Gale Rising (Part 58)

Debriefing

was a numb affair. Excelsior did all of the talking, and I sat in the back, staring at the rows of military personnel. Official. Everything about the Cuban Patrol seemed official.

It didn’t stop the red threads and tendrils from taking up my vision, loping through my brain, slipping through skin and bone into nervous cords. Terrifying, hot. Pain. Dull eyes and holes left in bodies from things slipping inside to take a more permanent possession. Seemed unreal.

Seemed distant, by far.

The meeting continued for most of an hour. Two beacons sat on the table; ours, and a single more modern one, caked in blood.

“They actually run better in blood, I find,” Excelsior said, expecting the core. “So I don’t think it’s ruined, no.”

“Good,” Rutherford said, leaning back. “Now the only issue is in powering it.”

Excelsior clicked his tongue. “The proper one’s loaded up with dozens of protective bits and pieces, sigils, equations, explanations, on why it’s not going to work outside of a proper facility for it.”

“And the one you just brought back?” Rutherford asked, raising an eyebrow.

Excelsior sighed, breathing out through his teeth. “Far easier to jury rig.”

Rows of soldiers listened to the swordsman and their eyes, thankfully, drifted past mine to stare at the A-ranker. “What’s your suggestion?”

“Mine?” Excelsior asked.

“We are invading your homeland, fighting monsters,” Rutherford said, a flicker of amusement in his tone. “I’d rather get your opinion before my men start dying.”

“If we were handling this Association style,” Excelsior said, gesturing over the patrol. “We’d have a small squad comprised of all of the nullifiers we had. Faraday, especially. The prototype beacon’d keep them alive, and we’d slide right up into Montgomery by force.”

“Only problem is that you have, what, two strong nullifiers to your name?” Rutherford asked. “Both of which are in this room?”

His eyes settled on mine. “And what about you, Gale?”

I startled out of my reverie, my anhedonia, and looked up at him. “Me, sir?”

“You don’t report to me in the military, don’t call me sir,” Rutherford returned. “What do you think?”

“How do we know that pulling directly into Montgomery, cutting a path, isn’t just going to startled Patrickson into doing whatever he plans on doing?” I asked. “I don’t have a clue what that is, but…”

“He’s waiting for the right time,” Rutherford said. “He’s a believer in some of the older ways. The ones we tried to squash out. Superstitious beliefs instead of accepting that everything that is not mortal will die, eventually.”

“He was rather certain that heroes were mortal,” I returned.

“Yes, well,” Rutherford said. “He had a rather thorough understanding that you can kill anything, didn’t he?” He took a long breath, eyeing Excelsior. “After all, he was part of the Association-Cuban Patrol push to eradicate the leader of Mexico, shortly after he left Association control.”

Excelsior’s eyes closed. “This is your base, so I’ll let you characterize it like that.”

“There’s no more Fafnirs here,” Rutherford said. “So the chances of our intervention causing anything worse than Patrickson intends is… rather low.”

I blinked. “And what, exactly, is his plans?”

“The complete and utter subjugation of this state,” Rutherford said. “In preparation to slaughter Hurricane’s home state of Florida.”

My teeth clicked together. “What?”

“Your father,” Excelsior said. “Has been at the center of many numerous debates on the ethics of keeping powered individuals centered on America. He can disrupt hurricane formations, so why doesn’t he does that all the time?”

“That’s ludicrous,” I said. “Disrupting hurricanes like that could cause major changes to the streams across the planet-” my teeth clicked together at the thought of that sort of power, and my face went pale.

I’d never really thought of how powerful my father was. Not like that.

“Yes, well,” Rutherford’s eyes closed. “In some regards, the devastation that Mexico went through; that spiralled it out into civil disrest and prompted those tragic emergency elections; the blame can be placed thoroughly on the shoulders of Hurricane Diana. An ineffectual intervention by local powered forces strengthened the gale.”

“And he didn’t make it in time,” Excelsior said. “In some regards, it was the first of our failures in the southern half of the Americas.”

“I wouldn’t call it that,” Rutherford. “There are decades of events before it that I could call the first of your failures.”

“We are still allies,” I said.

“If only because you choose not to carry the Association banner,” Rutherford said, leaning back. “And if only because my soldiers are willing to forget the sins of the past so that we can stop another international incident.”

“We are,” Cass said, speaking up from the mess of the soldiers around the table. A mix of spanish and english joined her.

