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Hope of the County

Chapter Text

Henbane River
Present Day

 

Breathe.

Run.

Breathe.

They’re coming…

Diana stumbled along the way, her feet bare since she had to kick off her heavy boots when they got out of the river. The water and mud weighted her legs so much that it was dragging her down. It was bad enough that the Bliss was in their systems, the dizzying effects and hallucinations clouding the path for their escape.

The cries of the woman behind her were upsetting and heart-wrenching, but they couldn’t stop. They needed to cross over into Holland Valley before the hounds got there… before Boomer found them. He was the Deputy’s Champion and was as deadly as a Judge.

“Come on!”

“I can’t!!” The girl whined.

“Yes, you can, Faith.” She decided it was safe enough to come to a halt. “Say it with me…” Diana faced her companion and placed her hands upon her ice-cold face. She leaned in close, feeling them both shivering from the cold water as she pressed her forehead against hers.

“Yes… I can.” They recited together.

It was just like Brother John always said: Just say yes… except this time, instead of succumbing to the inevitable, the words were a mantra for them as they desperately clung to their survival. She hoped that the familiar gesture, one used by the Father was enough to bring Faith down from her panic. Diana lingered there as long as Faith needed to calm down, but when the barking in the distance drew closer, she pulled away. “We don’t have much time.”

The rays of flashlights and torches trailing behind them forced them to run again. Diana was certain her feet were cut up by the sharp rocks along the shore but suffering for a moment to get to safety was a better fate than what the county-folk would do to them if they were caught. It meant meeting a certain death… or even worse, the slow burn of unrelenting torture beneath their blades, bullets, and the like if ensnared by the wrong people…

Sheriff Whitehorse’s men, The Forsaken, and their wrath.

Diana pushed past the brush and spotted a dock not too far from their location. Faith stumbled behind her, yelping out as her own bare feet were cut, but Diana pulled her along. To their relief, a single boat was left on the docks at Silver Lake. There was still a way to sail before reaching Joseph’s compound and after the long run they made away from Marshal Burke’s den in the Henbane, it would be a lot easier than traversing the county on foot.

It wasn’t until Faith stepped aboard that Diana noticed something was off about its balance; it rocked unsteadily on the tranquil waters. She reached underneath and discovered a cluster of holes, possibly caused by bullets or spearheads. It caused water to seep in, so there was no way she would be able to climb in without taking on more.

“Diana…” Faith whimpered, her thin tremulous hand reaching to help her on board.

“No, it won’t hold. We need to split up, Faith. You take the boat and find Joseph.” Diana was already leading the boat and its passenger into the water, not caring that she would get soaked again. She tried not to let her fear show as she moved deeper into the black water. From what she could remember, there were only trout here and other small fish, nothing dangerous. No matter, it was her main priority to get Faith to safety, and far from this point.

Voices were echoing closer them, the search party adamant of finding their location. Splitting up seemed like her only option since they couldn’t risk getting spotted and taken together. The boat was quiet enough and the mist of the night hung low to obscure her from sight, so Diana knew this was the best course.

“No… No, I can’t face him, not like this, he’ll—”

“Faith!” Diana barked to keep Faith from derailing again. “You’ll be fine, I promise you. Stay the path… don’t lose hope. Joseph will understand.”

Her words were hollow, but necessary. Diana honestly didn’t know how Joseph would react to seeing Faith again, after her failure, after her capture, that caused her to lose her way. But in the County now run by the Sheriff… Joseph was their only known ally nearby.

The fragile blond Herald sobbed, her tears like falling stars shimmering on her nearly translucent skin under the moonlight. She hugged her arms around herself to keep warm, as her drenched white lace dress clung tight to her weary body.

“Over there!” Someone had spotted them, igniting an urgency to push on. Distance was key. Diana could still swim beneath the surface and make it to the next patch of fog to lay low. Faith would soon vanish and take her out of their crosshairs.

“Persist, Faith! Remember… Yes, you can!” Diana kicked off of the boat, using what little momentum she had while holding the pillar of the edge of the dock.

The look in Faith’s eyes was one she wouldn’t soon forget, the strain on her heart imminent as the Siren of the Bliss drifted away on the broken craft.

Once she was at a safe distance, Diana dove into the black waters. She hoped to find the junction of the Moccasin River without being discovered. She felt the comfort of the warm water, still laced with Bliss. Her legs were numb, compressed by the tightness of her jeans as she was fully submerged. A tingling sensation fluttered all the way to her toes, as the Bliss seeped into her open cuts and burns.

The farther she swam, the current picked up pace. It was unforgiving, but she kept on until she washed up somewhere far from the danger that followed them into the night. 

Chapter Text

Dead Man’s River
Evans Family Homestead
Henbane River
2 Weeks Later

It was dusk, the hour just after the sun dipped below the horizon. Diana sipped at the whiskey she found stashed on Old Man Vernon’s home south east of her current location. She’d been hiding at her family’s old bunker for two weeks now. She found that her cousins bunker would be safer for the early days while the heat was still on, and they were still searching for her. Eventually she moved aboveground to her home a block or so over.

Diana was living alone, off-grid, and radio silent. It granted her enough time to lick the wounds Whitehorse and the now-dead Marshal had done to her for trying to free Faith. The cuts on her feet were healing up well, and it was nice to be in a fresh set of clothing after crawling through the forests, the bog and swimming through the murky waters.

Across from her, Brendan Morris had been rambling for a while now, the only company allowed in since she vanished from the radar of the Forsaken. The lull of his voice was flat and irritating with his debrief, a meager pup trying to fill in the blanks she’d missed out on in her time away. Diana listened intently to him drone on.

The announcement that John had been taken gutted her, but she fell further into despair as more solemn words left Morris’ lips. “They took him, too. I’m sorry.”

Anything else that was said didn’t matter. She should have known something was amiss when he placed the red sniper rifle on the table.

The air was dead and stagnant, as if a vacuum pulled every ounce of it out of the room. She took a beat to comprehend it all, to fathom the nature of his tragic news. Diana eventually kicked her boots off the table and rose from the chair, lunging toward her only exit to free her from the inbound panic. The balcony doors were thrown open with force enough to slam when they were pulled inward, and Diana stepped outside. It was a risk being out in the open, but she already ran a greater risk letting the man into her hideout. However, after being tucked away in the lower levels of her family’s property, she needed a breath of fresh air.

She wanted to scream.

She wanted to fire a few rounds into the night.

She wanted nothing more than to be back at home with her husband.

And so soon after her triumph in the east—after retrieving Faith from the torment being done to her by Whitehorse and Burke—the brothers were now abducted. That would prevent the dream of peaceful days with her husband from happening anytime soon.

“Mrs. Seed?”

Her hands tightened on the banister. The wood creaked in her bandaged grip. “Diana. Just. Diana.”

Morris bowed his head. The Lieutenant was instructed by the Herald to address his wife accordingly, but he would also respect her request.

“What else, then?” She asked, expecting far worse news from the already terrified Lieutenant. He seemed timid, afraid to come forward with anything more, but she didn’t have time for games or nervous sheep.

“It’s just that… the Forsaken found out what you did to the Marshal to get Faith back, and after you escaped, they got them. And…” Morris trailed off.

“What…” She exaggerated her T to show that she just wanted this to go quick, that she didn’t want him to lure her along like this—how could it possibly get any worse?

“It’s Whitehorse. He issued an APB on you. Came through the wire about a week ago. Order is to shoot on sight but keep you alive. They say you’re dangerous,”

“Not a lie.”

“…and they’re to keep you alive so they can trap you like they did John and Jacob. Whitehorse knows you’re gonna go find him… Pratt’s probably counting on it, Hudson too, they know—”

Fuck, Morris! How did they get him?! How did this fucking happen?” Diana snapped, as she slammed her hands down on the railing. She flipped around to face the pathetic pup. She was inches from his face, even though he had a few inches above her height. Her eyes were alight with a mild fury. “How did they get past your men—our fucking men—and kidnap my six-foot-three, two-hundred-pound soldier, right out from under your God damn nose? Huh? Maybe if you didn’t have your thumb up your ass and followed him or had the right detail on him this wouldn’t have happened!”

Big brown eyes stared at her, and her patience wore faster than a busted canoe on the worst parts of the Henbane. Morris gulped, loud and hard, shaking where he stood. He feared Diana’s wrath at the same level he feared Jacob’s, so much that he dipped his head low in embarrassment. “H-he said he would be fine, he insisted! He knew you’d go after F-Faith—he wanted to track you alone, said we would only slow him down, ma’am!”

She wanted to backhand him, he was close enough now, the same way Jacob would do to keep his pups in line. But she refrained. Instead she turned away again, dark emerald eyes settling on the lake. Diana grew tense with worry.

Such a stubborn fucking man. She cursed her husband’s lone wolf nature, even if it was admirable. At the same time, it was foolish to go at something like this alone, with The Sheriff leading the Forsaken into what remained of Eden’s Gate.

Again, she grasped the railing, and rolled her shoulders with a heavy sigh. This was a fucking mess. She wondered if Faith made it across Silver Lake alive. She hoped that the boat lasted long enough to cart her most of the way to his compound, and that she didn’t lose sight of the light at the end of the path. Jacob always warned Diana that Faith was unstable if it was ever in her head that she could ever fail. When she found her at the clutches of Whitehorse and the Marshal, Faith was once more broken; the woman who had the most confidence in Joseph’s crusade was troubled and lost once again.

Eventually, Diana pushed off the railing, this time moving toward the gun safe where she expertly opened the door without missing a number. It was a good thing she remembered this place, her family’s estate, which had been long since emptied after the Forsaken laid siege over the county. Once it clicked open, she pulled a nine-millimeter out from the top shelf, and a pack of rounds went right into her pack. She walked over to the table, noting the rifle Morris surrendered when he arrived. Her fingertips brushed over the cool, red frame. Arcing her fingers, she felt each nick of the paint’s wear under her nails. It was familiar and brought her more sorrow the longer she stared at it. It was belonged in the family, after all. It was her husband’s rifle. It was Jacob’s.

Unfortunately, her family bunker wasn’t equipped with any rounds for her husband’s favored gun, so she needed to find a safe place that might still have that on hand. Venturing up into the Whitetails to her home was not safe or practical for the moment, so she hoped as she set out from the southern part of the county there would be at least one location not overrun with Forsaken that contained the ammunition she needed.

“Call Elliott. Archer. Whoever the fuck is left standing at the Vet center and you tell me where that prick Pratt is keeping him. I want security detail on the island for Faith and I want coordinates for that bitch Hudson’s place in the Valley.”

“But—”

“No. Buts.” Her jaw was set, and even though she spoke in a low tone, Morris knew she wouldn’t want to hear his bullshit.

“Yes ma’am—Diana, ma’am.” He nearly choked on his flub-up, catching himself before he pissed her off again.

Diana closed her eyes and listened to the soft whistle of the breeze. “Before you go… for now, I need you to…”

Morris narrowed his brow at her pause. Of course, he was still scared to ask what else she needed, but he would always obey the word of Mrs. Seed. “What is it?”

Of course, she hesitated. There was one other place she wanted to visit before finding the way back into her husband’s arms. That one place was the home of a man she hadn’t spoken to in months. She stayed far from it, even when all signs encouraged her to bury the grudge between them, to kick the ashes of the bridge that was burnt between her and the middle Seed brother. It was time to take that first step, to be the bigger person… to bite the bullet.

He might have had the ammunition there, if he bothered to keep any of the weaponry on site, but they needed to make amends before she asked for any other favors. Without John, she needed him on her side.

“Take me to Joseph.”

 

*

 

It took half a day to reach Joseph’s compound on foot. Weaving in and out of cover, Morris was a decent lookout to ensure they weren’t spotted by the planes overhead or the patrols on the ground. As not to draw attention, they used a small canoe to ford the river the rest of the way.

The island was empty. Desolate. The silence was unnerving when she disembarked from the vessel, but Diana had one goal and she wanted to get it over with. She never cared for Joseph’s residence, even though he was kind enough to invite her over for some basic ‘welcome to the family’ fun like dinners or events for his people.

Their people.

One event came to mind, which happened roughly a year ago, when Eden’s Gate was just getting established. Joseph delivered a powerful sermon to those who would come along and listen. Faith lead a small crafting class to weave together Bliss-flower crowns with a few of the women and children, some men too. John would be sharpening his knives telling tall-tales to the men who admired him and women who fawned over him about what he’d gone and done in the city. It was all before he’d settled down, reunited with his family in Hope County. At some point, he’d even snuck in some contraband to ‘liven up the party’—much to Joseph’s dismay.

There was a beautiful willow outside of Joseph’s home, far enough from where the congregation would gather. Jacob never cared to socialize either, so once his ceremonious speeches were over and the congregation dispersed, they were often tucked away under the shade of that tree, left alone except for the company of a pair of their favorite Judges to guard their space. It was a cherished haven, quiet and peaceful. It was their space.

Being there, seeing it again, brought it all back…

 

**

 

Joseph Seed’s Compound
1 year ago

 

The weather was perfect in the spring, and a gentle breeze brushed over them as they settled in. Diana was seated in front of him, nestled into his arms. It was still strange to have Jacob showing any sort of affection in public, but he told her he didn’t care what anyone else thought. If they had a problem with it, he would politely make them stand down. Politely, being a nice firm beatdown to anyone who mocked them. Only one had made the mistake before, everyone else learned their place. Not even Joseph could keep them apart, as he’d accepted their relationship so long as it didn’t distract his people from the ways and teaching of the church.

Diana closed her eyes and breathed in the sweet air, which was also laced with the comforting aroma of Jacob’s scent. He’d just showered before they left, to wash the scent of sex and sweat from his skin. The soap he preferred didn’t have a strong perfume, leaving his own natural scent to be enjoyed. He even did his hair, threw on a nice new button down she picked up at the commissary and a clean pair of tan cargos. It was so wonderful to see him out of his usual ensemble, army jacket and jeans, and the blue-green pattern of his shirt brought out the hue of his brilliant blue eyes. The shirt’s fit was enough to show every curve of his muscular shoulders and arms, but comfortable enough to roll up the sleeves since much of the fabric irritated his forearms. To her surprise, he had even shaved the scruff that grew out over the last few days they decided to lock themselves away at his house. (Morris was sure no one disturbed them.)

“I love you, you know.” Jacob crooned, matter-of-factly into her ear.

Diana felt a tickle run down her neck at the sound of his voice. “Do you now?” She scrunched her nose when she looked up at him and snuggled into the warmth of his embrace. “Maybe I love you too…”

Maybe?” He raised his eyebrows, amused by her response. Jacob buried his face in the crown of her soft, dark tresses. He breathed her in, delighted and relaxed by her perfume of lavender and vanilla.

“You know I do.” Diana raised her hand to his cheek, letting her fingertips gently brush against the rough skin of his face. He welcomed her touch with a pleased hum as he leaned into it. Jacob always did love when she stroked his face, and gently ran her fingers over his beard.

The peaceful moment of chittering wildlife, accompanied by the laughter and chatter of the flock was always better shared with Jacob. The hardened warrior who wouldn’t hesitate to scold his soldiers to command order was multifaceted, she found, but right now he was at ease with his girl.

Diana leaned back, resting her head against his chest, and felt the coarse hairs of his beard bristle against her cheek. She tangled her fingers with his and relaxed. She would be content to fall asleep there, feeling his heart beat through her.

The crunch of footsteps approached, and when Diana opened her eyes, and when the dark blue shirt caught her eye she was surprised to see John standing there. He was grinning like a madman at the sight of the lovebirds, part mocking, part impressed at their level of calm. He slipped his knife back into its sheath at his hip and crouched down to their level. “Alright you crazy kids, break it up. Dinner’s ready. You know the drill, serve up yourselves… and drinks are on me if you wanna head out back.”

Drinks… John was always so sneaky when it came to that stuff. Alcohol was prohibited in Eden’s Gate—but he always chanced a scolding from Joseph by bringing it around. She had to hand it to the younger Seed, for having the guts to bring it onto Joseph’s compound.

John pat Diana on the knee. “Oh, and don’t waste the food on your damn Judges. We all know what happened last time.”

Diana and Jacob snickered. The Judges ate through the food, filling their bellies with meat and sides. The consequence of overeating was the mess they left behind during and after their prized meals. Joseph was less than thrilled about that. Morris wasn’t too happy either, since he and Archer were on clean-up duty.

“We’ve been coming to Joseph’s gatherings for a while now, Johnny. But thanks.” Diana remarked, after hearing her fiancé chuckle at his brother behind her.

“Just saying. I mean, I know you got your hands full and all… but make sure you keep it PG for the others? Joseph’s been bitching about it.” John smirked.

“You’re one to talk!” Diana swatted at John, but he backed away out of her reach. He was the more promiscuous of the Seed trio, the least likely to stay monogamous as his brothers. But they had to be careful not to stray into a sinful territory, a line Jacob and John tended to skirt over and back. (Joseph didn’t much like that either.)

When she chanced a peek over to where the Father stood among his people, their eyes locked briefly. An unmistaken look of grief and sadness in his gaze could be seen before he turned away. Diana shrunk down slightly at his disappointment.

“Oh, they ain’t seen nothing yet.” Jacob grinned, nipping lightly at Diana’s ear.

It lightened her mood almost instantly but didn’t fully extinguish the guilt that sat low in her gut after spotting Joseph.

“Don’t shoot the messenger guys, and if you’re gonna do anything I would probably do… get a room.” John winked. He stood up and turned around to head back towards the house, where Faith was already waiting to help him dish up the food for the guests.

Once John was far enough away, Jacob kissed her forehead and gently rubbed her arms. “Two weeks to the wedding, sweetheart… you ain’t gonna leave me because of that guy, are you?”

She wondered for a moment if he meant Joseph, but quickly realized it was directed at John who often found himself interrupting some of their intimate moments in true baby brother fashion. Her relationship with John had a rough start, but they eventually warmed up to each other when Jacob explained that what they had was real.

“Oh no, you’re not getting outta this one that easy, Jacob Seed.” Diana snickered as she shifted around to face him. She knelt in front of her fiancé, sitting back on her legs as she rested between his. She slowly trailed her hands up his thighs, feeling him flex at her touch. Her fingers crawled up the length of his solid chest before taking his face between her palms. “It’ll take a hell of a lot more than your obnoxious kid brother to get rid of me, old man.”

“Hey…” He playfully grinned, crinkling his nose a bit when she kissed it.

Diana always picked on him for his age about as often as he did for her being fifteen years younger than him. She was almost thirty and he was in his mid-forties—but the difference never mattered to them. Occasionally she would rib him about being around longer than the next ten years, but she’d follow up with the fact that she was grateful he was still alive. After all the places he’d been, the shit he’d seen in his life, at home, at war, she was thankful to have met him and been marked by him, claimed as his betrothed.

As he leaned up to kiss her, Diana met him halfway. She was always pleasantly surprised with how soft his lips were, when they touched her own or made their way down her skin. A familiar warmth filled her body at the thought of his kiss...

 

**

 

“He will see you now.”

Diana blinked, pulled out of her reverie by the haunting voice of one of Joseph’s attendants. She brought her hand down from her shoulder, which had been scratching idly at the old scar of LUST carved into her skin.

Chapter Text

Joseph Seed’s Home
Present Day

 

She nodded at the pale blond with a thin frame who’d caught her mid-daydream. By the chilling gaunt and the way she moved, Diana wasn’t sure if she was real or an apparition. She was graceful lithe as she walked about, almost mirroring the same mannerisms as their sister Faith.

The Church of Eden’s Gate was empty when they passed, its doors wide open to let the air run through it. Weeds surrounding it were overgrown, vines of green and orange entwined in the lattice and pillars. Traces of summer left the trees brittle and yellowing with fall beginning its transition to take over the county. Eden’s Gate insignia had been tagged over with “Blasphemer” and “False God” in red paint.

How did it come to this? Diana grimaced at the damage to her brother-in-law’s property. From what she recalled, billboards in the Henbane were destroyed as well as the statue they were once able to spot from almost every spot in the county—and even minute destruction like this caused by the Forsaken was disheartening and upsetting. The trail to his estate was wide and barren, a path of dirt with dying grass lined each side. Remains of Bliss flowers were dried up and broken along the way. The family’s symbol of unity, strength and uprising was now a relic loss and defeat. The short walk felt excruciating due to the silence between them, but Diana focused on the girl ahead of her and the sound of Morris’ footsteps to keep her head clear of the grief that overcame her.

Joseph Seed’s manor stood tall beyond the wilted trees, and its unkempt foliage told her the pride in his home was long gone. They stepped inside and she found the house, once gorgeous and decorated, now sparse and empty. It was void of many possessions, picture frames that lined the walls, furniture had been removed and what remained there was collecting a fair amount of dust. Only a few trinkets of Joseph’s collections were left on display. No, Joseph wasn’t ever a materialist, but it no longer felt like a home, just a hollow hideaway.

Passing the foyer, they reached the double doors beside the stairs. It was the doorway that led into Joseph’s office, they knew, so Morris leaned down to open it for Diana.

“Just her.” The girl said, gently placing a hand on Morris’ chest to keep him back. “And Father requests that there are no weapons, please.”

Diana glanced over at her lieutenant with a confident nod to signify she would be safe inside with her estranged brother-in-law, even unarmed. She knew well enough how to protect herself; the Joseph Seed she once knew was a pacifist—to an extent—far more diplomatic than the spitfire John or warrior Jacob. Nevertheless, she and Jacob constantly trained together, and he was easily double the body mass of his younger brother Joseph. She would be fine, she told herself. He wouldn’t hurt her.

Diana would comply to leave her weapons behind. They would be safe in Morris’ care, she knew, and so she shed herself of any weaponry she had on hand, visible and concealed. The backpack, the rifle, the pistol, the knife… the matching blade Jacob gifted her when they first started dating. Even the stiletto in her boot, her backup, was surrendered.

Morris begrudgingly accepted them. He tried to hide his consternation but failed as he felt the frown pull on the corners of his thin mouth. He kept an eye on Diana as she passed, only comfortable with her decision when she nodded at him again for reassurance. The girl guided him away from the door, to settle in the dining room or lounge area, to give Diana and Joseph some privacy.

The door creaked ominously when it opened, and Diana took a deep breath as she entered the room. After the door quietly clicked shut, she turned and spotted him by the open window across the room.

There he was.

Joseph Seed…

The Father.

The man who turned his back on Hope County, on Eden’s Gate. It was his project, one no one expected he would wholly abandon it or its people without a real fight. He was a vision in all white, his shirt unbuttoned, hanging loosely at his sides when the cool air rushed into the room. He turned slightly, and Diana beheld the familiar sight of his toned and scarred chest behind the drape of the thin cloth. The cuts, the tattoos on a canvas of tanned skin… Diana drank it in. His composure was expected, a stoic expression on his now fully-bearded face.

“My dear sister, Hope. As I live and breathe.” Joseph’s thin lips curled into a faint smile.

Diana winced when he said her given name—one she rarely went by since she joined Eden’s Gate, since she became a part of the Seed family.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this… unexpected visit?”

Silent for a beat, she considered her initial approach. Diana had been dreading this moment for months. Never did she anticipate coming to speak with Joseph alone, but such tragedy drew them back together. He was all about flourish and formalities, and she just wanted to cut to the chase. Quietly, she stated, “I didn’t want to come here.”

Joseph’s face hardened, seemingly offended by her reply. His tongue flicked out to wet his lips before asking, “Then why did you?” He stepped away from the window and walked toward her, his movements as light as the girl who let them in. Without his trademark yellow shades, Joseph’s big blue eyes were so sharp they penetrated her soul. They resembled his brothers. Joseph closed the space between them and reached out to tightly grasp at her shoulders, proceeding to lean down to press his forehead to hers.

Diana chewed on the inside of her cheek, resisting the urge to back away. Being this close to Joseph was always intense, a magnetic force she could never understand. She shuddered softly, letting the wave of uncertainty and fear wither away in his touch. The feeling was brief but relieving nonetheless.

Joseph warmly smiled at her when he stepped back, letting his hands travel down her biceps to her forearms. “I suppose it’s good you’ve come, so now I can properly say thank you for saving our sister, Faith.”

Diana gulped, glancing down as his soft hands took hers. They were opposites; the strong but delicate hands of the Father holding her rough and callused palms. It was a strange balance, but she did her best to stray from any other thoughts that would deter her from her purpose here. She soon realized that Faith hadn’t been seen since she arrived. “Where is she? Where is Faith?”

“Resting.” He smirked.

Diana frowned. “Joseph—”

Joseph reluctantly released her. He raised his hands and shook his head. “I didn’t harm her. Now, why would I? I’m not a monster, Hope. The weary have fallen at the hands of the Forsaken, and the one member of my family I did not expect to survive at all returned to me alive. All because of you.”

The last thing Diana wanted was punishment on Faith because of what happened—because she lost her way. Joseph’s words, his manipulation, partnered with the occasional physical action of punishment to his followers was often rumored to be fatal for those who would not return to the path. Then again, Diana realized, when there was not much left of the path, what more did he expect of them?  

Joseph gestured to the side, offering her a seat in one of the chairs in the lounge space of his office. At first, she didn’t want to accept—she didn’t want to make herself comfortable in a situation where comfort was practically nonexistent. But eventually, she gave in, trying to keep this as neutral as possible if she wanted to get anywhere with Joseph. He casually leaned back to partially sit on the arm of the couch across from her and tangled his fingers in front of him. “My sister… You didn’t want to see me, yet… here you are. What can I do for you?”

Something snide in her wanted to ask if he’d seen her coming here in a vision, but she digressed.

“They have John and…” Her voice wavered, “Jake. Whitehorse—Hudson and Pratt…”

Joseph breathed in deep and exhaled through his nose. His face didn’t change. He wasn’t surprised by the news as she’d been because it was possible he’d already seen that, or perhaps been informed. Morris said Whitehorse made a spectacle of announcing the triumph over the radio, and since his was in this very office and still intact, she figured Joseph had been made aware of his family’s turmoil.

“And I take it you already knew.” Diana finished.

Joseph nodded slightly. “My brothers were willing to die for me before. They know the price, the sacrifice. That we have not been placed in a position of success in this matter. This… war. They are in His hands now. If they are strong, then they will survive. To go after them is suicide, Hope, you know that.”

There it was again, that name. He said it three times now and it clearly bothered her. But at his apparent surrender, she frowned. “You would rather let your own die than take action? Joseph—what happened?”

Joseph waved his hands in front of him. “Look around you. This isn’t the world we wanted, the Eden we built. They took that from us. They didn’t give us a choice. But they let us live, and we must carry on.”

Diana scoffed. “Is this any way to live, in hiding? Or worse for your brothers, for Faith, to be held captive? I saw what Whitehorse and the Marshal did to Faith—bound her to the table and nearly drowned her to get her to talk. Filled her head with more of the Bliss than she could handle. If I hadn’t done something myself, I wouldn’t have had a sister to return to you. This is no way to live. Joseph, giving up isn’t like you. This isn’t your way.”

“My way?” He chuckled, filled more with irony than enjoyment. “My way led the flock into the massacre, into the hands of the Devils beyond the waters. The Forsaken are thriving now, as you’ve seen. Nothing is safe, nothing is sacred—even the Church was sullied by their hands, and everyone expects me to persist, to fight back. With what? I’ve said this before, I say it again: Sometimes it’s best to leave well alone.” There was always conviction in the words of the Father, but the tone and pessimism in the man before her showed he was no longer that. He was broken. Fragments of the savior of Eden’s Gate lingered but Joseph Seed was willing to let the path diminish and wither away.

“Leave well alone…” Diana uttered low, echoing Joseph’s words through clenched teeth. “If Hudson’s got John… or Pratt is still in the Whitetails—if he’s got Jacob caged up and they’re treating him as they did Faith, I’m not going hide. I have to go find them. I’ll spare what little crew we have left to search the Valley for John. But I have to find Jake. I have to…”

“My brothers may withstand. But on that same coin, they may falter. There is nothing we can do.” Joseph responded, quietly.

Diana scowled. “God damn it, Joseph! They’re your brothers, we can’t just leave them behind! Is that what you really want? To let them die?”

Joseph stared at her; his trademark stare matched with a bleak expression. He was calculating everything, chewing on what she said. His reserve made Diana uncomfortable, the way he stood and slinked around her, in an even pace that matched his very demeanor. Peaceful. Calm. A façade of a tranquil being when there was surely a storm brewing inside his mind. After a minute, he laughed. “You are exactly like my brother. Perhaps that’s why he took to you so fast…”

Diana shuddered when he touched her, his cold, soft fingers on the tops of her tender, sunburnt shoulders. There was electric in his touch. She flinched, closing her eyes when he spoke. Joseph was right. She and Jake shared an unusual bond since the day they met, when she saved the outpost from a fire after a bear knocked over a Bliss container and was followed by a series of events that made it go up in flames. Neither of them were strangers to burns and scars, nor were they afraid of diving into danger. They saved many of the flock from the inferno, and Diana took it upon herself to save Jacob from the fire when the smoke nearly took him down.

My hope, Jacob called her, my angel.

She fought off whatever emotions were rising to the surface, wanting to toughen up in the sight of her brother-in-law. “Joseph…”

“He always talked about you. Over dinner, here in my home. Over drinks with John—when I told them to get rid of that poison from Eden, oh I knew. But there was no harm done and a rare moment like that shared between my brothers, something so few and far between. I allowed it then, and thus all was forgiven. He even asked Faith how to go about his proposal… how to get the flowers you liked since they don’t much bloom around these parts… he was so worried about how to dress—because you know he wasn’t much of a fashionable sort. Jacob never wanted to settle down until … well, he met you.” Joseph strolled around to the couch across from her and slowly took a seat.

Her lip was trembling now, lightly, something she hoped remained unseen by Joseph. He spoke in a past tense, as if Jacob was already dead, and it kindled frustration behind her emerald eyes. Diana rose from her chair, folding her arms over her chest as she drifted to the mantle beside them. The painting of the siblings hung proudly over the fireplace. She focused on Jacob’s face, the soldier behind the rifle. She was his hope, as much as he was hers. She couldn’t stand the thought of losing him.

“When he told me he loved you, I knew there was something special about you. You changed him, my brother. The hard-headed Jacob who thought himself too old to settle down had fallen hard for a woman—told me it was more than Lust—that it was love, and again, I forgave him. Because you accepted him. Because his scars didn’t make you pity him, because his nightmares didn’t make you run away. Because you loved him back.”

Diana swallowed hard, and her mouth had run dry as Joseph recalled the journey thus far in a painful soliloquy. There was agony in his voice and face, she knew, and it was the reason why she still couldn’t bear to look at him.

Joseph was closing in again, his subtle footsteps drawing near until they came to a halt just behind her. She could feel the aggravation, the tension radiating between them, replaced by the faint brush of his hands on her arms once more. “I tried to free all of my children from desire. I asked my siblings, my Heralds, to do the same. I tried myself to withstand something so… fickle so feeble as lust. But we are only human and cannot withstand such temptations. Of course, Jacob insisted. He told me he’d never loved anyone as much as you. Not John or me even, I’m sure.”

“Joseph…” Her voice trembled.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell him either, that you were m—”

“Joseph, please…” Diana pleaded, every inch of her tightening and flexing at his touch.

His hands had made it to her shoulders and began their descent, trailing back down the length of her exposed arms. He stopped when the carving of PRIDE on the back of her right tricep, starting to trace each letter of the word with his forefinger. “Jacob came to me and asked if I would perform the ceremony. He asked if John could give you away because he was the only family for you that could. If Faith could sing—oh Faith has such a lovely voice, doesn’t she?”

“Don’t…”

“But, as we can see the outcome of that fairy tale, of how love prevailed between you and my brother Jacob, I did the one thing he asked of me. I did it all because I love my family. And on that day, he declared you as his—you became family. Right?”

She felt a sting in her chest. It was clear, the thread Joseph had been pulling at. Diana wasn’t ready to revisit that point in time because she was living in the present, and she was running out of time. “You love your family, and now they suffer at the hands of the Forsaken. Joseph, Whatever this is, whatever this… was… it’s over.”

His brow furrowed, a huff of irritation escaping his nostrils.

“I came here today hoping you’d found yourself. Hoping you weren’t blind to the loss—to see that we can still restore Eden’s Gate. I need—”

“Eden’s Gate is no more!!!” Joseph’s mood turned on a dime. In a flash, he backed her against the far wall and pounded his fist beside her head so forcefully that she jumped. “What do you want from me? Huh? What do you need from me? Why do you come to my home, remind me of everything I have to lose, of everything I’ve lost—of EVERYTHING that has fucking died around us?! WHY are you here, Hope? WHY have you come to disturb me when ALL I WANT IS PEACE?!”

 She gasped as Joseph’s grip of his left hand tightened on her forearm so much that it was beginning to throb, the painful pinch told her it was going to leave a bruise. She stifled a whimper, reluctantly raising her face to meet his gaze. Diana felt that pull again, that raw energy bursting between them. Joseph was so close they shared the same breath, his lips so close to claiming hers.

 When the crimson veil of his unrelenting ire seemingly lifted, Joseph noticed the fear in her and immediately let go.

“Diana.” She breathed out. Enough was enough. “My name… is Diana.”

“Diana,” he echoed. There was a flicker of confusion in his eyes, questions sitting on the tip of his tongue. As he processed the change within him and the terror he extracted from her, Joseph shook his head. “We are no more. You and I. The family. The project, the ideals now delusions, the Bliss… The sooner you get that through your head, the better off we will be.”

Diana sighed, traces of a glare on her face as she reached down to tend to the burning in her left forearm. This is exactly why she didn’t want to come here. She didn’t want to get chastised, physically and mentally tormented by the man who walked away from his own cause, and now, his own family. It was discouraging to see the leader of her new family be rendered to hopelessness, but his defeat couldn’t be an obstacle in her way. Diana needed to go. Joseph was a lost cause. “Leave the world to the Forsaken and you have truly accepted the end. But I haven’t. I’m going. With or without your help.”

Joseph didn’t react when she turned to the door.

Diana was done pleading on deaf ears, but when the floorboards creaked beneath his feet, she stopped just short of leaving the room. She braced herself, ready to defend herself if he wanted to touch her again.

“The Armory.” Josephs voice called from a distance. He had returned to his post at the window, his trembling hands shoved deep into his pant pockets. “Have Leah take you there. Take what you need.”

Diana nodded over her shoulder. She had nothing left to say. She had a mission to carry out.

“Stay alive, Hope.”

Chapter Text

John Seed’s Bunker
Holland Valley
1 1/2 years ago

Diana shivered in the corner of the empty cell. She was huddled with her knees hugged to her chest. The cell reeked of old rot, piss-stains on the floor, reacting with the foul rainwater that leaked inside from the cracked walls. Gently, she rocked to keep herself warm from the winter air that filled the room, chilling her under the soaked garments Joseph made her wear in the river for the baptism that occurred just this afternoon.

She could still see John’s face as she yearned for the surface, practically begging him for air. With saddened eyes, John declared she wasn’t yet clean and dipped her in a second time. As she scratched and squeezed at his arms, an unspoken safe word, a plea to emerge from the waters, John ignored her and kept her down as long as Joseph wanted. Maybe it was her test, to see how much faith she was willing to put in Joseph and the church. She spurned them both for risking her life. It was a fear of hers too, drowning, so putting that much trust in the brother who had betrayed her by carving the words into her skin left a bitter taste in her mouth.

When she was about to question whether or not the brothers had forgotten her in the cells below John’s bunker, she realized she wasn’t alone. Boots dragged in a moment ago, yet even the squeal of the metal chair wasn’t enough to pull her out of her trance.

“You alright?” It was the soldier, Jacob.

She didn’t answer. Jacob hadn’t yet done anything bad to her, but she found him guilty by association. He was a Seed, and therefore on her shit list for now.

“He says you have potential. He says you are special. But part of me senses that you’re ready to die here.” He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his thighs as he looked at her. “Do you know where you are?” Jacob paused, tilting his head slightly. “Do you know who I am?”

Her brows knitted into a harsh line as she glared. Of course she remembered him. She remembered their time together, after they saved an outpost in the northern valley from a fire, all because Aaron Nelson didn’t do his job to secure the Bliss barrels near the gates. Jacob commended her for her bravery, Joseph too, but John knew there was something odd about her spending that same evening at Jacob’s home…

Jacob was a gentleman that night, letting her get cleaned up and getting her burns tended to by his best doctor. He had his lieutenant, Warren at the time, fix up the guest bedroom for her to stay. It was the bedroom adjacent to Jacob’s—and when Jacob screamed awake it alarmed her. Call it bravery or foolishness, but she wandered into his bedroom, chancing further punishment as she climbed into bed to help him back to sleep. At first, he didn’t want to be touched, pushing her away, telling her she shouldn’t have been there, but she insisted. Jacob only accepted her after a verbal bout which nearly led to a physical altercation that even he couldn’t win. He’d been compromised; a weakness seen by this woman and he was already in a storm of emotional disorder. Even with that reluctance, they held each other close that night. Diana only wearing a borrowed nightgown he said Faith left at his home, and Jacob was dressed down to his white undershirt and boxers. The inevitable pull, their desire, was evident. He wanted her, and she him, and such desire was met with bitter consequence: Lust was a sin, and John was instructed to make her confess.

And so, he did. John’s suspicions proved real when she confessed to spending the night with Jacob. Though they didn’t have sex, the temptation was enough for punishment.  

The massive man stood from his chair and shoved it aside, stepping closer when the woman didn’t respond. His gaze was fixed on her shivering frame in the white gown, wondering how she was holding up after John’s sick little experiment. There was a shuffle of fabric, and a few seconds later, Diana was wrapped within his camouflage jacket.

“I-is he going to kill me?” She asked, breaking the silence as a token of gratitude for his grand gesture. Her meek verdant eyes sought him out. “Are you going to kill me?”

Jacob remained silent. He took a deep breath and shoved his hands into his pockets. Blotches of his rashes and burns trailed up his swollen forearms. When he was through examining her, he removed his hand from his pocket and extended it to her.

Diana didn’t accept, possibly out of fear, and he huffed softly to bend down to her level. Jacob stayed there for a time too, before moving to touch her. He tucked his arm in the crook of her knees and set the other broad hand on her back, giving her a soft, reassuring pat. Before she could understand what was going on, Diana was felt weightless as the ground beneath her vanished and she was pulled into Jacobs arms.

It was like puzzle pieces snapped together, the way she fit against him. Diana softly gasped, lazily wrapped her arms around his neck and held on. Everything felt right as he raised her, giving her a faint glimmer of hope she would be taken somewhere far from this awful hell. Her eyes were heavy, peering through her eyelashes as Jacob took her away. She snuggled deep in his jacket, breathing in its scent. It smelled like him. Gunpowder and sweat, a musky aftershave and the great outdoors.

Jacob exited John’s bunker without any interference from the flock, save the words of respect and acknowledgement given his way. Diana’s eyes were shut tight, even after she was loaded into his truck. She tried to sleep most of the way, still wrapped in the blissful cocoon of his jacket. Her face still stung from the bruises and cuts, but the cool window against her skin was soothing.

The drive from Holland Valley up into the Whitetails took a while, but Jacob turned on the radio to help pass the time.

