to join, he doesn’t want to join. We can’t force him. That’d be a bad idea anyway.”

“I know that,” Amber informed him. “I’m not saying force him to do anything. I’m not even saying go out of our way to figure out who he is. I’m just saying keep your eyes open. You know, cuz new Touched tend to not exactly be great at hiding their identities. And this kid really pissed off Janus. So he’s probably gonna piss off other people too. And if he’s not good at hiding, he might just get in more trouble than he can handle. We keep our eyes open and if we figure out who it is, we can help him if he gets in trouble. Right?”

“Right,” Laki confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “That’s a lot of ifs, but sure.” Pausing briefly, he added, “You already went through everything in the debriefing, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, this afternoon. Had to sit down with ‘Smith, Brumal, and Caishen and give them all the details we could remember.” Smith was the Conservator leader Silversmith, while Brumal and Caishen were the leaders of the state-level team of Spartans and the corporate-sponsored team of Ten Towers, respectively. All three adult teams took responsibility for training and preparing the Minority teens in exchange for having first dibs of recruiting them later, once they were eighteen. Laki had once joked that he couldn’t play basketball because he was already going to go through one draft once he graduated high school, and he didn’t want to do that twice.

“What’d they say about this new guy?” Laki asked while moving to the other side of the lounge area, opening the fridge there to root around inside.

“We said,” Silversmith (fully dressed in his metal armor and helmet, as always) abruptly announced while stepping into the room from one of the doors, “that everyone should keep an eye out for him. If he’s this new to everything, he’s bound to piss off the wrong people. Which would be bad. So if you see him, try to convince him to at least come in and talk to us. Even if he doesn’t want to join, we can offer a lot of advice for rookies.”

Both teens quickly turned to face the man, Laki offering something resembling a salute. “Evening, sir. Is something going on?”

“Actually, yeah,” Silversmith confirmed. “We’ve got Adrian Perez and his siblings in a safehouse. Kriegspiel and a couple of the Spartans are keeping an eye on them. Flea and RePete are trying to track down where this Josh guy went from the bus station Perez dropped him off at. And Bokor’s got some of his zombies looking through the guy’s home since we cleared the gangs off it earlier. Dynamic’s still patrolling the street, but even with the other teams out there–”

“Things are getting nasty, aren’t they?” Amber quickly put in. “From the bounty.”

Silversmith nodded. “Yes. Whatever this thing is that got stolen, it’s got everyone going nuts. Especially La Casa. They want it back, bad. And they’re tearing up the streets to get it. Everyone’s tense out there. We’ve already dealt with half a dozen brawls just in the past couple days. And it’s getting worse. Frankly, I hate to involve any of you with this…”

“Anything we can do, sir,” Laki quickly assured the man. “You know that.”  

Offering the taller boy a clearly grateful nod, Silversmith looked to Amber. “Any time you need to leave, you just speak up. And we don’t want you working past eleven. It’s still a school day tomorrow. That said, thank you for the help. We’re going to call the others in. Except for Raindrop. She’s still young enough, I don’t… want her involved right now. Unless things get really desperate.” He sighed at the thought before pressing on. “Anyway, we’ll get the others to meet you both. We’ve got an area we need you to patrol. It shouldn’t be too bad, but things are tense and it’s a good idea to have some visible Touched presence out there. Hopefully that’ll be enough to calm things down. If not, try to control them as much as possible and call in backup.”

The two teens agreed before splitting up to head for their respective locker rooms in order to change into their costumes. Amber found her own labeled locker, barely sparing a glance for the picture of Gluegirl she had taped up there. She’d always had the hots for that chick. Not only was Gluegirl really hot, she was also constantly mocking and taunting her enemies. She treated the whole superhero thing like a game, refusing to grant the villains the respect they wanted by taking it seriously. It also helped that her dark blue and white costume looked like it was painted on. Which, considering it seemed to be made of the same adhesive stuff that she used with the rest of her powers, was probably pretty much the truth.

Actually, she seemed to have a decent amount in common with this new guy, though they were from totally opposite sides of the country. Gluegirl had started out with the Minority in Florida before eventually being taken in by the New York Conservators a couple years earlier. Either way, the powers were vaguely similar enough (Gluegirl created and manipulated purely different types and colors of adhesive rather than paints that provided different effects, but still) that Amber briefly wondered in that glance at the poster if there was any connection.

Probably not. After all, there were a lot of people with strength-based powers and nobody thought all of them were related. It wasn’t like this guy was her brother or anything. Even if getting to meet Gluegirl through her brother if he was would pretty much be the coolest thing ever, and– Focus, Amber.

Hurriedly changing into her purple costume before grabbing the mask that would change her hair from black to blonde when she put it on, as well as adjusting her facial features slightly, the girl headed back out to the lounge. Laki was already there, in his armor, helmet in hand. He and Silversmith were talking quietly.

“Hey, guys,” she quickly spoke up, drawing their attention. “Did I miss anything?”

“Nope.” Shaking his head, Silversmith gestured to the door. “The lift’s prepped to take you to the patrol area. Syndicate, Carousel, and Whamline should meet you there as soon as they get checked in. Remember what I said, just be a visible presence so people know you’re around. Anything happens, call it in and then try to defuse it. If it gets bad, withdraw and wait for reinforcements. No unnecessary risks, okay?”

Saluting along with Laki (though hers was slightly more sarcastic), Amber headed for the hall, and from there to the transport lift that could instantly take them to various prepared spots around the city. On the way, she affixed the mask to her face, grimacing through the shifting of her nose and cheeks. It didn’t exactly hurt so much as it… mostly tingled. But it still felt funny either way. She’d never get used to it.