“I didn’t ask for that,” Rutherford said, his eyes flicking imperiously over the ranks. “But the input is appreciated. You’ll find extra work at the barracks for each of you to do.”

Nobody winced or moved.

“So your plan is to equip our strongest nullifiers with,” Rutherford gestured at the oily beacon we’d pulled out of the chest of the ancient computer. “Which’ll let them push forward into hell itself?”

“It won’t /strictly/ be hell,” Excelsior said. “Because I can guarantee you something that’ll make it easier.”

Rutherford’s stern lips turned into a grim grin. “Air support?”

“I have a citadel filled with firebombers that’ve been busy hitting everything that moves between here and Huntsville,” Excelsior said. “I’m sure they won’t mind bombing a few extra targets.”

“And we won’t have to push all the way in,” I said, speaking up. Excelsior’s eyes flicked over to mine.

“The other beacon won’t work outside of an Association base,” I said. I looked at Excelsior. “So we’ll just have to find one inside of the city, and plug it in.”

“Why won’t you be able to use one that’s already there?” Rutherford interjected.

“If he’s smart, he’ll have taken all of the beacons for himself,” Excelsior said. “And you said he was smart.”

The commander sighed. “Too smart. The day he’ll make a play for it is in just under two weeks,” The commander said, tilting his head up. “He’ll be looking for the anniversary of the failed Fafnir intervention in Mexico.”

Excelsior clicked his teeth. “Then he really does want to show us how much pain that country felt?”

“In his head, he’s all twisted up in thinking that he’s the martyr here,” Rutherford said. “Man could never keep his emotions out of things. Made him likeable. Made him attractive. Rallied people to his call; look, here was a man who cared. Here was a man who would make things happen; who would seize the darkness and shoot it dead.”

“But?” I asked.

“He’ll die like anything else,” Rutherford said, his voice low. “And then we can work out what to do from there.”

We were dismissed shortly after.

——

I’d never been to a bar to drink before. Not out of some adherence to the rules, or some passionate belief that underaged drinking was stupid; I’d just never had cause to be at one for any reason other than business.

Colton was more at home there, half slouched across a table, his fingers cradling a shot of whiskey as he stared at the increasingly limited TV. Endless reruns, with a small runner at the bottom kindly informing us of every location that’d gone dark.

Our name wasn’t among them. Not yet. If I could help it, it wouldn’t be.

Colton brought the shot to his lips and sipped. Hands stared at him for a moment, then rolled her eyes, staring at the corner.

“We going to talk about it?” I asked.

“Probably not,” Colton said, flat. “I almost died again, you bled everywhere, Hands saved the day. We should leave it like that and go and get take out or something. Maybe another cake.”

The other occupants in the bar were stranger bedfellows. The police, what little remained that had been let out of the hospital or hadn’t been slain, had been surprised when we’d arrived to take them up on their offer. Drinks.

But they were more surprised by the Cuban Patrol soldiers that followed us in. Whether it be Cassandra with her crimson skin, or the variety of moody soldiers that’d taken up the front of the bar, now engrossed in speaking in various southern American languages that I couldn’t even remotely parse (though I caught Colton trying to flick through them) in excited tones.

Colton pushed the rest of his shot over to me, and I stared down at it. “I don’t really drink,” I said.

“You got me out of there alive,” Colton’s voice said, still strangely flat. “You might as well take a few drinks for that.”

“I’d do that regardless, drinks or not.”

Colton’s fingers tilted at the shot. “Go on. Take it.”

I raised an eyebrow at him, and took the shot. It hurt, hissed, ached at my throat, but it went down.

“How’d the debriefing go?” Hands asked.

“He might be after my dad,” I admitted.

“Strange how nobody’s heard from him since this all started,” Colton said, leaning back even further. “It’d be handy to have a storm god.”

“Not a god,” I cut in. “Not even close. If he were a god, maybe he wouldn’t be such a shitty father.”

Hands’s eyes flicked over to mine, and I waved her off, my tongue tasting the edge of the whiskey. Shot slid back down onto the table. “I’m a bit young for this sort of thing.”

“You’re not too young to kill,” Colton said, idly. “So you’re probably not too young to drink,”

Hands held up one of her physical hands.

“Ah,” I said, shaking my head. “She probably doesn’t want to figure out what happens to her if she gets drunk. Understandable, with her hand and all.”