“Oh John… Bold and Brave!…”

CLICK.

The soldier grunted in aggravation as he flipped the switch, not wanting to hear the praises of his maniacal brother who just tore into the flesh of the woman beside him. The rest of the drive was silent, save the howl of the air coming through the crack in his window.

Diana didn’t know how long it took to get into Jacob’s region, but when the sign for St. Francis Veterans Center flew past, she was relieved. Scared. But relieved. What was Jacob up to? Why was she open to trust the only Seed Brother she knew very little about—the same man who shared the bed with her and let her hold him when his dreams terrified him?

Jacob hopped out after turning off the engine, shoving the keys into his pocket as he made his way around the front. He tugged the door open and helped her out of the truck, and even went as far as lifting her again to carry her when she found she could hardly walk. The Bliss made her weary, the blood loss even more so, and she could barely stand on her own. They snuck through the shadows of the back entrance, taking Jacob’s own secret route to the floor above. They walked down the empty hallway past his office. The only other room she recognized, besides the room where she once stayed was his—though she’d never been inside until now. It was dim in here; animal heads hung from the wall as trophies from his hunts, and his favored guns, including the ruby-red sniper rifle were mounted there too. There was an un-lit fireplace here framed in dark stones, but the most prominent color she found in the low light was… red. It was difficult to fully assess her new surroundings since the room was only lit by the small floor lamp across the room that stood beside an old chair. This was far better than a rotten old cell John had fashioned for her. She was grateful for Jacob’s surprising hospitality, but all she could think about was how much she wanted to get out of her clothes as they were covered in blood.

The door clicked shut behind them, and a chill found her spine when Jacob turned the lock.

He walked her over to the well-lit chair to rest, carefully assisting her past his king-sized bed. Obedient and meek, the silent woman followed, and instead of letting her sit alone while he went about his business, Jacob sat down in the chair. Diana was about to step back to give him room or take a seat on the floor, but a strong hand grasped at her wrist and pulled her into his lap.

She gasped. What was he going to do to her? For a moment, she feared the worst. She’d heard about how the Seeds would sometimes slip—give into their hunger, their lust, and have their way with some of the women from the county. They would fuck them—some willing, some not—and toss them aside like old garbage. They were just stories, rumors to keep her far away from becoming another notch in their bedposts… at least, she hoped.

But when she looked into his eyes, Diana felt those rumors were just that. Rumors. Sure, there was still time for him to turn and ravage her if he wanted but he was genuine. Jacob was consoling her, in a way.

Such beautiful eyes, she thought.

His hardened brow ridge pulled together slightly as he continued his visual assault by studying her movements and reactions to his touch. His gentle strokes on her warm cheeks, and his usually dominating presence was matched with her kindness. Loneliness. Longing. He had no intentions of hurting her.

Jacob was a soldier, feared, revered and a legend of survival and persistence. He was a man of few words—unless he was passionate about something. He would speak about the war and his experiences driving him, shaping him into the man he was today. She heard the way he talked to his soldiers; the followers dubbed his warriors by recruitment and training, and later blessed by Joseph’s approval. She knew he sternness in his voice that resonated through her even though he had never spoken to her directly until the day of the fire.

“My… brother…” Jacob sighed. “John is a pain in the ass and sometimes he takes some things too far.”

I’m sorry, he wanted to add, but he refrained.

Diana stared at him, almost frowning that he’d brought up John again. She wanted to hate him, hold a grudge against him for what he’d done. But it was his job, something Joseph asked him to do. It was confusing, this process, the balance of love and tenderness from The Father and his Heralds matched with the brutal treatment to test their mettle.

Jacob’s intense glare softened into infinite pools of a soothing azure as he held her there. “You’ll be safe here. With me.”

 

**

 

Falls End Retreat
Holland Valley
Present Day

“Hey…” A voice was calling to her from the darkness. “Hey!”

An explosion of stars behind the shield of her eyelids jolted her out of her memory. A jolt of pain surged through her face, and laughter echoed through the room. All she could smell was mold and piss and blood. Some time passed, more pain coursing through her and the scent of a match being lit was heard.

With pungent scent of sulfur under her nose and the sound of fading footsteps, Diana’s eyes fluttered open. When she tried to move, her arms pulled taut against an opposing force, her limbs were bound to a chair. Diana panicked. She tried to call out but realized she couldn’t with her mouth covered by tape. It was futile; any means of escape seemed impossible now as she grunted and struggled in her seat. This dungeon, dimly lit with red bulbs on the far walls, was not familiar to her.

Had they captured her?

The last thing she remembered was leaving Joseph’s island and starting her quest in Holland Valley. She went southwest toward any old outpost, to seek out any allies who might aid in her search. Diana made camp for the night after discovering Rye’s place still inhabited by him and his family, Kimiko, and their baby girl. She hadn’t spoken with Nick Rye in quite some time, an old friend from her younger days with whom she’d had a love-hate friendship. The pilot was as stubborn as the rest of the men of Hope County—but she wasn’t going to go after him. His hangar would’ve been ideal. She planned to steal a plane and fly into the Whitetails after finding John but alas… here she was.

Mistakes were made, and she was a prisoner.

Whatever they hit her with sent her back in time, the memory of how her and Jacob found each other now merely a dream of distant times. Bliss, she assumed, that twisted little flower caused hallucinations or memories floating in ones subconscious to float to the surface… often at the most inconvenient moments.

Diana was awake now and was seated with another prisoner. He looked disheveled; a marble of purple and black on his eye, his dark hair caked in blood. His blue collared shirt had been cut and tattered, soaked with sweat and blood from his other wounds.

John.

He was bound and gagged as well, frayed ropes burning around his wrists to the armrests. Their knees touched, and she leaned forward as much as possible to wake him.

“John!” She cried out from behind the seal over her lips. “John, please! Wake up!”

Fuck, her cheeks hurt like a bitch too—the sting of the freshest hit now swelling on her face.

Labored breath came from John as he stirred. He slowly blinked into consciousness, dark circles beneath those baby blue eyes prominent when he raised his head. Horror spread across his face when he recognized her. His brow narrowed, tears welling up instantly in a mixture of joy and dread… fear of what was coming for them.

“Well, well, well…” A woman’s voice cut the air. Whether or not she was in the room already, Diana didn’t know, but it startled her. Joey Hudson stepped out of the shadows, her hands behind her back, her dark braid hanging over her shoulder. “Good to see you. Hope…Or whatever the hell they’re calling you now, huh?”

At the sound of her voice, Diana inhaled sharply. The woman dressed in deputy greens was someone she knew; Joey was an old friend of her family. More than a friend, she recalled, since a fling with Diana’s sister was a rumor that tore their family apart. However, their falling out had everything to do with the fact that Diana distanced herself from everything to steal away into mountains.

“Diana now, isn’t it? Regent of the Whitetail Mountains. You had to go and marry Jacob fucking Seed—which, I gotta say, that one surprised the shit out of me. I didn’t think I heard them right until old Whitehorse told me it was all so real.”

Diana shifted to focus on the darkest corner of the room, keeping her eyes up and away as not to show her captor that she struck a nerve. Joey was clearly bitter about Diana’s new life—her new love, her new family—but it wasn’t a surprise. No one in Hope County understood why she joined Eden’s Gate. At the time, she wasn’t sure she understood it either. But she was happier then, with Jacob, with Joseph, and even John… and that was all ripped away by Whitehorse and his deputies. She needed to be strong for the sake of giving John the notion that he was safe, even if he knew he wasn’t.

Neither of them were.

“I had a feeling you’d show up. I mean, it was only a matter of time. News that Faith had been taken from Henbane told me we had to keep our doors locked and our eyes open for you.” Hudson had wandered somewhere behind Diana. The sound of shuffling through trinkets and tools meant she was probably going through her belongings. “My men picked you up just outside of Rye’s place. Snooping around the hangar like you were planning a smooth getaway—did you not hear me over the radio warning that we’d find you?”

No, she hadn’t. Diana had been on the public frequencies too—the ones she remembered were in use by Whitehorse and his deputies. Nothing came through but static and the occasional message that their compounds were clear, or the region patrols had wiped out another handful of “peggies” seeking refuge in the county. She wasn’t ready to face Hudson, she wanted to calculate her plan of attack and meet her on her terms. Because she was sloppy, because of missteps were taken along the way, she found herself trapped in this room, prepped to endure torture with her brother John. She saw no way out of this.

“You see, Johnny here… was a man of the people. The Baptist. The baby brother Seed, spoiled by the immorality of city life thinking he was free of past transgressions. This righteous entitled fucking prick comes around. He takes his vengeance out on the people—holding fast to his brother’s teachings and prophecies… A shepherd to lead the flock into the slaughter.” Hudson’s lip twitched, and she gritted her teeth as she brought herself down to find the eyes of the man she believed to be a true monster. “Did you see what they did to us, Hope? Did you see how they ruined my life? Pratt’s—and Burke!?”

Hudson slammed her fist against the nearby pillar, a thunderous thud ringing out in the room. She was amused by Diana’s struggle as she stepped closer. Her dark eyes were so intense they were nearly black as she stayed there a minute to get her point across.

“Burke is dead. And somehow, I knew it was you—Whitehorse didn’t have to tell me that. He didn’t have to tell me that someone we thought we could trust was behind enemy lines. Hiding in plain sight. Hiding with a new name. Why are you hiding, Hope? Why did you run—all those years ago, and even later after we thought you were with us… you fucking ran.”

Diana swallowed hard, fighting to blink away the sweat and tears that were stinging her eyes. Moving her face was a task now, the ache from the strike on her cheek before throbbing to remind her she could easily die in this moment as she was left open to Hudson’s wrath.

John whimpered in agony when Joey turned and finally ripped the tape off his mouth, pulling skin from his mouth and hairs from his beard as she did. The man’s cries were more prevalent now, echoing in the crude cell. “You sh-shouldn’t have come for m-me… Di, you shouldn’t h-have—”

“That’s ENOUGH out of you!” Hudson’s gloved hand swiped in front of her, the back of her palm smacking the bruised face of the younger Seed.

Diana jumped, her fingers numb from trying to claw at the armrest and pry out of her restraints. It hurt her to see him this way and couldn’t do anything to help him.

“John is right, you know. You shouldn’t have come.” Hudson reached over and pulled the tape from Diana’s face, pleased by the cry she let out, before throwing it somewhere behind her. “But it is good to see you, old friend.”

“Joey this isn’t you—wh-what have you done?!” Diana blurted out. There was so much more she wanted to scream, but these words escaped her lips before she could stop them.

This isn’t me?” Hudson laughed, the red lights casting shadows on her face to make her appear more menacing than Diana remembered. “How the fuck can you say that you know me? After you ran away thinking that would solve all your god damn problems, thinking me and Cassandra—er, Cassandra—whatever the fuck she calls herself now... you thought we could save ourselves, right? That we didn’t need your help…”

Hudson stepped around John, and when she brought her other hand around, she revealed a weapon in her possession, unsheathed and its sharp point held at John’s throat. It was his blade.

“Don’t! Don’t kill him Joey—”

“Kill him?” She laughed. “Eventually. But for now… this would suffice.” She angled the blade on the open flesh of his neck, missing anything vital as she cut in. John howled in distress, as drops of blood oozed from the wound. He hissed, struggled, and cried out as she slowly caused him pain.

Diana screamed along with him, writhing and wriggling to break free as the hot tears streamed down her cheeks.

Hudson chuckled, and went in again. This time, she cut in and pulled down. Diana winced, her eyes squeezing shut, anticipating the tortured screams of her brother-in-law once more. She was relieved to hear fabric being torn as John’s shirt was ripped open at the front. Hudson pulled down and completely ripped the remainder of the thin cloth from his body until he was bare from the waist up. She revealed his skin, covered in familiar tattoos which were now accented with fresh lacerations, everything Diana had seen before… except the word she just discovered, a fresh wound sitting atop the scar of SLOTH.

“To your seven vices, the sins we committed and suffered for… I match the seven virtues to you… the ones who think themselves saints. Saviors…” Her finger ran the length of the bloodied blade, and she wiped his blood off on her pants. “Gods…”

Diana’s relief was replaced with nausea. HUMILITY. Diana read, a bold word raised on blackened scabs on his left shoulder. The tender flesh surrounding it screamed out in purple and blue. He’d been branded. The Baptist, the carver of Eden’s Gate, had his own trademark tactic used against him with this brand.

It was clear Joey Hudson had gone insane; the torture John had put upon her created a monster. Hudson was truly proud of her work here, turning the tables on the man who tortured her for weeks and showed her no mercy.

“For you then? What… Diligence? Mercy?” Hudson’s eyes flickered down to where her free hand traveled, chancing a teasing trail up the inside of Diana’s thigh until it reached her crotch of her leggings. She gave Diana’s leg a firm squeeze, biting softly on her bottom lip. Hudson grinned, when she caught sight of the word LUST already carved there, knowing a far more fitting brand to match the woman she once trusted. “Chastity… Right, Mrs. Seed?

The room started spinning.

Hudson stalked toward the blazing furnace behind her and pulled a long rod from its mouth. The end was glowing a bright red, ominous and terrifying. The word Chastity had already been prepped, ready to take on its next victim.

Diana’s tears continued to stream down the side of her face. “No—”

“It’s funny though—since I was sure you were going to marry Joseph. Weren’t you?”

Guilt flashed in her eyes for a second, the face of Joseph there and quickly dissipating in the face of danger. Everyone asked about Joseph. Everyone wondered why she chose Jacob. But now wasn’t the time to explain herself. Joey didn’t really care for her answer anyway—she was about to torture her, and potentially kill her.

“H-Hudson—no, she has n-nothing to d-do with this!” John wailed, shaking in his chair to draw attention away from Diana. Hudson advanced, ignoring John for the time being.

Diana squirmed in her seat, her body tense with fear as she watched the metal iron inch closer to her bare chest. “Joey—No!!”

“Deputy Hudson.” A voice called from the doorway, an unknowing savior. He was only prolonging the inevitable, but Diana hoped it would at least buy her some time with John to formulate a plan of escape.

“I said no interruptions—that meant none—now what the hell do you want?” She shouted back into the darkness behind them. She hated interruptions. She hated that her victims were so close to feeling the pain she wanted them to experience…

“Whitehorse wants to see you.” He said.

Hudson groaned. This wasn’t something she could weasel out of. She threw the rod back into the furnace, causing embers and sparks to spit out of the fire. She mumbled other profane remarks about the interruption as she shoved the blade into the sheath at her hip. One more cursory glance at the Seeds was all she did before making her exit.

Diana’s heart took a moment to slow its pace.

She was startled when trembling hands grasped at her bindings, the teeth of a small pocket knife gnawed at the wraps around her wrists. “John—how did you—”

He’d managed to pull himself out of his chair, the weak arm giving way to one of the ropes which helped him break free. John was still clearly out of it, using what little strength to fuel his effort to free her. He helped her out of the chair, and at once, she hugged him. He groaned, the air squeezed out of him when she held him there but for the first time since she wed Jacob, John hugged her in return. He had been desperate for this contact, an allied force showing compassion instead of the harsh treatment he’d suffered here for however many days Hudson held him captive. He’d lost count.

“Let’s go…” She whispered, cooing him softly as she reached up to stroke his back. She noticed the wound upon his neck had congealed, hoping it would seal up and scab over quickly as not to make him lose much more, blood wise.

John had been weeping into her shoulder, quietly as not to alarm the guards. When he finally calmed down, she reached down and squeezed his tender hand. He hissed at that which made her pull back, but he clamped down on her hand to stop her from letting go. John gently returned the gesture to show his appreciation.

They needed to leave. They needed out and fast. John led her out the only entrance of their dungeon, which had been surprisingly left unlocked after Hudson left in her rage. He’d gotten to know this compound well in his stay, even though his vision was often blurry from a Bliss-induced haze. Hanging on Diana’s shoulder like a crutch, John guided her through the lesser taken paths of Hudson’s patrolmen, until they reached a doorway that was a clear exit to the valley. Cool air blew inside when Diana turned the hatch, and when they were sure no one had followed them, she pulled John outside and kept a brisk pace until they found a patch of trees. The night sky helped keep them out of sight, and the fresh air had never been sweeter.

“Not too far—we can rest at that farm over there.” Diana weakly pointed, seeing the faint light of a torch across a green meadow. “Rest, gather supplies and get back to Joseph. And Faith.”

“You h-have to go. G-get out of h-here.” John slumped down against her, his knees buckling beneath him. “I need to f-finish this.”

Catching him in her arms again, Diana shook her head. The sour mix of his perspiration and cologne filled her nose, and she grimaced. She knew what he was insinuating. “John—you have to come with me.”

“Hudson—”

“We deal with her later. We’re not in any shape to fight.” The sting of her cuts and bruises came back to her now that the adrenaline of their escape had worn off. They still weren’t out of the woods, so to speak, and they needed to move before Hudson discovered they were gone.

John shook his head. “It’s dangerous to go together…”

“It’s dangerous to go alone! I already lost you once—I won’t lose you again.” Diana was only one woman, fighting against hundreds to save the family. She reached up and placed her hands at his cheeks, pulling herself on her aching toes to press her forehead to his. It was Joseph’s way to comfort the weary souls. They both knew it. But in this trying time, they clung to that gesture for reassurance in one another, a familiar motion to get them through the pain and discouragement.

John pulled away, his pale blue eyes were glowing in the dark. He let her hold onto him, reaching up with his disfigured hand—as she only now noticed he was missing part of his ring finger. He still wanted to take down Hudson or at the very least insist they split up now… but he conceded to the fact that she was right.

It was going to be a long march to find a haven, but together they escaped the hold of Joey Hudson, for now, and needed to regroup.

Chapter Text

Clegett Bay
Holland Valley North
Present Day

 

After a restless journey up through the Holland Valley from Hudson’s compound in Falls End, John and Diana briefly sought out shelter in an abandoned farm along the way. After tending to his neck wound and the cuts from Hudson’s knife and iron, they set out again, not wanting to lose sight of their ongoing escape. They’d walked for miles in hopes to find water, or at the very least, buy them some time to reach the Whitetails if they travelled north for much longer. They skillfully dodged the patrols of planes and copters hovering overhead, finding cover through the fields where the grass and crops were taller than them this season.

However, when they finally saw the shimmering riverbed reflecting the morning sun, they also found themselves on the run yet again.

“Give me your hand!” Diana shouted.

“The Forsaken…they have eyes in the sky, they’re gonna see us!”

“Fuck ‘em, just take my hand, John!”

A pack of Hudson’s men were in pursuit. The sound of the ATV’s revving, tires tearing through the field, ramped up their panic as they scurried along. Joseph’s Island wasn’t too far from their current position. It was just a short boat ride across the water to the haven Joseph had claimed, which remained untouched by Whitehorse and the Deputies, for now…

As much as Diana wanted to keep on to the mountains, her aches and oozing cuts were enough of a reminder that she needed a few more days to recoup. The most important thing was that she had John with her now, and even though their collective health was not ideal, they were moving together toward their sanctuary.

It wasn’t until they heard the engine of an airplane closing in, that the real chase had begun.

“Come on, Hope, you should know you can’t hide from us.” The radio on her hip came to life.

A shiver ran up her shoulders. Nick Fucking Rye. She was glad she thought to snag a radio on their way out of the bunker, but she didn’t need it to know who was in the airspace above them, given the brightly colored paint on and the well-known logo, she knew it was Rye from the start. The Rye and Evans families were friends long before the Seeds came to town, before Eden’s Gate… but no matter their past, it was clear whose side Nick had taken in the skirmish.

 “Oh, fuck me!” John cursed, limping alongside Diana as they aimed for the nearby dock. It was either they give up their chance to escape and return to the bunker with Hudson, or try to press on to meet Joseph.

To Diana, surrender was not an option. We’re SO close! She wanted to make a break for it and pray they could swim faster and outmaneuver the man with the keen bird’s eye view of their trail. “Let’s go!” She tugged on John’s hand, all gentleness and coddling for their injuries swept aside for the sake of getting away.

Being out in the open was far more dangerous than sitting under the cover of trees, but booking it to the water seemed like their only choice now. The shores of Clegett Bay were deceptively tranquil, its shallower waters full of sharp rocks, and the occasional pieces of glass from rowdy sinners who kept booze on them and partied in secret out on the waterfront. Diana knew they had to run and swim like hell to get to Joseph’s. She could even see the Church of Eden’s Gate from the hilltop as they ran.

So close…

“Well hello there, stranger. Hudson said you managed to break out—and you wanted to steal a plane from me?” Nick clicked his tongue. “I thought your daddy taught you better than that.”

 “Fuck you, Rye.” Diana cursed into her radio, clipping it to her belt before hauling John over to the abandoned boat. It was their only way to Joseph, and was so close, but so far away…

“Fighting words right there, sweetheart but I’m married.” Nick jeered, steering his plane until he was right above them. “Well, you asked for it. Better brace yourself, girl. This is gonna be one wild ride!”

When the bullets hit, the earth beneath them shook. Rounds large enough to chip off a piece of them rained from Rye’s armed aircraft, with such precision that cut it dangerously close to hitting them.

Diana led him in a jagged zig-zag, a pitiful attempt at avoiding Rye’s attacks. Jacob and her papa always advised her to do so, to get out of any lines of sight, but with the size of Rye’s ammunition, the spacing of their steps was still too narrow for comfort. John’s knees were buckling, weaker than her own. The frantic nature of escape, the need for survival took over her and Diana held on tight to her injured brother. She kept them moving to avoid being hit. They were in the shallow waters now, daring to cross over the treacherous waters to reach the lonely boat tethered to a large rock along the way. It was almost too conveniently placed, but Diana wasn’t going to question a vessel that was at the right place at the worst time.

“Di…” John groaned.

“You’re going to make it, John. You’re gonna make it.”

“No… N-No I’m not—I’m not!” John had been in Hudson’s captivity long enough to break him, that much was showing now, and it was breaking her heart. “We’re gonna die here, don’t you see—”

“John… stay with me, ‘kay? Keep moving for me, brother. Keep moving…” Diana’s words of encouragement might have sounded hollow, but she meant them with the best of sentiments to push him onward. As the youngest, and the most temperamental of the brothers, she’d grown accustomed to his lack of efforts when all hope was lost, but it didn’t mean she was going to give up on him just yet. She’d encouraged Faith the same way just weeks before, and she would keep that going to keep John alive.

She heaved him into the boat, pushing it along as far as her toes would reach before kicking her feet back to propel them forward. She hopped up into the craft as it slowly sailed with the nearly tranquil current—until John finally tugged on the cord to get the motor running. Diana patted John on the back as commendation to see there was still fight in him. As they started to pick up speed, and after hitting a pretty high wave along the current, a large metallic weapon bounced into the air and started to fall near her. She reached up and wasn’t quite prepared for the heft of the new weapon; it was another oddly placed convenience in their getaway boat.

M-60? Diana mused. Beautiful…

“You know how to use that thing?” John asked. Of course, he did, but he was far too weak to hold it upright at the moment and seemed more comfortable driving the craft in the short distance they had left to reach Joseph’s island.

Diana smirked as she hoisted the strap to her shoulder, sweeping the belt of ammo to the side to make sure it wasn’t going to twist or get jammed. She winked. “I don’t think Jake wouldda married me if I didn’t.”

John rolled his eyes with a puff of relief and kept driving, turning at just the right moments to steer away from another attack Rye tried when he flew over them. It was momentary, but a quick exchange of lighthearted optimism seemed to help them.

Diana turned the barrel of the gun up toward “Rye & Sons” aircraft and pulled the trigger. The gun vibrated in her grasp, the smell of gunpowder invigorating as she let loose the rounds to shoot down the man she once called her friend.

“Hope—Hope what the fuck! Are you crazy?” Rye exclaimed, veering the plane out of the trajectory of her high-caliber bullets.

You’re trying to kill us and I’m the crazy one?”

“Just doin’ what I’m told.”

“Fuck you.” She spat into her radio. She didn’t bother to correct him since he probably didn’t give a shit that she didn’t use that name anymore.

“Hoooo darlin’, that Jacob got you real good, di’nt he? Fucking hell, Hope… that’s such a damn shame.” A different voice cut in this time. Not Nick’s…

Hurk? Diana thought to herself, lowering the gun to her hip as John pulled the boat around a large boulder that had been in their path. For a second, she wondered if Drubman Jr. was in the co-pilot seat of Rye’s plane.

“Retreat, Rye. You hear me? Pull back!” It was Hudson this time.

“No can do, Jo—I got this!” Rye responded.

When Diana released the trigger, she turned her head just in time to see what Rye had targeted, but there was no time to dodge…

An explosion of the volatile Bliss barrels floating in the bay sent a geyser of water and mud above them. The ringing in her ears was already disorienting. The boat splintered when they crashed, sending her and her brother John flying toward the shore on Joseph’s land, their already raw skin torn from the sharp earth that awaited them there. When the second kaboom of another barrel went off, Diana was knocked down again, taking her down before she could even try to get to John. She felt the air tear through her as she inhaled deep, clinging onto consciousness as best as she could. When she rolled to prone, the throbbing in her chest of her weary chest pounded on. John was just a few feet away from her. He lay there, face up, staring at the sky as he fought for his own breath.

“J-John…” Diana whimpered, unable to hear her own voice as she crawled low on the shores to his fallen body. She would be damned to lose him again.

“There!” A blond man she didn’t clearly recognize shouted. “Get them! We’re gonna bring them back to—”

The muffled shots rang in the air, a smattering of bullets aimed at the people sent to capture them again. The sound was unmistakable, and a new surge of fear and flight took over. But as Diana turned her head to see who had come to their aid, she succumbed to the Bliss, and the darkness…

…the path back into her distant, but most cherished memory.

 

St. Francis Veteran’s Center

1 ½ years ago

 

She was there again… in Jacob’s room, with him, the night after he retrieved her from John’s bunker…

They sat there, staring at one another. Jacob held onto her in his lap as they sat still in the old weathered chair, his blue eyes looking deep into her with curiosity.

“Are you afraid?” Jacob asked. His voice was different now.

Was she? She should have been. Man, woman, teen—it didn’t matter who they were, if they didn’t have the right stomach for the project, or to be judged by the most feared of the Heralds, they often fell apart before him.

“I’m not afraid to die.” Diana answered the soldier with determination that might have seemed feigned under the spell of the Bliss.

Dark red eyebrows raised. Her answer surprised him, as if he figured she would say yes like the others before her. Jacob raised his hand to her face, caressing her cheek with the back of his fingers. Diana didn’t tense or move away as his fingers spread, reaching up to comb through the length of her damp and matted hair. He cradled her head, arcing his fingers slightly to gently rub over her scalp at the roots of her raven hair. Jacob craned his neck down until he was a breath away from her ear and asked, “Are you afraid of me?”

Dangerously close to him now, Diana felt the warmth of his cheek as the stubble brushed her skin. She slightly turned her head and whispered back, “No.”

He tilted his head, letting out a soft puff of hot breath from his nose. Was she lying? Was she steeling herself to feign bravery for his sake? It wasn’t like Diana had much to lose here, so why would she put on that front? Again, he was surprised, and intrigued.

“Should I be?” Diana asked, wholly honest in her response. There was nothing wrong with being candid with the elder Seed, who had come to her aid after her baptism and punishment.

Something about Jacob was truly alluring. She was lost in his beautiful eyes. Diana carefully reached up, to touch his face as he did hers. Her fingertips explored each ridge of his scars, each one telling a story of his past, of the man he was before she ever knew Jacob Seed existed. Diana’s eyes followed her hand as she tenderly traced his forehead to his brow, and once more trailed back down onto his cheek.

Jacob backed away slowly, a natural instinct for him since he’d never let anyone get this close. Sure, he would yell in the face of his recruits, scold the shit out of his lieutenants or allow his brothers to invade his personal space for a time—but this girl… she was different. She carried on, returning her hand to his face to trace gentle strokes along his rough skin. He hummed softly when she gently scratched over his beard. Jacob was in awe that she did so without disgust or pity in her eyes. He hadn’t experienced something this intense, this… electrifying before, the gentle caress of someone so intoxicating.

Diana looked at him again, a shimmering valley of green irises locked into his cerulean pools of mystery. When her fingers finally curled beneath the scruff of his beard, her thumb chanced to explore further, a ginger touch along his bottom lip. She leaned in, a hair’s breadth apart from his mouth, and suddenly, her lips crashed against his.

Jacob gasped. He didn’t resist, nor did he want to pull away, though he sat there for a moment with her lips pressed onto his, taken aback with how brave she was for trying such a thing. Once he came to his senses, knowing this was really happening, his eyes fluttered shut. Jacob’s arm snaked around her, his thick hand braced against her back, feeling her tense posture dissolve like putty in his hands. Her lips were so soft, plump, delicious…

Minutes must have passed as they kissed, when Diana felt a twitch beneath her, his pants tightening with arousal, an idle threat of the desire seeking her out.

“No—” she whimpered, as she pulled back. She clutched at the spot on her chest that was still oozing with blood from his brother’s blade. It was bitter, the realization that struck her. The lust, the temptation had returned. “N-no… we can’t, Jacob—he’ll hurt me again, I-I can’t.”

Diana frowned as she sat back, reluctantly separating from Jacob as far as she could while still remaining on his lap. She hated herself for whining. She hated bringing herself to tears in front of him. Diana felt weak, and of all the Seed brothers, Jacob was the last she would have wanted to see her like this. He culled the herd. He knew the world was weak, he always said it, to his followers, his soldiers, his pets. He told her that the other night, that weakness was not acceptable, and yet the tears kept coming.

The more she closed her eyes, the more she saw that unforgettable, sadistic smile of John Seed as he took pleasure in harming her. He’d said it was for the greater good, that she would soon learn her place in the project… in the congregation. That it was Joseph’s will. That she had to endure the same pain the others did when they joined, willingly or not.

Still, she couldn’t help herself around Jacob; She couldn’t ignore the heat in her core. She needed him.

Jacob’s brow knitted together as he glanced at the patch of blood seeping through the white fabric of her baptism dress. She even tried to back away further, but he held her tighter. He knew what John wrote on her flesh, his trademark branding of sins. LUST, it said, faint traces of the jagged lettering printed through the white cloth. He winced. It was because of him and he knew it. The conversation he and Joseph had, his confession to his brother about the woman who calmed the raging sea of his night terrors, brought this on.

FUCK. He sighed, his gaze falling to the ground before looking at her once more. ‘I’m sorry…’ He wanted to confess to her, that his chat with Joseph was why she was in such pain.  ‘This is all my fault.’

“No one will hurt you, angel… Not while I’m around.” Jacob’s voice rumbled through her. The man she was supposed to fear soothed her with words of comfort, and in this moment, she trusted him. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

She felt his lips press against her head, a gentle pucker and kiss into her hair. Diana felt disgusting, covered in her own sweat and tears that had freely flowed while in John’s ‘care’. But as Jacob held her, she couldn’t help but melt into him, that tender hold she never thought possible with a man like Jacob.

As she looked up at him, Diana felt the loss of control, a gravitation toward him. He met her halfway, his lips claiming her mouth once more. She opened her mouth to invite him further, the warmth of his thick tongue invading her mouth as he shifted her atop his lap. He pulled her legs to either side of him, guiding her, not forcing her, to straddle his waist. She felt his thick, restrained arousal pressed against her heat, already becoming slick at the feel of it beneath her. Jacob hooked his hands under her knees to pull her into a more comfortable position, amazed at how perfect she felt on top of him. His hands trailed up to grab at her ass and he squeezed tightly, kneading her firm muscles as he held onto her.

Diana bit down on his lower lip before coming up for air, wryly grinning at him as she started to grind against him.  

He moaned.

Again, his erection throbbed as she enticed him. There was only the material of his jeans and a zipper forming a barricade between them, separating them from such sin.

But this didn’t feel sinful to her, it felt… right.

Jacob’s lips trailed down her neck to suck at her collarbone, groaning in agony as his need for her drove him crazy. His hands explored every inch he could reach, from her legs to her ass to her back and down again. He was claiming his territory, declaring dominion over the woman in his arms. He groaned into her skin as Diana gyrated against him again, his cock pounding beneath her. Why did he want this woman so fucking bad?

Her breathing hitched when she felt his fingertips beneath the thin material of her dress. His jacket, which had been loosely wrapped over her shoulders, had fallen to the floor. As his hold enveloped her, the rough skin of his forearms brushed over her back. It startled her at first, but as she reached up to his cheeks, she offered a faint smile before kissing him again. Diana hadn’t been touched this way in years, and yet Jacob managed to find several sensitive spots on her in a matter of seconds.

Jacob snaked his hand around to her front and squeezed at her left breast, enthralled at the way it felt in his hand. His thumb flicked at her nipple, awakening it to a stiff peak. It elicited a whine of desire from Diana, and she threw her head back in pure ecstasy, which made a grin curve over his lips. Fuck, he wondered how she would taste, or even better yet, how she would feel around his cock.

Daring to undress him first, Diana teased at the hem of his t-shirt, tugging before teasing it upward to feel his muscles beneath it. It was almost up to his chest when his broad hands snapped into a tight grasp at her wrists. Her eyes widened as he stopped, his gaze once lazy and lost in the moment were now staring intently into hers. Jacob shook his head, a blush over his scarred cheeks. It wasn’t allowed, it seemed, as he silently commanded her to stop. But as she persisted, nipping at his jawline, Jacob grunted in frustration as she tried again.

What the hell… He wondered. No one he’d been with wanted to see the rest of his body. Any other woman he’d been with made a rude and blunt request that he keep his shirt on while they had sex, so much that it’d become the norm for him. Would he have to fuck her from behind, so she wouldn’t have to see how bad his body had been damaged?

Diana leaned down to his ear and let her tongue trace the shell of it before softly sucking on his earlobe. “I want you. All of you…” She then placed her forehead against his, and her fingers scratch over the shaven part of his head and she added, “I… want to see you.”

The words sent a shiver down his spine. It was as if she’d heard the questions swimming around in his head. The soldier’s shoulders relaxed allowing her to remove the old tattered shirt. The gleam of dog tags rested between his pecs, even in the low light of the room. Jacob sheepishly looked away. He was still wary of the vulnerability he was putting himself through by showing her his bare form. He wasn’t sure what she would think of him, what she would do or say now. He feared the worst—that she would run scared like the others. But when he chanced a look at her face to see her reaction, he was overwhelmed with surprise.

Diana beheld his beautiful body, a soldier’s body. Every curve of his muscles, every patch of his soft skin between and beneath the scars was a memory of the man he was before…though each rough ridge and waxy patch of flesh showcased the greater man he had become. She tipped his chin to force him to look at her, and when he finally gave in to meet her eyes again, she smiled. She pulled the damp gown over her head, as if it were her turn in this give-and-take to reveal herself to him. Aside from Lust, he saw older etchings of Envy and Pride carved upon the backs of her arms. For her, the nerves were gone, the self-consciousness shed with the white garment.

She was willingly baring herself to him. To Jacob.

He barely had time to register that she hadn’t been wearing any panties either, as he felt his arousal intensify at the sight.

The look on his face was unforgettable; his mouth agape as he softly gasped just looking at her, bright azure eyes lost as he took her in. The elder brother, the stranger, of whom she only knew out in the field by his trademark scowl and harsh words to his men, was in awe of her body.

This woman was like a fallen angel, cut and bruised, with a halo of the faint light above her. Jacob felt his pants tighten so much that it was almost unbearable. He couldn’t handle himself anymore, not while he had this figure of perfection with him. It didn’t matter that she’d been exposed of her sins, that she was accused of Lust and Pride and Envy. She was curvy, a healthy figure toned by days out in the Bliss fields, working hard to impress the Heralds and the Father as she gave her life to their cause. Jacob had always admired a woman who had taken pride in her own fitness, and partnered with her fearlessness and bold moves taken in front of him… That was the epitome of his desire. To him, she was perfect…

He licked his lips. He needed to have her, and nothing would stop him.

Jacob’s boots were kicked off immediately. Breathing picked up again as they both fiddled with his belt buckle and pants, eager to tear it all off. Diana raised herself to assist him, to help him slide his pants down and his erection sprung free. She bit her lower lip in awe at the size of him, long and thick, already wet and ready for her as she was for him.

He shuddered as she reached down between them, her gentle hand wrapped around his cock at the base, squeezing it before stroking him. Jacob tangled his fingers into her dark tresses, struggling to keep his eyes on her beautiful face as she pumped him, faster. She leaned down to his neck, biting down on his exposed collarbone, though she was careful not to leave a mark.

Jacob’s free hand trailed down her back until it reached her ass. He hissed as she pleasured him. He squeezed her backside, reaching down to stop her for a moment as he didn’t want to get too close without her. Jacob pulled her closer, his eyes searching hers to make sure this was what she wanted.

Again, almost like she knew what he was thinking, Diana gave a slight, yet confident nod. She positioned the head of his cock between her already wet folds. She bit her lip, pulling a desperate cry from herself by rubbing him against her clit. He growled as she teased him, his fingers kneading and clutching at her thighs. Diana was so wet, she gasped as she lowered onto him slowly, before sinking onto his full length.

Both of them groaned at the sensation, her walls stretching to fit his thickness. Diana’s arms wrapped around his neck, one hand grasping the back of the chair. The cascade of her hair fell over their shoulders and she moaned low into his ear. They held each other there for a moment, Jacob pulsing within her, captivated by how tight she was. He enjoyed the way her body shuddered now that they were joined, his hot breath beating against her skin as he ran his tongue over her neck.

Diana finally began rocking against him, shuddering out breathlessly, his cock reached deeper than she could ever reach on her own.

Jacob’s eyes slowly closed, his head sinking back into the cushion of his old chair, the wood and leather creaking with each movement as she rode him. Her pace was excruciating and enticing at the same time, slowly pulling him from her only to lower herself to take all of him in, again and again. She started to move faster, and with a small, devilish grin, he bucked his hips to meet her. Diana threw her hair back, fully showing her chest to him. The pain of her scars of atonement had been forgotten, replaced with the euphoria of feeling Jacob buried within her.

Jacob opened his eyes halfway, admiring the sight of this voluptuous woman as she claimed him, just as he was claiming her. He watched as her breasts bounced with each thrust and couldn’t help but reach up to take hold of one. Jacob craned his head to suck along the underside of it, before flicking his tongue at her nipple. It provoked another low moan from her which made him throb even harder, the need to come inside of her inching closer with each drive.

“Oh… F-Fuck…” She whined, emphasizing the f as she kept on, her fingernails digging into his firm shoulders.

Jacob thought the same, watching her, taking in this vision of this beautiful woman fucking him into the chair.

Once more he felt himself nearing his climax, her tight cunt clenching at his cock, but he didn’t want this moment to end. Weak legs fought hard to force himself to stand, keeping himself inside of her as he did. Diana bit her lip, a slight pout that he’d stopped, but she instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist. Jacob lowered his hands to take hold of her ass to keep her steady, and they found their way to his bed.

