We swung by the motel Colton was staying at. For free; it was something that would be paid for by the Association, though it was dawning on me that by the time the crisis was over, there might literally not be an Association to cover all of the costs.
It took him a few minutes to show up, and when he did, his eyes settled onto mine for a long moment, before wordlessly hopping into the back seat.
“So what? We making a council?” he asked, rather curtly. “Just the three of us?”
“Ideally,” I started, “We’d be setting up a series of councils. Preferrably as closely based to the old order, so we can triangulate the efforts.”
“Wouldn’t that just repeat the order the city was already under?” Hands asked, glaring at Colton, eyes on his seat belt.
Colton paused for a moment, then shrugged and clicked it in.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“There were far more people who knew the ins and outs of things, for one,” Hands said. “It’s not like we can replicate them with a bunch of young adults and teenagers, hoping we can get it all right.”
“We don’t have to get it right,” I said.
“But we should try to,” Colton cut in. “Place was already a sleepy town, I’d like to still have a place to live when this is over. But while we’re at it… we can change a few things to make them better.
”We don’t have the right to make things better for us here,” I said, in a tone that was final.
My gaze flicked over to the motel, then over at Colton, who raised an eyebrow that positively dared me to ask the obvious question.
I didn’t rise to the bait. Call it cowardice, but I wasn’t up for it. Wasn’t up for dealing with that conversation, adding more things to the pile of issues we were dealing with.
“We don’t have to get it perfect,” I said, finally. “We just need to get things intact and running enough that we can handle whoever tries to stir up trouble. The teachers can run the schools, we’ll just make sure supplies get to them. The hospital can be run by their staff; their infrastructure should still be intact…”
“So what’s really missing?” Hands asked.
“Police,” I said, thinking back to the destroyed building. “Government oversight. You guys are lucky, there’s not that much of a powered struggle going on in this city. Unlike some of the bigger places, crawling with hidden criminals.”
Hands laughed. “You make it seem like we’re lucky, Gale,” Her gaze flicked lazily to the center of town, were efforts to remove the rubble were still underway.
“What I want to know,” I said, from the passenger seat, as Hands pulled away from the motel. “Is where the national guard is in all of this mess.”
I caught Colton staring out the window from the rear view mirror hanging between me and Hands. For a brief moment, doubt was sketched across his lips, and then it was gone, replaced by the same confidence.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Colton said, cutting in. “They’re dealing with something bigger than Alabama. Somewhere, there’s a fight worth moving Alabama’s guard to. I think we both know where that is.”
I took a long breath, held it, counted until it felt like my lungs would burst like fleshy balloons, and let it whistle out. “Anyone know anything about…” and there I paused, because I felt like, somehow, I was betraying Excelsior by even saying anything. “Fafnir?”
“Not a clue.” Colton said.
Hands squinted and clicked the turn signal, following the GPS set in the console as it chirped and sang out directions. “That asshole mentioned something about it.”
“I think whatever is happening in Montgomery..” I said, grimly. “Is Fafnir.”
“Wish we knew what it was,” Hands said.
“Patrickson’s from the Cuban Patrol, right?” Colton said, his hand drifting up to his head. “So probably has something to do with Mexico?”
I paused and looked at him. “And what exactly happened in Mexico?”
“Guess that was an upper level course. They elected a man who turned out to have powers. Forced a high level intervention by the Association to keep their treaties in check. Intervention went pretty poorly, lots of casualties. Went deep down into Central America. Think they nailed him around… Look, I can’t remember the name, do I look like I speak Mayan?” Colton looked cowed, but only for a second, indecision flickering across his face.
“I knew about the election,” I said. “I didn’t know about the Central American part.”
“We’re not talking about that now,” Hands reminded. “We’ve got to get the city running, and keep it running, and that means we need to deal with things as they show up.” her voice was flat, low, curt. “Let’s not talk about doomsday and Mexico while we’re trying to figure out just how to live.” She paused, hands firmly on the wheel. “Keep in the now. The future is the future, and I don’t want to think about living like this for much longer.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“We there yet?” Colton asked, looking out the window boredly. Was it strange the driver’s licenses and heroes weren’t entirely hand in hand?
The GPS chirped a final time about the destination, and soon enough, we were well inside of the southern most of Alabama’s farms.