Hands gave a tense smile, her teeth grit. “Besides, someone’s going to have to drag the two of you back home.”

“It probably won’t come to that,” Colton gestured at the bar. The soldiers were drinking as heavily as soldiers could. “I think the bar’ll run out of alcohol before any of that happens.”

Hands sighed, put her hands into her lap, clearly uncomfortable. I drank a sip of water.

“So?” I asked her. “What do you think?”

“It was… it was better when we were just defending ourselves,” Hands said. “I… I could justify the killing when we were on Dauphin island, they were…”

“They were killing my friends.” Colton bubbled, kept situated now entirely by virtue of the heel of his shoe dragging across the table to keep balance. “They deserved everything they got there.”

“We were also defending ourselves in the bayou,” I said, calm. Wanted to be calmer, but… I’d killed too. I hadn’t wanted to face that, to figure out what that meant in the grand scheme of things.

“I saw the remnants of what we did there,” Hands said. “A lot of them didn’t even know we were there. Weren’t expecting company.”

“They’re still enemies,” I said. “And they were more than willing to try and kill us.”

“And what happened later?” Hands asked. “Do you think that at the end, some of them figured out what was happening. Tried to fight it. Did they die thinking about their brothers, their mothers. Their daughters?”

My eyes closed. When I opened them, the bartender was there, with a new shot, courtesy of the policeman now sitting with us, chair pulled up.

“Just wanted to thank you three for keeping the city safe,” He said. “Everything that it is and everything, it’s good to have some structure here,”

Colton’s eyes flicked up to his chest, where his armor was, still worn by the policeman, probably more as an emotional support than anything else, then up at his face. “And the extra food’s not bad, right?”

“It’s good knowing we won’t starve to death,” he said, politely. After a moment, he set down another shot on the table, and swept off to the rest of the police party.

It was strange, being alone, even with two other parties going. But I had a feeling it had something to do with the thousand yard stares Colton and Hands both had. And privately, I thought that I had the same as well, a blank sort of look that did nothing to help.

The shot was up to my lips without a thought, and I downed it too, staring at the tv. The normal newscaster was dead; all that was on today was the weatherman, his face lined with wrinkles and nervous tension, anxiously pointing across the map while enumerating which cities were still up and which cities had fallen.

Must’ve gotten a new email from what systems were still up. Made me wish I was at the office.

But no. We’d finished a mission. Nobody had died this time. It was a time for celebration.

“You think the one we saw outside knew it was coming?” Hands asked, curiously.

“I hope he didn’t,” Colton said. “Quick and painless, maybe.”

“He would’ve killed us,” I said.

“Still,” Colton said. “It’s what I do. Quick and painless; straight to the point. I got taught how to make it last, but that’s rude. Crude. Dangerous. Just take them out. No need to extend the suffering.”

The burn wasn’t so bad this time, but I wasn’t up for balancing like Colton was. He played with his shotglass, tasting it for a moment, then down it went.

“How old are we, anyway?” I asked. “I feel like I’ve been stuck here for years, barking out orders. What day even is it?”

Hands shrugged. She couldn’t tell me the date either. Colton bit his lip. “Dunno. Doesn’t really matter, does it? We got like, what. Two weeks? We spending all of that training it up or what?”

I closed my eyes. My wind sense wavered under the effects of alcohol. Wasn’t nice. Wasn’t bad either; giving me just a moment to myself instead of the endless things around me.

When I opened them, Cass was there, sitting with us. “Congrats,” The shotgunner said. “You got me with you for the next mission.”

“Really, she’s coming with us?” Hands asked, an unknown lilt to her voice. I couldn’t place it. Almost sounded harsh, but I wasn’t used to anything like that from Hands.

Well, anything like that from her that wasn’t pointed at Excelsior. That was a given at this point as things got worse and worse.

“Hey,” Cass said, showing off open hands. “I’m good. We’re good. Once we push in, you guys are going to have the easy job of just defending the beacon while the rest of us do the heavy lifting of breaking in.”

“Can we talk about something else?” I muttered. “I don’t even want to think about doing anything else.”

“I’m with Gale,” Hands muttered.

Colton was quiet. I couldn’t even tell how drunk he was.

“The other soldiers think you three are pretty great,” Cass said, laughing. “Dressed up like little soldiers in armor, throwing about your powers. Getting hit with shit job after shit job.”

“That wasn’t really a subject change.”