The cool comforter tickled her back as he gently set her down, nestling himself between her legs as he settled on top of her. It was his turn now, his turn to show how much he wanted her, and to fill her with his seed. Propping his hands on the mattress beside her head, Jacob thrusted as deep as he could into her, his body trembling with the overwhelming sensation of her walls clenching at him. He thrust twice more at this pace, maintaining his control before speeding up. Her hands grasped at his sides then moved to his back, her nails digging into his skin as he pounded harder into her core.

His thick fingers dipped between them, and as he fucked her into the mattress, his thumb grazed over her bud to enhance her incoming orgasm. Her cries became faster and shorter as she fought to catch her breath, her tired eyes opening to plead to him to keep going, as he was striking her most sensitive spot. Biting down on his bottom lip, Jacob kept on, ramming his cock into her, letting that raging desire creep up to the surface.

“Oh-Oh—J-Jacob!” She cried out one final time, in desperate release as her walls closed in around him, tightening its hold on his shaft. Her entire body tensed. Diana trembled as she arced up into him when she came.

Watching her, feeling her, hearing her—it sent him over the edge too, and with his head spinning furiously, he pulled her legs back to push into her as far as he could hit, practically roaring as he released.

Jacob collapsed onto her after his climax, their bodies heaving and panting for air. He felt how hard her heart was beating as he lay there on top of her, and for a moment he was sure their heartbeats were now in synch. Together, they descended from their high of raw, unbridled passion. Their bodies were entwined, now slick with their sweat.

Diana held him there as long as he wanted to be, because she didn’t ever want to let him go. She brought a weak hand up to the back of his neck and rested it there, her thumb gently rubbing over his slick flesh. Her eyes shut against her will as her body tried to recover. She sighed.

“Don’t go…” He whispered after a beat, his breath warm and erratic against her skin as he rested his head between her breasts.

Diana tilted her head, amused by his request since it seemed like he knew what she was worried about… what would happen next. It didn’t matter, what his brothers thought going forward. She was safe here, she kept telling herself. She was his now. Her idle fingers found his hair, letting them tangle into it before she softly stroked his scalp. A content smile curled at her lips, feeling that her place was in his room, in his bed, and in his arms.

“I won’t…” She whispered back with a tired smile.

5

Chapter Text

  Joseph Seed’s Compound
Present Day

 

Her fingers twitched. Then her toes.

She was too sore to turn over, but as her arms stretched out, she grasped the bedspread where she’d hoped to find her beloved. Diana longed to feel his naked body curled up beside her, snoring soundly after an unforgettable round of mind-blowing sex. She wanted to feel his arms around her waist, holding her close as his warm breath beat against her skin. She wanted to feel the rumble of his grunts and mumbling as Jacob tended to talk in his sleep from time to time, but he’d slept more soundly as they spent most nights together. She wanted to be awoken by the trail of kisses from his soft lips along her shoulder, or the teasing nip along her exposed neck if he wanted to have another go in the morning. It didn’t matter what time of day, to Jacob. The craving was always there.

Alas, when she opened her eyes, she was disappointed that the bed was empty, and she was very much alone.

The morning light shined in through the sheer curtains, and as her eyes adjusted, the sensory comfort of the mattress somewhat jarring compared to the nights she spent on the forest floor or in a rickety old cot in some bunker while she hid. This bed was so heavenly, it almost swallowed her as she sank into it. The soft cotton sheets had been freshly washed and scented of lavender. The room was quiet, save the noise from the chittering birds outside—but that was still not enough to put her at ease. It wasn’t her home, nor was it her room. The bed felt so empty without Jacob beside her, as did her heart.

Diana found that she’d been put into clean clothes, ones that were not fit for a trek outdoors. It was an old baptism dress, she realized, the same type of gown she wore in that dream, that memory. She damned that dream—the first night she and Jacob made love—it was her subconscious offering more enjoyable moments to focus on, instead of the turmoil that awaited her outside of Joseph’s haven.

Fuck. Her head was pounding, and her throat was dry as hell. A glass of water was in order but dragging herself out of bed was a task in itself. She felt ill, like the worst hangover she’d ever experienced and then some—but she needed to get downstairs.

Diana quietly left the room and made her way down the old wooden stairs. Outside, she spotted Leah hanging clothing on the line. Dark blues of a shirt and some jeans, and a maroon tunic meant they had salvaged her and John’s tattered wardrobe after the run-in with Rye. Most of it looked wearable still, which was just as well since most of her clothing was back at home in the mountains, and there was no way in hell they’d dip back into Valley for something new to wear for John. Hudson was surely waiting to make her next move. She would make do, protect herself with whatever gear Joseph had in the armory. Regardless, there was still some left-over clothing stashed here from the family retreats and outpost looting so she’d pick through whatever was on hand for a spare outfit and some gear. The dark clouds looming over the county threatened rain, but the howling winds would dry the garments fast before the incoming storm.

Diana heard voices coming from the dining room, a place she hadn’t been in since their last family dinner before Eden’s Gate collapsed. It was another distant memory, another thought that brought back happier times. Everyone prepared their favorite dish and shared stories and laughter. Even if she and Joseph didn’t speak much to each other, those days were still enjoyable.

Damn, she missed those times.

“…right now, she’s still resting.”

When she quietly stepped toward the dining room, she caught the tail end of Joseph speaking to someone, or rather someones gathered in the room.

“Should I wait for her then, Father?” It was Morris.

After a pause, Joseph answered. “No.”

Diana hugged the wall. She leaned against the wall and folded her arms, finding it better to eavesdrop than enter for now, as any dialogue would remain candid between Morris and her family. She wouldn’t put it past Joseph to have sensed her already, but still she remained quiet and would listen in as long as she could.

“What is it then?” Joseph asked, urging Morris to proceed.

“I heard Pastor Jerome is burying the bodies of our brethren in the Holland Valley. Local cemeteries have been filled, though some of the infertile farmlands have been turned into graveyards.” The lieutenant sighed, “The last attack was in the south near Seed Ranch, where a fair amount of our people were seeking refuge.”

“God fucking dammit.” John’s impatience was getting the best of him, his aggravation showing as that was his property to tend to.

“At least he’s burying them…” Faith breathed out.

“Jerome…” John sighed, “would at least offer them a ceremonious passage. I do believe he would give them that much.” John added, a commendation to the pastor of whom he’d flayed before. It didn’t seem too out of place, since he and Jerome had the most complicated relationship of all the valley folk. “The ranch… what about Avery and those he’d taken in?”

“Avery checked in with me a while ago. Secure line, no one else would hear the chatter. Everyone’s accounted for and they’re making a trek southwest until they can double back to the Ranch once the Forsaken have cleared.”

John grunted in response.

Morris continued, “The mortality numbers are climbing. The faithful few hiding in the mountains or in the darker corners of your former regions—John, Faith—our population… is devastated and dwindling.”

“You think that’s news? How about you tell us something we don’t know, pup?”

“John.” Joseph said softly, to stop his brother from antagonizing Jacob’s lieutenant who recoiled at his outburst.

Morris eventually added, “They’re, or rather we’re, surviving the best we can.”

“And are all of the ones for hire still in their employ?” John asked, using the time to get the questions on everyone else’s mind answered, as no one would speak up.

Morris sighed, “As far as I know, yes. The archer is still around the national park. We only know this because she tagged one of our hunters the other day. He caught an arrow in the chest and… he didn’t make it. Other than Rye—that psycho loud-mouth bitch in the helicopter is still patrolling the East. Fall’s End had a rally the other day and one of our men said the sniper’s still around too, as one of Whitehorse’s scouts, but she’s been in and out of the regions, running cargo to their bunkers. By my count, not one of them has fallen, not even the animals.”

“Fucking hell…” John murmured. “Just what we need, three wild animals on our backs when the others have railguns or laser sights on our foreheads.”

Faith sighed at the thought, the siren who could tame most wildlife, the doe and fairer animals of the county, feared the hound, the cat and the bear of whom the Sheriff had tamed.

“Quinn near the Marina notified us that Boshaw and Drubman Jr. are tracking the last fields of Bliss. Whitehorse asked them to burn all but one.”

Joseph huffed, finally giving his opinion on Morris’ debrief. “Rightfully so.”

Faith gasped, put off by his tone. “Joseph…?”

“The Bliss is no longer in our control, that much has been obvious for a while now. We knew that losing the lands to the Forsaken would do this to our crops, to our resources, and our people.”

Diana’s hands clenched tightly at the sound of Joseph’s voice. He spoke calmly, evenly, the same way he did with Diana when she brought news of his abducted brothers.

John clicked his tongue at Joseph’s dismissal, “But if we lose the Bliss, then we—”

“What else would we need it for now, brother?!” Joseph barked. “What more do we need of the Bliss when we have no use for it other than for ourselves. To ease the pain? To run through some fucking hallucination—to make us forget the time that we wasted on those who have fallen—those who have chosen to work against us!?”

John’s mouth clamped shut at his brother’s outburst, and the creaking of the old wooden dining chair meant he must have sunk down where he sat.

Diana sighed. All of this in-fighting wasn’t new, especially when it came to the relationship between Joseph and the younger Seed; everything was strained at best. It was a constant struggle to pull the young city-boy from his bad habits and keep his behavior in line, though Joseph’s erratic demeanor as of late made tensions grow thick in the blink of an eye. This constant bickering was something Jacob tried to avoid, knowing Joseph at the time was a voice of reason for John and always had the upper hand in such arguments. Regardless of the age-gap between Jacob and his baby brother which made them strangers until their reunion, he did chime in from time to time to reinforce their brotherly bond. Solidarity in family. A united front. Jacob would always tell them that.

But now their arguments were personal, and a stressful time when they needed each other the most.

“As far as the Bliss is concerned, they do with the open fields what they must. They have taken those lands from us, it is no longer in our control. We have enough in our greenhouse that remains untouched. So long as that is kept, as Leah and now Faith have attended to it, we will not lose it completely. Even if I see it as a lost cause…”

“It is not lost, Joseph. We can’t lose faith—we can’t lose hope.” Faith’s small voice echoed through the wide room.

“Hope is…” Joseph inhaled sharply, and then there was a long stretch of silence before footsteps paced about the room. He was deep in thought, Diana could feel it. These outbursts were out of character for the Joseph she knew. And now as he was heavily lashing out at his family, he needed to shift the tone. “What else then, Lieutenant? I take it since you’re still standing here you’re either waiting for your master, or there’s more to report?”

Morris gulped at Joseph’s backhanded remark, so loud that Diana could hear it from outside. “Y-Yes sir… The old housewife and her lackey from the militia, have been on the wire. They said something about the Forsaken moving Jacob from Falls End to Pratt’s place in the Whitetails…”

Diana’s stomach turned as her eyebrows pulled together in confusion.

“Wait, Jacob… Jacob was there?” John asked, before Diana could even process the words from her lieutenant. “Jacob was with me?”

Morris nodded. “Yes, John… sir.”

Diana heard rustling as John ran his hands through his hair and beard, before pounding his fist on the wooden table. The screech of his chair scooting back meant he was up and standing now too, pacing deeper into the room as his light footsteps trailed off.

They’d been so damn close… now they’d fallen steps behind, yet again.

It was time to make her presence known. Diana turned into the open door, peering inside. She leaned against the doorframe, still hesitant to crash this conversation, but the distressed look on her face was enough to show that she’d been eavesdropping on them.

“Diana…” Faith gasped, just as her brothers turned to look over at the door.

Morris, who looked as pale as a sheet, stood at attention.

Diana swept her gaze over the siblings and the lieutenant before stopping at the head of the table where Joseph stood, his blue eyes dim, his arms crossed.

“You should be resting.” Joseph said, sternly.

“I should be here.” Diana’s glare hardened as if to challenge the Father if he pressed the issue, but eventually, she shifted her gaze to Morris. She could barely find her voice to ask: “Hudson… had him?”

The boy nodded.

“Y-you know for a fact they still do?”

Morris looked at Diana, apologetic and somber. “Yes, ma’am.”

All of this back-and-forth, the inability to move around the county without being marked, this emotional onslaught over being near Joseph was already too much, and now with the news of her husband’s location… Diana was well-past her boiling point. There was a sliver of respite in Hudson’s possession of Jacob. It meant he was still alive. Torture, not kill, was her method—as Diana observed first-hand—however, this method, as it eerily mirrored the old ways of John, meant it kept him alive, but miserable. Diana’s beloved soldier was a tough man, but now he’d been surrendered to the Madman of the North who had been waiting to exact his revenge. Staci Pratt.

“Fuck!” Diana shouted.

Everyone in the room jumped.

She must have blacked out for a split second. Her chest was heaving, her heartbeat hammering in her ears as she felt the jolt of pain shoot from her fist into her forearms. In a blind rage, Diana turned her back on the onlookers and punched the doorframe, its wood indenting from her eruption. Her jaw set hard. All she could see was red as she fought to regain her composure. She couldn’t bear to look at them right now. Not John. Not Faith. Not even Joseph. Hell, not even Morris who was continuously bearing the bad news to the Seed family since the county was lost to the Forsaken. All the misfortune, the shattered dreams of wanting to rebuild, was caused by Whitehorse and the Deputy’s forces.

Wrath is a sin, she heard the words of Joseph from before echoing in the back of her mind. Don’t let it be yours. It will take over you. I’ve seen it destroy you.

Her shoulders relaxed when the calming warmth of a gentle hand settled upon her.

“They want us to panic, to act impulsively, but you need to remain calm. Be still your soul.” His voice was like silk, a caustic lure of the Father’s power. Even with her relaxed exterior, her stomach was in knots and her blood was on fire. “They want us to run, to scatter, to seek out our people. So many attempts have been made, and so many losses to match, with the death tolls of our kin rising as we speak. But my brother Jacob is strong, as he has endured far worse than this. We all know that.”

Diana closed her eyes. He was doing it again. He was telling her to give up in so many words—he was telling her to let this play out without taking action.

Joseph trailed his fingertips over the curve of her shoulder and down her arm, “But if by some misfortune, he doesn’t survive—”

Don’t!” Diana faced him, her dark emerald eyes reddened by her tears forced out by her distress. “Just… Don’t, Joseph. Five minutes ago, you were giving up. Telling them you were fine with losing the Bliss, because it was ‘all for nothing’. Yes, so many people have died for you, for us. How long has this war been raging—and yet we do nothing? I’m to keep calm? Meditate? Wait? And let those bastards kill Jacob slowly, all because you’re afraid?”

Joseph’s chest puffed as he stood at his full height to tower over her. This stance of dominance meant he would meet her challenge, which was something she’d been trying to get out of him since the day she saw him, just before she ventured out to find John. “It isn’t fear that drives me. But I cannot and will not leave here.”

Diana shook her head, annoyed at his declaration. “Of course, you won’t.”

“The few who remain loyal here need me. Those who are trying to survive, inhabitants of Faith and John’s territories are making their way here. Slowly, sure—as they have many to account for, but I know they can, so long as I continue to send as much support from here. We can’t set foot outside this island. You’ve seen it first hand, and a second—even after I told you going for John would be dangerous.”

“Still sending everyone out to do your bidding while you hide.” Diana rolled her eyes, gesturing at John and Faith, “and would they be sitting here if you continued to send out support? Or would they still be in their dungeons with Burke and Hudson if you carried on without my help?”

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Joseph growled, “and if you want to chance another meeting with death, by all means.”

Diana scoffed. “Look, I brought John home, just like I said I would. The same with Faith, no thanks to you.”

Joseph’s dark blue orbs narrowed at her like a sniper’s aim between her eyes. “No thanks to me? Had my men not found you both washed up on our shores after Nick Rye tried to gun you down, I would be down a brother… and a sister.”

Her expression soured. The volley of push and pull between her and Joseph was like a pas de deux, verbally shoving one another, each hoping the other would concede. It was truly exhausting, and one of the reasons she’d avoided him for so long, but she wasn’t about to leave without letting her opinion known. “Don’t give me that look, like I’m supposed to be grateful for that shit, Joseph.”

The beads of Joseph’s rosary clacked and clicked as he gestured. “We don’t have the means to withstand the opposition!”

“Where is your faith?” Diana gave the rosary a glance, before meeting his eyes again.

He was passionate, alright. The conviction found in his face as he neared, still stubborn as ever, still defending the fact that he was all but surrendering in this war. “My faith burns with the fields of Bliss. My faith drowns in the tempest Whitehorse brought here. Just as my faith will disintegrate in the treacherous wastes Pratt is fostering in the north. We are here because this is the only place safe for us now. I told you that before, I stand by it still. So long as we do not set foot into their territories, we survive.”

“There you go again…” Diana shook her head.

“The collapse will come, and it will show them—the collapse that I have seen—it will bring our land back to us when it is cleansed by fire and their blood will run into the earth. But we cannot risk losing our own lives. We can’t be driven to do something so fucking foolish because of you and your sin!”

There was a raging inferno behind Diana’s eyes. “Jacob is my husband, Joseph. Loving your brother is not a sin, god damn you—”

A loud smack cut through the room. Gasps from their nearly forgotten audience were almost inaudible as the blood rushed to her face and pounded in her ears.

Almost instantly, a grip like a vice crushed her arm, and before she knew it, Joseph was in her face again. His shadowed eyes were searching hers, his face intensely close to hers that she froze. He growled, a low, frustrated hum that rumbled in his chest and vibrated through her. She was sure only she could hear it, as it was solely meant for her. His breathing was uneven. His already commanding gaze was almost glowing with a ferocity she couldn’t match. His jaw was moving slightly, his lips closed, as if he were chewing on words that he wasn’t ready to let loose… Not with an audience. Not here.

 

**

 

“My brother should know…”

“Not now—”

“Not ever, then?”

“Joseph…”

He held her so tight it was enough to leave bruises on her biceps. Joseph wasn’t being forceful for the sake of controlling her, he was just trying to find out where she stood. Given that it was the night of her wedding to Jacob, the answer was clear.

“Why are you doing this now?”

“Because you had a place here and I believe you’re throwing it all away.”

 

**

 

If Jacob were present, he would have thrown Joseph across the room. If she were herself and in full strength, Diana might have done the same. But instead, she froze. She was petrified. Diana knew she shouldn’t have said any of that, because it was the quickest way to stoke the flame of the already temperamental man who stood before her. Her skin was crawling as he squeezed her arm so tightly in response to her slap.

“Joseph.” John’s voice was low and firm, as if he’d fired a warning shot.

When Diana peeked out of the corner of her eye, she noticed his tattooed hand on the handle of his newly acquired blade, ready to extract it if need be. It surprised her to see that John would stand by her if Joseph wanted this to escalate into something more physical—if he wanted to treat her as he did long ago, his strikes forceful and unrelenting. That, she would never forget. But she didn’t want to relive it. Over time, Jacob taught her to defend herself and persist against anyone who dared to lay a hand on her. Nevertheless, only a few were privy to the phantoms that lingered between her and Joseph.

After one deep and trembling breath, Diana blinked in the face of the Father. “If you cared for Jacob, even an ounce, as much as you care for your fucking self, you would put your life on the line for him. Didn’t he do that for you and John?” Venom. She could taste it on her lips as she spit out those words. “You owe him that much. You know you do.”

She ripped herself out of Joseph’s hands once more and stepped back. When she about-faced, she didn’t even look at Faith or John, and especially not Morris. They watched on, flabbergasted at the scene that unfolded here. She didn’t care. She just needed to get the fuck out of the house and into the fresh air, somewhere far away from Joseph right now.

 

*

 

Diana found her perch under the willow around the corner from the main entrance. It was quiet out here, the freedom of the open yard giving her the space she needed. The smell of rain inbound was comforting, the wind brushing through the trees was calming and reminded her of Jacob. It reminded her of the nights in autumn he would leave the window open in their bedroom to let in the crisp air, which was refreshing over their warm skin as the lie naked and tangled in their bed.

She rested back against the trunk, her legs stretched out in front of her, ankles crossed over one another. Her fingers lazily picked at the grass beside her legs. It was therapeutic, being alone, taking a chance to gather her thoughts and perhaps meditate and center herself as Joseph always suggested. Of course, she didn’t ever want him to be right; she didn’t want to take his advice, but after what happened in the dining room, she wanted to calm down. She felt the slight throbbing in her arms where he held her earlier.

The thumping of soft footsteps pressed into the grassy path. Her hearing was as keen as her husband’s in that aspect, and with a clearer head, she was able to focus on the noise. Not to mention, she knew the steps of John’s boots better than anyone.

“What do you want?” She groaned.

“Don’t worry, I come in peace.” He smirked. “Mind if I join you?”

Diana snorted and rolled her eyes. “Whatever you want, John.”

Scooting over some, she gave her favored brother-in-law some room to share the space on the wide trunk, before leaning her head back and closing her eyes again.

John grunted as he sat down, pops of his sore joints and muscles evident. He took a couple of minutes to settle but just when she was dozing off at her tranquil surroundings, he spoke. “Di?”

“What?”

“How…” he paused, “how are you holding up?”

Raising her eyebrows, Diana peered over at him. He’d been the first one to ask her that since this all began, at least, the first person to ask in a genuine tone who wasn’t Jacob. The beautiful set of his baby blues were still luminous under the gloom of the afternoon’s gray skies. She noticed the cuts along his face and neck were now healing, scabs formed along his bare forearms and on the welts where the branding iron had touched. The wraps around his left hand were a reminder that he was missing parts of his fingers, to which she’d winced. John seemed humbled by this ordeal, a bitter irony that he’d been marked by that particular branding from Hudson, but it ached her hardened heart to see him so subdued. This wasn’t the John she met, nor was it the John she grew to love as her own brother. He’d become someone different… just like Joseph.

Eventually, she shrugged. “How do you think?”

He chuckled. “Fair enough.”

“We’re barely alive… free but prisoners in this fucking place. Joseph wants us to stay put when Jacob’s out there…” She trailed off. There was so much she wanted to say but saying it all out loud made it real and unbearable. The stinging in her eyes pissed her off since she’d done so much crying; it was frustrating and embarrassing all the same.

“Why did you save me? You could have gone straight for the Whitetails—you could have—”

“I did what I did, John. Besides, I would have wasted time heading up there if Hudson had him in the valley anyhow. They probably wouldn’t have moved him up there, with my luck and I’d be out there alone.” Diana shook her head. Timing was everything, and the universe had a funny way of rubbing that in her face. She eventually shrugged. “You’re alive. So why even ask why?”

It was just like something Jake would say, to which John just quietly huffed at her rhetoric. He turned out to stare at the waters in the distance, and the land across it which stood like a mirage just out of reach. His land. Jacob’s land. The bay they’d just swam across to safety. They were trapped. It was so surreal.

“Listen… despite everything, the baptism, the confession—what you put me through before. I know you told Joseph about us. I know he tried to reason with him, too. But you only did it because those were your orders.” Diana realized she hadn’t been able to air this out with John since they’d never had a moment alone. As it all felt like the end of times, there was no time like now. She crossed her arms and her fingertips traced along the etchings of her old sins, the ones John had given her with his blade. Envy. Pride… and of course, Lust.

John swallowed nervously. “Diana, I’m—”

“I forgive you.” She cut him off, sensing the regret in his tone which solidified the complete 180 switch for John, who was ever proud of being the Baptist for the Father. A smile formed on her cracked lips too. “I saved you and Faith because you’re family. Jake’s… and mine.”

“You are family.” John’s lips pursed into a thin, weak smile, but it was a smile nonetheless as he agreed with her.

Burying their differences after all this time lifted a tremendous weight from their shoulders.

After a beat, John tilted his head. “He still doesn’t know, does he?”

“Hm?”

“Jacob. He doesn’t…”

Diana threw her head back and it hit the trunk with a soft thud. She knew what he was getting at; the altercation between her and Joseph was enough to raise more than eyebrows. Questions. Suspicions. Doubts. “No. And for the record, you didn’t have to stop him. Joseph has a right to be mad.”

“Family, right?” John pressed on the first issue of stopping Joseph before he harmed her further.

“I did hit him.”

“No. He shouldn’t have done that to you. Not with Faith or Morris there either. And when Jacob hears about that, he’ll probably kill him.”

Diana scoffed.

The brothers had come to blows in the past, but now that they needed each other more than anything, she was sure John’s threat was empty. She shrugged, not to wipe away the whole ordeal but it was more an act of defeat, knowing the consequence of her shrouded and foggy past. John was one of the few she trusted with that particular skeleton in her closet—but it didn’t make it any easier to deal. There were still blanks she had yet to fill, things she couldn’t clearly remember, but she didn’t want to bring that up now. “I hate to say it, John… but Joseph’s right. About some things… Jacob has a right to know. And I’m going to tell him, when I see him again.”

Silence dawned, again. Their conversations were always like this, between her and John, waves crashing on the sea with their ups and downs with the tide came to a lull. John shifted where he sat, idly twirling a piece of long grass he pulled up between his fingers.

“You know, I didn’t get to see much of him before he left. Hell, I didn’t get much time with Joseph either, but here we are.” John chuckled. “But Jake was a good man.”

Is. He’s not dead. We need to stop talking about him in the past tense.”

John raised an eyebrow at her, but eventually nodded in agreement. “After all the shit we’d seen… when Joseph called me back I had to, you know? We found Jacob down there, back home, fucking homeless. Abandoned.”

“Hm.” Diana nodded. She didn’t know what else of value to add to it, the stories Jacob told from his point of view about the war and the history of the Seed family was enough to bring them both to tears. But she would never admit to Jacob crying, at least not to John, as she would forever uphold her husband’s privacy.

“We aren’t giving up, are we? We can’t leave him out there.”

“We need time to recover, and then we’re going out there. We’re going to find him.” Diana reached out and gently took his free hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

John turned his palm up to meet hers, gently returning the gesture. Physical contact was something most all humans craved, and since the Seeds had a history of mistrust and abuse, the tenderness Diana gave each of them was a commodity they often took for granted. He cherished this and was soothed by it, as she read from his body language toward her. His poor body was already scarred by years of suffering by his parents, his foster parents too—only to be added to by the wicked Deputy Hudson who turned his weapons and skills against him.

John still had the typical Seed stubbornness that meant he would insist to run alongside her to find Jacob. It was a double-edged sword since she needed allies, but she didn’t want to risk losing him in the fight.

Sadly, their minute of peace and understanding was cut short. As if on cue, a flash of light flickered above them. The winds picked up, followed by the loud crack of thunder. It was then that laughter started to come through the radio on the porch nearby. Locking eyes with John, Diana was quickly alarmed at the voice that came through.

“Our only Hope, the key to Eden’s Gate… You must be out there somewhere hearing this.”

Bringing herself to stand, Diana stepped toward the porch as the voice continued to taunt her. She moved as quick as her weak legs could, careful not to step on anything sharp in the grass beneath her bare feet.

“Is that…” John shook his head in disbelief that it was one of the Deputies, one of the Elite.

“…It was aaaallllways you, isn’t that right?”

Diana quickly swiped up the handset. “Fuck you, Pratt.”

“Oooh! there she is. The pride and joy of our humble county on my frequency, I am flattered.” Pratt taunted her. “Honestly I didn’t think you survived that last run with Nick. But I cheered when Hudson told me all about it. I mean… I’m rootin’ for you. Heh. But I guess I gotta give Rye trouble having such shit for aim.”

Her hand tightened at her side, the skirt of her dress billowing at her thighs.

“I tell you what beautiful, I have someone here who is just dying to talk to you.”

A howling cry from a grown man bellowed through the speaker. His cries were muffled, possibly behind a gag of some sort.

“Jake…” She cried out.

“Shit!” John’s hands went up through his hair. He covered his mouth in disbelief, painfully pacing beside Diana who was trying her damndest to keep her cool.

Jacob wailed in the background, the sound of electricity surging and struggling made Diana’s heart race. She could feel his pain, the anguish and agony as he writhed in the chair Pratt had surely bound him to. John was in a panic beside her, but she took hold of his hand to steady him. The torture on the other end of the line went on for a while before the sound cut out, and once more Pratt’s laughter commenced.

Diana’s fury nearly crushed the handset. After a stabilizing breath, she spoke again. “Let him go. Joseph doesn’t want a fight. I don’t want to fight. Just let me bring Jacob home.”

“Really now? Is that what you wanted, Jacob? Is that what you thought culling the herd would do? Give you a get out of hell free card because your wife asked oh-so-nicely?” Deputy Pratt snickered. “You see, Jacob here is one tough son of a bitch. Hard to crack. All that military training must have done him some good. Right, soldier? You still with me!?”

After a thundering punch, Jacob grunted. It made Diana’s heart nearly leap from her chest, and again she was shaking with rage…

“Or maybe he’s close. Maybe he’s about to cave in and join us… or better yet, take the leap off the mountain like he had his men do to all the others, like Walker and half the militia with him.” Pratt’s voice turned dark and sinister and another punch was thrown, so hard it made Diana jump.

Jacob coughed, wheezing out painful breaths. “D… Di… don’t… d-don’t come h-here…”

After another hit, Pratt’s maniacal laugh cut through again. “Awww, isn’t that sweet? Sounds like he misses you. Been crying out your name all day and all night.”

Diana focused solely on the pools of John’s bright blue eyes to keep her grounded. Her chest tightened so much she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Everything inside her was tingling with the urge to kill. “Pratt…I will fucking tear you apart. I’m coming for you…”

“Heh… Oh, I count on it.” Pratt threatened back. He was smiling. She could hear it. “In the meantime, I’ll keep the ol’ hubs in good company. He isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be seeing you. Hope.”

Chapter Text

Eden’s Gate Church
One Year Ago

After months of planning, flower arrangements, music coordination, a lot of fear about cold feet and marital anxieties, it was the day she and Jacob had waited for, for a very long time. The pews of the congregation were littered with friends and followers, soldiers from his army and a handful of people who had gotten close to the two of them over time. They were all smiling, some emotionally taken by the beautiful scene, others proud that the Alpha Wolf had taken a mate. Jacob, of course, preferred a smaller and more private service but after Faith and John’s insistence that they be surrounded and showered by the love and admiration of their people at the ceremony, he agreed.

He wanted to give Diana the wedding she’d always dreamed about—even if it was never in her mind as a young girl that she’d find herself engaged to a man as old as him, in a remote mountain county in Montana. It was more than he could have ever asked for, something he never imagined would happen to him in his life. He was dressed up far fancier than he’d ever dressed in his entire life, thanks to John. Of course, he didn’t care for the high-maintenance as much as his baby brother did, but he made an exception for this occasion. His hair was freshly cut, his beard well-groomed with some of the finest oils his brother had regularly imported. They’d even found his old military formals in a trunk of things they’d shipped over from Rome, and after a bit of tailoring and adjustments to fit his aged build, it was snug and comfortable.

“Are you ready?” Joseph asked, closing the book he had been thumbing through for the last few minutes, possibly going over notes for the ceremony.

Jacob took a deep breath and shrugged. “Guess I gotta be.”

Joseph gave Jacob a supportive pat on the shoulder, and chuckled. “Don’t worry, brother. The moment you see her, all of your worries and doubts will flee.”

As he waited for her to take her place at the entrance of the chapel, Jacob tried not to focus on the butterflies in his stomach. He hated that feeling, that uncertainty that she might just hightail it out of there without as second thought. Faith said she’d showed up, which was a good sign, but he wanted to keep his cool as he stood there waiting for her.

His mind drifted elsewhere as he thought about his proposal. It was planned meticulously with the help of their sister Faith. John had a few pointers here and there, a few that were a little overboard as far as Jacob was concerned. Jacob had nearly given himself a heart attack over it, and for the days leading up to the big moment, he was somewhat juvenile and awkward around Diana. He hadn’t been riddled with that many nerves, impatience and anxiousness since the day he’d enlisted in the Army, and even then, he thought he would rather face that all over again over the worry she would deny him when he asked.

* * * 

It was a beautiful day in the spring, just six months after he’d confessed to his brothers about her, that he decided it was time.

On a small vacation, the pair stole away to a cabin, hidden away in the northwestern part of the mountains. He remembered telling Morris and Archer to handle business while they were gone. Jacob set up a picnic for her that afternoon, and they enjoyed a meal together in the serene landscape deep in the heart of the Whitetails. As they talked, Jacob remembered asking her why she loved him, and he even wondered if she had any doubts about their relationship. Age was always a factor for him. His timid nature about being in something long-term stemming from the fact that he hadn’t ever had an opportunity to find someone. Let alone, someone like her. Damaged with physical and mental scars, he was convinced he would never find love.

Jacob loved her voice, or when she laughed. He loved the way her dark hair was pulled over her right shoulder. Her natural beauty was striking and didn’t rely so much on the mask of makeup. And her skin was so soft under his fingertips when he touched her, and she blushed when he brushed the stray tuft of hair from her viridescent eyes.

“Listen, I know I’m not perfect. Ask anyone out there and they say I don’t deserve you. But I…” He fumbled on his words, trying to remember what Faith told him to say. It was frustrating, wanting to make this perfect for her, wanting to make sure he didn’t fuck any of this up.

“Nobody is perfect, darling.” Diana grinned, playfully placing a kiss on the tip of his nose. “But to me, you are. If we’re talking about deserving anyone here, I think I’m the one who doesn’t deserve you.”

He scrunched his face, begrudging himself to think that he enjoyed it when she did that. As her compliment settled, he lightly blushed. Jacob shook his head with a grin. “Diana, I love you. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without you.”

Diana snickered. “Well you don’t have to imagine it, because if I have my way, I’m not going anywhere.”

Jacob laughed. She was always saying she ‘wasn’t going anywhere’ before she left the veteran’s center where they often slept. He hated the mornings after, especially early on when they were sneaking around. Once they made things official, she would still have to leave for her patrols, clean-up one of the outposts or work out in the Bliss fields to earn her keep—even though he’d told her she didn’t have to do that anymore since he would look after her. Her persistence, her determination to maintain their territory was admirable. Not to mention, her strength and endurance to physically train with him on a run or hunt in the woods or sparring with him and his men made him love her even more.

“What’s on your mind, love?” Diana asked, scooting closer to take his hand. She laced her fingers together with his.

Jacob closed his eyes as her thumb stroked the back of his palm. He was lulled back down to a low simmer as he tried not to let this moment throw off his train of thought. It was astounding how she had the magical touch, so delicate, able to pull him back down to earth when his mind got the best of him. “These past few months have been the best moments of my life. Being with my family again, being with you most of all. I’ve slept the best I have in years. I feel like I have a purpose here and have been doing the best damn work, if I may say so.” He grinned with pride.  “I’m… I believe I’m the luckiest man to have found you.” Jacob squeezed her hand slightly, “I know this might be moving too fast, or you might think I’m crazy, but…”

“What are you doing?” She’d asked, when he moved away from her and brought himself up to a knee. There were stars in those stunning eyes as Diana scooted up to sit. It was a bit comical that in this position, Jacob was still taller than her. “Jake?”

He gazed down at his girl and cherished the sight of her, as she blinked in awe. They’d finished each other sentences and had been on the same wavelength for so long that he was sure she already knew what he was about to ask. Of course, that didn’t make it any easier as he got closer and closer to his end goal, to the inevitable question he was to propose.

“As my partner, and companion, you have been a light in my life, angel. It would be an honor to have you by my side… as my wife.” Jacob felt his voice crack, dread coursing through him and he wasn’t sure he’d make it to the next part. A shaky hand retrieved a small velvet box from his pants pocket and when he opened it, she gasped. He’d revealed a white-gold band with three diamonds, the rounded, centermost jewel was larger than the accents, though all three were shimmering as brilliantly as her eyes. “My moon, my stars. My Diana… will you marry me?”

Jacob saw her mouth move, and whatever she’d said was lost in the rush, and for a split second he sat breathless until she moved. Diana’s face lit up, brighter than the fullest moon would light the sky. She immediately hugged him, crying tears of happiness and delight into his chest.

“Yes! Yes, Jacob I will…” She said, between sobs.

A long breath of relief whooshed from his lungs as his arms encircled her, cradling her in his embrace.

He was content, he realized. He felt complete.

* * *

 And so, here they were… It was really happening.

And Joseph was right. Seeing her made him forget everything else around them, and as he locked eyes with her, the world seemed to disappear.

This exquisite being stood at the entrance of the church when the doors opened. The halo of the afternoon sun illuminated her figure from behind. Donning an off-white gown, something fashioned by Faith and her friends, Diana was radiant in a modest, old-fashioned dress, and fit her body perfectly. The lace and sheer fabric trickled down to the floor, and a thin veil hanging from a crown of jewels and flowers cascaded in front of her face. Diana clasped a bouquet of lilies and other wildflowers gathered from the area, her jewelry simple but added an elegant touch to the country bride motif.

It wasn’t until she took John’s arm and started walking that Jacob remembered to breathe.

John made a spectacle of walking her down the aisle (as he would) but Jacob ignored his baby brother’s antics to take his girl’s hand when she finally arrived at the altar. Nothing else mattered, only she did. Nevertheless, it was a sweet moment to have her presented to him by someone in his own family, his brother who had accepted his new bride as his own sister, despite their odds. John kissed both of her cheeks and gave her a wink of encouragement before giving his older brother a brief hug. He gracefully moved to stand off to the side, the spot reserved for the best man.

From there, everything moved in fast-forward, a blur of words from his brother Joseph mixed with the lovely song Faith dedicated to them when she sang. Jacob couldn’t take his eyes off of her. He couldn’t stop smiling.

Joseph faced Diana, holding firm to the book in his hands as he began to close out the service after they just declared their vows. “Do you, Diana Evans take Jacob Seed as your husband… to have and to hold… in sickness and in health… til death…”

Diana was beaming at Jacob, glowing with the brilliance of an angel. His angel. “I do.”

Joseph bowed his head and turned to his elder brother. “And do you, Jacob Seed, take Diana Evans as your wife…”

“I do.” He said without hesitation, offering his girl a smile in return.

“…I now pronounce you man and wife.”

Jacob tugged her toward him and his lips claimed hers. He held her body close to him, kissing her like he had no intentions of letting her go.

Diana was his girl, his lover, his fighter, and now his wife


J A C O B

Location Unknown
Present Day

“Dianasweetheart… my love…” Staci Pratt’s chuckle was low and a mockery of Jacob’s longing when he came to.

Jacob’s face felt warm beneath the film of sweat and blood. The agonizing pain in his bones was apparent as his body awoke. He jerked against the chains holding him to the chair. There was an ache pulsating through his legs as he despairingly moved, the swish heard from the pool of water at his bare feet. His uncovered skin felt like it was on fire, having been stripped down to a white tank and his tattered cargos which were rolled up to his calves.

“Have a good rest there, Seed? Hm?” Pratt asked, circling around the back of the chair to the other side of the room. He cast an old bloody rag on the far table and shoved his bare hands in his pockets. “Trying to… take the edge off by sleeping? You think that’s gonna help you here?”

Fucking prick… Jacob spit off to the side, a mix of phlegm and blood.

With swollen eyes, he looked up at the Deputy he once claimed as his own pet and personal assistant as punishment. Pratt.

 “Oh, you can’t get away from me that easy, Jacob. No no… You will feel every single bit of this. Everything you made me feel when you had me locked up in those cells. Every bit of control lost because of you and that fucking box!” Pratt swung the butt of his pistol at Jacob’s jaw, the pleasure of vengeance running through him when the hit connected. The cries and grunts from his prisoner were thrilling.