We were hemmed in by location; most of the other farms were simply too close to Montgomery or the no man’s zone that was rapidly spreading across the center of the state for me to even think of going there.
“We’re here, certainly,” Hands said, slipping her seat belt and hopping out of the car. “Come on, Gale’s gotta talk to these people.”
The sun beat overhead, hot humid. Was going to rain today. Was more or less the daily occurrence in this part of the country, some sort of shower. Rainiest city in the country, after all, so I kept an eye on the clouds just to make sure that we wouldn’t be walking away completely bedraggled.
“Why’s Gale doing it?” Colton asked. “Couldn’t we have sent someone else?”
“We did,” I said, bluntly. “They’re not doing their jobs well enough. I’m coming here to see why.”
The berry fields bloomed in the distance, acres of blue berries ready to be harvested and shipped at a moment’s notice. Needed to be in Mobile, but they were still here.
I knocked on the door and waited for the muggy heat to settle on my skin like a second blanket. It’d settled down, and another layer was ready to slip into place before the door opened.
The worker from the other day looked at me for a long moment, then a smile was picked up somewhere, dusted off, and glued into place on his face. “How can I help you there, heroes?”
My cape fluttered in the meagre wind.
“We want to know more about why you came up short on your delivery?”
“We received a better offer from one of the northern cities,” The worker said, honestly. “National guard needs to eat up there, and Mobile’s not that bad off.”
My mind flickered back to the food banks we’d already hit up, and then I was back in the present. “How much more are you willing to send to us?”
His eyes flicked over to the berry bushes, than back to me. “Not much more. Last truck on your order is en route right now. Sent your boys back with you as well.”
I heard Colton’s Jaw pop from beside me, but I didn’t look at him. Didn’t want to justify what was running across his mind, just as it was running across mine. But keeping things plain faced was for the best here. I desperately hoped it was.
“What?” Colton hissed. “You can’t just renege on us like that!”
“I don’t recall signing any paperwork on continued shipments.” The worker said, flatly.
“It was implied that there would be a continuation,” I said. “Considering the situation is still unfolding.”
“Situation will unfold as it unfolds,” The worker said. “You weren’t paying me enough to risk my entire crop on the good graces of Alabama. The national guard on the other hand… they’ll have enough money to pay me back, and getting in their good graces…”
I could see his reasoning, I really could. It didn’t stop me from grinding my teeth at the hours we’d wasted in the car, getting there personally, thinking there was an actual problem. Didn’t stop me from wanting to see how far the rabbit hole went. How far had the national guard reached out for supplies.
Had they seen the situation in Mobile, or was it simply not a big enough of a deal for them to deploy anything serious there?
“I said there was a b rank watching over Mobile, don’t you worry.”
My teeth grit and I had to stop when a spike of pain spiralled through my jaw. Hands clenched into fists. Wanted to deck him. Wanted to hurt him. Wanted to see how many pieces he’d break into if I pushed him to it.
Hands gently pressed against my shoulder, and I resolved back into being Gale instead of just the rage.
Heart pounded. My gaze flicked over to the berries. They’d’ve been a great way to augment our storage. But there would be other ways.
“Thank you for your time,” I said, as if the void had snatched up all the heat or niceness from my voice and dropped them in the same cliff the worker had dropped our verbal agreements.
Being a B rank had backfired again. Why would they need to intervene in Mobile if the situation was under control? This far away, how could anyone help but not buy into the con we were running?
Then I turned, cape fluttering again, and walked off the front porch.
Hands followed after, and Colton snatched up his hands after a long moment of glaring at the worker, then walked back to join us.
It wasn’t until the car that Colton spoke up again. “What the hell, Gale? Why’d you back down like that?”
“Seat belt,” Hands reminded, grimly.
“What does it matter if I’m wearing a damn seat belt? There’s no cops to pull us over.”
“My car, my rules,” Hands said, glaring at him, ignoring the sharp gleam of his teeth.
“Spine,” Colton said, agreeably, flicking his gaze over to me. His seat belt clicked into place. “Where’s yours?”
I could remember the sharp nightmarish pain of the bullet and what had remained of my nose, remembered being screamed at. Remembered many things I didn’t want to remember. “No point in showing spine here, Colton.”
“Whaddya mean?” He asked. “We just lost a massive boon we thought we had. We could’ve gotten it from him.”