“It wasn’t not a subject change,” Cass returned. “Point is, they like you.”

It was nice to have that at least, even if I was beginning to think that I shouldn’t be liked for much of anything.

“Also they want to know how many kills you three got. For the sake of the betting pool.”

“There’s a betting pool?” Hands asked, incredulously, turning her glare on the soldiers around the bar.

“There’s always a betting pool,” Cass said.

“No fucking clue,” I said. “I blew most of them apart with grenades.”

“Six,” Colton said. “Maybe seven.”

Hands wilted at trying to think back to that point. “Three, I think. I… I never really realized how fragile skulls are.”

“Gale’s in the lead, huh?” Cass muttered. “Didn’t really see that coming, got to admit.”

“Gale’s got a way with ignoring what makes sense,” Colton drawled. “And seizing every advantage, no matter how incremental.”

I glared at him. “I saved your life, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Colton replied, sour. “I guess I’ll have to listen to that as a justification now? First it was for Mobile, now it’s for Patrickson, now it’s to save our lives, now it’s…”

I sneered. “We’re still here, aren’t we? Do you really think any of that shit matters? We’re still here, we’re still here.”

“We’re still here,” Hands muttered. “I wish I was anywhere else, but I’m still here.”

“Getting more than a little bit beat up by this point,” Cass said. “I gotcha. Bartender, another shot.”

Another round of three on the table. Hands turned her nose up at once and went down to playing on her tablet instead. Probably checking to see what connections were up, and who in the area was moving.

Cass downed the shot instead, eyeing Colton, and then me. “Sounds like you got shit to work out,” she said, playfully. “You going to get this over with here, or are we going to beat it out of you during training?”

“Training?” I groused. “We’ve already been in like sixteen firefights. What the fuck do we need training for?”

“You’ve been on defence,” Cass said, flat. “You’ve been dealing with people who didn’t know you were coming, who were startled, caught off guard. When we move on Montgomery, they’re going to know you’re coming. They’re going to have their defences set up. They’re going to have every nasty trick in the books, shit that we don’t even use on humans. I’m talking autonomous drones, scythe tanks. Shit you can’t just pluck your way around. So we’re going to be working on that, beating it into your heads as quick as we can.”

“I liked you better when you were hot, not terrifyingly military.” Colton complained.

“She’s still pretty fine,” I said. Then paused, clicking my teeth together. Huh. I’d said that outloud.

I didn’t even know I was thinking that.

Colton looked amused. “Oh, so our noble leader has a type after all? Bladed, malicious, angry? Enemy?”

“Oh, good, now we’ve got this started again,” Cass said, sighing. “Gale, we’re not exactly on the same side here. Just an alliance of convenience.”

If my face could get any hotter, I think I’d’ve developed fire powers. “Besides,” Hands said, a glint in her eyes. “Weren’t you crushing on Colton?”

Colton blinked, eyeing me for a long moment.

On my right, Cass. On the left, Colton. In the middle, Hands.

My hands fumbled for the third shot and I downed it, coughing. Heavy, trying to get air back into my lungs.

“So not the place for this,” I rasped.

“Amusing, though,” Hands said. “You can deal with combat and killing people, but you have absolutely nothing on dealing with romance.”

Colton downed the other shot, closing his eyes. “You know what, I’m tired of you saying not the place for this,” he said, blearily eyeing the three of us. “Fuck it. You know, maybe this is the right time for this.”

He breathed in, took a stance, and glared at me. “Fucking hell, Gale, what the fuck have you been doing behind our backs?”

Mood shift. Quick.

“There we go,” Cass laughed, whirling away from our table.

“What?” I asked, staring at him. Head full of fuzz, a dreary mist. Like a passing rain somewhere else; freezing cold spectres twinkling down against the mass of the bay.

“Don’t do this,” Hands sighed, looking up from her tablet.

“You know, what fuck it, we’re doing this,” Colton said. “Get on your fucking feet, Gale, Let’s talk about the shit I’ve wanted to say since before the last mission.”

I glared at him. “Make me get on my feet, Colton. Just try it. I don’t know what the hell’s into you…-”

Colton flipped the table with a throw of his arms. It sailed the the air and over Hand’s head, since without even blinking, her hand moved it out of the way. Glass shattered as the empty shotglasses hit the floor like grenades. The soldiers and of the officers startled and stared at us.

“Get up,” Colton hissed.