Jacob tried to stay awake, rocking in his chair, the chains twisting and pinching him. They felt like barbs around his scarred forearms, the zaps of electricity from Pratt’s earlier rounds exacerbating the pain. “I… I p-protected you, Pratt… I let you loose, I trusted you… Y-you were free!”

“Free? Did you think I was free?” Pratt spit in his face. “Chained to you, called back when all I wanted was to get back to my people. The fuck I was free.”

Jacob swallowed, the taste of copper and bile sliding down his throat. The rasp of speaking after being forced to remain silent aside from screams rendered from his torture was painful. His throat felt like he’d downed gravel and shards of glass.

“Trust is absolute, but people are easily swayed. You fucking know that better than any of us, any of your fucking family. You were a fucking shield for your brothers, isn’t that what you said? Swore to protect them from people you were supposed to have trusted since birth. But then… you left. Then you were a pawn of the government when you went overseas, a brother-in-arms who turned his back on him too. And now you’re here. And you put your faith in a zealot, a liar and a whore?!” Again, he struck Jacob with another thundering hit from the butt of his gun.

Jacob grunted when the strike hit him right on the left cheek. He was seething, breathing through gritted teeth. He wasn’t a stranger to insults to his kin, in fact, he couldn’t remember a day that had gone by without the bitter words against them. There were always doubts, fear and questions about them, but he was always there to show them the way.

“But you don’t need a history lesson, do you? To relive all your darkest days…” Pratt smiled, “Or maybe you do. Classical conditioning, isn’t that how it works? The beauty of repetition. The power to fuck someone mentally until they aren’t themselves anymore…”

Jacob growled. “And y-you trust them? Whitehorse? Hudson?”

Pratt holstered his pistol and pulled a small piece of wood from the nearby table to shove between Jacob’s teeth.

Jacob wailed as he was hit, the finite jolt of electricity prodding at his back caused his body to quake in the chair. “Fffffffuuuuuck!!!” He screamed, thrashing and trembling violently. The fibers of the thin wood splintered and cracked as his jaw clamped down hard. His feet wanted to kick out, but the pool kept them in place, making the agonizing shock unbearable.

“I’m on orders to keep you alive. Hudson was too. I’m just continuing your… training.” Pratt released the electric rod from his flesh, only setting the safety lock on his prized weapon when he was sure Jacob would comply. “You’re in my house now. I call the shots. I shouldn’t have to tell you that again.” Pratt threatened, dislodging the wooden block from Jacob’s mouth. He tossed it somewhere behind him, before taking his face into his hand, just under his jaw and squeezing with a grip that made the old soldier whimper.

Every swollen wound oozed of blood and pus. The burns and marred skin of his rash-covered forearms were almost glowing a sickening crimson, his blood surely pumping underneath.

“You are nothing. You are meat. You are mine.” Pratt was stimulated by the sight of seeing his former master in such disarray, but he was kind enough—or rather he pitied the old man enough to wipe away the slow drip of saliva and blood from the corner of his mouth. “Sound familiar?” 

With a heaving shove backward, Jacob fell slack into the chair. His breaths were ragged and short now, the adrenaline leaving his body, leaving him nothing more than a pile of old bones and torn flesh, barely breathing, barely holding on.

Pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket, Pratt wiped every crevice of his naked hands before returning the cloth to its place. “I have men trained on our perimeter and your precious wolves for added security. The wolves? That was the best part, since I thought a pack would never abandon its Alpha. But there’s that factor of trust again. Guess you really can teach old dogs… that their master was scum. A worthless piece of shit.” He smirked, “I think what really should be said here is that I hope your wife is smart enough to stay away.”

Jacob spit again, more of that disgusting concoction that welled up in his mouth. He wheezed, “If… If I don’t… k-kill you first…”

“Kill me?” Pratt practically snorted. He trotted over to his prisoner. He leaned down, putting his hands at his thighs as he met Jacob’s glare with his own. “I don’t think you’re in any position to make any threats there, soldier. But… by all means, what were you gonna say?”

“If I don’t k-kill you f-first…” Jacob looked him in the eye. “Diana will.”

Though his gaze was unmoved, Pratt’s lashes flickered. He was impressed that Jacob spoke with such gusto in his current condition. He ran his tongue over his teeth and shook his head, amused at Jacob’s threat. “I sure hope she tries. In fact, I’m banking on her stupidity, marching the fuck up here like a one-man army she is, thinking she can stop me. You Seeds think you’re immortal, like you’re fucking Gods. I’m betting a bullet in my gun she won’t get far. Not with our forces already out there waiting for her. And she isn’t a true Seed now, is she? You might have fucked with her head as it is, but I don’t think the luck rubs off that way.”

“You s-son of a bitch.” Jacob snarled.

“Don’t you worry, Jacob, I won’t kill her right away. Maybe I’ll show her who she really can be—the soldier she can be—if she does the smart thing. The right thing. I’ll have her join me.”

“The fuck she will—”

“What, you don’t think she’ll remember? The person she was before you all got in the way, what she trained for, and the reason why she came to Hope County in the first place was because of me?”

Jacob twisted in his seat, feeling the strength returning to his muscles as he flexed against his bindings. “She came to me. She came to us. S-she can make her own d-damn decisions.”

Her own decisions?” Pratt sneered as he folded his arms. “That is rich. I mean the Bliss really is a fickle bitch, ain’t she? Enough to make someone forget some things or in this case, everything—even though we’ve been trying to tell her all this time?”

Jacob’s jaw clenched.

Pratt’s tongue flicked over his lips after a thought and he grinned. “On second thought, maybe I’ll bring her down here to see you. Yeah. That’s merciful enough isn’t it? Merciful enough to unite man and wife?”

Jacob’s hands were shaking as he grasped the armrests, the chains burrowing deeper into his skin when he tensed. There was going to be a catch to Pratt’s offer, and he knew it. There was no way Pratt would let her down here, without having something sinister planned for her capture.

“I’ll make her mine, but I not just as my soldier, oh no… I’ll take her from you. Take her in front of you.”

Jacob huffed. “W-what—”

“I’ve seen how she’s trained. Bulked up nice and good, didn’t she? I always thought she was something beautiful. But now? The curves of that ass, those tits. I bet that cunt is nice and tight too…” Pratt slithered over and mocked the Alpha soldier with a smack to his jaw. His Cheshire smile was brilliant in the shadows surrounding him when he backed away. “I’ll fuck her, so hard, I would make her scream in ways you never could, old man. And in poetic nature, I wouldn’t stop fucking her until she said yes…”

Links in the chain stretched open and pinched Jacob’s tender arms as he violently writhed against them again.

“What do you think? Bend her right over this table. Get her nice and wet… Mmm…” Pratt moaned, adjusting himself as he got himself all worked up, heated and hard, just thinking about it. “And you would get to watch the whole thing.”

 “No! You w… you won’t fucking touch her!” As weak as he was, Jacob still didn’t take threats to his wife lightly. Diana was a fighter, a woman who could hold her own against Staci Pratt—but the thought of his hands on her, the thought of him taking her against her will, ignited the rage in him. His chest was tight, an immense pounding in his head and ears, and his fingers gripped tight to the chair like an animal trying to break free. At the top of his lungs, the master hunter’s roar rend the air.

“I’ll… f… fucking k-kill…youuu!!”

The room was spinning out of control, a veil of red pulled over his eyes like a dark crimson filter as he thrashed in his seat. He felt hopeless, helpless, and agitated being kept here as this weak man’s prisoner, someone who hid behind physical force and weaponry because he knew without it, he was no match for Jacob. The soldier growled when Pratt tried to come near, his teeth gnashing and gnawing at his own cheeks as the beast within him spurred him on. A second or third wind, he lost track, and in this flood of madness, he was finally able to kick out at the small tub of water at his feet until it spilled and was fully cast aside.

Deputy Pratt leapt back, his hand vanishing behind into his other pocket before he darted back toward Jacob.

Jacob couldn’t breathe, his own body betraying him; he felt like he was suffocating. The sharp pain in his chest sparked up and over his left shoulder as he continued his futile attempts to break his chains. Flashes of his past and present came at him in droves; visions of Joseph and John, Faith and Pratt, Whitehorse and Burke’s invasion of Eden’s Gate. He saw Miller and the endless sands, the blood and gore of the battlefield. He could taste the bits of meat on his tongue, the vision of his dark times when he and Miller were stranded had lingered longer than he wanted. He saw the broken, shredded limb of his comrade before he learned the could blink it all away.

Once he was back on track, Jacob saw his Judges with him on his hunts, the baptisms and induction of the flock, and at the end of this cinema of recollection—in the forest, his own remote place of serenity, there was a light. Fire light, and bliss.

Breathe

“I love you, Jacob…” A soft melodic voice called to him.

Breathe

“Don’t let go…” She beckoned. “Don’t let go…”

Jacob felt faint, the fire engulfing the only true light he was clinging to, the light belonging to her. He was afraid he would never see her again, and further devastated at what Pratt would do, if he had the gall to make good on his threat and sully his wife’s pure essence. She was his, and only his. The Wrath devoured him, swallowed him whole that Jacob felt he was dying; the last surge of adrenaline pushing him so far beyond his limits that he’d been convinced his next breaths would be his last.

“Shhh shhhh… ” The fine pin prick of Pratt’s needle nipped at Jacob’s tender neck, and after the venom made its way into his bloodstream, the large tower of a man fell limp. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but you can’t die on me yet. Oh ho no… You’re not going anywhere…”

* *

“Darling? My love, wake up…”

Jacob was being shaken by someone beside him. He grunted back at her, bringing his fingers to his eyes to rub them before opening them. Given how badly his nose itched and how sweet the air was, he knew he was outside, no longer forced to endure the foul stench of wherever Pratt had kept him confined. Now, Jacob was lying in field of Bliss. He sat upright and raised his forearms high, the freedom of movement a relief as he had been bound to that chair for God knew how long. Jacob ran his callused hand over his face, flexing his fingers and stretching out. His skin had reverted to its normal softened state, bar the familiar scarring he had acquired in the past. He was fully clothed, from his jacket to his boots, and the clanging of his dog tags rang out when he moved. When he turned, he was surprised to see it wasn’t Diana but Faith sitting beside him, dressed in her trademark white gown.

Thick green smoke eventually cleared, showing a tranquil meadow void of anything—people, wildlife—just him and his sister, and the Bliss.

“You’re here.” Faith smiled at her oldest brother, the petals of Bliss and other local blooms falling from her long blond hair.

Jacob didn’t bother greeting her. He wasn’t unhappy to see Faith, he was just expecting someone else in her place. “Where is she?”

Faith lifted a thin finger and pointed at the cabin in the distance.

Jacob knew that place, it was their second home, somewhere they maintained as their private retreat, since they spent most of their time at the veteran’s center. As he strained his eyes to try and stretch his vision to find her, Jacob could see her standing on the deck they built together, waiting for him. It was so far away, but he needed to get to her. He needed to see his angel.

“What am I doing here?”

“Are we even truly here, brother?” Faith asked quietly, her dark eyes dazzling up at him.

Fuck… he cursed. “The fucking Bliss.”

Jacob scratched at the place on his neck where he’d felt Pratt stab him with the needle. That bastard must have hit him with a thick concentrated dose of Bliss, and now he didn’t know if he was awake or even truly alive. This haven was vivid yet surreal, and he was conscious of himself and his actions as he swiped at the particles of Bliss pollen that assaulted his senses. Even if this was a heavenly place, one of butterflies and euphoria, Jacob was unsettled the longer he stood here.

Faith smiled and stretched out her hand to Jacob, helping him stand in the tall grass. After dusting himself off, he walked by her without any further exchange. His urgency fueled his steps, each boot falling heavier than the last.

“I need to see you…”

“Diana?”

“I don’t want to lose you, darling…”

“Diana!!!!”

“She’s waiting for you, Jacob…” The lithe form of Faith hovered along side him as he kept on.

Jacob took off running. The harder he pushed, the farther the path stretched. His wife was there, he could feel her essence beyond this grassy path, and up the mountain in their special place. Eventually, his sanctuary drew closer, and when he finally reached the cabin, she was there. Diana was standing with her back toward him, in that dress he loved on her so much. He didn’t want to startle her, so his approach was slow and careful.

She was humming to herself, a tune they had both known well, though he wasn’t sure how she would take to it now. Then, it suddenly stopped. The beat of silence was uncomfortable, but he took another step forward.

“Jacob…” Her voice was like a fresh dip of water after a long arduous trek in an arid desert.

“I’m here. It’s me.” Jacob matched her tone, gentle, and relieved.

Jacob frowned. He expected her to leap toward him, kiss him as if there was no tomorrow, as he was certain he would be dead by morning, unless this was the afterlife. He wanted to pull her into his arms, sweep her from the floor where she stood and hold on until he couldn’t any longer. It pained him to see that there was no urgency in her, despite her desperate calls to him, which should have been his first indication of the bad omens before him.

Diana stood still, watching the sun through the pale green clouds as it set over the lake. Her arms were crossed, frail fingers clutching at her arms where Envy and Pride had once been etched. Her grip was so secure and tight that her fingernails dug in, small red crescents of scrapes and scratching had begun to scab over.

How long had she been waiting there?? Jacob wondered.

“I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

“Honestly, neither did I.” He nervously chuckled, a sound and expression foreign to him as of late. “Diana, you can’t come find me. John, Joseph—Faith, no one.”

“The end is near.” She replied.

Slowly he nodded, finding it odd that she comeback with something unrelated to his warning. Still, Jacob had been accustomed with those words as they were spoken by his own brother at nearly every sermon. “I know. I know, the collapse… it’s close now, Joseph always said—”

“No,” Diana turned her head to peer over her shoulder, just as Jacob stopped only a step away from her. Streaks of red and black stained her cheeks as if she had been crying, although her tears were mixed with blood. “The end of me. Of us…”

“Di? W-what are you talking about?” Jacob’s piercing blue eyes narrowed in confusion.

The wind gently blew across the deck, filling the brief lull after her cryptic message. When she didn’t respond, Jacob walked close enough to hold her, gently placing his hands at her shoulders before turning her around. “Diana what are you saying?”

“Jake? W-what’s happening to me?” When she turned, the bump of her belly which was briefly shown under the skirt had diminished, leaving a drop of blood on the thin material. He hardly had time to process the sight, when the stain began to grow, spilling outward until her dress was soaked in the thick essence. The wind howled, more violently now, leaves and twigs and Bliss flowers picked up in the storm.

Up and down Jacob glanced over her in terror, refusing to let go of her. Her despairing cries turned into something far more gut-wrenching as words suddenly appeared on her body. Her bare shoulders, her legs, her neck… Diana was covered in tattoos, branding, etching, markings, writings of sins and virtues.

“Jake!” She screamed, his heart shattering into pieces as the angelic visage of his wife became a bloody display, like of the victims they had strung up by barbed wire and chains, along the old paths of Eden’s Gate.

When beheld the word written well above the waistband of her blood-soaked skirt, Jacob sharply gasped.

“No!!” He roared, his bellow echoing through the forest.

 If this was his state of purgatory, he hoped death would come fast.

Chapter Text

D I A N A

Diana shot up in her bed, clutching her chest, trying to suck in as much oxygen into her lungs. She was in a cool sweat, her skin ablaze but the perspiration like ice. She pulled her knees up and sat there, once more alone in the bed, the room still empty of any company.

She saw him. Jacob.

He was running to her, bounding through the meadow into the forest to meet her at that cabin. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t even want to touch her. Why was he looking at her like that, before she woke up?

And that look in his eyes…

Why did that feel so vivid? 

There was something she rarely saw in her husband, if ever… fear. A fear she couldn’t shake, so much that it made her feel sick to her stomach. Diana wanted to reach out and touch him, she wanted to hold onto him and hope that it was all real, that Pratt didn’t really have him holed up in a bunker somewhere…

But she couldn’t.

Diana forced herself back down to earth, finding herself standing at the open window since she felt like she’d been suffocating in her confinement. It was night now, by her estimation around midnight by the position of the moon under the clouds. It had been raining, the showers that had been pouring through the afternoon settled down to a light drizzle. Her room overlooked the vast greenery of Joseph’s yard, facing the same bay she and John had come from in the west. She could still hear Rye’s thundering gunfire and the explosions before blacking out—and the rush of recollection brought back the sniveling threats of Deputy Pratt over the radio.

Fuck! Her hands pounded against the window sill.

Running her hands over her face, Diana combed her thick, dampened hair with her fingers and sobbed quietly to herself. Jacob was out there… Jacob needed her. Once more she found herself at the mercy of Joseph’s hospitality, heeding his warnings and the fact that he’d prohibited any departures from this his hideaway. She was angry, so pissed that she would stand alone in her defiant claim to rescue Jacob. Why was he so set in his ways all the time? Why didn’t Joseph see there was value in having their family together, in having his older brother home safe, where he belonged?

The Joseph from before would have put his own life down to save his brother, right? The Father loved all–especially his family, so why did he bow down to Whitehorse’s demands? Why did he turn to cowardice when he used to be a leader, a conqueror? The last two conversations with Joseph had ended poorly, both of which he’d put his hands on her. She idly rubbed the places where her the soreness of her bruises tingled on her arms.

I need a shower, she thought, hoping that would help her body temperature readjust.

Snatching up the bundle of new clothes and a towel from the chair beside the bed, Diana left the room. She stealthily padded across the hall to the washroom, thankful that no one had heard her outburst from earlier. She wasn’t in any mood to engage in small-talk, nor was she ready to answer any questions about her recent night terror.

Diana entered the vacant wash room and turned on the water. As she stood under the shower head, the warm water streamed over her skin. Scents of lavender and water lily filled her nose, the homemade soap was a refreshing replacement for the salty sweat and river water that was stuck to her for some time. She folded her arms over herself, letting her hands guide the suds over her neck and chest, and stood there to let the spray rinse her down.

Quietly, she wept.

She covered her mouth as she did, as not to alarm anyone outside. She cried until she felt like she’d run dry, out of tears left to give, letting the water pour over her. Its warmth dripped down her body and wrapped her in a cocoon of comfort in the absence of her husband. The moment of sorrow faded away for now, leaving her yearning for any semblance of calmness, and normalcy.

She was so focused on the water gushing from the spout that she didn’t hear the rings of the curtain pull aside, and another person step into the tub.

An affectionate touch at her back made her gasp; her vertebrae curling upward as she arced into the light fingertips that traced over her back. She didn’t realize just how much she needed this intimacy, this physical contact until he kissed at her wet shoulders and a chill trickled down to her core. Vulnerable and starving for her lover, she thrived on the reward of this unexpected meeting.

They traced over her spine, spreading outward to her waist until he traveled up at her sides, and back down her form. The massage was just as soothing as the rushing water, squeezing and kneading the pain from her tender muscles. Diana’s knees were weak, but she held herself steady, letting these mysterious hands rove over her. As her long, soaked tresses were shoved aside, lips found her neck, softly nipping at one of her favored spots. His hands traveled over her naked body, eventually snaking around to her breasts. Cupping them with a firm grasp, he lightly pinched at her already peaked nipples.

Diana moaned quietly as her eyes fluttered shut. Her core was pounding, the walls of her heat contracting, and ran slick with her own thick essence in preparation of this heated affair. The hairs of a grizzly beard tickled her shoulder, causing her to tense with a small giggle. He grinned, nuzzling deeper into the crook of her neck, before licking and ravenously biting at her neck in ardent fervor.

“Mmm…” He groaned, sending a trickle of ecstasy through her.

His erection was pressed firmly at her lower back. One hand grasped her hip as he grinded against the mounds of her full, rounded ass. With one hand still stimulating her firm breasts, his other arm slithered around her waist. Nimble fingers trailed downward, stopping at the soft, sensitive area between her thighs. He stroked the outer flesh of her wet folds, before venturing between them. She felt the shape of his lips curve into a devious smile against her skin, and he began sucking at her neck again, groaning in pleasure at how she felt in his hands. Diana let out a sigh as he faintly stroked her bud, awakened by his intimate caress. She arched her back against his strong chest, her hand reaching up to tangle into his hair.

When he inserted his fingers into her slick sex, she was left breathless, her mouth agape. He eased her open with his index first, then a second, and finally a third after a while when he knew she could handle it. Her body quaked at this sensation, moving gracefully against his hand to show him she had been more than ready, anxiously wanting his cock to fill her. She squeezed at his wrist, placing her hand where she could feel where they were joined, at the base of his knuckles where his fingers disappeared into her core. Another needy whine left her lips.

He knew her body so well, expertly navigating through her heat. His fingers flexed and curled, reaching further to strike a tender and coveted spot that made her shudder. She was dangerously close to release, feeling the pressure welling up in her core. He knew the cues, the way her stomach flexed, the sounds she made before she came, that she was getting close, so he removed his hand completely. He turned her head to kiss her; his tongue delved into the hot, wet cavern of her mouth, exploring it fully as he used her essence to stroke himself behind her. She could hear him grunt and hiss slightly as his breathing hitched. He was touching himself, running his own hand over his length to coax his arousal to its fullest. 

He gently eased her forward; the strong press of his palm at the middle of her back sending a tingle through rippling through her body. She’d been awakened by all of his playful teasing that the simple touch like this was electrifying, as if she could go off at a moment’s notice. Diana followed the silent request and braced herself against the cool, wet tiles. He positioned himself at her entrance, spreading her globes only to let the head of his cock slip inside. He hummed, pulsating with a desperate longing to fill her with his seed. But he didn’t reward her yet. He waited there, taking in the sight of her figure, bent over slightly to receive him.

He was still playing with her. He watched her. He waited.

She tried to rock herself back to pull his stiff arousal into her eager cunt. He resisted, a low chuckle in amusement as he kept there, positioned under the running water. When she tried again, he chuckled at her attempt and placed a firm hold on her hips to stay exactly where he wanted to be until she gave a frustrated moan that begged him to fuck her.

In one thrust, he satisfied what they’d been craving, the throbbing mass of his thick cock gliding all the way into her sheath, stretching her walls as it did. She felt the bones of their hips crash together as he filled her. He slowly retracted before forcing himself all the way to the hilt. He exhaled deeply, holding her there. His entire body filled with raw desire and need for more as he leaned down to moan into her shoulder. She felt amazing, so tight and wet around him. His teeth dragged over her supple skin and he wound back, only to drive into her again.

She struggled to keep her cries to a low volume as he fucked her. His fingers tangled into the sopping length of her raven hair, using the leverage ram into her. Each thrust was harder and deeper than the last. The smacking of their skin matched the sloshing of running water as it splashed between them, and he continued to vigorously pound into her sex. She loved it wild and rough, but he was thrusting so ferociously that she could feel herself tearing at the force. Diana bit down on her lip, so hard that she tasted blood, and a moan erupted from her lips. It wasn’t just any moan, but one sharp cry of pain.

He suddenly unsheathed himself from her well, those same broad hands grasping at her arms to pull her up. He carefully turned her to face him, the water rushing over her face as he pulled her closer. She felt him brush away the droplets of water from her eyes and cheeks, placing feather-light kisses over her brow and nose before kissing her tenderly on the lips.

When she opened her eyes, she was surprised that her companion was not someone she had been expecting. 

Joseph? Diana was face to face with the Father himself, completely naked, erect, and yet, gravely concerned.

“I’m sorry…” He whispered, gently placing his forehead to hers. “I don’t mean to hurt you…” He wanted this moment to be beautiful and enjoyable for them both but knew he should stop if she was unwilling to continue. He held her there, her face cupped in his hands. Joseph was genuine, and worried.

She could sense it by the way he looked at her, spoke to her, held her and cared for her well-being. She felt like she was sent back in time, to the Joseph she’d known before her marriage, the reason for her joining Eden’s Gate. She knew she should have been scared or guilty for letting him invade this private space, for granting him the chance to lay claim to her again. 

But she didn’t. 

Something about this moment felt right, like Joseph was the answer, and the only one left for her now… 

“I know…” She replied quietly, letting her gaze travel down below his face. Her hands followed, delicate fingertips tracing the lines of his sins, his scars, and outlining the tattoos he wore proudly on his chiseled chest. Diana slid her finger over his hip, gingerly tracing along his groin, wandering under his shaft to caress him, before latching onto his hardened length.

He gasped, leaning against the wall at his side. He was surprised she would allow this but didn’t deny her as the swell of arousal took over him again.

Her eyes searched his, and through his light eyelashes he peered down at her. Those eyes… she thought. This man exuded sex, from top to bottom—everything about him lured her in. He was simply intoxicating, and she felt powerless in his presence.

It was futile to resist, to choose anything but submission.

Diana’s arms wrapped around his neck, kissing him with violent passion.

Joseph closed his eyes, feeling a chill over his body as she stroked his cock until it was fully erect again, dripping with his own essence as she firmly pumped him. His lips locked with hers and he decided to switch places with her, carefully guiding her away from the running shower head. A deep moan vibrated against her lips as the warm water trickled at his back. Blinded by this temptation, he hoisted her up, pressing her back against the tile wall. Her thighs wrapped against his slender waist, willing to take him, willing to feel him fill her again.

There was fire in his cobalt eyes, one that matched hers as he once again steadied himself at her entrance. Joseph buried his engorged cock into her tight, wet cunt. Diana threw her head back against the tile, her raven hair splaying across it as he pinned her, slamming his hips against hers. Her eyes rolled back into her head as she whimpered, transcending to a high only he could give her. She bit down on her bottom lip to stifle her cries that still echoed within the bathroom walls. She bucked her hips to meet his thrusts, his shaft striking as deep as it would reach. A husky groan from Joseph hummed against her chest, forcing another breathy moan out of her.

He couldn’t take his eyes off of her, the face of this angelic woman in his arms, as he lost himself inside of her. He stared intently through hooded eyes, watching her every move and expression.

The pace quickened, racing faster and faster, the euphoric release getting closer by the second. Together, they moved in time until finally reaching their climax, perfectly in synch. He grunted into her shoulder, as her fingernails dug into his back; her core quaked and trembled as she cried out his name. She could feel his seed shooting into her when he came, so much that it seeped out of her, washing away as the water continued to spray over their entangled bodies.

Breath hot and ragged, their bodies relaxed together, coming down from their moment of weakness and passion.

 

* *

 

Joseph Seed’s Sanctuary
Hope County Central
Present Day

Diana choked for air when she awoke, once more in a terrified state, but this time for a different reason. She was mortified. Her chest heaved for a deep breath, feeling constricted beneath the quilt and linen sheets. She instantly kicked them off, her body glazed with cold sweat as she had awoken before. Aggression boiled over, she grabbed her pillow and launched it across the room.

What… What the fuck!?

What she didn’t realize was that John was sleeping in the bed beside her, above the blanket in a sitting position with his back against the headboard. He stared at her, wide-eyed, as he leaned over to touch her.

Diana resisted, unsure if this was another lucid dreamscape, terrified that this may be John’s chance to take advantage of her. She scrambled backward, nearly falling from the edge of the bed. As flustered as she was, she bumped the nightstand, the clattering of a tea-cup and saucer rang out as she did. The remains of the cup spilled out onto the table’s surface, the aroma of a well-known substance filling her nose when she bent down to smell it.

Bliss?! She gasped.

Groggily, John sat up tried to reach for her again, even after she swatted him away.

She was horrified and dizzy with confusion, traces of a headache looming over her made the room warp and distort before she blinked it away. Once she steadied herself in firm stance on the cool, wood floor, Diana snatched up the 9mm on her nightstand and pulled back the hammer.

“Whoa—fuck!” Bright blue eyes widened immediately at the sight of the gun aimed directly at his head. Diana was a crack shot, and the weapon was loaded, and John was not prepared for this. “What are you doing?!”

“What are you doing here?” She snarled, her heart racing as she struggled to steady the weapon.

He gulped. “Di… it’s me. It’s John.”

“Mm-hmm…” She voiced her doubt, still breathing heavily, clearly lost in the haze of panic.

“I swear!” John pleaded, his hands raised in the air as he carefully lowered himself to the ground on his side of the bed. “Diana, put the gun down!”

The frenzied woman waved the weapon at him, reaching with her off-hand to clasp at the handle to steady her shaky aim. “One. More. Time. What are you doing here, John?”

“I’ve been here, we’re at Joseph’s now, remember? We’ve had a long ass couple of days—Rye, Hudson… everything! It’s been a few days now since we got here. You argued with Joseph, Pratt—” John breathed out, “We know you needed to rest. This is your room.”

“I can see that.” Diana growled, still dissatisfied with her brother-in-law’s answers. “What are you doing in my room—and why was there Bliss in my drink?”

“You told Leah to stay away—Morris too. I just—I wanted to make sure you slept soundly, and we came in here together, and you passed out. Nothing happened—I-I didn’t do anything—I promise you.” John’s voice, always steady with confidence, wavered some as he struggled to calm her down, but he did well to stay in place, posed and still in a non-threatening manner. Nevertheless, her finger was a little too close to the trigger for comfort.

She shook her head. Perhaps not that she didn’t believe him—but she knew the tactics of The Father quite well. “And the Bliss?!”

John cringed when she shouted at him. “I know—I know! Shit, Di, I didn’t want them to, but Joseph insisted.”

The sound of his name made her core tremble; the reverie of their sordid affair still fresh and at the forefront of her mind. His mouth on her flesh, his hands touching every sensitive spot, his eyes concentrated on her… the way he felt inside of her. She rampantly shook her head to be rid of the sinful thoughts.

“…But I swear I didn’t do anything to you, no one did. I came in to make sure you slept. We just wanted to help, that’s all!”

No one did… his words reverberated through her head, tempted to revisit that dream again.

Fuck!

She couldn’t trust this, even if it was real. With Bliss involved, she was overcome with anxiety and unease, sick to her stomach at the thought—that making love to Joseph might have actually happened.

Hostile green eyes spotted the bandage over his left hand, the fingers that had been severed thanks to Joey Hudson clearly gone by the shape of it. John seemed genuine enough, and he hadn’t had reason to lie to her as of late. That was her sign this might be her time and place, but she still wasn’t sure. Such uncertainty made her head spin.

“I’m here, Diana. I’m here, okay? It’s just me. I-I don’t know what was going on in there,” he slowly tapped his temple, “but it’s just me. Listen, Jacob has night terrors too, right? I know because I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. Whatever happened was just a nightmare. I know you’re scared. I know you don’t trust yourself right now, but trust me…”

Jacob… She thought, instantly racked with guilt. Everything she just experienced, the thrilling rapture of release, a scene of passion with Joseph made her feel awful, pathetic and disgusting, like she truly betrayed her vows.

John was right, however. He was right to press on the notion that she’d remember Jacob’s incessant nightmares. Before she came along, Jacob’s family and some of his men endured the brunt of his outrage as an effect of his PTSD. Early on, he would even lash out at her, physically and verbally, until her soothing touch and soft whispers would coo him back to reality. Their safe space. She was accustomed to that behavior, since her own father suffered the same after Vietnam. It pained her to see Jacob startled like that, scared and unaware of his own surroundings when he awoke and made her wonder just how terrifying she must have looked, standing there before John, with her weapon drawn and covered in a sheet of sweat. When she closed her eyes, she pictured him staring at her like a wild animal lost in the depths of the most treacherous parts of the Whitetails.

As she considered his words, John made his approach. Carefully. Quietly. Once he was close enough, he wrapped his fingers over hers, slowly turning the weapon away from his chest. He waited until her grip relaxed enough to slip it out of her hands. “Now… we’re gonna put the gun down…” Thankfully, she let him disarm her, so he deftly disengaged the hammer, clicked the safety and set it aside.

Sympathy filled his expression, letting her have a moment to herself to ease back down from her feverous rage. It took patience and calculation to pacify the beast of a night terror, but he had done so many times for Jacob, and even Joseph if the need arose. Once John felt it safe enough, he pulled her into his chest.

She stiffened at the gesture, but her arms fell loose and slackened at her sides. It was kind and endearing on his part to reach out to her like this, where the alternative would to be to run shouting, to alert the rest of the compound. No, with John’s knowledge of negotiation, he was able to diffuse the ticking timebomb on his own.

With the weapon set aside, John pulled her close. His cologne, something she often teased him about for being foul and overwhelming, was now calming and welcome. He eased her to the edge of the bed, guiding her to the mattress, keeping his hold on her loose. If she was anything like her husband, John knew it wouldn’t do him any favors to make her feel confined.

“You’re okay. You’re alright… I’m here.” His voice was like honey, soft and sweet, as he comforted her.

Diana blinked, once, then a second time as her body finally relaxed. She sat down beside him, as he let go, keeping one hand at her back to show he was not going anywhere. She needed this so badly, to feel safe. John had become her anchor, and she finally gave in to his embrace. Her arms wrapped around him, squeezing him gently to show she was grateful he’d been there—even if she had the gall to draw a weapon on him. She wasn’t of sound mind, and that would be her reason if he asked.

John hummed, content to see she was willing to keep him around, though he was bound to resist departure if she’d tried. His hand brushed over her tousled hair, and he settled to gently rub soft circles between her shoulders. “What happened?”

“I…” Diana closed her eyes, leaning her head on his shoulder. Though she hadn’t forgotten the strange encounter with Jacob in the cabin in the woods, that wasn’t what troubled her the most. It was Joseph. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

John frowned, his brow creased in concern. He was cautious, almost wondering if he should press on the issue, but he conceded defeat to show some consideration for her current state. The Seeds might have been known for their stubbornness, and John was a lawyer to boot, but he knew that Diana was just as bad with that trait too. It was partly why he’d accepted her into the family. She fit right in. “That’s alright. I’m here for you if you need it, okay?”

Diana nodded. Closing her eyes, she leaned against his shoulder, content to stay there if he allowed.

He turned his head to place a light kiss at the crown of her dark hair. “Would you like me to stay?” 

Tears welled up in her eyes, already swollen from the rage and despair she’d gone through the last few days, let alone the past few minutes. John’s sympathy and care was much needed, though she wasn’t sure if she even deserved it. She was restless, the stability of her confidence shaken by Pratt’s chilling call from earlier, and not even her subconscious was safe.

She felt like she was losing herself, questioning her own actions and now her own thoughts. Most debilitating of all, Diana felt as if she was losing hope. 

To his innocent query, Diana nodded with a faint sob, prompting him to reach across her into a full and ensnare her into warm embrace. He shushed her, gently rocking them where they sat. This man, once deemed a heartless monster was so caring and thoughtful, and knew the right things to say, and when to say them.

For once she thought that John, that little shit, was a decent person.  

Diana whispered, “Thank you, John.”

 

* *

 

Later that morning…

 

“How is she?” Joseph asked, pouring a glass of water for both him and his brother. He stared out of the window above the sink, watching the sun rise behind the dark clouds that hovered low in the sky. A faint sprinkling was the calm before, as he’d predicted a violent tempest was making its approach.

John leaned against the counter, running his hands over his beard before shrugging. “As expected. Took her a while to get to sleep and managed to catch a few hours before she woke up. Nightmare. She was a little shaken up, but she’s doing fine now. A little unhappy you slipped the Bliss into her tea, but… I explained why.”

“Hm.” Joseph nodded, his expression unchanging, almost unreadable as John searched for any tells on his brother’s face.

John omitted the part about the gun, since Joseph was adamant about keeping the weapons out of his home and secure in the armory. He also refused to let that be fuel for another argument between the two, since he’d seen first-hand that Diana and Joseph were abrasive and cold to one another since their reunion. The events of the last few days hadn’t helped things on that front, but far be it from him to stoke that fire.

“Have you heard from Avery?” John asked of his lieutenant, tactfully switching topics to change the heavy tone that took over the room.

Joseph’s lips tightly pursed around the gulp of water he held in his mouth before swallowing. He nodded at his younger brother, taking a lean against the island countertop across from him. “Yes. He took the remainder of your men and fleet to an abandoned outpost just south of the mountains.”

“Fleet?” John wondered, “I thought Hudson took Affirmation?”

Joseph smirked at the mention of his prized plane. “Affirmation is secure at Seed Ranch. Airspace has been clear over Holland, as far as I’ve been told, but they’re flying low, and storing them in a hangar to the south east of there. They are scouting now, trying to find a way to transport themselves here safely, without further interference.”

John dipped his head low, accepting the answer his brother had given. It wasn’t the information he sought, however, a distressed longing spread across his handsome face.

Joseph continued, “Also, Ana is doing fine. She was happy to hear you’re alive, and I assured her I’d keep it that way.”

John’s shoulders lowered as he exhaled. His girlfriend Ana, as he’d heard, was a downright mess after the first siege of the Ranch. They’d managed to get it back from Hudson’s hold, but were still struggling, the last he’d heard. John hoped whatever proof of life Joseph had to offer on their brief call was enough to keep her mind at ease. He missed her terribly, but there was already enough of Whitehorse’s men swarming above and around the area, he didn’t want to further endanger her or himself trying to get to her. “I just… I wish I could see her…”

Joseph smiled at his brother before taking another sip of his water. John had only been dating her a few months, but there was no doubt she would be a good fit for the family if they were to make it through their current situation. “You can call over this afternoon on the secure line. I’m sure she can’t wait to hear from you.”

There was unmistakable sadness in Joseph’s eyes, though he struggled not to let it show in his tone. The void he felt, the emptiness he suffered, being the hopeless widower and failed leader who surrendered most of his resources and lost many in numbers to the force of Whitehorse and his men. He felt for John, he truly did, but he made it clear the dangers that lurked beyond the borders of his sanctuary. Joseph stood firm in those convictions, those words of advice to anyone present on his island, that leaving meant their peril. He didn’t have to reiterate he had seen this outcome in his visions, but it was necessary to reinforce it when met with defiance.

Both heads turned when the floorboards of the kitchen creaked, a sound that came from open archway.

“Di, what are you doing up?” John asked.

“Morning to you too.” She smirked.

Joseph’s glance could have been mistaken for a glare, but she knew better. He’d opened his mouth and inhaled to speak, but immediately bit down on whatever he was about to say. He bowed his head at Diana, knowing that any urge to have her get back to bed was only going to end poorly, as it had been each time he’d encountered her.

Her face flushed when she looked at Joseph, still a little wary about the scene that unfolded in her deceitful mind. She couldn’t help what feelings slipped to the surface when she was near him, and that was more evident now. Everything she tried to hold back from the first day she saw him again after their months-long spat, came rushing back to her thanks to the Bliss and that damn lust-riddled dream.

Diana shifted, her eyes settling on the younger Seed. “John, I need a favor.”

“Yeah, of course, anything… what is it?” John asked.

“I need to leave. You know that.”

John heaved a sigh and nodded. “I know.”

“I want you to take me to the Whitetails.”

“Diana, we’ve been through this already—” Joseph broke his silence to protest.

“I don’t care.” She interrupted him, stepping closer in the silence that caused the room to fill with tension so thick it was palpable. “Joseph, I don’t care if you don’t want me to go, but I’m done waiting. I’m going. Jacob is a tough bastard but that’s not going to stop me from trying to fight for him.”

His dark blue eyes narrowed at her. He’d been unwilling to fight, but when Diana was around, he was constantly met with conflict. They were revisiting the same quarrel they had the day before. Everything was cyclical to them, a roundabout of argument and aggravation.

John shook his head. “You could die out there, Diana.”

“Unlike the Father, here, that’s something I’m willing to risk.”