“So,” she started once the two of them were in the lift and waiting for the room to shift, “you think we’ll run into trouble out there?”

“Hope not,” Laki replied easily while putting his helmet on and fastening it into place. “I could do with a quiet night. Especially if it’s such a powderkeg. Any chance people might’ve gotten it out of their systems?” He barely paused before adding, “Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”

The doors opened once more, revealing an alleyway behind a local fast food diner. Stepping out of the unmarked building that would look, to any outside observer, like a random shed, the two glanced around for a moment to get their bearings.

“Right,” Amber (That-A-Way, she reminded herself. She had to think of herself as That-A-Way in costume) started, “Let’s just step out here and take a look around until the others show up. I mean, Smith did say to be a visible presence.”

The two costumed teens took a short walk to the nearby sidewalk, keeping the transport shed in view so the others would know where they were. There, they looked around. The street was still busy enough, even though it was almost nine o’clock at night, that they had a couple dozen people looking at them. A few waved, but no one approached. Civilians had long-since been conditioned not to immediately mob costumed Touched on patrol. It was too easy to end up in the line of fire, or be mistaken for a threat.

Not that being approached sometimes would be all bad, That-A-Way thought to herself while her eyes followed a couple of very attractive women who were walking past in clubbing clothes. She could totally enjoy a conversation with–

The women stepped out of the way, and That-A-Way found herself looking at the car idling at the nearby traffic light. A dark green Ford sedan. The same kind of car that had hit and killed her father.

It wasn’t the same car. She knew that. That car was long gone, the owner having it dismantled for parts because he couldn’t stand to keep it around after what it had been part of.

Greg Fardspar. That was the name of the man who owned the car that had killed her father. Amber knew that, because she had tracked the man down back when it happened. Grieving and lost after her father’s death, she had thrown herself into, as she called it, doing the cop’s jobs for them. She had interviewed people who had either seen the accident or lived and worked in the area (some would have called it stalking, threatening, and interrogating), had taken pictures, had run down leads. She worked for weeks, ignoring basically everything else to the point of breaking up with her girlfriend at the time.  

Then she had found him. She found the car in question in his driveway. It even had the damage to the front end. It had been all the girl could do not to… not to take matters into her own hands even more than she already had.

Justice. Her father would finally have justice. She’d called the police. They took her seriously eventually, and came to check out the house and the damage to the car there in the driveway. Then they had gone in to first interview, then arrest Greg Fardspar.

But then they released him. Because Greg wasn’t involved. His car had been stolen that night, and it was that person, whoever they were, who had caused the damage. Greg had an airtight alibi, plus a police report about the theft. The cops had even brought his car back a couple days later when it was found in an old parking lot.

She’d had nothing. Everything she had done to get justice for her father had meant nothing. There was no way of knowing who stole Fardspar’s car and took it for a joyride. A joyride in which they had killed a man, then driven off. They would get away with it. They would get away with it.

It was while she had been dealing (or not dealing) with that realization that Amber’s Touched-sphere had shown up. Then that she had heard the words ‘Summus Proelium’, and had gained her powers. And now… well, now she was still grieving for her father, even over a year later. But she was getting there. Except for times like this, when she was unexpectedly reminded in a way that struck her like a physical blow.

“Way?” Wobble’s voice finally penetrated the thick cloud that had surrounded her mind as she stared at the car, and she realized that he’d been trying to get her attention for a minute.

Her head quickly shook, just as the light changed and the sedan pulled away. “I–sorry, what?”  

Wobble was looking at her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she could tell he was concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, flushing a little bit from embarrassment. “Sorry, I just… zoned out.” Leaving it at that, she looked around. “Did I miss anything?”

There was a brief pause before Wobble replied, “No, no. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. You looked really freaked out there for a second.”

Swallowing, That-A-Way forced herself to smile. “Trust me, I’m cool. Or I’ll be cool, anyway.” Admitting that much, she offered her fist to the boy. “All good.”

“All good,” Wobble echoed, touching his fist to hers. The two of them continued to look up and down the street, watching for anything suspicious. There were a few things that stood out (it was a Detroit street at night, after all), but nothing that demanded immediate attention.

They were only waiting for about five minutes before the shed opened up again, letting their three teammates out. Well, six counting the three ghostly duplicates that accompanied their leader.

“Hey guys,” Syndicate greeted as he, Carousel, and Whamline approached. “Looks like you didn’t start the party without us.”

“Technically, they did,” Whamline pointed out with a snicker in his voice. “You know, cuz a party is a group of people, and since they were already-ow.” He stopped, rubbing his leg where one of the ghostly Syndicates had briefly become the solid one just long enough to kick him.

“Ahem,” the first Syndicate, returning to his solid form once more, continued, “things look pretty calm so far.”

“Calm things may appear,” Carousel chimed in, “but very tense, I fear. Everyone around here is very upset. Many would grab that bounty in a net.”

That-A-Way nodded. “She’s right. Things are calm enough right now, but there’s a whole lot of gasoline on this pile of wood. If something sets it off…”

“So let’s see what we can do about making sure no one throws any matches,” Syndicate announced. “You know what Silversmith said, be a visible deterrent. How about we split up. Two groups. Two of me will go with That-A-Way and Wobble since you guys were supposed to be on patrol to start, and the other two can go with Carousel and Whamline. We’ll take a long walk in opposite directions and then circle in to meet a few blocks over. Then go from there.”

They agreed, before heading out. As she walked with the two insubstantial versions of Syndicate and Wobble, That-A-Way thought one more time about the paint-based Touched they’d met earlier. It sure would be nice if he ended up joining the team after all.

Though it would’ve been even better if he’d been a girl instead of another guy.

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