“Fuck it,” I said. My heart thumped in my chest, but it was… it wasn’t fear. I could deal with something that wasn’t fear. This was something I could deal with.

“Alright, what the hell do you want?” I said, sliding to my feet. He was in a fighting stance. My wind sense yelled at me, felt his heart tickle up up up up into threatening ranges.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?!” Colton shouted. “We got fucking Cuban Patrol lunatics hanging around everywhere, and now we’re going to lead a fucking patrol into fucking Montgomery? You’re a D-rank, Gale.”

Didn’t have anything on me. Didn’t have anything to defuse this. “I’m your leader, Colton.”

“And you know what?” Colton said, pointing at me. “I don’t fucking trust you. Every time you /lead/ someone people die. There’s blood everywhere. It’s in my fucking dreams, dreaming of that thing in the graveyard eating people. I can feel my nerves short out again and again, and it’s because of you, because you told me you’d keep me safe.”

“You’re damned well alive,” I hissed back at him. “Isn’t that good enough for you?”

“You and I both know that being alive and being safe are too different fucking things.”

“How many fucking times did I risk everything to keep you alive in the bayou?” I shouted back. “Just fucking tell me.”

“We shouldn’t be in the bayou in the first place!” Colton hissed, baring his teeth like a wild dog. “We’re Association. We’re in America. We’re in fucking America, why don’t we let the Cuban Patrol do their shit and solve our problems for us?”

“Goddammit,” I said, pointing right back at him. “Say that again. Tell me what to fucking do, I remember your bullshit you pulled in that fucking bayou, I remember you going on ahead.”

“You could’ve left me there,” Colton hissed. “I was a liability. Go on with your previous mission.”

“Your stupid deviation could’ve gotten us killed,” I bared my teeth in reply. The bar furniture rustled in the wind. “And then what?”

“I imagine,” Colton said, flat. “That the Cuban Patrol would’ve mourned your loss for about a day, and gone right on trucking. Just like they would’ve if anyone else here died.”

“That’s to their strength,” I said, low. “Do you think the Association gives a damn if you died? The second you broke down, they spirited you away to the land of misfits and rejects. They demoted you in a heartbeat.”

“Say that again about them,” Colton said. “You fucking D-rank. Who the hell are you to tell me what to do? Everyone you order DIES. You got Gunze killed. Mary’s never going to walk without assistance. You’re as big of a damn sociopath as Rebecca is.”

Bizarrely, Colton wasn’t the one to throw the first punch. That was because I did it, stepping in, rushing him like a damn bull, and slammed my fist into his chin.

My knuckles split against the sharp edge, and Colton reeled back. “FUCK OFF AND DIE.”

“YOU FIRST, YOU’RE MAKING US MURDERERS!”

Then his fists flew back.

Luckily for me, I was still in armor.

Unluckily for me, he was way more used to alcohol than I was, and I couldn’t muster more than a halfhearted flat footed defence. My nose bled. My lip split open. Bruises peppered the exposed parts of my face.

So I kneed him in the gut, and alcohol and bile ran across his teeth. “I fucking nearly died for you, asshole. So many times.”

“You’re not,” Colton gasped, clutching his chest. “A fucking leader. You’re an idiot with delusions.”

“Tell me who should lead,” I said, driving my foot into his gut. “Tell me, you sack of useless flesh. You’re as big of a butcher as I am. Point me to one person who should lead over me. And you know what they’ll tell you?”

I said, leaning over top of him.

His knee rammed itself into my gut and I stumbled back, clutching my stomach. Armor or not, it stole the wind out of me.

“What will they tell me? That you make deals with devils?”

“That making a deal with the devil is the right choice if the only other choice is letting people die,” I hissed. “Something you’d know if you spent your time doing anything other than angsting.”

“Fuck off,” Colton said. “I want out of this.”

“Too fucking bad,” I spat. Blood. Bile. Whiskey. It didn’t matter at this point. “Because you can’t quit at this point. I can’t quit either. We’re all stuck here until this stupid fucking state gets saved, and until then, there’s no hanging up our hero badges.”

“We’re not heroes,” Colton said. “Someone lied to me and said I was. Who the hell have we saved so far? We’re taking picks out of ranks of volunteers and pretending that we’re saving the planet. We’ve killed faceless men and we’re pretending it’ll save the state.”