Joseph slammed his glass down and pounded his fist on the counter. “For fucks sake, you heard Pratt, he just cast out a lure to capture you. You want to just stroll in and hand yourself to him on a silver fucking platter?”

Diana fended off the nerves and shame of the dream to face Joseph. His words were vulgar, profane, which was surprising, and showed nerve that he would break his own front of innocence to argue with her. She stared up at him, trying to match the sheer power of his stare. They were entranced by one another, there was no doubt about that. And what bitter tensions lie between them was now laced with the apparent desire that Diana had tried to shield herself from before.

Joseph wasn’t expecting her to delicately place her palm on his cheek. He didn’t flinch, nor did he back away. Even when he blinked it was lightning fast, as if he wanted to keep his eyes fixated on her. It fascinated him for her to remain this close without taking a swing, but he didn’t question her. Joseph was going to face this head on, curious to what was going on in her mind now.

Instead of an antagonizing approach, Diana’s voice was calm and level when she spoke. “We’re always doing this, Joseph. Day after day, fight after fight… it’s… fucking exhausting. I’m tired of it. Whatever hatred, whatever disgust, whatever it is you have for me, needs to be set aside. If we survive this, you can hate me all you want, but we’re family, and one of us is out there, fighting for his life. He shouldn’t be doing so, and he shouldn’t be alone.”

“Diana…” Joseph spoke, barely a whisper.

“I’ll say it one more time, and I’ll say it as many times as I have to. I love Jacob. I love him.”

Joseph’s eyes flickered. He tensed at her words.

“… You can come at me with your insults, resist my choices, tell me how fucking stupid it is to do this, and that’s fine because I know it is. But you won’t stop me. Not this time. Not anymore.”

John ran his hands through his hair, seething softly when he put too much pressure on his severed fingers. “Even if it’s just the two of us, I don’t think we’ll be enough to make it through whatever traps or barriers that fucker Pratt has set up. I’ve seen him… after the culling—that prick is a fucking psychopath.”

She’d almost forgotten John was in the room, because when she confronted Joseph, all she could see was him…

“I know.” Diana replied, pulling her hand away from Joseph’s face.

It was true, the fate of the naïve, pretty-faced Staci Pratt had changed after Jacob had his way with him. He was forced into the conditioning no one was ever prepared to undergo, his feeble mind twisted and left broken by Jacob’s treatment. She felt her stomach swirl into knots when she thought about the call he made over the radio as he harmed Jacob in return.

John added, “We need to be careful.”

“And we will.” Breaking eye-contact with Joseph, Diana turned toward John. “I think I can get help. I know who I can speak to out there. I still trust him… and I think he trusts me too.”

“Who?”

“Eli.”

“Palmer?” John scoffed. “You’ve gotta be shitting me, right?”

Joseph turned away, running his hand down his bearded face. He shook his head and stood there quietly to collect himself.

John was still in disbelief. “Why–why even try with Palmer? He wants to take Jacob down–he’s always wanted that. Stroll up there to the Wolves Den—or anywhere near that—Jesus, you really have a death wish, don’t you? You think he’s actually going to help us?”

“Keep your enemies close. It’s what my daddy taught me.” The country girl in her voice came out as she remembered her father’s fine words. “Best advice he ever taught me, and I ain’t turning my back on that.”

“That being said, you can’t put your back to your enemy either.” John furthered this advice.

A flash of her dream came to her, the way Joseph forced himself upon her, taking her from behind before she faced him. The way his tongue filled her mouth, the way he hungrily bit down on her skin. She shook herself out of that daze and blinked at John.

“Eli, he knew me and my family. The Whitetails, if that’s what they want, property up there, our men to vacate some of the areas they’ve run off to, fine. If they want weapons, hunters to work for ‘em, fine. I’ll bargain. I’ll do whatever it fucking takes to find Jake.”

John scoffed again, “Using what little we have left as a bargaining chip, are you insane?”

“It’s all we have to get what we need, and I’ll try to make it worth our while. Keep them safe, keep them alive.” Diana insisted.

The brothers were so astounded, they stood without saying a word to either support or deny her choice of ally. Palmer was an enemy of Jacob’s, and thus an enemy of Eden’s Gate, but to Diana he was still her mama’s closest friend.

“Suit yourselves. I’m taking guns and ammo and leaving on the next boat come sundown. I’ll have a radio if you feel so inclined to check up on me.” Mockingly bowing at Joseph, she turned heel and started toward the door. “And if you think to poison me again, reconsider that, or I’ll make sure you regret doing so.”

She huffed, trying to mentally prepare herself for this solo trek. With all the Sheriff’s men and the Deputy’s guns for hire still wandering the County, she had to keep her head on a god damn swivel to make sure it was kept intact.

“Diana, wait.” A voice stopped her.

When she pivoted around, Joseph clutched the glass he had in his hand, throwing back the last of his water before setting it back down.

“John, accompany her to the Whitetails. Take Morris and one of my men to scout.”

“Joseph—” John began, but when Joseph raised his hand, he stopped.

“If someone like the Huntress or the Sniper get a hold of you, you’re surely done for. You’ll need backup. I know I can’t stop either of you. But this is for him. For Jacob.”

John solemnly nodded at his brother’s statement, but Diana raised her eyebrows at Joseph’s decree.

Joseph advanced toward her at a slow pace, feeding off her mood to keep the peace. His face showed something she hadn’t been expecting of him, a mild compassion that she recognized from the Father before. “Without reverting back to our earlier arguments…” He started, shaking his head slightly, “I hope you know what you’re doing, Diana. Palmer might be your chance to locate the bunker, but you be sure to keep him at arm’s length. If Jacob has any hope to surviving this,”

Diana scoffed. “He does—”

“When you succeed and emerge triumphant…” Joseph graced her with his touch. He placed his hands at her shoulders, and his forehead lowered to hers. “Return to me. All of you.”

It was the first time they’d come to a compromise in what felt like an eternity of battling one another. Her shift in tone, her poise and effort to refrain from pure aggression must have helped her case here. This exchange was far more pleasant than the ones prior, and she preferred this more than being at odds with him. It might have been the dream’s fault or the secret longing she found that she’d matched with Joseph, but she was still in love with someone else, still bound by the vows of marriage, and whatever they shared before had long withered away before she devoted her life to her husband. Her Jacob.

At least now, they had a plan, and it was her duty to carry it out. This was her purpose here, whether Joseph liked it or not. 

The question still remained of the dream and if there was any truth or reality to it, but Diana knew this wasn’t the time to interrogate Joseph, to know the truth… not now, she knew… possibly not ever. But she would be lying to herself if she said she wasn’t bothered by it, or the feelings that had come about because of it. 

There was a strange look in Joseph’s eyes too, as if he knew something…

“Keep your eyes up.” He whispered, standing temptingly close to her it made her heart leap.

“I will.” Diana responded.

“Good.” 

Diana was pleased with his sudden change of heart, surprised that Joseph had any means of generosity to grant her these reinforcements. She didn’t want to ruin the moment of Joseph’s reprieve, since he was still someone she wanted to keep at arms length too… perhaps not as her enemy. Perhaps, something else. 

Nevertheless, she gratefully accepted the help with a deep bow of her head, before shifting her gaze to John. “We leave at sundown.”

Chapter Text

T H E  F O R S A K E N

 

Hope County Jail
Henbane River Territory
Meanwhile…

 

Joey Hudson strolled into the main hall of prison, where they usually convened. With her own lieutenant in tow, she carefully stepped forward into the light. A grimace graced her naturally soft features when she spotted Pratt already seated at the table with two of his men behind him. He’d fluttered his fingers in a teasing wave at her entrance, to which she flipped him off.

“Come on in dear, the water’s fine.” Pratt jeered, waving her over. “Though I gotta say, boss, I love what you’ve done with the place.”

“Yeah, yeah.” The old man grumbled.

Hudson quickly stood at attention, straightened her back and stiffened her posture, though she seemed uncomfortable as her superior didn’t yet face her. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

Sheriff Earl Whitehorse was so fixated on the large map of the County that he had spread out for his observation on the far wall. Lines of yarn connected pinned photos of the Seed family and their remaining supporters, some with small red x’s through them to show him the ones who had perished. Not one of the Heralds or Joseph’s photo remained touched, saved a few of the pinholes where Pratt decided to play darts with their faces as targets on the cork wall. Most of the outposts that had long since been liberated from the hold of Eden’s Gate were crossed out with thick black sharpie, ones that remained open and as hostile as a DMZ were littered with notes and scrawl only he could decipher. He was still for a moment, focused on the small unclaimed territory he left granted to Joseph Seed. It wasn’t that it was granted, so much that it hadn’t yet been surrendered; the place he declared sanctuary was locked down tight and they had little to no way of getting to the Father without losing many more of their own.

“Sir?” Joey called for him again.

The bushy moustache of the Sheriff furrowed; he had been waiting impatiently for Hudson’s arrival for some time. His greying eyes narrowed as he clicked his tongue, shaking his head in disappointment.

“I’m sorry for the delay, sir. Things got… complicated.” She grumbled. The leather of her gloves tightened as she balled them into fists, before shoving them into her pockets to hold in the anger and disdain she had looming over her after the escape of Diana and John Seed.

With his hands clasped behind his back, and a deep, exasperated breath, Whitehorse finally turned to face her.

She felt prompted to speak as soon as she was graced with his attention. “As of right now, the Seeds are all—”

“Hiding out on Joseph’s island. Nothing warms my heart like brothers reunited, hm?” He glared, his gaze as stone-cold as his tone. “We lost the Siren as well, not too long ago, and reports that some of the Bliss burns got delayed due to… what these prisoners are calling divine interference. Tell me you have something new or beneficial to report, because I know you didn’t come here to waste my time, Deputy Hudson.”

“Hiding out…” Pratt scoffed, “Fucking pussies. Doesn’t help that you conveniently left the door unlocked so John could just stroll right on out, eh, Jo?”

Hudson flexed, popping her knuckles. She lowered her spiteful glower to the floor before looking back up at Whitehorse, even if her response was meant for her facetious cohort. “T-that was a mistake and an oversight, and I already paid for that.”

“We all are.” Staci added. “A damn oversight is an understatement. Shit, Jo—you might as well have booked ‘em all tickets on the next flights out on our dime. Hell, have Rye personally fly them safely out of here, huh?”

“Fuck you.” She growled.

“Fuck you and your rookie mistake!”

“That’s enough!” Whitehorse barked, bringing silence back to the prison hall. “Quite enough. From the both of you.”

Hudson’s jaw flexed as she kept her stance there, folding her arms across her chest tight, not in the mood for the scrutiny from her appointed colleagues. She huffed to herself, trying to steady her breath as Pratt smugly grinned and sat back in his chair.

“Tensions are high. I get it. But you both need to stop acting like fucking grade schoolers if we’re going to get things done.” Whitehorse stepped toward his seat at the head of the table, a throne for the king of Hope County, but he didn’t sit down. Instead, his wrinkled hands grasped the back of it. The wood creaked in his grip, his impatience nearly boiling over with the bickering of these young deputies. “Not only are they all hiding from us like the pests—the filthy field rats—but they’re now together. Faith lost from the Henbane. John escaped from the Valley. I armed you both to the fucking teeth, supplied you with enough to last the worst of the winter that’s comin’ up fast, gave you a God damn army to blockade and fortify your own homes and bunkers in your territories. Would either of you enlighten me? How the fuck is that even possible?”

Pratt was immediately shut down from any response, as the Sheriff’s ire was a like a blanket of fire over him and Hudson collectively. He folded his arms, resorting to reverence instead of backlash. Hudson blinked, with no valid response to offer.

“And get your ass in a chair, Hudson. You’re makin’ me uncomfortable just standing there.”

“Sir.” She bowed her head like an obedient pup and took the seat across Staci without further resistance.

“Now that you’re both here. Would you kindly explain to me how the fuck this happened? You each had one directive. One to follow to a tee and I wasn’t asking for a try, I was asking for a do. You do as I say, you follow your orders and any excuses are shit. Marshal Burke ain’t around anymore to serve me a slab of any Grade A bullshit, which means it’s more of a task for you to comply and carry out the law.” Whitehorse paced back over to the map, eyeing the exed out headshot of Burke in the Henbane region before letting out a sigh. At a slow and even pace, he returned to his chair and finally lowered himself into it. Cold hands laced together in front of him, and the old Sheriff glanced at the Deputies once more. “I thought it was simple. Hold the Seed family until we bring in the Feds to take them away. It’s what they signed off on, it’s what we agreed to, but this all seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

“That shit’s for sure—trouble. Feds always bringin’ more trouble around here. I mean who’s to say they’re not just gonna send another fucking marshal out here who’s as green as grass and they’ll get their probie asses killed before we even have a chance to send them out?” Pratt threw his hands up, and once his boots were down he leaned forward to emphasize his next statement, “I still don’t know why the Feds have to get involved at all.”

“Burke was one of their men.” Whitehorse responded.

Was. May he rot in peace or whatever—but this is our county. We should punish every last one of that motherfucking family and their herd for what they’ve done. We just want to sit around and wait for the jets to fly in with their useless cavalry? Fuck no.” Pratt childishly flicked at the metal badge pinned to his chest. “For chrissakes, the last I checked, these badges were worth somethin’.”

Whitehorse’s face soured at Pratt’s outburst. He braced himself against the table and leaned in close, as he took that as disrespect. “Let me make this crystal clear for you. While I agree the Feds have made an unpleasant situation worse—more times I can count—this is my county, son. You are still under my command, and you listen to what say. I don’t need to whip you like you do those Judges you’re so fond of, to know your place and your purpose.”

Don’t make me do it again, was what Whitehorse meant to say.

Pratt swallowed his next response, averting his eyes from the Sheriff to the table. Buzzwords like ‘place’ and ‘purpose’ were like dragging a serrated blade over his skin, bringing him back to the days in the cage under Jacob’s command, and he shuddered. A ragged sigh left his nostrils on the verge of his outrage to which Joey smirked. She was rather pleased that Whitehorse was able to get Pratt to keep his trap shut.

“There’s so much red tape here, and the Feds are taking their sweet ass time doing anything worth a damn, so we do what we can to keep the Seeds and this fucked up situation contained. The Peggies are still out there, spread out far and wide, scattered like roaches. Reports say we’ve wiped out over half of their population, but there are still some stragglers—fucking sympathizers to the family, so maybe I’m safe to assume it was they who aided in John Seed’s getaway.”

“It wasn’t—” Joey let the words out before she realized, and heat flushed to her cheeks when she noticed every pair of cold eyes had turned on her.

Whitehorse exhaled loudly through his nostrils, as he hated interruptions. “It wasn’t what, Hudson?”

“I’m sorry, sir.” She quickly replied.

Whitehorse chuckled. “No-no. Sorry’s no good here, I thought we went over that.”

Joey gulped and nodded, still feeling the physical turmoil she suffered at Whitehorse’s hand last time she admitted a fuck-up, following it up with a half-assed apology he wasn’t keen to accept. “I-It wasn’t the Peggies, Sir.”

He laughed again. “So, who then? You about to tell me that by some grace of God, John Seed, one man, managed to slip through your hold, your security?”

“No.” Joey shook her head. She flashed Pratt and the other lieutenants an uneasy glance before returning to Whitehorse. “It w-was her, sir. Diana Seed.”

Pratt rolled his eyes at Joey’s apparent fear of the woman in question. He slumped down in his chair and kicked his feet up on the table. He crossed his arms and ankles, putting off an amused air to the rest of her story. The Sheriff, however, looked perturbed by Hudson’s reveal and stood quietly for a moment. It wasn’t what he’d been expecting to hear, but he let his surprise hide behind his glassy grey eyes as he comprehended the meaning behind it all.

“Clear the room.” Whitehorse’s addressed the lieutenants, and other guards in the room, “Now.”

The faint footsteps of Hudson and Pratt’s company trailed out of the room, Whitehorse’s guards followed, leaving only the core three alone to discuss this matter further. Whatever was said from here on out was not for their ears.

“And?” Whitehorse gestured for her to continue.

“I had her.” Joey started, through gritted teeth as she despised herself for losing her target. “She was caught trying to break into Nick and Kim’s place, to steal an aircraft no doubt, but we had her. I kept her and John in Falls End with me before we transferred Jacob to the Whitetails. And… they escaped.”

“Had. Keyword.” Pratt snorted and waved his hand grandly, “Again, because you carelessly and conveniently left them unattended, and the door unlocked.”

Ignoring Pratt’s provocation, she continued. “They were out at least forty-five to an hour but in the shape they were in, I figured they couldn’t have gotten far. Took my men to form a search party around Falls End and surrounding farmland. Then, I summoned Rye to get eyes in the sky. Unfortunately,” Hudson sighed as she leaned on that distressing note, “we were unable to take them down before they swam across to Joseph’s sanctuary.”

Whitehorse breathed out in relief, giving Hudson a bit of a reprieve—or perhaps some unease in his silence. He was particularly concerned with the fact that Hudson had used the force of the expert pilot, one with a knack for offing targets on command. Rye might have been a commercial pilot, but his skills on the guns were to be rivaled. Hell, he even admitted that the young John Seed might have fit that bill, once upon a time. By the end of her debrief, Whitehorse nodded, for the moment, at a loss.

“Oh, isn’t that just great? So we know she’s alive, and John with her. Holed up on that fucking sanctuary.” Pratt mockingly applauded her. “Ah, well, not to worry partner. We might see her resurface before long.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Joseph Seed’s island is untouchable. Land, air, sea—it’s like they have an answer for every means of a raid.” Hudson stated, matter-of-factly, as she voiced her doubt in Pratt’s shallow addendum.

“The difference here is that our precious Mrs. Seed knows I got her dear husband locked away. About to throw away the key too if I had it my way.”

“But you don’t.” Whitehorse stated firmly. “You mean to say you made contact with her?”

An arrogant grin took over Staci’s face, and with steepled fingers he twisted his office chair to face Whitehorse. “I might have.”

Whitehorse’s eyes narrowed. “Staci, your petty little games with Jacob Seed are causing more issues here than I care to know about. Prior to that, Hudson, I often questioned what you needed with John after the bunker was overrun. Now I already know that both of you are playin’ some dirty tactics in the bowels of your bunkers, means of which I have no choice but to turn a blind eye…”

Watching him with raised brows, the young Deputies wondered where he was going with this train of thought.

“…but these methods have proved effective to change their minds and keep them in check, so long as neither of you breach the parameters.” It was proven to him that when they each emerged from the bowels of the Seed bunkers, having undergone such horrendous treatment, neither of them were the same. However, Whitehorse had no time for a proper psych evaluation to replace them, and he didn’t trust many others in the department. Others would argue they were too close to the case to carry out their duties, but Whitehorse stood fast in his faith they would follow him. Even now that faith wavered, but they were still trustworthy and compliant, and therefore left in place.

“Of course not, sir.” Hudson breathed out, relaxing in her chair.

“I won’t. I promise.” Pratt’s wry grin was accompanied by a faux scout salute. “But… after Jo here fucked up and let Diana and Johnny boy-wonder go, well… I managed to get through via radio. I think she’s more than convinced to make an attempt to collect the whole set of Seeds.”

“Christ.” Whitehorse muttered. He removed his glasses for a moment to run his hand over his face.

After a beat, Joey voiced the question that was burning in her mind. “So, we’re just going to refer to her as that now? His wife?”

“It’s a fact we gotta face, Jo.” Pratt shrugged his shoulders. “She left Hope behind, and she’s full-on Diana now. Didn’t think it’d be this deep but this is some real dark shit she’s fallen in. Dunno if she can get up and out of this, either. All the Guns, our people, fuck—even we have tried to convince her otherwise but… I dunno. Nothing’s gonna break her now, maybe she’s a lost cause at this point.”

“She’s not.” Whitehorse insisted, nearly growling at the thought of giving up. But there was something else that irked him about this situation. “And why is it that I’m just now hearing about this, Hudson?”

Hudson gulped.

“Did think that it would be wise to keep the most important news I’ve been waiting to hear? Now that’s awful daring of you. Bold, even. That you would withhold that sweet morsel of vital information, and… for what?” Whitehorse tilted his head. “There won’t be another chance for fucking up, no-no… not like this. If Diana is involved we’re gonna need our best men. No going rogue, no taking her without reporting to me first. You hear me?”

“Y-yes, sir.” She said meekly, desperately wanting to change the subject. “And what if she’s still in there? I’m thinking maybe we didn’t apply enough… pressure.” Hudson added, with a hint of regret in her tone. Of the three, Joey was the closest to her and her family, the relationship sustained between her and Diana’s sister wasn’t a secret any longer. Perhaps there was faint hope in her tone, a low-key confidence they could revert the woman known as Diana back to the one they knew long ago.

“Sure, whatever you say, but she didn’t go after the Bliss bitch or that punk-ass lawyer for no reason. You heard her, Jo. They’re her family, one she fucking married into—and I gotta say I did not see that coming. Jacob fucking Seed. Married, and to her nonetheless. Though, he might not be for long.”

“We aren’t going to kill her.” Whitehorse reiterated.

Pratt smiled. “Quickly.”

Or Jacob.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

“For fuck’s sake, Pratt! Knock it off.” Hudson snapped.

“Don’t sit over there on your high horse like you’ve got anything better out of this, Jo.” Pratt returned the volley. “Enough of the meat you send over to the center are cover in infections my doc has to treat because of you’re a little too excited with that hot-iron of yours. And the ones we actually gave a shit about, you let the fuck go!”

Hudson scoffed, “Please, keep beating this topic til it’s dead. Yeah, I admit fucking up. But how about I remind Earl you nearly gave Jake Seed a fucking heart attack in the chair? Huh?”

Whitehorse remained quiet, letting the squabbling between Hudson and Pratt drone on in the background. He didn’t care for their arguing, but it was truly grating on his nerves. He found the best thing to do for now was to let them duke it out until they realized he was sitting there, his impatience worn on his old weary face, simmering for now. Whitehorse stared with a longing, a despair of sorts, at the documents stacked high on the table in front of him. The folder marked with the Hope County Sheriff’s insignia on the inside flap had a collection of notes and other paperwork he’d been reading before his Deputies arrived. He traced his fingertips on the edges of a small, folded paper tucked inside, handwriting he hadn’t seen come around in a couple of years now, to date.

“So, what are we to do now, sir?” Hudson asked, after she and Pratt noticed that he didn’t stop them, or even move for some time as he focused on the note in the open folder.

Whitehorse sat up in his seat, returning his full attention to the two in the room. “Call your Guns. Scour the northern reach of the Valley and comb the Whitetails. If they’ve set out to find your hideout, they can’t have gotten far. Move from the bay onward. I’ll ship out reinforcements to you if necessary. Otherwise it’s business as usual. Train. Hunt. Detain.”

“Yes, sir.” They simultaneously affirmed.

“No mistakes. No more fuck-ups. No more ‘sorries’ from here going forward. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all for now.” Whitehorse dismissed them without much more flourish, excusing himself from his seat to return to the map. He had many calls to make, rallies and training to organize, especially if Diana was loose causing more damage to the county just to find her husband. She’d been the wild card for the last two years, something he never thought possible. He stared at the photo pinned to the map, a profile photo of Diana with her new married name written in red ink over what was previously printed along the bottom. There was a distinctive glint in his eyes, an expression of pity, as he moved her pin from Joseph’s island to an open space in the Whitetails. 

What the hell happened to you, kid? He wondered.

As Pratt slid his arms into the wraparound holster for his guns, he stopped in the doorway to block Hudson from leaving first. “Well, it’s been lovely to see you as always, Jo. Maybe next time don’t let the meat grow legs and let itself out, eh?”

“Piss off.” She snarled bumping his shoulder to get her own guns from the table.

Pratt winked, shoving his hunting knife into the sheath at his hip.

“Remember. No casualties.” Whitehorse called out.

“We’ll see.” Pratt uttered to himself, waving his farewell over his shoulder to Deputy Hudson and Sheriff Whitehorse before exiting the jail.

Chapter Text

D I A N A

Whitetail Mountains
Present Day

Travel was bound to be safer under the cover of night.

Diana, John, Morris, Daniel (who served as one of Joseph’s trusted guardians) and Joshua, a young fighter from Joseph’s ranks, set out from the island. Diana almost refused his help since he looked no older than seventeen, but Joseph insisted and the boy (bless his heart) was so determined to be a good addition to the team. Reluctantly, Diana agreed.

They sailed across the lake due north, where Morris was sure they would touch down on land unmanned by anyone allied with Whitehorse and the Forsaken. Fog was patchy due to the evening rain, but it was dense in the spots that counted. They had to cut the engine to let a roaming patrol sail past them, and the thick shroud of the mist helped them remain unseen.

Once each of them stepped off the vessel, they quickly pushed it ashore and heaved it into a pile of brush. Diana hoped the elements wouldn’t destroy it, and that animals wouldn’t pick up on their scent. Boomer, prized attack companion of The Forsaken, was too good to miss their unique fragrances, but Daniel noted that the soft drizzle of rain would help pull the scents from the trees and surrounding flora. Morris suggested they cover it with a mixture of Prairie Fire, Jimson Weed and Bliss to keep the enemies away, so he sprinkled the herbs on top of the brush before they continued along the path.

“Hey, kid. You know how to use one of these?” Diana seemed to have channeled her best Jacob impression as John held out a sidearm they pulled from Joseph’s armory. She was a lot kinder in the eyes than her husband but wanted to be sure the boy knew the severity of taking part in this mission. She was hesitant to give him a weapon, but it was necessary, since John insisted they shouldn’t be forced to babysit him out in the field.

Joshua’s dark eyes were wide, sparkling with a naïve enthusiasm as if he’d been waiting for this moment his whole life. His tousled blond hair moved as he nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Seed.”

“Ma’am or Diana will be fine.” Diana smirked, to which he bashfully bowed his head.

Of course, John showed off his skills of dismantling it to prove that gun was loaded before clicking it back into place and flipping the safety before surrendering it to its new handler. Joshua was impressed and a little nervous as he accepted it.

“Just stay light on your feet and keep your eyes open.” John pat him on the shoulder.

Diana nodded. “Let’s move.”

They kept quiet for the distance they walked, listening for any predators lurking in the woods at this time of night. While they were trying to keep a safe distance from any patrols, the last thing they needed was to be ambushed by a bear or wolverine.

“Is the Veteran’s Center still intact? Is it still safe?” Diana whispered at her lieutenant when she marched shoulder-to-shoulder with him at the rear. She’d realized she hadn’t asked some of the important questions swimming in her mind before they set out.

Morris nodded. “Recovered a couple of Judges from Pratt… but no definite location on him yet. We just know is it’s heavily guarded. We gotta be careful in these parts.”

“Ain’t that a given?” John glared back at the lieutenant, checking his own glock to make sure it was ready. The southern drawl in his voice peeked out for a moment which made Diana smirk at the city-boy’s banter.

Diana nudged him with her shoulder and shook her head at his quip. “Good work with the Judges. We’ll need all the help we can get. Here’s to hoping Eli has some good news for us.”

Like coordinates of Pratt’s location. She thought.

The deeper they ventured into the woods, the fog began to clear. Thick, dark clouds were clearly seen overhead. Single-file, in an orderly fashion, they continued along the path, what should have been a straight shot was more of a serpentine trail to move from cover to cover. John scouted a few paces ahead and Diana took point, Daniel and Joshua behind her, with Morris at the rear to cover their tracks.

A light sprinkling trickled down for a few kilometers of their trek, until they hit a patch where it worsened. The beads like fell like starlight as the moon shone bright behind the velvet clouds. The pitter patter on the brim of her hat was rhythmic and symbolic, as if she were marching to war. The army of five was far better than one, though her odds still didn’t seem to fare in her favor. She’d accepted this mission as dangerous, risky, and could very well mean her death, but Diana would rather go out in a blaze of glory in the name of her husband than sit quietly back at Joseph’s compound.

At the thought of the Father, she gulped, distracted by the memory of him again. The rain was like the flowing shower head, warm and tranquil. The howling in the distance reminded her of his grunts and growls into her wet skin… She could still hear their bodies moving together, feel her back pressed up against the tiles, with her fingers tangled in the damp length of his golden-brown hair.

“Psst.” Someone called to her.

When she snapped out of it, Diana looked over her shoulder to see John staring at her with his eyebrow raised and his arms folded over his chest. She was standing on a ridge, staring out across the overlook of the dark waters. They’d made their journey uphill, giving them a good vantage against any of the patrols now… but she didn’t know how long she’d been standing there, alone and in the open.

John placed his hands on her shoulders and pulled her down to a knee, scooting them back behind the shade of the trees and brush. “Thought you’d be indecent—digging a trench or something.”

She practically snorted. Diana knew she could count on John to try and make jokes in the tensest situation. “Yet you still came over here.”

“Call me curious.” He shrugged.

“That’s… gross.”

John’s quiet laughter was infectious, something that felt foreign to her now. Smiles, laughs, anything that meant happiness and more pleasant talk was replaced by darkness and concern.

“Daniel went to scout ahead, with Morris and Joshua keeping an eye out for now. Figure a break now is as good as any… since I don’t know how many of those we’ll be getting once we hit any sorta civilization.”

“Good.” She nodded at his sit-rep, easing down on her knees as they situated beside one another.

Diana was glad John agreed to accompany her, even though Joseph’s word seemed more like a command than a request. Though the circumstances were far from desirable, she was getting to spend time with him, feeling like they finally had a chance after a year of being in-laws, to get to know one another beyond the project at Eden’s Gate.

“How’s Ana?” She asked.

John exhaled deeply. “Relieved. Worried. Didn’t get to talk long, but it sure was nice to hear her voice.”

A grief-stricken glint shimmered in Diana’s eyes. She feigned a smile at John’s response. It wasn’t disingenuous, rather that it was forced, a swell of envy rolling through her at his chance to speak to his loved one. She was in pain without Jacob. Though she got a chance to hear voice, he was under duress, so it wasn’t a pleasant chat like she assumed John had with his own girlfriend. The only knowledge Diana had of Ana was a brief meeting at one of John’s luncheons and a couple of dinners they had at Seed Ranch after Joseph’s Sunday sermon. She was at his side most of the time or found mingling with the congregation. Since she nor Jacob cared to linger after these gatherings as they both other duties to attend to, Diana didn’t know much about Ana other than her dedication to John and Eden’s Gate.

John must have spotted Diana’s discomfort right away, since he stepped closer to keep his next words between them rather than out in the open for anyone within earshot to hear. “You wanna tell me what’s really bothering you?”

Diana sighed and moved to deflect, “John, if this is your way of asking me to confess—”

“No, nothing like that, but… if that’s the only way to get you to talk?” He smirked, quirking a brow when her green eyes darted to him with a glare. “I’m kidding.”

Her thumb lazily traced the underside of her ring finger, feeling the cool metal of her wedding band still there. She wasn’t ready to talk about the night’s deception, the dreams that left lingering effects of confusion and worry pulsing through her body. The dark vision of Jacob coming to her without saying a word, and the sinful moment with their brother Joseph…

“What happened last night?” John pressed, as if he’d caught on to her thoughts just then. “No pressure really, but I just got this feeling that something’s off.”

“I thought you were a lawyer, not a detective, John.” Another deflection. Diana knew he was persistent as hell, but she remained elusive.

“Di.” John replied, quick and low, to lean on the seriousness of his inquiry.

“It’s… it’s nothing.”

John laughed. “Oh no. You can pull that shit with Jacob because he’s dense enough to shrug it off. But I know you… probably better than you know yourself. What’s going on?”

So… he’s gonna stick to his lawyer guns. Diana rolled her eyes. “It’s…”

“Joseph?”

Diana’s cheeks flushed red, and if it hadn’t been raining or the cover of night, he might have seen it clearly. “John—”

“I know things were rocky with you two before. Then after you and Jake got married—I didn’t get to see either of you in the same room unless it was a church gathering or even asking you to come to dinner, it was like pulling teeth. But yesterday, before we left, something changed. What happened?”

The conversation in Joseph’s kitchen returned to her. Her sudden shift in demeanor, his change of heart. Whether or not it had anything to do with the night, the dream, in the shower, the scenario she swore on her mother was all a damn dream, Diana had a feeling John’s keen skill of observation would make that meeting a little more memorable than she wanted. She debated coming clean to the one confessor; baring herself to the sin that invaded her mind. But no matter how much trust she had with her brother John, none of it made sense. Though it felt so real—his touch, his kiss, his… everything. The last thing she wanted to leave John with was the idea she would even consider being with Joseph or letting such a stupid thing like a dream shake her vow and dedication to Jacob.

“I just…” Diana had pulled in a breath, her mouth left open as she chose her words. She stood up and hoisted Jacob’s rifle on her back, turning to look straight into John’s baby blue eyes. “I just want Jacob back.”

“Yeah.” John replied, remaining skeptical that she meant that. Rather, he sensed she was withholding something but thought better than to keep pushing her to speak her mind. “Me too.”

John gestured they get back to the others, and when she followed, he kept pace beside her. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, patches of cool, dry areas were still refreshing on their walk. Diana didn’t say much else now, as if she’d closed a door and locked it up tight now that John was onto her.

However, as he was not much for silence, and perhaps held a certain fondness for his own voice, John was the first the break the peace.

“You know,” he started, and Diana already knew where he was headed… Another memory. “Jacob would always take off. When shit got bad with our parents—which was fairly often—he’d leave. He wanted to get away from that shitbag of our father, but I never once blamed him for wanting to leave. I guess… I guess I always envied that he could. He told us he’d just go on these long walks. He didn’t have many friends, so he’d do it alone, just to get some fresh air and clear his head. Sometimes he’d even come home with his hands all fucked up from punching something, wrapped up in pieces of his shirt or bandages he grabbed from the market, but Joseph and I… we were just happy to see him.”

It pained Diana to hear this, but she’d heard Jacob’s side of the story many times. Mostly because she’d asked since he was such a closed book at first, but other times she’d see it first-hand—how he’d take out his rage on anything in sight when his mind reverted to the broken soldier or the beaten boy who needed an outlet to release his anger, his wrath. The terrible memories of their parents broke her heart. However, there was one good thing she said about them. Thanks to them, he and his brothers existed… and the anguish would melt away, even if it was temporary. She’d hold him in her arms and refuse to let him go, and even accepted his apology when he made the mistake of striking her because she’d gotten too close.

“Of course, I don’t remember all of that as clear as Joe does but… I still remember him telling me…” John trailed off.

“Telling you what?” Diana stopped, and John turned to her, somberly.

Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be back.” John said, his voice solemn as if he were saying his brother’s eulogy. “I always believed him. Even when he ran off and enlisted, I knew I’d have him back someday.”

Diana reached up and placed her hand on John’s shoulder, squeezing it softly.

John shook his head. “This? These fuckers who took him away from us… it isn’t any different from that. Alright?”

With only a faint belief placed in her brother-in-law’s conviction, Diana simply nodded. She let a beat pass before adding her own thoughts. “After all of that happened with your family, you were separated. You lived your own life. Duncan, right?”

John cringed at the mention of his former surname. “It wasn’t one I chose, it was what the system chose for me. If I’d had it my way, I would have taken my brothers into the city… Even after I heard that Joseph got married and had a baby on the way, I wanted that. But Jacob…” He sighed, scratching his beard in irritation. “Fuck, if I’d have known he was being treated like shit back in Rome, I would have picked him up right away.”

“I know you would have.” Diana offered a thin smile, but she knew the story of Joseph and his late wife was another tragedy she refused to bring up now. She didn’t want to discuss that now… possibly, not ever. Instead, she focused on the candid conversation with John, the truth that he would have returned the generosity of spirit and wealth with his brothers then, if he could. It was admirable, despite his actions in the name of the Father that she once viewed as deplorable. But that was long ago, and for the most part, forgiven. “You’re a good man, John.”

He huffed, though he appreciated her candor. “If you say so.”

“I do. Joseph, Jacob, they are too.”

As John came back down from the emotional torrent that took over for a moment, a small grin curled on his lips. “Yeah. Yet, I still don’t know why or how you fell for the old man in the first place.”

Diana snickered. Falling for Jacob was one of the last things she ever thought possible, a thought shared with most of Eden’s Gate, including his own brothers. “It’s… complicated.”

John concurred, with a chuckle of his own. “It always is.”

Of course, this sweet moment was only temporary.

They were about a hundred feet away from their crew, when a scream rang out into the air. She gasped, her emerald gaze darting around to see where it had come from—and she quickly recognized it as a cry from the boy in their company.

“Fuck!” John uttered, tugging his rifle around to stabilize it in front of him.

“Josh!” Diana shouted.

Quickly, they ran toward the mouth of the forest exit, seeing a small flame Morris was putting out on Joshua’s clothing. It was an incendiary arrow that hit him through the left thigh. The poor boy was wailing, much to Morris’ distress as he tried to quiet him down. The screams only grew louder as Morris grasped at the hunter’s ammunition protruding from his thigh. With one quick tug he snapped the feathered end to pull it out of the bleeding wound.

Just as Diana was about to make a break for the pair who were standing out in the open, she felt John’s hand bunch up her shirt from behind and jerk her backward.

“We have to help him—”

“Are you crazy? Not gonna risk either of us getting shot!”

“He’s just a fucking boy, John!”

John was armed with a retort, but Diana defiantly made another attempt to storm away. With a frustrated grunt, John shouldered his rifle and wrapped his arm around Diana’s waist. He pulled her away from the path and slammed her back against a nearby tree, which made her angry enough to growl. Already anticipating this, John’s bandaged hand clapped over her open mouth. Unsteady puffs of breath beat against his open palm, and she shot him a furious scowl for interfering. Joshua was just a kid and set as her charge, injured now thanks to her. Their group was in immediate danger, but John was letting fear drive his actions again. Her breathing slowed when she saw John’s forefinger of his other hand held up to his lips.

“Anything?”

“No.”

“Keep searching.”

Diana’s eyes widened.

Crunching of broken twigs and damp leaves grew louder as footsteps trampled around them. Thinking quickly, John firmly pressed his body against hers, simultaneously tugging his coat over his head to shield them from sight. If it were daylight out, they would stick out like a sore thumb, but if they were still and silent against the thick trunk of the tree, he prayed the hunters would pass. Diana could feel her heartbeat quickening, racing alongside John’s until they beat in tandem. She tried to calm herself, to be one with the tree they were pressed up against, so they wouldn’t alert their enemies.

The longer they waited, the louder Joshua’s cries became.

She trembled there, wanting to shut her eyes tight to will it all away, thinking that this was just another bad dream. John hushed her quickly, his own nerves surging as tension took over hi form. They forced themselves to become still.

At least a minute or two passed, and the boy’s cries and charging footsteps ceased. John peeled his jacket they used for cover and carefully peeked out to see if the coast was clear.

It was difficult to leave the safety of John’s hold, but Diana pushed herself up and helped him search around. The voices of Morris and Joshua were silent now, but what was even more troubling was that the buzz of the surrounding wildlife was brought to a halt. It was eerie; there was dead air in the forest.

“Shit.” Diana uttered.

They were being watched, she knew, and it was then a whir of an arrow flew past them and impaled the tree where they’d just been hiding. Diana felt her heart leap into her throat.

“Go!” John shouted.