The car started up. “Then we’d be nothing more than thugs if we shook his crop from him.”
“We’d be better than thugs,” Colton said. “We’d be feeding the poor, the hungry, the kids. Everyone. Did you see how many berries were out there? We could’ve gotten those for us all.”
“By force,” I said.
“By force, sure. Do you really want our supply lines to be based on force?” I asked.
“Better than not having enough at all,” Colton argued. “I’d rather be fed by stealing than starve with only my virtues to eat.”
“We’re not starving, Colton,” I said, flatly. “We’re not even close to starving yet. We have a few weeks before we’re starving. Businesses are still running.”
“Supplies to those businesses are going to have to come from the no man’s land, or near whatever ungodly racket New Orleans is up to. Do you even want to think about what they’re trying to pull, now that the association isn’t involved?” Colton cut in, sharply. “Besides. It’s the right thing. They should value Mobile over their bottom lines.”
“Maybe they should,” I agreed. “But we can’t decide that for them.”
“And why the hell not? When we see something wrong, we’re supposed to fix it! That’s what heroes do!” Colton cut in. “Fuck the laws, we make things right!”
“If everyone with powers said fuck the laws, the laws wouldn’t exist,” I cut in, more intelligently.
“The laws are stupid then,” Colton said. “If they can’t withstand people breaking them and hold any sort of water, why should we even have them?”
I shot him a look through the rear view mirror. “We’re not the fourth wave, Colton. We don’t have temples, and we don’t worship heroes. The world shouldn’t worship heroes like gods.”
“Don’t they?” Colton asked. “Where we walk, people give us gifts. We’re expected to support ideals bigger than we are, stronger than we are, just so the weak can keep living their lives. How does that not make us gods?”
“Because we bleed the exact same fucking color they do, Colton. We die the exact same fucking way, so don’t you dare get your fucking supremacist beliefs in here, while I’m sitting in front of you,” I swore, staring at him. I could see my red veined eyes, could see Colton’s slowly self assured look grow on his face.
“And yet you’re in control of the city, aren’t you? The second everything went wrong, you wormed your way into control. Little Gale, child of that noble hero, and now you’re in control of everything.”
“The hell are you trying to say to me?” I asked. My heart thumped again, faster, faster.
“You don’t want to use force because you don’t want to delegitimize your rule. If you cared about morals, then you would’ve taken the food, so far as I can see it,” Colton said, his eyes gleaming with some sort of victory. “You haven’t changed much, have you. Always wanting the spotlight.”
I gave him the most incredulous look I possibly could. “Colton, you don’t want to go there.”
“You know, your dad is basically a member of the Fourth wave, isn’t he?” Colton pried. “God like status among the Shell Alliance in Florida… powers that make mortals jealous… “
“Colton, stop,” I demanded.
“You can’t make me stop, you powerless twit,” Colton grinned. “History of promiscuity… Infidelity… Seems like you’re the child of the Fourth wave, really. Don’t they got a church here, somewhere?”
His eyes bored into mine and I stared at him, blood thumping through my veins. I wanted to break him so badly. Wanted to see him torn before me and yet… yet…
“Do I look like I want fucking leadership, Colton? I didn’t sleep last night because I couldn’t stop thinking. Couldn’t stop wondering why I went to Dauphin island. I took up leadership for the same damn reason the Association exists. There was a need, and the city asked me to. That’s the difference here. We obey the damn law when we can, Colton. We’re not divine beings, we’re not exempt from earthly laws. The world exists without us.”
“The way I see it… your leadership hasn’t amounted to much. Gotten some people killed,” Colton drawled in that curiously southern way.
I knew where this was going and it hurt me more than I could express. “Are you challenging me?”
“Prove to me that might doesn’t make right, Gale. We both know I outclass you. Will outlast you. Challenge me to a fight. Winner takes Mobile. Winner gets to lead.”
Colton’s smirk didn’t stop at all. “Show me how you beat Negalli, and maybe I’ll admit you’re right about your precious mortals and your precious plateau. We won’t be gods after all.”
Hands closed around both of our throats at once. My throat had a physical one, while Colton’s was invisible.
“Do not fight in my car,” Hands said, flatly. “Do I look like your mothers? Pick a time and date and settle it, but not here.”
Then she let us go.