“That’s not my fault either,” I said. My vision swam from where he’d hit me. I could almost touch him again, but my balance was fucked. “Fucking Patrickson.”

“He stole my life again,” Colton whispered. “Every time I think I have it together, they just take it away again and again. Gale, what the hell are we doing?”

The air softened again, abruptly.

“We can do this,” I said. “We just need to keep fighting for a bit longer, alright?”

“I don’t want to fight anymore,” Colton whined. “I want to curl up somewhere and die, alright? We’re not being heroic, we’re… we’re fucking soldiers. I never…”

“Wanted to be a soldier?” I asked.

“I wanted to be like the heroes on Tv,” Colton said, in a quiet voice. “Swooping in to save the day. The world’s not like that. Why isn’t the world like that?”

“The world’s never been like that,” I said. “It’s always messier. Even the people who are like that, they’re…”

I thought back to Faraday and tears rolled down my face. Thought back to Gunze. “They’re just mortal, in the end. They didn’t deserve what they got either.”

Colton breathed out, and hissed, rubbing his chest. “Fuck, Gale,” He whispered. “I want to love you and I want to kill you and I want to make a meal of your bones, hot sweet sticky until it runs from my knives onto the floor.”

I breathed out. “What the fuck does that even mean.”

“I don’t know,” Colton whispered. “I close my eyes and I see her sometimes, and I see Patrickson sometimes, but I wasn’t awake for it. I was robbed of seeing the man who killed my family. My dad died in prison and it all jumbles together, because I don’t even really know who I am anymore. Who the hell I’m supposed to be. I’m so fucking tired Gale.”

“I don’t know who I am either,” I admitted, leaning against the upturned table. “I just… I just want to hurt Patrickson. Maybe if he’s gone, this entire thing will wrap up, you know? The Association will fix things.”

“They hurt me,” Colton whispered. “The Association hurt me. They told me I was dangerous, that I’d… I’d hurt people if I didn’t listen.”

Through the haze of my thoughts I remembered. Days of testing. Trying to get me to do anything other than summoning gusts of wind. Not even enough to snatch things out of people’s hand. Weak. Pathetic.

I could remember their eyes on me, wondering why I wasn’t like the rest of my brothers. Remembered the shame.

Remembered crying because I wouldn’t be like them. Never met most of them, they were always so busy and yet I

I wanted to be like them so badly.

“They said I was dangerous, and I just,” Colton shuddered. “I just wanted to be a hero, you know? There’s a world out there that needs saving but now… I’m starting to think we’re not really heroes. We’re just idiots with delusions that we’re going to save everyone,” Colton’s teeth chattered together, and he shook like he was cold. “I hate it Gale. I hate it so much, and I just… I don’t know what to think about you. You sound like them but… I’ve seen you bleed. You’ve never ever held back from going into missions.”

“I can’t ask for anyone else to go in if I don’t,” I guessed. Stated. Knew. Didn’t know what to think because the words just fell from my tongue like drool. “I don’t… know what to think of myself.”

“Do you ever think about yourself?” Colton asked. “When does it start, you think? Do you spare a thought for yourself that often? Do you even look for glory? Heroism. Your name up in lights? I thought maybe… when we first met, but I went to the temple and he said… you wanted it all torn down. You didn’t want a statue.”

“We’re not gods,” I said. “We aren’t gods. We can’t be gods, we’re just… people with deadly powers, Colton.”

Colton shook one last time, and went a bit silent, his teeth clicking together. Then he stumbled, missed a step, and he hit the ground like a bag of bricks. I took a step towards him and stumbled as well.

Cass caught me before I hit the floor. Her voice fell into my ear. “There we go. Figured we had something like that to go through. Don’t need any fight like that on the battlefield, you know?”

“It’s not going to go away,” I said.

“That’s the Association’s problem to deal with,” Cass said, still hissing in my ear. “But that’s not the Cuban Patrol’s to deal with.”

Swaying as I was, I nearly missed the next step to get away from her. She laughed, kneeling down to pick Colton up, resting him against her shoulder. “It’s cute that you three think I’m cute,” she said. “But I’m out of most of your leagues.”

“I never said you were cute,” Hands protected, poking her head up from behind a table.

“Whatever,” Cass said. “Do you know where these idiots live?”

“They’re sharing an apartment, since Gale’s not from town,” Hands said, and the numbers all ran together because another wave of pain went through my head, and there was no real use trying to keep it all together because the fight was over anyway.

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