One, two, three more arrows were let loose, missing John’s ear by a hair, the other two in a tight grouping set fire to the brush at her feet. Diana and John scattered, moving separately to the north in a wide path before winding back together again. They kept running, trying to evade the hunters at all costs, but arrows continued to strike beside them as if they never lost sight of them. Clumsily, Diana lost her footing and tripped over a thick tree root, feeling the bones of her feet crunch as she twisted her ankle over the treacherous wood.

“Fuck! Agh!” She grunted, but she felt weightless for a moment when arms hooked under her armpits to hoist her back up again.

“Come on!” John encouraged her with a tight grasp on her forearm to pull her along.

When he released her, they came to an open clearing, briefly losing the cover of the trees and quickly moving clouds. The bright moon peeked through, illuminating the area. Another fiery arrow landed beside her, distracting her from the second shot that ripped through her left shoulder. The arrowhead tore through her shirt and broke the flesh of her bicep. Diana screamed at the hit. She heard John cry out behind her as she fell onto all fours. Her palms hit the earth, sharp gravel piercing her skin as she braced herself there. Her body felt heavy, weighted at her back and shoulders as she tried to crawl away. But it was no use… she wouldn’t get far, and the shouts and whistles of familiar signals echoed in her head.

The hunters were near.

A blazing inferno rose to impenetrable levels in the grass where they had fallen, prompting her to keep moving forward, but Diana couldn’t fight off the bright sparkles and fog clouding her eyes. Her body was numb, her ankle throbbing, blossoming out from the twisted joint up her leg and down into her feet.

“What’s haaappeennnning…” John’s voice was slurred, the effects of the arrowhead’s venom quick to poison their blood.

 “It’s th-the B… Blisssss….” She fought to reply, but when she turned her head again, John was gone.

Everyone was gone.

 

*

 

In the blink of an eye, she went from falling, unable to pick herself up, to standing in a serene meadow. The clouds were thick and pillowy on the gray sky. Fawns frolicked away, butterflies fluttered around, and a gentle breeze came through, a faint whoosh through the field of Bliss that stretched out farther than she could see. Diana’s head was heavy, eyes still seeing sparks glimmering in the high-risen sun, and that all-too-familiar green smoke came into view.

There was a figure stalking toward her, slithering through the tall, dry grass. Diana frantically opened and shut her eyes to focus, to see who it was making their approach. It wasn’t until he was up close she noticed the markings on his bare flesh, carvings of sins, scars of a bitter past, tattoos along his chest and arms. He was wearing his usual ensemble: dark jeans, belt buckle cast in the insignia of Eden’s Gate, and the rosary beads wrapped and dangling from his left wrist. His blue eyes behind the glasses turned a shade of evergreen in this well-lit haven, fully upholding the raw intensity in their brilliance.

 “I warned you, didn’t I?” He spoke softly. There was no mistaking this as her Joseph, the Joseph from before, The Father. Joseph’s presence created a tranquil vibe in an otherwise disturbing scene.

“J-Joseph?”

“I told you this would happen. I told you I had seen this happen.” Joseph shook his head, his expression stoic and somewhat laced with regret. His hands were out at his sides, palms facing her. “Yet I gave you what you wanted… A chance to risk your life as you wanted. A chance to leave. A chance to find him, when you had me.”

Diana felt like she was bound to an invisible wall, her arms unable to move, her legs unwilling move toward him.

He stretched his hand out to his sides, waving it over the field of flowers, and they gradually wilted. “Everything we wanted together is fading. Everything will go up in flames.”

“Jo… seph…” She weakly beckoned him.

His movements were graceful, poised and calm as ever as he walked. “How quickly everything can vanish. Happiness. Safety. Peace. All because you denied the life I offered you. You deny the truth. The path. You deny me, Hope.”

The dizziness returned, the green smoke so overbearing it shut everything out except for his visage, the hauntingly beautiful image of the Father who stood before her.

“Joseph, I-I…”

Leaning in close, Joseph gently took her face into his hands, his fingers cradling the back of her neck while his thumbs tenderly stroked at her burning cheeks. Being this close to Joseph was more overwhelming than the Bliss. His touch calmed the flurry of rage and frustration the drug caused her to feel. His eyes seemingly glowed behind his shades, and he stared at her with his powerful gaze. Joseph leaned down until his face was dangerously close to hers again. “You didn’t believe the dangers I warned you about. You didn’t think I meant it when I said I would give you the world. This is the path you chose. The choice to stray from me.”

“What are y-you saying?” Diana asked.

Joseph closed the distance between them, pressing a soft kiss to her lips. He lingered there for a moment before his tongue teased into her mouth, tangling with hers. He tasted of a luscious fruit, she noticed, savoring his kiss. His fingers gently pulled at her hair before he backed away. “I’m sorry, Hope. I don’t want to do this…”

“D-do w-what?” Diana asked, pleading with him as he stepped back.

“You’ll see. Soon. You’ll see.”

The bright sun that kept this empty space alight was fading, shadows and clouds overtaking the sky. Joseph’s presence flickered, leaving her bewildered and lost by his words and actions, another message she would be left to decipher alone. She screamed at him as he stepped back, slowly…

A howling wind tore through the meadow, and Diana could feel the heat rising at her sides. The effects of the drug were wearing off and the personage of the Father suddenly morphed into someone else…

 

*

 

“Fuck!” I-I don’t wanna do this to you…”  

Diana finally came to, and her eyes grew wide until her lids were shaking, her entire body quaking in fear. The intangible source that was holding her back was real now. She’d been tied to a stake, one the Peggies once used to string up nonbelievers, and when she peered over at her side, John was attached to the one beside her. “Oh shit! No!!”

The sad gaze of her old friend could be seen over his weapon, under the brim of his dark hat. “I’d say it’s good to see ya, girl, but I sure hate to see you like this.” Victor Charlemagne Boshaw, ‘the Fireman’ she once called him, had turned his weapon on her. There was a sadness in his voice as he stood there, flamethrower aimed direction at her midsection. “Fuck—I can’t do this…”

“S-so don’t! Sharky, it’s me!” Diana pleaded, pulling at the ropes that had her fastened to the post.

Sharky’s brow furrowed, and instead of meeting her with the usual aggression like everyone else, he was dejected. “I know who you are, Hope.”

She cringed.

“I know you left us for the Seeds and Eden’s Gate, but I couldn’t figure out why. I know who this fucker is too, and we got orders from Deputy Pratt…” Sharky spat in John’s direction, though he’d been passed out for this exchange. Sharky wasn’t himself; and as Diana saw it, no one was. Her peer had become an enemy, but the conflict in his eyes was heart-wrenching as he raised the red-hot barrel of his flamethrower. “Pratt ordered us to shoot on sight.”

Diana writhed against her bindings. “Don’t… Victor please, please don’t do this!”

With his finger on the trigger, Diana pulled in a deep breath to scream when another voice hollered out, causing Sharky to jump.

“Boshaw!”

Diana thought it might be luck, but she knew better than that since she’d had shit for luck for some time. But it wasn’t a coincidence, either. Everything the Forsaken had done was planned out, from what she could tell. It might have been Pratt or Whitehorse, or even worse, another Gun who wanted to off her and John themselves. Though she considered the fact that Sharky lacking an itchy trigger finger was a blessing for a moment, Diana anxiously anticipated the grand entrance of this interloper.

 “Eli?” Sharky stepped back, the small flame glowing at the tip of the flamethrower’s barrel. “W-What are you doing here?”

“Didn’t you hear from Whitehorse we aren’t supposed to kill anyone?” Eli Palmer stepped out of the shadows, with two of his men on either flank. The dark-haired man had his rifle on hand and was ready to fire, but Diana considered Eli her savior, and a Godsend. He could hardly look at her, though, she noticed that much, as he came around to flick the off switch on Sharky’s weapon. “Ain’t much that old thing’d do in the incoming rain anyhow.”

The towering pillars of flame had since been extinguished by the patch of rain, something Diana was just barely noticing since she’d been distracted by the face of Death.

Sharky blushed and nodded, lowering it safely at his side. “Right. Sorry, ‘bout that, sir.”

“Got the lieutenant. What do we do with the kid?” One of Eli’s soldiers asked as he stopped beside him.

“If he’s still breathing, he just might make it.” Eli said, matter of factly, as he nodded his head at the bunch who had rounded up Morris and the injured Joshua. “Nice work, Jess.”

The hooded huntress silently nodded, glaring daggers as sharp as her arrows at Diana as she set the unused ammo into her quiver.

Diana, still reeling after her dose of Bliss, finally cast her eyes to the ground, almost ashamed to face Sharky or Jess like this, much less Eli. She hoped Joshua would recover fast, and that they wouldn’t harm John any more than Hudson had before. She was in no place to make requests, so she stood quietly, accepting this defeat, and surrender.

Eli set his lips tight and with one sharp whistle, he signaled his troop. “Storm’s coming in quick, so round them up! All of them, even that one,” he pointed at John. “Let’s head back to the Den.”

Chapter Text

The Wolves Den
Whitetail Mountains
Present Day

“Give me one good reason why I can’t just shoot ‘em both dead!”

“Tammy, we’ve been over this.” Eli groaned.

“She fucking lured Walker out there. James, Richard, Farrah—all of our people got lured up to Jacob’s fucking traps and you’re gonna give them rooms, food, clothes… and talk to her?!”

“Wheaty, just take a fucking seat over there will you? And both of you stop your God damn yammering, it’s giving me headache.”

Diana could hear the conversation heating up between Eli Palmer and his second-in-command, with the young Wheaty adding his two cents. They’d been tag-teaming the scolding they’d been working on Eli for at least five minutes straight, all because he decided to bring her and John to the bunker. Even after his request to stop, they threw insults out left and right, slurs and vulgar terms (mostly from Tammy) about the Seed family. Like a good man, Eli let them have it out before shutting it down. She was surprised he let them stop there, since they were already airing out every bad deed her family committed against the county.

She sat across the table from John who was doubled over on the couch, his head cradled in his bandaged hands, his elbows propped up on his knees. Diana heard him sigh loudly as he listened in.

“Such a loving, welcoming bunch.” John quipped.

“We know the family—our family—doesn’t have the best rep out here.”

He chuckled through his nose, more in defeat than amusement. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Diana pulled her legs up and hugged them to her chest, curling up as tight as she could on the old, worn chair she claimed as her perch. Her shoulder still ached from the cut of Jess’ arrow, but she thanked the heavens that the Bliss had worn off. “Hard parts over.”

“Is it?” John snorted, “Look around, Di. We’re prisoners here. You think it’s gonna get easier?”

“I meant for this… this mission. We found Eli, I just gotta get to him.”

“That’s the trick. You think he’s gonna let you get a word in edge wise?” John raised his head to face her, his bright blues looked a hazy green in the yellow hue of the commons’ lighting. “You really think he’s going to help Jacob? You could fill a fucking laundromat with all the dirty laundry they got on Jake alone, and no one of the Forsaken are as quick as Joseph to forgive anything.”

“I’m not asking for that. I’m just hoping he will help me.”

John waved his hand at her, turning away again. He was exhausted, overwhelmed, and she couldn’t blame him for his shift in demeanor given they were trapped behind enemy lines.

When the militia entered the common room, both Diana and John rose to their feet. Tammy’s ever-scrutinizing glare struck the two of them like bullets. She didn’t hide how put off she was at their presence in the base. Behind her, Jess Black, whose hair flowed free of her hood that was pulled down to her shoulders. Eli was the last to enter the room, stripped down of his larger weaponry, but the holster on his hip and the knife on his belt meant he still saw them as a threat in his home. Diana knew that Eli unarmed was still a force to be reckoned with, and while they were fish in this hostile barrel, she would have to protect John at all costs.

Diana gulped, ignoring the judgmental stares of his companions as she stepped before him, using her body as a barrier in case anyone got too hasty.

With Jess and Tammy at his sides, Eli stood like a king in his domain. He clasped his hands behind his back, waiting for Jess to close the door behind them. For someone she hadn’t seen in some time, Eli sure hadn’t changed, at least not to her. The same kind face behind a thick beard and a mane of glorious mahogany.

“Ms. Evans.” Eli’s dark gaze settled upon her. “But it’s Seed now, isn’t it?”

Diana meekly nodded, and in her peripheral vision, she noticed Tammy rolled her eyes. Everyone had a grandiose way of greeting her, as if to remind her that she was an enemy by carrying the Seed name.

“I gotta tell you… I never thought I’d see you again. Let alone bring someone with you, someone I never thought I’d find anywhere within a hundred meters of my camp.”

“Eli.” John responded to Eli’s backhanded acknowledgement. “We don’t want any trouble.”

Jess scoffed, and Tammy followed suit, cackling to mock the Seeds.

“Ain’t that all your family is good for? Causing fucking trouble wherever you go?” Tammy asked. “Freely breathing the fucking air here in Hope County is trouble enough.”

Eli sighed. “Tammy—”

John fortified himself against Eli’s company and tried to step forward, peering over Diana’s shoulder. “We came up here in search of the militia. That is all.”

“If you want to speak to the militia, well you got us.” Tammy barked.

John’s bright blue eyes glared at the woman as he shook his head. He leaned down and uttered to Diana, “Maybe this was a mistake.”

“You’re damn right it was.” Jess chuckled, a crude smile on her scarred lips. If anyone looked menacing in the room it wasn’t the disgruntled housewife… it was the huntress, a looming fury in her statuesque posture.

“Fucking militia… some self-righteous pricks with guns…” John began.

Tammy laughed. “Rich words from the rich pretty boy Seed, ain’t they, Jess?”

John continued, uttering loud enough that everyone could hear, “…no good anyhow seeing as it took three of you and then some to take us down.”

“John!” Diana immediately flipped around.

His taunt was met with hostile glares ignited in the women beside Eli.

“That’s it you fucking asshole!” Tammy launched herself toward John, not caring about the broad hand of Eli or Jess quickly moving to stop her. She crashed into Diana, who tried to keep herself propped between Tammy and John.

Smashed between these aggressors, Diana tried to spread her reach to push them away, until Jess fully entered the tussle. They were a tangle of flailing limbs, the thud of fists hitting anything they could touch was mixed with the sound of tearing fabric.

Eli sharply whistled, “ALRIGHT EVERYONE, KNOCK THAT SHIT OFF!” His booming voice shook them to their core, startling them out of the violent spell of rage to force them back down to reality. When embarrassed glances swept over the Whitetail leader, they saw his gun in his hands, cocked and ready to fire a warning shot if they didn’t heed his demand. “No one is spilling any more blood today. Not in my house. Not on my watch.” Eli said, quieter this time. “The Seeds… are definitely not friends, but I have no qualms with Diana.”

Tammy shook her shoulders and adjusted the buttons on her shirt before backing up, following Jess back to their places.

Diana gently placed her palm on John’s chest, staring up into his eyes intently. She wanted him to keep calm, to slow the pounding of his beating heart from a race to a steady pace. Once his breath eased, he nodded, finding himself again in the familiar gaze of his sister-in-law’s eyes. She nodded graciously as he calmed faster than she’d ever seen him come down from a tantrum outburst.

Diana turned to face Eli once more. “I came to talk to him. Alone.”

Tammy snorted, “Not on your life, bitch.”

Diana frowned. She was not an ally of Tammy, not even before the mess, as the outspoken housewife always had something negative to say about her family. “I wasn’t talking to you, Tammy. I know you hate me.”

“I despise every ounce of you, anything you touch, anything you love, and everything around you.”

Diana’s lip twitched, biting back insults that would do no good for her case if she let them go. “The feeling’s mutual.”

Tammy huffed, “Well, anything you say to him is my fucking business.”

Diana moved to ignore the rest of Tammy’s mockery and threatening poise, as she had little time to spare bickering with the hard-headed woman who had no intentions of changing her mind. “Eli, please. We’ve been on the run for the last… I don’t know how long now. The only places we have left other than Joseph’s are still dangerous to even set foot in—but I didn’t come here to fight. I hate to ask—”

“So, don’t.” Eli’s eyebrows pulled together, a deep-set crease between them.

“I-I have to. I could have gone anywhere else, but I knew you were out here, the only one who would ever hear me out. Please,” Diana pleaded, “You owe me this,”

“I owe you shit.

A proud smirk formed on Tammy’s plump lips, while Jess remained unmoved by the scene unfolding. It grew quiet after Eli’s retort, the stress levels of everyone in the room risen beyond its capacity, when the door suddenly swung open. A beaten man with golden hair now caked with a thick red substance was thrown at their feet. He grunted, barely catching himself in time before hitting the concrete on all fours.

“Daniel—” Diana started toward him, but John’s arm barred her from shoulder to shoulder, preventing her from stepping any closer. As much as she wanted to protest, the clasp Jess and Tammy had on their now-readied weapons was enough warning to stop.

“Hey now, don’t get too excited.” Eli said, before turning back to his ally.

“Found a scout about a click north east of where we picked them up.” The militiaman said. “Said he was with the Regent.”  

Eli’s expression soured, as if her title shifted his mood far from her favor. “Go ahead and stick him with the others. Everyone clear out. That’s gonna be it for now.”

“Yes sir.” The man dragged Daniel away, with Jess and Tammy reluctantly following to leave Eli alone with the Seeds.

He gave one hard look at Diana and John before turning away, slamming the door behind him on his exit.

Diana jumped, startled by his abrupt leave, facing the door as if she expected him to return. But he wouldn’t. Not for hours, or to them, what must have felt like days. With very little optimism left to exchange between them, Diana and John remained silent, staring anywhere but at each other. On the rare chance they locked eyes, they knew what the other thought. They might have already lost this against the Whitetails.

She let her brother-in-law rest, as he curled uncomfortably on the couch after she refused to stretch out on it twice at his request. 

Diana’s mind was racing, and while the shelves were lined with magazines and books (some of which were far outdated and worn out at the bindings), she examined this place. The commons remained unchanged, other than a few bits of decor that changed over time. What caught her eye was a poster of Jacob, propaganda with his phrase ONLY YOU beneath his portrait. She always found it silly but symbolic it resembled the old “Uncle Sam” posters that military recruiting once used to encourage the people to enlist. 

That was his dream, she knew, to use his skills, prior knowledge and strength to pull together an army of indestructible soldiers, once broken under his watch, and after their vow to Joseph, they would remain his. His army, his men.

There was no question as to why the enemy propaganda was plastered on the wall. What turned her stomach was the fact that they used Jacob’s face as a target, holes from arrows and throwing knives torn into the old paper and into the wood panel behind it. His eyes were scratched out, scuffs of knife work and tearing along his chest, with a predominant slit across his throat and abdomen. They loathed him so much. They loathed the Seed family by reputation and those who remained diligent and loyal to Eden’s Gate by association.

Without a proper clock or even a window to tell what time of day it was, Diana gasped when she heard the door to the commons swing open and crash against the adjacent wall. John jumped awake, jostled out of whatever dream he must’ve been having about his girl Ana, given the smile on his face that slowly faded. Their stares were hopeful as they looked upon Eli’s face in the dark doorway. The lights behind him were dim and without the voices of Wheaty, Tammy and the like, it could have been night.

“Eli...” Diana uttered.

“Alright. You wanna talk? Let’s talk. Join me in the ready room in ten. I’ll make sure they don’t hassle you, so long as you go straight over and make no other stops along the way, you hear me?” Eli’s piercing stare had Diana’s stomach in knots, but she eventually agreed. He jutted his head in John’s direction before firmly stating, “He stays here.”

John scoffed, “I’m staying with her—”

“You stay where I say you stay, boy.” Eli clipped John’s defiance before he could even finish. “Boshaw and Jess are on watch. They’ll keep you company. Diana wanted a one-on-one, this is my only offer. That’s it.”

With a frustrated grunt, John turned his back and needed to get away from Eli before he blurted out something that could ruin this chance for Diana. He wasn’t used to being ordered around by anyone other than Joseph or at times Jacob. Being stuffed in this bunker chock full of enemies was doing wonders on his anxiety, and without knowing what Diana and Eli were about to discuss was already killing him.

Diana eyed the open door and pat him on the shoulder. “I’ll be back. Don’t cause any trouble, since I can’t save you in here.”

* *

I don’t know what’s real or not anymore. I see you and it feels like I’m in a dream but when you’re gone it feels like a nightmare. You were supposed to be mine. God wanted us to be together. I’ve had visions of you, with me. I’ve seen you crying, I’ve seen you pregnant, I’ve seen you die in my arms. After all this is over, if it ever will be, please meet with me. I love you as always. 

- Joseph

The paper crumpled in her hands. Tears hit the corners of it and slid off. It had to have been the third or fourth time she read it over too, hearing Joseph’s voice humming every single word.

Before leaving his sanctuary, Diana received a note from Joseph—one that left her even more confused about the Bliss-induced sleep—and that vivid dream of having sex with him in the shower. His words then weren’t any clearer, but the more longer she spent with Joseph, the worse she felt. Sure his words were peaceful and his presence calming, but it left her mind spinning. This newly discovered note in her hands was in response to something she had said, reinforcing her love for Jacob, trying to drive him away from her, but in a few short words on this recent correspondence, he managed to bring it back.

To them.

Bringing up a past that was already foggy at best, one she tried to push out for good, was flooding back. Every moment she tried to keep things at a platonic level with Joseph for the sake of her husband’s sake and sanity had been bottled up and sealed a little too tight.

It was only a matter of time, Joseph told her, once. Only the truth will set you free.

But... free from what? Diana thought she had said freedom, living the life as she wanted. She was happy to be with Jacob, every second with him cherished as they lived and worked together in his region. So, what was this, then? Guilt that she’d made the wrong decision? That she fell into the arms of someone who had been willing to let her in, and that she was too stupid thinking she could hide this from him?

Another tear dropped to the paper before the door opened and clicked shut behind her. She folded the note back into her pocket and wiped her eyes before looking over at the entrance to the ready room, knowing by the sound of his boots that Eli was granting her the chance to speak in private. He’d moved his once-open space into a chamber at the back of the bunker. The place she once knew because her papa had taken her on a tour when he started with the Militia (what felt like ages ago), had been rearranged after Whitehorse’s victory over the family. It was quieter in here. It was just her and Eli now. No intervention from Tammy, she hoped, or Jess or even Sharky at that point. This was what she wanted.

Observant as ever, Eli paused at the closed door, his hands clasped on two cups of ice-cold water. There was worry in his eyes, clearly seen now that he’d pulled the length of his long dark hair back into a ponytail. It was an unusual sight to Diana, but any sight of an ally was a relief.

“You alright?” He asked.

Diana spared Eli the dramatics of her personal life, since he already had a great distaste for her in-laws. He made it clear he didn’t care for Jacob, there was no point in dragging Joseph’s name into the ring now as it would make matters worse. “Yeah.”

She damned herself for habitually letting her emotions wear on her expression; she wanted to keep this one hidden, but now he was reading her like an open book.

Eli squinted at her skeptically before walking up toward the table and setting the cups down. He slid one her way and took a seat, gesturing for her to take the one across from him. She gratefully accepted, almost too accustomed with having to have these impromptu sit-ins with people as of late. After grasping the cup with both hands, she watched as the water sloshed around, giving it a quick sniff.

Eli chuckled. “It’s safe.”

Diana blinked, her hot cheeks hidden as she brought the cup to her lips and took a substantial gulp out of it. When her thirst was quenched, she set it back down and wiped her mouth before folding her hands in front of her on the table. “Where are they?”

“Your man and the kid? They’re… safe. Arrow went clean through, he’s patched up and is gonna make it, don’t worry. But your scout put up one helluva fight. Knocked out a couple of mine, but didn’t kill ‘em. Might have you to thank for that.”

Daniel, he meant. So long as they were all alive and in one piece for the return trip to Joseph’s place, that’s all that mattered to her.

She sat quietly, letting Eli take the wheel on the conversation to give him some semblance of control in this unexpected encounter.

“So, Regent of the Whitetails, huh?” Eli smirked as he took the bait. “What are you doing, wandering in my neck of the woods?”

Her first instinct was to blurt out the inevitable request, but her lips tightened. She refrained, for now, hoping to draw some sympathy by starting from the beginning. “They chased us out. You know Eden’s Gate is over. You won. But Whitehorse and his Deps, Hudson and Pratt, they keep hunting our people and… and are slaughtering them. The Deputies kidnapped my in-laws, but I was able to save Faith from the river and John from Hudson but… they still have Jacob—Pratt still has Jacob. He called me not too long after John and I returned to Joseph. He made me listen while he tortured him. I know he’s up here in the mountains. Our mountains. But I don’t know where.”

There was a pregnant pause as Eli chewed on her words. It was as if he didn’t blink. His tongue flicked to his lips before he asked, “And what’s that got to do with me?”

Desperate verdant eyes sought his as her gaze stretched clear across the table. “You’re the only one I can turn to…”

He scoffed.

“And I-I know you don’t give two shits about my husband.”

“You got that right, sweetheart.” He scoffed, keeping his back turned and his eyes on the monitors. His stance was tight, arms folded over his chest, but his shoulders rose and shrank down quick as he breathed. “Jacob Seed is the reason why the militia’s headcount fell to below half. You want me to hand over my men and resources to save that motherfucker?”

Diana winced. There was no doubt Eli was hurt over all of this. Jacob had done a significant amount of damage to the Whitetail range and the militia itself; his rivalry with Eli was the first thing she learned about. “You knew me… you trusted me before, right?”

Eli tilted his head to signify he needed more than that to answer.

“My papa was part of this operation before. He helped train your men, gathered your troops, got some of them all stitched up from wolf attacks and,”

“And you see where that got him?” Eli’s shoulders slightly deflated as he sat back, as if his haste got the best of him, and he regretted saying that to her.

Diana narrowed her eyes, as that felt like a dagger to the heart. “He devoted his life to the militia when the call came in that you needed him. My mama was best friends with yours, and I saw you every single day til the day she died because you guys always came over to help out when she got sick. My sister looked up to you, and my brother…”

Silence stretched between them, a void empty and cold when she mentioned her brother. As she recalled, he had been summoned to Eden’s Gate under Jacob’s command, and when he turned up missing, the search party gave up after months of looking… and he was presumed dead.

“That being said, what the hell are you doin’ with the God damn Seeds, girl?” Eli slammed the palms of his broad hands on his table, and she jumped. “I thought you did right by getting out of Hope County, going to school in California, getting yourself a good job but you come back here. And you changed. You threw it all away! I don’t even know who you are anymore, let alone whether or not I can trust you with the ties you got to this family.”

Diana was growing tired of hearing that, but coming from Eli, the heft was far greater than the bitchiness of Tammy just because or snide remarks or dirty looks from the rest of the county citizens. Eli’s words meant a great deal to her since their link was personal, just like her connection with the Rye family and a few others scattered about. She swallowed what felt like gravel as she fought back the need to exert her frustration through tears. Diana didn’t want Eli to see that as weak, or rather she worked hard to keep a hardened front for so long that she didn’t want to break down.

Not now.

“My parents are dead. My brother, dead. You think I don’t know that? My sister is out there somewhere, and I haven’t seen her in years. Everyone keeps telling me I used to be someone they looked up to. Someone they thought had a good shot at getting the hell out of this fucking County but look at me… I’m here, and I’m fighting for lives people don’t seem to care about!”

Eli sat forward. “That’s because they didn’t care about our people when they started cutting them down for turning down the word of Joseph fucking Seed.”

“This isn’t…” She sighed when he used profanity to drag down Joseph’s name. Diana figured she’d be used to that too, since there was such a distaste for everything he touched or even thought of, but she didn’t have to agree with it. “This isn’t about what happened before.”

“Isn’t it?” He raised an eyebrow.

“I need to find Jacob, and I have no one else—I don’t have friends.”

“Marrying a Seed—”

“Was my choice, Eli. I grew up, I moved on, I made my own decisions. I wish everyone would get that in their heads.”

A bemused smirk curved his lips, shadowed by the drape of his mustache and beard. “Is this supposed to be a plea for help, or are you just trying to give me some sob story shit to get me on your side, because darlin—you aren’t makin’ a good case.”

“Vic is on your side. Grace. Hurk. Jess and Tammy hate me, always have. I didn’t need the name Seed to paint a target on my back. For reasons I don’t even understand, people have forgotten everything we wanted for the county.”

“And what’s that?”

“Peace!” She shouted. “For God’s sake, some fucking peace here. This is Montana. This isn’t overseas or some guerilla territory in the third world, this is our County.”

“Your brother-in-law is the reason the war is here. Eden’s Gate is the epicenter of mindless bloodshed, an egotistical, maniacal funhouse of one man’s psychopathic ideals.”

Something ignited in her, something that made her actually shift to defend

“We can go round and round if you like but let me save us some time. I came here because I need your help. I have no one left.”

“You keep saying that, but…” Eli scratched at his beard, “What about Rye?”

Diana shook her head. Nick was someone she’d considered a friend, along with Sharky and Hurk, but now they were on opposite sides of this ongoing feud. After her last run-in with him, there seemed to be no means of changing his mind.

“And… the family?”

“Might piss everyone off to hear but… they’re alive. But Faith is not a fighter. John came with me even though Hudson fucked him up in Falls End, and Joseph…”

Eli’s eyes flickered at the mention of his name. “Ah, yes. What about him?”

“He wanted to wait. If I hadn’t said anything, he might have made me wait too, but we don’t have time. Pratt could kill Jacob if h-he hasn’t already,” her voice cracked at the thought of the torture being done on him now by the tumultuous Deputy that Whitehorse let claim her husband’s territory, “he wanted to keep me safe on the island. Said they would leave us alone if we stayed there. But I couldn’t.”

“You see, even the all-knowing Father thinks this is all foolish. Some fucking game.” Eli took the last bit of water from his own cup before forcefully setting it down.

“Whitehorse’s deputies are the ones treating this like a game. Yeah we can keep pointing fingers at each other, keep pointing guns and arrows and burning each other until no one is left standing. The Seeds didn’t do any better before but we’re human. We made mistakes. Everyone is making mistakes but… I’m so tired. And I just want my family.”

Eli brought his elbows up to the table, clasping one hand over the other. “And why are you taking this all on yourself, do you got some sorta death wish?”

Diana blinked. Again, she’d been asked something of the sort before by numerous others, Joseph included. And for a second, she thought she saw him sitting there… not Eli. She sighed. “Lately… I feel…” she paused, searching for the right terms to say, but while she had Eli’s ear she decided to remain candid. “I’m the only one who gives a damn enough to risk my hide to save him. I love him, Eli. No one understands why, but I do. Forget everything about me before because this is who I am now. I am his wife. I just want my husband back and for all of this to be over.”

“It might not stop at that, Hope.”

Her hands curled tightly around the cup of water as she stared into its dark, open mouth to the liquid that swirled inside. Echoes of everyone calling her by that name were quickly shut out when she closed her eyes. Everyone’s voice, except… Joseph’s. Her cheeks ran hot again, so much that she perspired along her hairline and she hated her thoughts for intervening with this distraction. Joseph called her Hope before it changed. They all did. But it always sounded different coming from his lips.

Diana shrugged, trying to shake off this train of thought to remain present. “I don’t care. Pratt wants me in exchange for Jacob? Fine. I’ll do what has to be done… but I need to know where he is.”

Again, Eli’s brow tightened. He stared at Diana as if she were insane, and even if he said that aloud she would agree. The fact that he hadn’t shot her down completely was already a faint beam of hope in this otherwise disheartening discussion. She tried not to avert her eyes from Eli; it was difficult to maintain their silent connection, but she felt like breaking contact would lose whatever thought process he was leaning toward.

The worn leader scratched his head before running a hand down his face and beard, slinking back into his chair. He was torn. Uncertain. Something Diana had been familiar with as well having experienced this herself and seen it on the faces of those she’d encountered along this seemingly never-ending journey. The longer he dragged out the silence, worry settled into the pit of her stomach, gnawing at her insides. Eli stood from his seat and made a slow, even pace around to face the monitors that he’d moved in, cameras he set up around the mountains that kept watch on his stretch of the territory. Again, he sighed and turned to face Diana with a mournful glow on his kind face.

“Rumor has it Pratt’s been holed up at the FANG center.”

Diana gulped. “Why are you telling me this now?”

“Because I know you. Even if I tried to keep you here, you’d find a way out. I know you’re gonna walk outta here and chance stroll up that’a way whether we like it or not. I’m just trying to save you time from looking anywhere else. Most of our men have withdrawn from that part of the area. I don’t like mixing it up with Pratt’s operation, since even without Jacob Seed at the helm there, I don’t agree with his… ways.”

“What is he doing?”

“He’s wrangling up some of the stray militia and countyfolk to his side. Training them. Teaching them how to be strong. Sound familiar?” Eli folded his arms.

Diana winced.

“It’s a little much if you ask me, and ain’t for the faint of heart. Your old man did a number on him, we all know that. But I don’t give Staci orders, Whitehorse does.” Eli breathed out, “Once you’re up there, you’ll see it for yourself. I’ll have Sharky throw together a bag of supplies to help you on the way. But I’m warning you now that if pratt catches you, there might not be a cavalry. Not this time.”

“Thank y—”

Before she could finish, Eli held up a hand. “I’ll only let you leave… on one condition.”

Diana rose from her chair. “Name it.”

“You get your freedom. You get out. And if you manage to take Jacob out of Pratt’s grubby claws, you can have him back.”

“Wait, what do you mean—”

“John Seed stays here.”

“Eli—”

“That is not negotiable.”

FUCK! She cursed, stepping backward as if she just took a blow to the gut. “But he’s… he’s changed, Eli. They all have. Joseph said to keep John with me, I can’t get back there without him either—”

“Then Joseph Seed should have known better than to set up shop in Hope County with his bullshit. John fucking Seed could be a saint, he could volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate his money to charity, I don’t give a shit. It don’t change what they’ve done here.” Eli stated, his aggravation for having discussed the Seeds at all rumbled on his deep voice. “This here is a compromise, girl, not a bargain. John stays here, you rescue Jacob, sail off to whatever fucking land you wanna go together, I don’t care. But this way, everyone wins. We won’t do anything to him except house him and make sure he doesn’t escape to cause any more trouble than he has. I’ll keep him housed, fed, alive. Above ground too, even if he didn’t care to treat our people any more than skin to flay and staple to his walls. John stays here, you got that? You take it, or you leave empty handed and hope Pratt hasn’t offed Jake and shipped him off in a box to the island.”

Her lips quivered. Her eyes filled with tears she couldn’t hold back at the thought of Jacob’s death. It had already been there in the back of her mind, the worry that she was already too late. Everything was so close to a resolution now that she had the information on Pratt, but Eli hit her with a curveball she didn’t see coming. Diana wiped her face and stared somewhere at his feet to consider her one and only option now.

I told you this would happen… Joseph’s words from her Bliss-vision kicked her when she already felt downed. I warned you...

Eli stepped in front of her, causing whatever daze Joseph was pulling her into again to vanish. Eli’s broad arms were still folded across his chest as he brought his rough hand to her chin. He guided her eyes to meet his, staring down at her curiously. “What’ll it be?”

* *

“Are you INSANE?!”

“John, quiet down please…” Diana begged. “And don’t be angry with me—”

“Angry… I’m fucking furious. What else do you expect?” John growled. “But you got what you wanted, didn’t you? An audience with Eli…”

Diana clicked her tongue. Everyone was trying to cut her down, left and right, and John was the last person she wanted such poor treatment from before her departure. “I’m doing this to find Jacob. I thought you would understand that. You came with me knowing that—”

“I came because Joseph asked me to, and I wanted to make sure you got to Jacob alive.” John threw his hands up, “I can’t fucking do that if I’m stuck here!”

Diana gestured for him to keep his voice down.

“Before we left, Joseph told me to ensure your safety. No, he didn’t tell, he ordered. He told me he needed you home. You have been acting all... weird since we left, and I figure it had something to do with him. I only know what my brother has told me, which isn’t much but you two have history. Everything changed before we left. So, what did he say to you, Diana?”

Detective John was at it again. Pressing now, perhaps in fear he wouldn’t have a chance down the line. “Nevermind that.”

“’Nevermind’? You’re walking into a fire, don’t give me ‘nevermind’. If I’m left alive, the only one standing, out of all of this bullshit--the only one to pick up the pieces, I just want to know so maybe I can explain it to Jacob if you two don’t.”

She blamed it on his nature, as the Baptist and confessor, and even more so on the fact that his lawyer instincts were benefiting him now, and were shining stronger than ever. But Diana needed an out. She couldn’t explain it to John because there wasn’t enough time for everything. Nor was this the place for her sin to be exposed. “You will make it. Eli is a man of his word and promised to keep you safe.”

“Safe like a man in a cage full of rabid wolves—”

Diana rolled her head back, exasperated. “John, please.”

With his hands on his hips, John stared at her. He was trying so hard not to call her a fucking idiot, making rash decisions disguised as courage. John admired Diana for everything thus far, and the chance that Jacob could knock him out for disrespect forced him to use more tact. “Look, Di—I want Jacob back too—everything I said when were out there before they tried to burn us alive was truth! We both love my brother, but you can’t go out there alone, you can’t—”

“I have to!” She shouted, raising her voice to match John’s. “ I said that since the very beginning but now we’ve lost time, parts of ourselves that we can’t even fucking fathom but Jacob still has a chance if I do this. Eli gave me what I needed.”

“In exchange for me.”

“John, listen to me. If I don’t make it—”

Quit saying that!”

“If I don’t—because we know it’s a possibility,”

“Diana—”

Diana stepped in front of John and grasped at his shoulders to steady him. They’d been pacing through this conversation, frantic movements as chaotic as their emotions, but she needed him to be still for this. “If I don’t make it, Eli assured me he will deliver you all to Joseph unharmed. Daniel, Morris, Joshua… tell Joshua he was brave for me… for all of us.”

John sucked in a breath. He was stunned. His pale eyes bore into Diana’s face. As if he came to his senses after she crushed him with that possibility, he slowly shook his head. “This is unbelievable!”

Instead of continuing to argue with John, she reached out and yanked him into a tight embrace. She held him there as long as he would let her, fearing he’d shove her back from a gesture that was unwarranted. Instead, he snaked his arms around her back and held her too, exhaling with a worried shudder at her shoulder.

“It’s the only way, John.” She whispered, a waver on her voice expressing the sheer agony of her decision.

John shuddered against her, heaving a deep sigh of sorrow as he knew she was right.

Once she was able to pull away, Diana stood on her toes to place a soft kiss on John’s forehead. His dark lashes fluttered as his eyes shut, hoping this wouldn’t be the last memory of her. He refused to say goodbye because of that.

“Be safe.” John gently squeezed her forearms as his bright blue eyes fixed on her. “Bring him home.”

Diana nodded.

With her husband’s rifle strapped to her back Diana strolled down the hallway from the commons without a look in his direction. She could hardly look at John now, so she spared them both the heartache as she walked away. It pained her to leave them all behind, but just the same as it was leaving Joseph’s each time, deep in her gut this felt like the right decision. At least knowing they were in Eli’s hands meant they would remain alive, as he promised.

She kept on walking, and what should have passed in mere seconds felt like the longest stretch of hallway she’d ever been in.

A figure stopped her just before the exit, and she caught sight of a green hoodie and baseball cap. “Hey,” He said, nervously.

Diana gave a thin smile to her former friend. “Hi.”

Sharky offered her the pack Eli had promised, supplies that would get her through the stormy weather, ammunition, food to fuel her, small medkits, a burner phone and other weapons that might come in handy along the way. It wasn’t too far from where she was now, even on foot, but Diana wouldn’t take a straight shot if she wanted any chances of surviving the trek over.

“I uh… I’m sorry about that. About earlier.” He winced, “I didn’t know they called off the order. And honestly, I don’t think I could go through with it anyway.”

Diana shook her head. “You were just doing your job.”

Sharky cringed at that.

She could still smell the soot and fuel on his garments, knowing that a comment to toss his laundry into some detergent wouldn’t make this any lighter. It meant a lot to her that Sharky still regarded her as a person, unlike the others who degraded her any chance they had.

“I didn’t forget—I still owe you that drink at the Eagle.”

“You sure do.” Diana faintly smiled. She wished she had more time to talk to him, just to catch up, and hoped there would be an opportunity to do so in the future. But the future seemed so… grim. She couldn’t make any promises.

He sighed. “What happened to you, girl? One minute I see you on our side, the next… you’re on theirs.”

“I’m not in this war to kill anyone. But they’re my family, Shark.”

Sharky, someone who usually maintained a cheery outlook on things or had the right amount of snark to make anyone laugh, frowned at her. It wasn’t out of disappointment, it was more of a painful longing to shake her to her senses. Reluctantly, he surrendered the bag to her and stepped back, allowing her to continue along the way. “Watch yourself out there. Please.”

Bowing her head with a thankful nod, she swung the strap over her free shoulder and started to head toward the ladder to the exit near the helipad.

“So you’re just letting her go? Eli—”

Eli held up his hand.

Jess’ mouth clicked shut, her lips sealed tight with a grimace before she turned to walk away. It was clear she didn’t agree with his decision to let Diana go.

Tammy and Wheaty glared fiercely at Diana’s back, but Diana didn’t care.

“Good luck.” Eli’s voice resounded through the small tunnel as Diana ascended the ladder, a final rally to keep her spirits high to press forward. She prepared to fight the storm, the wilderness, and whatever Pratt had waiting for her outside.


 

Chapter Text

In the twilight hour she stared at the sun from the lookout on the ridge and watched as the skies turned blue, then green and orange, until the velvet crush of navy covered the county like a blanket. What felt like an eternity while underground had only been a day or two, tops, and she felt both fulfilled and wasted in negotiation with Eli. He was a hardass, and she knew that going in, but she thrived on the fact that he could sit down and talk to her without drawing his weapon to blast her into bits was enough for her to keep her focus.

Diana stopped at a small house by the main road, a shack that was a Ranger’s rental by the looks of it. There were plenty of these littered through the Whitetails, places her and Jacob’s men would set up as a small camp or ammunition stop for hunters. Now, some had been burnt to ash, or left with messages from Whitehorse and his men left to rally the Forsaken in hopes to convert or exterminate the remaining church members.

This one was the latter; there were bodies hanging here—or what appeared to be dummies dressed in the old Eden’s Gate robes. The bodies were actually old sacks filled with straw, cartoon faces with x’s for eyes drawn on the burlap made it more comical than the grim display. Their heads hung low, suspended only on the noose strung up over the broken light post. Their fake arms and hands were expertly bound with chains and rope behind their backs as they dangled there. It was a warning from the Forsaken. Slashes through the fabric on the church’s insignia made her heart drop, but painted beneath them scorched into the wood was a message that worsened that dread.

“Caritas. Industria. Patentia. Find your peace in Virtue.”

Hudson.

The Iron Lady of the Holland Valley, they called her. The scorch work was the first sign this could only be her mark left in the sister-region, the Whitetails, a symbol that her reach with the branding iron stretch as far as the mountains. Diana could still smell the furnace, the fire blazing so hot and the metal she wielded that glowed a brilliant red. She worried about her brother John now, recalling he’d been seared with Hudson’s trademark torture weapon with his own virtues that were rife with infection and scarring when she retrieved him from Fall’s End. Hudson had her own arsenal of tools in her dungeon, a dreaded hammer to crack bones and a pair of shears to claim fingers, toes or anything else she could clip.

Everyone had their titles in this place, whether they liked it or not, which gave the County a medieval feel. But that’s what it felt like to Diana; that she was wandering through the rural county with laws set by brutal rulers and ruthless barbarians of the country. Her position as the Regent was appointed to her by Joseph and John, after her marriage to Jacob. She’d been his right-hand for some time, climbing the ranks of his soldiers quickly to advise and attack. In their home, there was a lot of bitterness and slander to her name since she wasfucking the boss meant she took the easy ticket to power. They would even go as far as mock her husband saying she was the one in control of the army, and if anyone wanted to get to Jacob, they’d go through her, his bitch. Anytime this came to Jacob’s attention, he was quick to defend her even though she could easily defend herself. They paid for running their mouths, even when Diana said she could easily brush it off. The title of Regent always seemed silly.

“I’m still your wife,” she’d say to him, confirming that she had no intentions of leaving his side or that post.

But he was adamant to ensure they knew their place. This rule, this power that she had, acquired by her skill and association, meant she was the final piece that had not yet clicked into place for the Forsaken’s board. Joseph and his Heralds had been removed from play but if she was in the wild, she was an enemy of theirs, and a liability to keep Hope County safe.

The journey wasn’t going to be easy.

She knew this since the day she left the Henbane with Faith, after killing Marshal Burke, after defying Joseph’s advice when she saw him again—and even more so when setting out from Joseph’s for the first time in search of John. The difficulty was there and grew worse by the minute. Diana was determined to get her Jacob back, and she felt in her heart that he was so close now. However, now that the Forsaken, the Bliss and Joseph had interfered with all of this, the weight on her shoulders was beginning to crush her.

As her mind drifted to her brother-in-law, she found it fitting to send him correspondence with a briefing to give him peace of mind they were still alive, and perhaps some closure to the doors he left open in his letters.

The recent note she found in her pocket, the one she read prior to speaking with Eli, was a reminder that she wasn’t the woman her husband married… but someone else. A secret they kept from him, an identity she wanted to leave tucked away. His words left her broken, her heart torn apart by the message as she was completely shaken by the words on the paper. She contemplated her response. Once she moved at a safe enough distance from Eli’s bunker, she decides to call around the time she knows Joseph would be away at a sermon to the remaining followers at his quiet church; her heart pounded heavily with each tone that rang out as the call sent.

Diana breathed out in relief when his voicemail greeted her. She wasn’t prepared to speak to him directly… It would make her too flustered to think, too scatterbrained to formulate the right wording of the message she needed to convey.

You’re doing the right thing, she told herself, deciding a voicemail would be better than a letter, since it might not reach him in time. 

Joseph… It’s me. I just wanted to say that we made it… somewhat safe, but we’re alive, all of us.

She omitted the part about having left. Her setting out alone was like a fresh wound. She was traveling on foot through the forest toward the north east, heading away from the Wolves Den toward the F.A.N.G. Center as she’d been advised. She didn’t want to pour salt over that by bringing up to Joseph that she had partially failed, either; that she couldn’t guarantee their brother John’s safety or Daniel or even Joshua on the mere words of Eli Palmer. It wasn’t like Joseph would have believed her anyway… but then again, that wasn’t why she called.

But I… I found your note. Listen… whatever we were before can’t happen again. I… I was away for so long because it hurt to be around you. I left to work in the fields, offered to pass more time on patrols because I needed space. I’m sorry for that. I changed my name. I changed my path home. I avoided seeing you after services, and dinners with the family because it… it broke my heart to see you. Especially on our wedding day… I’m surprised you still ran the service, and even though I’m glad you did, it hurt. 

It still does… 

I know I was yours once, but now… 

I-I’m married, to your brother, and like I said before, I love him But I feel like I saw what you’ve seen–that future, that version of me–I don’t know if it’s an omen or premonition or something that could even happen, I just…I just don’t know. I’m lost. Like there’s a piece of me missing, I’m drowning in this sea and even I rise to the surface there’s a storm raging and I’ll just keep sinking deeper until…

 

She sighed, fumbling on her own thoughts. The words were flowing so freely, that she was sure this was the right thing to say, the right time to unload everything that had been on her mind. Diana spent so much time away from Joseph because she thought that was best after what happened. Then she met Jacob. She loved Jacob. LOVE. Presently. She reminded herself, and yet, here Joseph was, a distraction. A conflict.

“The bliss is gonna make you see,” was a lyric to one of the project’s hymns that followed her lately, as she couldn’t get the images out of her mind, even long after the effects of the drug had diminished.

We do need to talk. About this. About everything. I know before, we wanted to avoid confrontation, or any chances that your family would hurt from this–I don’t want that. I truly don’t, and I hope you believe me. But I’ve already made up my mind to tell Jacob… everything… come clean about the things from our past, because I want to be honest with him. We owe him that.

But then, she smiled. A warm smile from the bottom of her heart as she flashed back to better times. Times before her marriage even, just shortly after she found her path. Her place in Eden’s Gate.

I do miss how simple times were before it all changed, before it… slipped away. When I was upset, you’d comfort me. Instead of arguing with me, you’d smile and tell me things were going to be alright. I believed you. But then you grew so cold. You were so loving… to everyone. I miss seeing the courageous leader, triumphant and glorious as you used to be. I didn’t know what man I would meet when I saw you again, when the Forsaken took everything from us, but… I missed you, Joseph.

“Diana?”

 

I-I have to go. I’m doing my best here to return your brothers safely. But… everything we’re up against, I can’t promise I will make it back. Please… Take care of Faith and Leah and everyone else because they need you. John and Jacob too. Mostly… take care of yourself, Joseph.

Footsteps dragged closer in the dirt behind her. Diana hit the button to end the call and pulled her gun from the holster on her right hip. With the burner phone safely tucked away in her jacket pocket, she aimed at the head of the man who’d called her name.

“Whoa whoa whoa there, Missy! I come in peace!”

Baseball cap. Fuel tank. Dark hair. Green hoodie?

“Sharky, what the hell are you doing?” Diana pulled her thumb from the hammer and slowly lowered her gun. It hadn’t been the first time she pulled a weapon on a friendly, but even though her old pal was here to speak to her, she didn’t know what sort of tricks the traces of the Bliss and Pratt had in store for her now.

After blinking a few times and watching the poor Firestarter lower his hands at his sides, Diana holstered her gun and sighed.

“I know, I know, shouldn’t be here.”

“No—you shouldn’t!” She scolded him, and he winced.

“I shouldn’t approach a deadly chick with a gun, neither.” Sharky chuckled nervously.

Diana glared.

“Sorry. Lady.”

Not that that was any answer she was looking for, but Diana felt a little more at ease that it was Sharky and not someone else who wanted to put a bullet in the back of her head. “Does Eli know you’re gone? And how the hell did you find me?”

It had only been a little while that she left the Militia bunker, maybe an hour and some tops, but her main concern was that he’d been spotted, or even worse, tailed. Last thing she wanted was to have to dodge another Bliss-coated arrow or a shell from Tammy’s god damn shotgun.

“Saw you light up a few feet back. Didn’t know you still smoked.”

“I don’t.” Diana replied, but scoffed at him calling her out on an old habit. “Not as much, anymore I guess.”

“Something to take the edge off?” He asked.

“Something like that, yeah. Guess someone must have remembered since they stashed a brand-new pack in the survival bag.” She patted the lower pouch of the backpack hanging from her shoulder. There was a new pack of cigarettes tucked inside, ones she immediately packed against her palm, tore open, and took a few drags from a fresh one before putting it out before she reached her current position. It figured; If anyone would notice a miniscule flame from the worn-out silver flip-top zippo with the wolf logo on it that Eli gave her from a distance, it would be Sharky. But he didn’t judge her for having a smoke, probably not as much as Joseph or Jacob would if they ever found out she reverted to that habit. “What are you doing out here then?”

“This ain’t much but I think it’s the least I could do. I can drive you up to the road a mile or so down from the F.A.N.G. Center. But that’s as close as I can get ya.”

Diana’s shoulders slunk down. “Vic, I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You ain’t asking, I’m offerin’!”

“What if they spot you on the road? They see me in the car they might blow that shit up without question.”

Sharky rarely removed his baseball cap, but when he did this time, he anxiously scratched his head before replacing it. He pinched the bill between his forefinger and thumb, making sure it was snug on his head. “Heh, you might be right. But… thing is, you’ll get there faster and safer if you come with me. I heard you back there. Talking to John. I know you guys have lost some time, what with Rye flyin’ high over the island and Jess knocking you down with the Bliss. It won’t take too long from here and will be a helluva lot better than going through this mud and shit in the storm that’s coming. And, if it makes you feel better, I’ll tear through these woods and steer clear of the ones who might cause us some trouble. Avoid the anti-Peggy forces out there—”

She cringed when he used the anti-Eden’s Gate slur.

“—and the militia, too.”

Diana arched a brow. “Militia…? I thought Eli called ‘em off. They still out to get me?”

“Yeah, sure… Eli’s sent word out to everyone to leave you be. Anyone who might cause you trouble might be some Pratt or Whitehorse sympathizers but… you never know who might just wanna claim a bounty on your head by bringing you in.”

That’s what it always boiled down to… money. She’d seen her own face plastered on the WANTED posters on her travels. Even Joseph had a stack of them his scouts had torn down across the county. Any of the surviving congregation were offered a pretty penny, but if anyone wanted a decent payout, they would do well to take in the family, delivered to Whitehorse and his men like animals to the slaughter.

Part of her wanted to turn around and get as far away from Sharky as possible. Friendly or not, she had a tough time giving anyone the benefit of the doubt with so much hatred that was flung at her and Jacob’s family. But she leaned more on the side of practicality, which was the strongest part of his well-timed approach and kindhearted pitch. Sharky meant well. She was exhausted, and the F.A.N.G. Center was a stretch of dark and murky terrain from her location. It might even be morning by the time she got up to a comfortable perch to scope it out before going inside—and if she’d gotten caught alone, who’s to say Pratt wouldn’t just help her disappear into the Whitetails without anyone knowing?

Diana gave his offer some serious thought. Consequences he’d face if and when Eli found out were going to be immense, not to mention the earful Tammy and Wheaty would give him for heading outside alone… and he’d be helping the enemy, to boot. But she couldn’t deny those kind eyes, the innocent face of her old friend who was reaching out and trying to do his best by her.

Slowly, Diana reached her hand out to his to shake, and nodded. “I hope you know what you’re getting into, Vic.”

He smirked as he accepted the gesture, an excitement lingering beneath the surface as if he was elated to assist someone he viewed as a hero. Sharky chuckled. “I might not be a good thinker or anything, girl. But anything I got coming for me surely ain’t worse than what you gotta look forward to.”

For the first time, Diana admitted that Sharky had a good point.

* *

J O S E P H 

JOSEPH SEED’S COMPOUND
MEANWHILE…

Joseph arrived back to his room after hosting a somber sermon. Only the last wave of Eden’s Gate members that were left had attended. It pained him to see how few in numbers his congregation had plummeted in recent days. It was disheartening but knowing they would still show up to listen to him preach a message of hope was still a blessing in his eyes.

Before he could even remove his glasses, he noticed a flashing red light from his answering machine. It was a peculiar sight since no one other than John or his camp contacted him now, or the scouts he sent out from time to time to gather supplies and call back if there was any trouble around the island.

He strolled deeper into the room, letting the door close behind him. Joseph stood over the answering machine for a minute in complete silence, hesitating slightly as his finger hovered over the play button. He already knew who it would be, speaking on the other end. With a slow push of his finger, he settled to listen.

Joseph couldn’t control the moan that escaped the back of his throat as he heard Diana say his name.

He closed his eyes as she spoke, sighing and shaking his head at the appropriate times. A profound scowl set on his weary features when she brought up Jacob, a sharp pang in his heart as she hit the nail harder with the words of declaration for her love. For JacobNothim. With his eyes still sealed shut, Joseph saw her there, on the day he would not soon forget. A brilliant summer day with a beautiful bride elegantly gliding down the aisle in his church, donning that stunning gown and fresh bouquet in hand. She beamed brightly at the head of the church, her radiance and grace so serene and lovely. Joseph was tantalized by the anguish; that memory was tainted with the heartache that Diana was not his betrothed, but his brother’s.

Joseph gulped hard as he opened his eyes, not realizing how tightly he’d grasped the bedspread beneath him. At some point he sat down, calmed by the soothing tone of her voice as it blared through the speaker. He immediately released his grip, the whites of his knuckles returning to its normal color as he sat. And he listened.

A small smile formed across his lips as she described the past, and her longing for things to go back to how they were. If she only knew how much he wanted those days to return; the peacefulness and content of having her with him. Not as Diana, but Hope. His smile dissipated as she explained that he used to be a strong leader, and a compassionate person. Used to be… those words reverberated with an ache that lingered long after they were said.

Joseph’s brow furrowed, shifting to concern and sorrow of the thought of her faltering, not returning, not surviving this ordeal. He couldn’t imagine a world without her. It was bad enough that she’d avoided him for so long, that times would be tense and involved more bickering than anything. Such wasted time slipped away because she was foolish. He was foolish too. All for the sake of keeping their secrets buried. For Jacob. Nevertheless, Joseph had been fasting and praying every day since she had left, hoping God would exchange his sacrifice for her well-being. He wanted her back, not just from this mission but… her.

Take care of yourself, Joseph… She said. That was the last of it.

The machine beeped to confirm that he would save this message on his machine as long as he could, as he might return to it again later just to hear her voice.

Joseph took a deep breath. He removed his yellow-tinted glasses and placed them on the table beside the phone. He rubbed his forehead in frustration, wondering what to do or say next. For the first time in what felt like an eternity of hiding in his quiet sanctuary, all he wanted to do in that moment was run out of the room and seek her out, to assure she would live, but the shackles of his dependents, his followers, kept him from such a rash and spontaneous move into danger. They needed him, she said. They needed him and that’s why he’d been hiding for so long, to preserve all that was lost, to maintain what remained.

At least, that’s what he told himself.

Joseph ran his hand down his face and through his freshly trimmed beard as he stared into oblivion, bewildered as to what would be his next move. His hand reached for the receiver but pulled back almost instantly, going up through his hair before he threw his hands up in frustration. What was he to do, when the future of this crumbled empire, and of his beloved Diana were not clear?

Finally, he picked up the phone, dialing the number Diana had called from. He decided on leaving a short message, assuming she had no time to sit around and listen to the mental essay Joseph had been working on for weeks. Racked with nerves and impatiently waiting for the final ring, Joseph sighed again as his eyes fell to the picture by his bed.

The picture was a portrait of his family, a moment in time where they had all been happy. John stood, smiling and proud to his left. Faith knelt beside him, with Diana beside him and Jacob at her side. He couldn’t help but frown when he noticed her arm was draped around Jacob’s waist. With a quiet envy boiling beneath his skin, Joseph slowly placed his hand over his older brother’s image, as if to pretend as if he wasn’t there at all. He focused on them, the two centermost figures in the family.

Him and Diana.

He couldn’t help but admire how beautiful they looked together. His deep blue eyes scanned her entire body, noting how perfect she was, with her beautiful hair, brilliant eyes angelic smile that lit up the room when she would do so. Her body was perfect for child-bearing; even at her age she would still be a good mother. How many times had he seen the vision of her carrying a little one on her hip, cooing the baby when it cried or grew fussy. How many times did he envision the two of them growing old… together

Joseph clenched his fist in anger as to why Jacob had not yet given her what Joseph knew she wanted.

It wasn’t until the automated voice instructed him to leave a message after the beep that his gaze settled upon her face in the picture once more, speaking freely as he always did.

BEEP.

“I-I just got your message,” he began, his voice a soft and heavy croak as he fought off the emotions that stirred by simply staring at this family photograph. “I-I don’t know what to say Diana.”

And he didn’t. The man who had an answer for all, who thought he had something reasonable to offer her and a life they could live together, was riddled with confusion. “Please don’t talk like that. You’ll come back here, to me. You and my brothers.”

A beat, and his breath shook when he inhaled to continue.

“I love you. I love you so much, I… I know I can’t live without you. Eden’s Gate won’t survive without either of us. Promise me you’ll come back.” Joseph set the picture frame aside, distracting himself with the view of the night over the bay which was easily seen outside of his window. “We can talk with Jacob. About us. You’re right, he deserves that. But you must not forget that you have a choice. I can wait for you forever… just know and understand that Jacob won’t. I love you. See you soon.”

When he set the phone back down on the receiver, Joseph took a seat at the edge of his bed. Grief-stricken blue eyes were settled on the floor beneath his feet, and he freed them from the boots he wore to the sermon. There was so much he had to say but couldn’t bring himself to tell her over the phone. He had faith he could say it all when he saw her again in person, but until that day came, until her return, he would worry.

“Ahem,” A voice in the open doorway called to him. “Will you require me tonight, Father?”

Joseph softly gasped, inaudible to the Leah who was at a safe distance away. He didn’t show that he had been startled by her presence, as she had been coming to his room now at the same time on the same nights every week. What troubled Joseph was how long she might have been standing there, and how much she might have heard. His jaw clenched as he considered how to proceed, because tonight he did not want to be bothered. He wanted to be alone.

“I hope I didn’t startle you, sir…” Leah’s eyes widened as the Father stood from the bed and strolled toward her. She seemed comfortable enough to take a couple of steps inside. Leah was the loyal woman at his side for months now, a graceful beauty who helped him in his time of need. While his lust usually got the best of them, their arrangement didn’t sully his will or faith, and she agreed to never grow further attached to him as he was not seeking any commitment other than to remain with him for the Restoration. “On the phone, was that… Was that Diana? Is she alright?”

“Yes. And she is. For now.” His blue eyes were cobalt in the dim light and mix of shadows inside his room. His gaze was powerful, his most well-known feature, but now there was something else burning within them. Joseph stood before the meek and delicate Priestess and reached up to grasp her shoulders, tenderly pressing his lips against her forehead. When she leaned up to kiss him, he refrained, holding her tight at her shoulders to keep her away. “However, the welfare of my beloved sister-in-law is my business, and mine alone.”

Leah slightly frowned, the demeanor she’d walked in with now soured by his grim response. She nodded. “Yes, Father. Of course.”

“Now… my darling Leah.” Joseph’s fingers gently caressed her fair cheek. “Whatever you heard, whatever you think you might know now? That was not for your ears.”

“Y-yes, Father—” Leah felt a chill as she stared up at Joseph in fear. “I’m s-sorry, I just thought—”  

His free hand gingerly brushed over her other cheek, this time slipping back a few stray strands of her golden hair behind her ear. “And I trust you will not speak of this. To anyone. You must cast it from your mind. Do you understand?”

She couldn’t answer now; a sharp breath cut through when she realized his hands were about her throat, firmly pressing on her airway, as if to squeeze the life from her. With tears shimmering in her eyes, the Priestess frantically nodded.

Her whimpering did not make Joseph back down in the least, as he watched her carefully as she started to panic and tremble in his grasp. “As for your appointment here. No. I do not need you. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not anymore.” Finally, Joseph released her, and she staggered back, gasping for air. “Now go.”

The girl scurried away as soon as she could plant her feet to take off. He could hear her crying fade in the distance as she stormed down the hall, a desperate wail echoing even behind the door when she shut it and locked it up tight. He thought he might have to deal with her if she didn’t heed his advice, but at this point, with Diana willing to speak to Jacob and come clean, it didn’t matter anymore. Such mercy he showed to her tonight; she would learn her lesson on snooping into his affairs, and it would be her only warning.

Joseph returned to his room and slammed the door.

* *

D I A N A

F.A.N.G CENTER
WHITETAIL MOUNTAINS
LATER THAT NIGHT…

“Got a hot date?” Sharky’s voice snapped her out of her quiet stupor.

Diana clicked the off button on her voicemail and put the phone back into her pocket. She’d just had another chance to hear Joseph’s voice; how smooth like venomous silk it ran through her ears and down her spine. He’d responded to her voicemail with a brief one of his own, but even that brevity came with an impact that had enough strength to punch her in the gut. He kept putting himself out there, leaving the message of love and hope for her that filled her with elation that Joseph had snapped out of his angst-filled chasm of self-loathing, though it clouded her head with uncertainty and doubt. “Just trying to get a hold of someone.”

“Not surprised they didn’t answer. Looks like you’re on a burner line which is good. Harder for them to trace around these parts. Guess that’s why they like sticking to their radios.” Sharky glanced at the one she had strapped to her bag, and she nodded. “Anyway, we’re here. You sure you don’t want me to stay with you? We could light up the fields like we used to!”

“Except we’re dealin’ with some real dark shit now, Vic… but no parents around anymore to smack the shit out of us for being brats.” Diana shook her head with a smile, recalling how much trouble she’d get into because of Sharky and his cousin Hurk.

“Yeah, you’re right. Hurk might kill me if he heard about this but… never know, I could get him to help us too.”

“There is no us, Vic, and I don’t need to hear it from Addie if Hurk gets mixed up in this—that’s the last thing we both need.”

“Fine.” Sharky finally submitted when she dropped Adelaide’s name.

Diana hadn’t seen Ms. Drubman in so long but she hoped the pilot wouldn’t be as quick as Nick Rye with the guns on her chopper if or when she met up with her again. “You should get back. Stay with Eli, stay alive. Believe me, I don’t want any trouble for John and the others and if Eli knows you’re here—”

Sharky waved his hand at her and shook his head, “I gotchu covered, okay? No problem. I’ll do my best to keep the girls away from John too—that Tammy’s crazy as shit. But just… don’t do anything I would out there okay?”

Diana smiled. “Of course not.”

“And don’t get yourself killed. Hopefully I’ll be seeing you around,”Sharky winked, though there was very little confidence in his voice. “You gotta make it back so I can get you that drink.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Diana nodded, though she couldn’t make any promises to her own family, let alone her long-time friend and apparent ally. She saluted Sharky through the open passenger window. “Take care, Vic.”

His truck disappeared around the bend of the curved road, and Diana turned to face her destination. It was a quick hike up the hill, and once she arrived, she scanned the perimeter of the F.A.N.G. Center. Diana continued to survey the place in a wide circle around it, until finally finding her way back to the front entrance. It was strangely… empty. Not abandoned, however, since the food wrappers and mess looked a day or two old. But it was quiet enough here, and when she was sure she was alone, she decided to pull out the burner from her pocket, and dialed Joseph’s number to respond.

Again, her heart pounded. She felt like a teenager again, her and her sister stressing like mad about talking to their crush on the phone. But this was different. Consequences, circumstances were dire, and Joseph wasn’t just a boy she met at school. He was a man she met years ago, a man who changed her life. She wished that the things they were about to discuss were simple, but he and Jacob taught her that nothing in life ever was.

Joseph… I can’t guarantee coming home, you know that. You said it yourself, this was a suicide mission. I can’t promise anything. I can’t promise everything is going to be alright—especially not after we tell him. And I will tell him everything I know, everything I remember. The bliss–I don’t know what it’s doing to me… but I keep having these nightmares… Joseph I don’t know what any of this means. I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore. Or who I can trust…

Diana sighed. Her head swiveled around, observing her surroundings carefully as not to step into a trap or let anyone get the jump on her…

Look, Eli made me leave John and the others with him, so it’s just me now. But he’s safe, I was assured that. It was the only way to get out of the militia base without a fight–and the only way he’d give me a location. I’m at the FANG Center but there’s nobody here. I’m confused, I’m pissed, I’m fucking lost and I don’t know what to do—I have no other leads. But I can’t give up, and I might make it to the Veteran’s Center if I try—

Her response was cut short by static phasing in on her radio.

“Tsk tsk tsk… My my, Mrs. Jacob fucking Seed. In the flesh. It’s too bad Joey didn’t relieve you of any of that soft, beautiful skin… How did I know that it only took a little bit of pressure to coax you out of your hideout?”

Diana dropped the phone and it clattered to the ground. She replaced it with the gun she slipped into her holster and readied her aim in front of her.

“Still on this frequency huh? What a rookie move. But no matter, I guess it works in my favor. You know I was always a sucker for grand entrances,” Pratt chuckled. “If you want to see Jacob ever again with those pretty little eyes, I suggest you put the gun down.”

Diana resisted, still pivoting to find the location of her enemy observer.

Now.”

Only then did she comply, and the weapon clattered to the ground.

With his entourage of armed men flanking him, Pratt strolled up the path from the main walkway near the front building and stopped in front of her.

Staci Pratt clipped the radio to his hip as he emerged from the entrance to the attraction’s amphitheater. Slowly, he walked down the small dirt incline and beneath the arches of the sign.

“You’ll have to forgive the mess, as you can see we still have a bit of clean up to do…” He kicked one of the bodies that had the same look about them from the old Ranger rental—except this time, it was real. Their mangled face was torn and cut, hardly recognizable in that condition underneath the film of dried blood that dripped from the crown of their head down their cheeks. Simple slashes along the church symbol was replaced by bloody stab wounds as someone must have mercilessly let loose along their abdomen with a hunting knife. Dried scars that showed infection spelled out the virtues of Charity and Humility on their forearms. “And I see you’ve met some of Hudson’s latest victims. Heh. Old man doesn’t like it as much, but she calls it art. I call it overkill if you ask me, because even for methat Hudson is a little bit…” He pointed at his temple and spun his finger in a small circle with a high-pitched cuckoo whistle.

“Pratt…” Diana breathed out.

“That’s right, darlin’… it’s so good to finally see you again, it’s been what… years now, right? You’re lookin’… Good.” His tongue flicked out to meet his lips, biting down on his bottom one before smiling at her with a predatory gaze. “She told me she almost got you, too. She was thinking about how good it would feel to burn you with… Chastity and Diligence.”

As his men came around her back to disarm her, she held her hands up at her sides. Disappointment and anger swept through her as she submitted to this defeat. She was outnumbered. She had lost.

“How did you—”

“Find you?” Pratt grinned, the scar of what looked like a Judge’s paw swipe over his face clearly seen in the red light. “Oh… that was easy. Come on! Did you really believe I used this shithole as a base? It’s too open for me. Don’t get me wrong, the Whitetails are a beautiful place, but you know as well as I do, Mrs. Seed. This is your region, isn’t it? Now I wouldn’t be that fucking stupid. Perhaps your man Eli wasn’t as trustworthy as you thought. Or maybe I had help?”

Brendan Morris revealed himself from the shadows in the trees to her right. He was their lieutenant and her husband’s trusted confidant. The shy, baby boy look about him changed under the shadows of the red lights, revealing a nefarious Judas. A snake in their garden. A traitor in their house.

“You fucking son of a bitch!” Diana screamed as she launched herself toward the boy, but she could only get a couple of steps forward before Pratt’s men grabbed tight to her shoulders and pulled her back. She grunted as he applied pressure there, pushing down on her tender muscles to make sure she would stop squirming.

Pratt clicked his tongue. “Whoa whoa whoa, there darlin, watch yourself. The boy was just following orders. It takes a good man to follow orders, it takes a greater one to bite the hands that fed him. Ain’t that right, Morris?”

The boy grinned and nodded obediently to his master.

“That’s it? Jacob and I take you in and you turn your backs on that to work with this prick?” Diana spat at Pratt’s feet.

“Maybe I was never in it to become a pawn in Jacob’s game. Pratt also paid better.” Morris smirked.

“That’s all you have to say… I’ll fucking kill you…” Diana snarled through her gritted teeth, fighting against the hold of the men before Pratt ordered them to drop her. Her knees crashed against the gravel and hard earth, her hands braced against the ground.

Slowly she stood, realizing that Pratt was walking closer.

“My God, such fire! You know, I always liked that about you, girl. But, tsk, now you’re starting to sound a lot like Jacob. And we all know how I feel about that psychopathic, cannibalizing wolf-fucker. But maybe… and I mean maybe if you’re good, I can get ya back to him. See if there’s anything left after I fried the fuck out of his tiny, pathetic brain just this morning.”

“I’ll fucking kill you too!” Diana was livid. She’d come to face the man who was destroying her family, her husband most of all. In her fury, she managed to land a swift side kick to one of the men standing guard on her side but when she shifted to take down the other, Diana turned into a swung fist that delivered a nasty right hook to her left cheek. Her bones cracked, her skin ignited, and the flash of the hit dazed her enough to stagger back. Again, she was bound to fall to her knees, but this time she was caught by the arms by the Morris and the man who was quick enough to strike her.

“Fucking Christ. You’re just as wild as the wolves. Probably why Jacob liked you. Heh. But if you think I’m just gonna take a shortcut and deliver you to him, just like you want? Think again. We have a little pit stop to make.” Pratt craned his neck down to her eye level. He cupped her face in his broad hands, staring down at her with an evil grin. One hand reached back to tug at her hair, while the other trailed down the front of her blouse. He squeezed her breast with a low growl, his hot breath beating against her cheek as he drew closer. “No, I can’t let you see him yet. Not that I can’t… it’s just that I won’t.” Lower and lower, his hand began to travel, around the curve of her waist until he found her backside. He was nearly shaking with rage and a darkened shade of lust she could hardly fathom in her stunned state. Pratt licked his lips. His voice was low as he whispered, “I’ll make you remember things you tried to shut out, Hope. You can’t forget me that easy.”

“Sir…” Morris frowned, concerned and a little disgusted by the way he touched her.

“Right.” Running his teeth over his bottom lip, Pratt slyly grinned and whistled. “Make sure you tie this one up nice and good. You know what she’s capable of, and if she’s loose I can’t promise you keep your heads.” He released Diana back into Morris’ grasp and watched as he lifted her up to take her toward the cars they had down the road. The caravan was waiting. It was time to get going. “Let’s move.”

Chapter Text

J A C O B

Seed Cabin
Whitetail Mountains
6 Months Ago

An early spring settled over Hope County; the dead leaves of the trees in the Whitetails shifted to a mix of greens and yellows. Flowers were in bloom, crisp rainfall took to the skies, cleaning the air and cooling the blue to a gray with the coverage of full and puffy clouds. The wildlife emerged from their seasonal hibernation, the hum and buzz of insects and chirping of birds faded off some as it began to sprinkle outside.

The morning was quiet. Jacob just opened his eyes after a peaceful slumber that took over him after he and Diana kept hidden in their bedroom for most of the day. He groaned a bit as he stretched, his legs sore in places they hadn’t been in some time after they spent most of the morning tangled and entwined with one another after making love. Jacob’s bare skin felt amazing against the sheets, but when he reached over to her side of the bed, he was alarmed that his hand hit her pillow. Jacob rubbed his eyes and frowned as he turned to his side, propping himself up on his elbow to search for her.

He was relieved to find her standing there at the window beside the bed, easily recognized by the curves of her shadowed profile, even with the blanket wrapped around her naked form. The cascade of her raven tresses trickled gloriously down her back. She was silent, observing the view.

“What time is it?” He sat up slightly.

Diana peeked over her shoulder with a smirk, “Almost noon.”

Jacob’s head hit the pillow and he covered his face. He let out a hearty laugh, amused that they’d been locked away in their room for almost twelve hours. Since they usually woke to meet the sunrise, or even long before that, to get orders out to their men, he wondered if or when Morris and the others had come to knock the door down, to get news or work orders from them. “Damn.”

“I know.” His wife chuckled, melodic and calming. She kept her eyes fixed on the wide, serene landscape that stretched out on the other side of the glass.

Jacob scratched at his cheek, the rustle of his beard beneath his fingertips, and he made a mental note to do a quick shave. He propped his hands behind his head. “Almost time to get ready for supper at the Ranch.”

He didn’t miss the subtle hum of discontent from Diana when he mentioned their date.

“Do we have to go?” She asked.

Sitting up fully, he scooted to the edge of the bed and kicked his legs over until his bare feet hit the floor. “They’re expecting us.”

“So?”

“John and his girl wanted us to come by, said they were preparing a nice dinner for us. Joseph and Faith will be there too, and since we haven’t seen them much in a while I thought it would… you know, be nice to get together for once.” When he reached for her, she went to him. “You still have reservations about our family?”

Diana winced.

It wasn’t her family, however. They were Jacob’s, a group of people who were still getting used to the idea of having her around at all. But it wasn’t John or Ana she worried about, it was more Joseph. Why she and his brother didn’t much get along, he had no idea. But he sensed a palpable tension whenever they were around each other. It was unsettling, but he never asked.

“I know you fight with John, but he’s a little shit sometimes so I get it.”

She scrunched her nose and shook her head. “You’re right about that, but the fights aren’t fights, I just like to get under his skin sometimes when he gets too cocky.”

Jacob laughed.

“I like John.”

“Now.”

Diana snickered, agreeing with him. They didn’t always get along but she didn’t mind him now. “Ana seems like a sweet girl and a nice balance for that little shit.”

Jacob laughed again, nodding at her. “Yeah. I think she’ll help us keep him in line.”

They never thought he’d settle down. Ever. John was always giving Jake shit about how boggled his mind was over their marriage. He’d joke and say he tricked her, or that she must have been insane to want his older brother. In addendum, John always said he didn’t have time for a relationship between work for the church, flying and plane maintenance and working shipments from the city… but then he met Ana. She was young, a lot younger than them but just the right age for John. She was a pretty little thing from Billings who happened to move into Hope County due to her curiosity over Eden’s Gate.

“And Faith is always lovely… but,” Diana continued, but trailed off when she inevitably reached the point of bringing up the middle Seed.

Jacob’s fiery eyebrows furrowed.

“Why don’t you like my brother?” He asked, one-part mischief, the other part… concerned. Joseph was their leader, not only of the church but of their family, the glue that held them all together. Anything and everything went through him and it was more obvious now that he and Diana avoided one another as not to create conflict within the family—but neither of them said why. “What is it about Joseph?”

She shook her head and stepped toward the bed to settle in front of him. His hands immediately came up to wrap around her waist, pulling her close against his naked form. “I guess I’d just rather keep you all to myself here. It’s cozy.”

Jacob noted how she dodged the question again and sighed. “Sweetheart, it’s one night.”

“I know.” She was nestled between his legs and he wrapped his arms around her waist, cupping her firm ass in his broad hands. Jacob moaned softly into her chest, playfully nipping there as the soft linen covering his wife’s body brushed his skin. Diana smiled and bit her bottom lip. “Hey now…”

“Well…” Jacob looked up at her, “How’s about we go, we eat, say a few words of how wonderful John’s girl’s cooking is, maybe listen to Joseph ramble about the next phase.”

Diana winced. So, Joseph would be there… And the next phase of what…? The project had been thriving for a while now, working as a well-oiled machine to pull interest from Hope County. They’d even had some nomads travel in from far-off parts of the nation to join their cause.

Even Jacob wasn’t sure what the next steps would be, but he was open to his brother’s guidance.

“Do this for me baby, and I will make it worth your while.”

“You already do.”

Jacob playfully glared. “Well don’t you wanna deny on the ace up my sleeve…”

“It wasn’t a complaint,” She giggled, “more like a… request.”

“Then let’s get started… now. Nothing wrong with being fashionably late.” Jacob hiked up the sheet to feel her soft thighs brushing over his rough, scarred flesh. He pulled her down onto his lap, and his lips crashed against hers.

 

**

 

Location Unknown
St. Francis Veterans Center
Whitetail Mountains
Six Days Ago

Jacob kept his mind busy; thinking back to better moments spent with the woman he loved kept madness from creeping in and overtaking him. There was enough Bliss in his system to contort certain memories—add a twist of bizarre and unnatural occurrences, but that one held true. The mystery of Diana’s tiff with Joseph was locked down as tight as the security in this facility.

This was my fucking home, he realized.

It wasn’t until his first peek into the outside world after being holed up in this dungeon that he saw what Pratt had done to the Veteran’s Center. While the cages and arena of the front yard remained intact, offices still inhabited by the men Whitehorse issued to the mountains, barrels and crates of the remaining Bliss stacked outside—everything took on a new hue. A darker one… one that told Jacob this was no longer his property, but Pratt’s.

Let us show you the path. Take up arms, fight for what’s RIGHT. Banners hung over his old mottos, words painted in thick blue and white paint changed the Veteran’s Center into the Madman’s fortress. It disgusted him, and disappointed him all the same.

There was a thick blur between the days, time passed rapidly—and in the dark cell where he was kept, not knowing how long had gone by was torture in itself. Weeks? Months even? Hell if he knew.

One thing was for sure… Pratt was down there almost every single day to charge up the battery that took him down. Therapy, he called it. Some days went quicker than the rest—when Whitehorse called him away or if he would rather put him through something different to ‘switch it up’. When it wasn’t the jolting agony of being fried up under his heavy hands, Jacob was subjected to flogging, cutting, whipping. Each of these treatments symbolized the training and words he flew high on walls and banners in his now-forgotten stronghold.

Flogging was to train his body to withstand a beating.

The slice, the cut, the blade would learn to find the best spots on a target without hitting anything vital. To force his body to adjust to blood loss.

The crack of a whip made him uneasy and he jerked at the loud sound when he heard it in the arena. It showed discipline, and sacrifice. The allowance of time outside came with the caveat of suffering the trauma of hearing that damned weapon—or enduring the agony from its bite.

The whipping might have been the worst of it aside from the electric chair—as he was brought out into the open arena in the cages where he kept his new subjects and the wolves. They tied him up and whipped his back to try and get him to tell them how to get on Joseph’s island without getting shot down. But as the Army once trained him, long before his enlistment as Eden’s Gate’s herald, Jacob wasn’t going to utter a word.

His body had undergone enough scarring and damage as it was—it didn’t matter to him what he looked like anymore. Any more wounds or beatings would just add on to the scars he’d collected over the years. He’d been screamed at, nearly drowned, nearly suffocated, nearly beaten until his body was a bruised and broken mess. It wasn’t any different now. So long as he was breathing, he would keep Joseph’s secrets to the grave. It was to ensure the safety of the project and its congregation, what little was left of them, but most of all he was doing this for his family. For his brothers and adopted sister, and especially for his wife.

In, out. Up, down.

Motions were lost on him as he groggily observed the men who lugged him around. If he were of his normal self, Jacob would have laughed at the two of them; that it took two of Pratt’s best foot soldiers to move him from place to place. Then again, if he were himself—they wouldn’t be dragging his ass around this fortress. He’d likely crush their skulls with his bare hands, shoving his thumbs into their eye sockets. Then, he’d slam their bodies against the wall until their bones cracked beneath the heft of his force.

This was one dream that kept him fighting. The dream of leaving a pile of bodies in his wake, along the trail to the Madman who kept him here as his pet for entertainment.

Sleep. Torture. Sleep. Food, if he was lucky. Food was putting it lightly, and even the Judges ate meals far more palatable than the slop and shit they fed him every other day… again, if he was lucky.

Even fall weather in Montana saw a bit of a heat wave. The sun beat down on him in his old battered cage, as Pratt saw fit to make him stay out there for hours with a couple bodies of fallen church members stashed inside. The stench was unbearable, the ongoing buzz of flies and other insects made him irritable. He had no food. No water. Even the puddle of muddy rainwater from the sprinkling they had the night before was starting to look good.

When the soldiers walking the Judges passed his cage, they snarled at him, and when he reached out to pet one of them, to place his hand on the forehead of one wolf he’d recognized—it snapped. It barked, it howled, it even shoved its snout between the bars to take a chunk out of his shoulder—if he hadn’t backed away as fast as he did.

Jacob frowned.

They’d been trained to hate him too. His extended family, his pack, had forgotten what he used to be.

In, out. Up, down.

It was becoming a routine now, and hell if he knew how long his soul was being sucked away in this fucking hell-hole. Jacob worried that Pratt hadn’t been around in a couple of days. He grew concerned that no one in the compound had muttered anything about his family, or Diana as of late. His wife, the woman dubbed the Regent of this region had been a spectacle about the facility. Whispers that she’d offed the Marshal, faced Hudson’s iron, outrun Rye, were already outstanding feats. But the news that she saved John and Faith and returned them to Joseph nearly unscathed brought a smile to his scarred face; she was his light in the never-ending darkness. Jacob internally swelled with pride at the courage of his beloved wife’s crusade—that she wasn’t going to let Whitehorse or the Deputies ruin their family.

After an incessant grating serenade of silence and dripping from a leaky pipe in the room, the soldier picked up something different. He heard someone humming, and the faint scrapes of what sounded like sandpaper dragging in small, evenly-timed strokes. Jacob was returned to his cell and again bound to his chair, with the pool of water beside his feet and the battery left unattended on the table beside him. Bars about the room were familiar, parts of rusted cages he once assembled for the Judges and his recruits were welded to the four tile pillars on every side of him. He was fenced in, and a visitor stood just outside the padlocked door.

“Oh, goodie. You’re awake.” Blond hair bounced in a bundled bandana, as a woman pushed off of the bars and turned to face him.

He could barely see her at this distance, but an ominous spotlight illuminated the woman’s face when she stepped into position. A brilliant red manicure flickered into view as she grabbed the bars on each side of her face. 

“But don’t you worry your fine self over anything. I ain’t here to hurt you.”

Jacob huffed. Regardless if this was the most humane interaction he’d had with anyone, in what, weeks? He wasn’t in the mood for talk. Especially not with this one.

Adelaide Drubman’s ruby red lips curled into smirk. “Promise.”

So, what was she there for then? To talk until his ears fell off? The woman was so foul, shameless, and excruciatingly obnoxious that the thought wasn’t too far-fetched. Everyone in Hope County knew she was a woman of a one-track mind. Jacob wasn’t a praying sort of man but he sure as hell pleaded with the powers that be that she wouldn’t dare touch him like that. He was a prisoner of war, sure, but he was also married man. That, coupled with the absolutely not ever, hell no, not ever that his mind was shouting as he dreaded being near this vile woman. Jacob lowered his darkened blue gaze to the floor in front of him. He didn’t flinch when the key to the padlocked clicked and the door hinges squealed as she stepped inside.

Adelaide dragged in with her a fresh tub of water, holding it at her hip as she put a towel over her shoulder. Her eyes widened the closer she stepped toward him. She set the tub of water down on the table beside Jacob’s chair and stood a moment to take him in.

Everything about her was loathsome. She slurred her words. She was profane and vulgar when it wasn’t necessary, and currently, she dragged her feet on the floor. Jacob detested visitors, and she was no exception. If he was to suffer or to die, he wanted to go in peace. She was not welcome here.

“My, oh my. You know, as fucked up as you are, you sure are a vision. True mountain man, aintcha, Jacob Seed?” Adelaide grinned.

Her greeting was met with silence.

“I dunno if you remember me, honey. But I was there when they first launched the attack over the Henbane. Up near Miss Mable’s place, God rest her soul.” Adelaide clicked her tongue. “Didn’t think all this fightin’ would be goin’ on for so long, either.

He shuddered in disgust when she got even closer, zoning in on the pus and dried blood around his face. Jacob winced when she decided to touch him, the tender fingertips of the older woman felt like fire on the open cuts.

“Easy now, boy. I said I wasn’t gonna hurt you.” She cooed. It pissed him off she was speaking to him like one would to an animal, but her maternal tone oddly soothing to the stubborn soldier.

Jacob forced himself to relax, but the knots tying tighter in his stomach kept him on the edge of lashing out. She was unarmed, he noticed. No gun holster strapped to her hip or blade tucked away in some sheath on her belt like everyone else. Unless she was skilled enough to know how to use the bobby pins in her hair as a weapon she appeared to be as friendly as she declared. Or, as friendly as one could possibly be since she was obviously on Pratt’s side of the line. Still, he wouldn’t let his guard down. He couldn’t. There could be Bliss or some other poison in the water she dragged in, or something else he couldn’t see since his vision was shit at the moment.

Adelaide retreated to the table, just a few steps away but still in his peripheral vision.

For Jacob, it took too much energy to fully shift in his seat to watch her carefully, and the apathy took over him again anyway. She’d said it twice now that she wasn’t going to harm him, but he still had a hard time believing it to be true.

The woman’s gaze swept over the table where Pratt had meticulously laid out the possessions Jacob had on him when he was captured. The inventory was sparse, but there were a few items with him she couldn’t help but settle on. His Jacket was hung over the edge, pockets turned out and emptied. His worn-out red pistol, disassembled and strewn about on the table’s splintered surface. There were a few missing parts, ones she remembered seeing on Pratt’s desk upstairs. But what truly broke her heart was his wedding ring.

“Mmm.” She grunted, as she tugged on the fresh, white washcloth over her shoulder. She dipped it into the water and wrung it out a couple of times. “I always thought yer missus was a sweet girl. Always helping where she could, you know? God so many times I told her mama she’d be fit to date my boy, but… well, you know how that sumbitch turned out.”

Jacob’s eyes flickered as she walked back to him with the damp cloth in her hand. He slowly backed up as far as he could against the back of his chair, but once more her cool, soft fingers grasped at him.

She gently squeezed his shoulder. “This ain’t gonna feel great but I’ll need ya to sit still.”

Adelaide pressed the wet cloth against his forehead, the loose droplets of water trickling down his face. He seethed, hissing at the contact, leaping back a bit in his chair that sent a piercing screech of metal against concrete echoing through the cell.

“Easy… easy. Just wanna get you cleaned up.” She said, softly. “Pratt didn’t much like me even suggesting comin’ down here alone.”

So why the fuck did you? He thought.

“…but truth is,” she continued, gently tending to the mess of his face, “I can’t stand seeing anyone like this. No matter who they are. So here I am.”

It was a kind enough gesture, but Jacob didn’t care. She was just clearing the canvas of blood, sweat and muck that it would only give his torturers a new field to play with—new places they hadn’t touched to slice and dice. Not to mention, he’d sat in far worse conditions for much longer before.

Adelaide brought the conversation back to his wife. “When she got outta Hope County, I thought she was gonna do great things out west. Maybe strike it rich with… whatever the hell she was studying. Settle down. But she came back. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised she’d married ya.”

Jacob softly scoffed. He got that a lot. Of course, Diana’s choice to marry him was a surprise, his proposal a shot in the dark, since he believed to this day that no one in their right mind would have wanted him as a husband.

The damp cloth traced the frame of his face, cleaned up a bit of the dried blood on his nose and cheeks before she returned it to the tub of water for another round. Jacob arched his back when she felt him wipe down his shoulders and arms, the harsh fibers of the tarry cloth catching on some of his fresh lashings at his back. Jacob kept his breath even, rolling with the pain as best as he could. He grimaced when she reached his forearms.

For that, she retrieved a small tube of ointment from her pocket and squeezed some into her fingers. He made a futile attempt at moving them away, only to feel the resistance of the shackles at his wrists. She applied the medication on his forearms which brought instantaneous comfort to his irritated patches of skin.

“Your girl… She had great folks too. Her daddy was a… Jack of all trades sorta man. Hard worker. Always tinkering, always fixin’ something when I’d stop by. Her mama was so kind, and it was a shame she got sick. I loved her cookin’. You probably would have too if you’d have met ‘em.” She brought up a topic Diana rarely spoke about, which gave him a bit of emotional whiplash. “She always sang, too—that’s where she got that lovely voice of hers. That damn nephew of mine always got her into that rock stuff, you know? But it didn’t matter what she sang, it would always light up a room.” It wasn’t until she started humming a familiar song that his eyes widened, and he jerked back in his again.

“No!” He barked, cutting her off before she could even finish the stanza. Jacob sure as hell recognized the tune, and Adelaide would have been sorry to have unlocked that cage if she had the chance. The melody that was known through the Whitetails as his lure had no effect on him, at least not in that way, but it reminded him of the training, the sacrifices, the soldiers he gathered. And it reminded him of his wife. Jacob’s swollen eye stung like a bitch, but he brought his eyes to the floor and let them focus there for a while. Adelaide’s voice was grating on his nerves, but it was far better than listening to that snide little shit Pratt’s voice as he worked him over.

Jacob just didn’t want to hear that song. Not now… maybe not ever. Never again.

Adelaide raised an eyebrow, seemingly offended Jacob snapped at her. “Not much for talkin’ are ya? What, is my singin’ voice really that bad?”

It didn’t stop her from continuing her work over his filthy body. She wiped down the front of his shins, careful this time not to scrape too hard over the nicks that decorated his skin. Adelaide let out a deep sigh as she tossed the bloodied rag into the soiled water. Her hands were at her hips as she gave him another quick scan.

“Why are you doing this…” Jacob spoke, almost as low as a whisper. But it was quiet enough in his private little hell that she could hear him clearly as if he spoke in full voice. He eased back into his chair, feeling somewhat refreshed and relieved that his skin could finally breathe again.

The older woman’s eyes locked into his. There was a bit of pity there. Sorrow. Her mouth opened slightly as she searched for the right phrasing. She wasn’t as articulate as Joseph or John, or many of the other more civilized folks of the County, but her way of speaking got straight to the point. Even with a glint of sadness in her bold eyes, and a triumph that she’d succeeded in what she set out here to do, Adelaide now seemed different. She seemed… cold. “Other than acceptin’ you as a walkin’ piece of eye-candy that I’dda loved to take for a ride if it weren’t for my Xander, I still can’t stand you, Jake.”

Jacob’s brow furrowed. How was that an answer to his question? If she hated him so much, then why the fuck would she bother cleaning him up? And did she really take a roundabout way of saying she wanted to fuck him? He internally cringed at the thought.

“You killed a lot of my friends. My family. Cost a lot to repair what your soldiers fucked up around the Henbane—let alone the rest of the town. The ones who lived? Huh—there ain’t much left to ‘em… like your little magic box shucked ‘em clean.” Her tone had taken on a darker turn as she glared. “I’ll never forgive you for that.”

Jacob swallowed hard. Perhaps she did have a weapon after all; he’d heard so many bitter recollections about what Eden’s Gate had done against the citizens of Hope County, been spat on, flipped off, cursed at, shot at, and now tortured for his and his family’s deeds. But even with all of the physical torment, somehow the spiteful words of Adelaide Drubman surpassed most of it and cut him deep inside.

“As much as I despise the fuck out of you and hate what your God damn brother did to my County… well, I also think your wife’s a good ‘un. She was always kind to me, polite and sweet. She was so nice to my boy when everyone else, including his own daddy, treated him like he was shit-for-brains trash. Everyone always told him he was no good, but not her. She always offered to help clean up the Marina, or Tulip if I’dda taken her out for a long run.” Adelaide sighed, “She was a good woman before the brainwashing nonsense those fuckin’ flowers did to her head—and it didn’t help with the mindfuckery of your brother’s preachin’, neither. And even with all the killin’ and the shit y’all pulled through this place… she married ya. I dunno why but… I can’t blame her for that.”

Adelaide’s verbal tirade was so back and forth.

In, out. Up, down. Waves of compliments and praise to Diana, only to be smacked with a proverbial backhand of a complaint or insult to him or Joseph and the lot. He wasn’t in any position or state of mind to argue, and he found himself accepting this lull, this break in the torment, to get some insight.

“Guess you might call it a weak spot for her that I’m ain’t treatin’ you like shit, even if those are my orders.” She added.

“You answer to Pratt?” No, Jacob wasn’t much for talking to her, but his responses were brief. “Whose side are you on?”

Adelaide leaned in close, her eyes narrowing slightly as she watched Jacob wriggle to anticipate a swipe or attack. She placed her hand on the rough skin of his cheek and smiled. “I answer to myself, darlin’, but I happen follow the laws around here. Well… some of ‘em. And it just so happens that Whitehorse is the law. Pratt too.”

Pulling a small bundle from her bag outside of the cell, Adelaide unwrapped a loaf of bread, some cheese and a couple of pieces of what looked like freshly cooked meat and set it on the table. It didn’t matter what animal the meat had come from, Jacob’s mouth watered at the sight. She pulled a small key from her pocket and undid the shackles at his legs and wrists and even offered to help him stand.

Jacob narrowed his eyes carefully at her, twisting his hands in and out to examine them before accepting. His legs were so weak they were shaking, his bones crackling and popping and his skin stretching in ways it couldn’t since they always kept him low or sedated. Jacob shuddered out a breath as he fully stretched out once he was steady on the ground. To his surprise, she didn’t scurry away or cower when he loomed over her. His blue eyes sought out hers. Jacob reverently nodded at her, which made her smile.

“I’ll come check on ya in the mornin’.”

He didn’t care that she’d taken the base of his pistol when she left, or his jacket, or that the padlock was once again secured on his cage. All that mattered was that he get something in his stomach that was of vital sustenance. He devoured the food laid out before him, only to realize that something had fallen out of the inside pocket of his jacket.

Jacob wiped his grease-covered fingers on his dirty pantleg as he picked it up. It was a photo of him and Diana, taken the same day as most of their other portraits they littered throughout the county. Only this photo was different… it wasn’t the stoic pose of the Father or the charismatic allure of the Baptist—nor was it anything like the posters stating the two words Jacob used to train his men from before. This snapshot was candid, a beautiful moment between him and his wife, stolen in time before the wedding. John had one of the church members take it and later sent it by mail since he knew Jacob would initially gripe about his photo being taken at all.

But he loved it.

He loved the way Diana smiled at him, the way she made him smile back. He missed those gorgeous green eyes, how her form slipped into his arms and fit against him perfectly. Her soft raven hair, her sun-kissed skin, and her gentle lips…

In the photo, her arms were around his neck and his around her waist as he just pulled her up and her legs were kicked up behind her. It was all because she stole his jacket and playfully ran, but he caught her—the thing always looked like a damn dress on her since she was so much shorter than him.

But damn… he loved it.

He loved her.

Jacob had finished the food in a blink, slipped on his ring he spotted on the table as he was finally left alone to his own thoughts. He sighed to himself at the solitude that he once craved now forced onto him, the loneliness that came with it.

There were sparkles in his eyes.

A glint of white sparks exploding in the corners of his eyes.

Did that bitch poison me?! He cursed. Did she do this to him!?

He succumbed to the effects of the Bliss, his body falling limp against the bars at the edge of his cage. Jacob waited to dive into another eerie scene, surrounded by symbols and things of nightmares. But now… there was nothing. No green fog, no cabin in the woods, no Faith or Diana to meet him.

Jacob stood in the pitch-black abyss of his own despair.

Alone.

 

*

 

A few days passed. If Adelaide had come by like she said she would, he didn’t remember. All he knew was that he sat through hours of more brutality and that there was someone there to catch him when he fell.

Two men. One woman. Adelaide?

Voices. Shadows. Whispering…

“Y…you poi..soned m-me…” he murmured, the slur of the Bliss’ effects making it difficult to control his own speech.

The wrinkles in Adelaide’s perfectly tanned face were enhanced by the shadows that surrounded her. Her eyebrows pulled together, and she shook her head. He felt her cool fingers on his chin. “No… I didn’t do that do you, honey. I swear on my Tulip, that wasn’t me.”

Did he believe her? The one and only person in Pratt’s camp who wasn’t a complete asshole to him brought him food and sent him flying back into a fever dream of nothingness, of emptiness, leaving him with the worse after effects of the Bliss. Why would she do this? What did she have to gain? And if she swore on Tulip, if she truly respected Diana after all this time, then maybe she was telling the truth. So, who was it then?

In the cage.

Time moved erratically. Blinks of dizziness and darkness, it was jarring. Loud noises. Rattling. Screaming. New recruits being brought in to see Pratt’s prized prisoner. Keys clanked. Stars in his eyes. At some point he thought he saw Faith, floating above him on wings of bliss and starlight. The days became nights became days…

“You have done well, brother…”

Joseph…

Out in the open.

It rained one of the nights he was out there. He would have fully welcomed the refreshing waters that fell from the sky if it didn’t fill up his space with mud and shit that slid through when the courtyard flooded. He saw flickers of a baptism; the days John would welcome the new people into the flock. At one point he thought he was one of these chosen, a victim, and he gasped at the sight of his own body floating down the river in this lucid landscape.

Jacob blinked, snapped out of his reverie by howling in the cage adjacent from his.

No. He was still caged. He was still alive, for now.

He wasn’t retrieved until morning, but at least he could quench his thirst.

Up on the stake, he was tied, to take his lashings. To take his punishment. It was the will of the Madman.

Screaming. So much screaming. From him, from others, from Pratt’s men. And then he heard her.

“I love you, Jacob…” She said.

Diana?!

“Don’t let go…”

A white light. A halo. A dark-haired woman standing in the doorway when the cell door slammed shut.

DIANA! He wanted to call for her, but he lost his voice from all of the shouting.

Down into the dungeon. They tossed him like an old sack of flour and he hit the ground with a booming thud.

Peace?

Quiet?

Jacob’s face was pressed against the dirty concrete floor from his last dropoff. He was too weary to stand, and it took too much effort to turn over or get up and sit against the bars in his usual corner. He must have been laying there for a few hours, staring blankly through the small slit on the far wall that was letting the fading sunlight inside.

“Time to get cleaned up, soldier.” A voice called to him, but he didn’t move.

There was a rustling of cloth, keys jingling again, and the padlock to his cage was released.

Jacob only turned his head to see the older woman crouched above him, the soldiers at her back like golem sentinels positioned to take action if he tried to attack her. His heart raced at the sight of her, splotches of red from her fingers and lips seen in the dim dungeon as his vision obscured and his head was spinning. He wanted to curse at her, tell her he didn’t believe she was really on his side… or her own. That she’d poisoned him, and he didn’t believe a god damn thing she said.

He knew he had no allies here, and even with her respectful visit and treatment of him, he couldn’t believe her. He couldn’t.

Adelaide looked down at him, the light peeking through the door behind her casting an unusual halo behind her silhouette. “Pratt’s home. And he wants to see ya, Jake.”

Chapter Text

J O S E P H

Joseph Seed’s Sanctuary
Hope County Central
Three Days Ago

RING! RING!

The woman looked over to the phone, her brows knitting together in concern. It was as if she was more interested in whether or not he was going to answer it than what they were doing. Joseph placed a hand under her chin and turned her head back to face him.

“Don’t you want to get that?” She breathed out, starting to grind against him again. She moved up and down, the heat between her legs slick as he filled her.

“No. Not now,” he groaned underneath her as he moved his hands to grip her hips tightly, guiding her along.

Her thighs tensed as he clearly disregarded the phone. She felt him buck his hips up to meet hers before she nodded her head and continued to ride him. She would remain obedient, as not to anger him like she had done on their last encounter.

Joseph swore to her that he was done with their little arrangement, but the loneliness had gotten to him. Without Leah, all he had was the memory of how soft Diana’s hair was and its intoxicating fragrance—especially fresh from the shower. How her thighs felt wrapped around his waist, and the grace of her lips against his. All of those memories didn’t keep him warm enough anymore. She was distant, almost felt like a figment of his wild imagination, like she’d been some fanciful mirage.

He decided on closing his eyes. He wanted to envision her instead, he wanted to pretend it was the woman he loved and longed for in his lap, purring into his ear, praising him as he filled her, letting her moans of delight and pleasure expand into the dark and silent void of the room. He dug his nails into her hips further and ignored her as she gasped and desperately cried out in pain.

Not soon after the phone ceased ringing, Joseph felt himself quickly approaching his climax as he thought only about the raven-haired beauty over the golden-haired Priestess with the plain face.

 

*

 

RING RING!

Joseph sighed. He was brought out of post-coital bliss, the trance-like state where he would lie there to catch his breath and stare at the ceiling, pondering the amount of prayer and atonement he would have to pay for this sin. He’d often recite the sermon from earlier in his head to rejuvenate himself, centered again on his faith when his body betrayed the path, and he acted against the law of celibacy. Tonight, he didn’t. His train of thought had been so focused on the days to come, the potential loss of his family, and of course… Diana. Unfortunately, he was interrupted by the alarum that blared beside the bed, the phone crying out again that someone needed to talk to him.

When something stirred beside him, Joseph remembered allowing Leah to stay afterwards, still bare beneath the sheets. She curled in closer to cuddle with him, content to share his bed for the night.

 

RING RING!

 

He had assumed the person who had called earlier was doing so again, sweeping back in for a second round when he wouldn’t be bothered to answer before. Part of him feared it was Diana. Part of him hoped it would be one of his brothers instead, relief and triumph in their voices as they explained everything was okay. That they were safe. Alas, the other part of him filled with the gut-wrenching woe of dread that it would be Whitehorse or one of his cursed Deputies.

 

RING RING!

 

As he breathed out, exasperated and willing to finally take the call, Leah turned and looked up with big eyes, curious what his reaction would be. He examined her, this young little thing who had followed him to Montana. A devout follower, a loyal girl, didn’t expect to be on her back for one of them. Joseph did care for her deeply, maybe even love her in some capacity. But with Whitehorse having wiped away everything he worked for, her position as his priestess had been put on hold for other duties. Much more sinful duties.

Living in exile, and losing contact with his own family, meant Joseph became lonely and lost without her company. Thus, he’d would summon her to his chambers every night. After their last encounter he wasn’t sure she’d accept the summons, but in a way, he was glad she did as it helped him clear his head for what was going to happen now.

“Leah, I need you to leave the room for a minute,” he said quietly, rubbing her back. He said every word slowly as if she were a child, “I’ll send for you again.”

The meek Priestess nodded her head in fear, before getting out of the bed and quickly putting on the clothes she had strewn about on the floor.

Joseph didn’t even look at her. He couldn’t right now. When he was certain she exited the room, he leaned over and lifted the phone off the hook. His heart sank when he heard his brother John’s voice on the other end, speaking frantically as if he was in danger.

“I’m at a loss now, brother. W-we found the militia, but… Eli let Diana leave the Wolves’ Den—alone, but he wouldn’t let her unless she left me behind. Joshua and Daniel too. She said it was the only way—but—but I tried to stop her, I swear to you—” John’s words spilled out of his mouth without control in a panic.

“John! Slow down! She’s gone? What do you mean she’s all alone? You shouldn’t have—” Joseph caught himself before laying into John with a stern scolding. “How long? What about Morris?”

John breathed a sigh thick with worry before continuing his word vomit.

“A day or two at least. Fuck! Morris is gone too, and no one will fucking tell me what the hell is going on! If she dies out there, Joseph… If Pratt… I… I failed you brother. You and Jacob both. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”

“John! Stay with me! Why are you—” he said before hearing the harsh droning tone of the phone indicating the call had been ended.

Joseph growled as he angrily slammed down the phone, cursing to himself silently as he clenched his jaw. His heart was racing, as frantic as John had spit out those words to him just moments ago. He wanted to rip his hair out as he thought of Diana alone in the Whitetails.

Before he could get out of bed to start putting clothes on, Joseph stopped. A red light blinked on the base of his phone, how had he not noticed that before? An unsettling feeling twisted, low in in his stomach, as his gut told him that it had not been John who had called him twice. There was a message waiting for him.

He bit down on his lip, hesitating again as his hand hovered over the play button, feeling a sense of déjà vu.

Joseph pressed the button down harshly, wanting to get it over with like ripping off a bandage. He braced for whatever message she had left for him and when he heard that familiar voice, he crumbled.

In the meantime, instead of strolling down the hallway to her room, Leah remained close. She slipped back into her nightgown, with her feet bare on the wooden floor. Hot tears of her distress and shame rolled down her cheeks. With her hand was firmly pressed over her chest, she tried to control the pounding of her heart. She worried for Joseph. She was concerned with how he’d shifted from a loving and compassionate shepherd—into something more hostile. He’d become more cryptic, a lot …darker than the man she’d taken to as her keeper, as her loving guardian before, the leader of their faith.

The pale, young nymph of a girl sniffled a few times before she was prepared to step back into Joseph’s bedroom. No, he hadn’t called, but the draw, the need to be beside him after hearing him shout in frustration forced her to return. However, she paused when she heard a familiar voice ring through the room.

The door had quietly creaked open, and she turned her head to listen.

  “Joseph… I can’t guarantee coming home, you know that. You said it yourself, this was a suicide mission…

… I will tell him everything I know, everything I remember.”

Leah clapped a hand over her mouth to cover the gasp that escaped. Diana Seed’s voice echoed off the walls of Joseph’s room, the boundaries of their sinful yet paradisiacal haven, and into the hallway.

Leah’s blue eyes risked peeking inside, focusing on the back of her naked lover who stood, statuesque and silent.

“…but I keep having these nightmares… Joseph I don’t know what any of this means.

…I don’t know who I am anymore. Or who I can trust…”

Leah’s stomach turned. Joseph was beginning to wheeze on air, like he was allergic to it. Whoever he’d been speaking to before had caused the panic to ignite, a simmering anxiety now set to boil as he lingered on Diana’s every word.

“I’m at the FANG Center but there’s nobody here…

…I can’t give up, and I might make it to the Veteran’s Center if I try—”

Out of nowhere Diana’s voice cut out, as it sounded as if she’d dropped the phone. Shuffling and muffled noises in the background were heard before the call ended.

Before Leah could even wrap her head around what she had just witnessed, Joseph spun around. Leah quickly averted her eyes, so Joseph couldn’t spot her.

“FUCK!” He bellowed, such vulgar language no one had ever heard from someone like the Father since the birth of Eden’s Gate.

Leah gasped and flinched at the destruction he was causing to his own room as he went on a private rampage within its walls; Joseph smashed almost everything in sight. She heard banging against the bed posts and walls, paper being torn apart, thudding of fallen books, the alarm clock and phone swept off the nightstand and clattering to the floor. She even heard a lamp shatter as he cast it across the room, colliding with other furniture as he continued to curse aloud. Her shoulders tensed, raised nearly to her ears as she cringed at the Father’s outrage. It felt like it went on forever. She swore at least 10 minutes had gone by before his outburst subsided.

She was about to take off down the hall to get away from his room if he was this angry, but he had rushed to the door.

Joseph was holding a rifle, now dressed in his dark pants held up by his signature belt. Boots covered his feet, and his yellow-tinted glasses shielded his eyes. He turned his head and looked the woman over, a flame burning in his eyes. She knew then and there that this was no longer Joseph Seed she was looking at. This wasn’t the Father anymore.

He set down his rifle on the nearby end table and pulled his freshly pressed shirt from the hook on the wall, where Leah had left it after her laundry duties earlier that day. Joseph slid into it slowly. 

“Joseph…” She stuttered, confused as to where he’d be going at this time of night. If this was about John or Diana—she wanted to call him a fool for trying to do anything alone. But she bit her tongue. His priestess, his concubine, his most trusted confidant… that wasn’t enough for her to withstand his rage if he didn’t care to hear her advice.

 “Listen to me,” He said quietly, not caring whether or not she’d born witness to anything that happened in his room just now as it didn’t matter, “I’m leaving the sanctuary. It is your duty to hold down the place while I’m gone. You’re in charge,” he said before he walked forward and gripped the back of her neck, bringing her close.

“Yes, Father,” she whispered, averting her eyes submissively. Before she could finish, he had already released her and was heading down the stairs. She felt the back of her neck. She could still feel where his fingers had dug into her skin.

Joseph had his guns and bag slung over his shoulder as he made his way out of the house. There weren’t many up at this hour, other than Leah and another who had taken a perch on the front porch to watch him off. He shrugged off the pair of eyes that kept on him as he walked down the dirt path toward the docks, but he felt their worry and their fears from the distance. He didn’t need to turn to know who had joined his priestess standing there.

Pale, thin fingers wrapped around her shoulders. The blond angel stood there with sorrow in her eyes as she watched her brother make his trek away from the estate.

“Will he be alright?” Leah asked, her voice shakier than even she’d expected when she spoke. She clasped a hand over the woman’s, looking to her with some feigned hope that Joseph would survive.

Evergreen orbs shifted to Leah, that sadness never fading as Faith rest her gaze on the shivering priestess. She said nothing. She was not a visionary like the Father—or an optimist like her brother John, nor was she about to shatter the hopes and dreams like Jacob would with his words of realism. Faith said nothing. She simply returned her eyes to Joseph’s form as he disappeared into the fog.

 

* *

 

Church of Eden’s Gate
Hope County Central
2 years Ago

The church had emptied after an evening sermon. Daylight was fading away to the horizon, and its brilliant amber hue filled the chapel. Joseph was collecting books that were scattered among the pews, when he heard the door creak open. To his surprise, a woman was standing there…

A faint smile curled his thin lips. He greeted her warmly as he did the other members of the congregation, no matter how much he ached from fasting this morning before the service, no matter how much his throat itched since he was parched after preaching to his people. “You just missed the service. Though if I may offer you some words of wisdom, I will do my best for you. What brings you here then, my child?”

“I’m…”

“I know who you are.” He said, cutting her off before she could finish. She was sheepish, looking at the ground as if she were embarrassed, or so he’d sensed. When her green eyes returned to his face, his smile did not falter. “I know all of my children. My… flock.”

“I shouldn’t be here.”

Joseph reached up and brushed her hair with his fingers, sliding his hand to the nape of her neck. “Of course, you should. There is a reason you didn’t leave. For the record, you are not under arrest. You are free to go, so long as nothing that you’ve seen escapes the border of this place. I allow you, and you alone, that choice. Because I see something special about you. And yet, I feel as if this is where you belong.”

Still too shy to stare at him for too long, she shrugged, her gaze settling on the stack of books he’d just collected and set against the edge of the pew. “Everyone’s seen me, everyone knows what I did was wrong… If I left, there would still be that voice telling me that I belonged here. But the people…”

“What about them?” Joseph asked, his voice a saccharine-like timbre.

“They’re saying that I should be punished.”

Joseph’s fingers delicately curled under her chin and he turned her to face him once more. His piercing blue gaze locked into hers with a light of reassurance and peace. “The time of Atonement will come. My brother John will see to it. Until then you may remain here unless you choose to leave. But I must assure you that the Path to Eden is here, with us. With me.”

“I don’t want them to know why I stayed.”

Joseph arched an eyebrow. “And why did you?”

“For you…” Her eyes trickled down to her hands. She fidgeted, picking the dirt out of her nails nervously.

His eyes narrowed. Joseph stared at this woman, who was so reserved and nervous. It was appealing and made him curious all the same. Especially since she was one of his newest recruits… and a woman he had forgiven so easily. Why? He wondered. Why did the Voice tell him that she was something more than what came to his doorstep—that came through the doors of this very church with skepticism and a negative air, one that was seen by many as a threat to take him down? In a matter of moments, she had changed, it seemed. So quickly, yet, to him timing was everything. They found each other, and things were starting to be seen clearer beyond the mysterious green fog of the Bliss.

Joseph knew She was here for a reason.

With both hands on her face, he gently placed his forehead to hers, an innocent gesture that he bestowed to all his followers and his family. It was to calm her, to set her nerves at ease and to reinforce the love he had for anyone who wanted to be a part of Eden’s Gate. Together they breathed in, and then out, as he took in the scent of this young and beautiful stranger. She smelled like wildberry and oak, her sun-kissed skin an intoxicating musk of the outdoors.

“My name is Hope.”

“I know.” He smirked, his blue eyes staring deep into the verdant gaze peering up at him. Joseph’s thumb gently brushed over her cheek, as if touching her gave him all the answers he’d been looking for. “But please, call me Joseph.”

 

* *

 

The Wolves Den
Whitetail Mountains
Two Days Ago

It was sunset now.

Traveling on foot in a county that was sure to take his head off without question meant weaving in and out of hideouts until he reached his destination. Fortunately for Joseph, the mountain range provided enough cover of rocks and trees and other debris of broken buildings on his journey, but he wanted to be careful. As much as he wanted to barrel through the country roads in a souped-up tank and tear down every wall or man in his way—it was dangerous.

Joseph hadn’t left his sanctuary since Whitehorse and the Forsaken forces took Hope County by force. It was why he changed, became reclusive and submissive, for the sake of survival. His bunker wasn’t too far from there anyway, and when the collapse came he would be ready, not widespread across the vast countryside like the project members or even his family.

John always insisted that staying on the move would be better; flying out on Affirmation with Ana, taking trips in and out of town to “clear his head”. Faith’s movements flowed as smooth as the river Henbane, fluttering from field to field to ensure their crops were still flourishing. Jacob was still at it too, building his army in strength and numbers, hiking up and down the Whitetails to ensure his land was well fortified.

…but with Jacob, that meant Diana was with him too.

When he reached his destination, Joseph stopped. It was quiet here, too silent for his own comfort, but he stayed since this was the location they agreed on. For a few minutes he waited, propped up against a large rock formation on the side of the road, just behind the cover of brush and trees in case any of the Forsaken patrolling the area wanted to cut through, or take a shot. The longer he waited, the more his patience wore, so he tried to give his contact the benefit of the doubt—that he’d make good on his word and appear soon. If he was stood up, Joseph wouldn’t have any choice but to seek shelter for the night.

“You have one new message.”

He should have known better than to call in and check to see if there were any voicemails left on his machine. However, with the distress Diana left on her last message, he had a sliver of hope in him that she would call back. That things would be settled. That it was a genuine mistake. Or that the phone call was dropped. Up in the mountains, signal was already spotty at best and half of the time any burner phone would drop signal so fast it would be a pain in the ass to hear back. But when Joseph clicked on the button to hear what message was left, it wasn’t Diana.

Joseph? It’s Ana.”

His brow furrowed.

Joseph, are you there? It’s been days since I heard from John and I need to talk to him. I just want to know if he’s alright, and—the baby—” Ana was cut off and there were sounds of clattering in the background. Shouts and screams soon erupted between the static breaks and a loud boom and rumble an explosion startled him. “Oh no… they’re here. Joseph, please pick up if you’re there, we’re—Seed Ranch is—they’re around—and hurry! Please! Radio frequency is…” She rattled off a few garbled numbers before finally stating: “Send help! We’re under atta—

Baby?! Joseph internally exclaimed. His heart sank. There was anxiety and panic caught in his throat, trouble wrapping his head around a little one being brought into their fragmented family, until he heard the snap of a twig behind him. Joseph whirled around, quickly setting the phone in his pocket. He’d just took in a lot more than he was prepared for, and as calm as he wanted to be in this initial meetup with a potential ally, he could hardly focus on any light at the end of any tunnel now.

Ana. A baby.

Diana. Captured?

Jacob. And Death.

One thing was for sure, he needed to see John, and after that message, he needed to see him now.

When he turned to face the sound, the man he’d sent in several correspondence to was standing a few feet away from him. At this post, they were around a hundred or so yards from the entrance to his base. It was exactly where the man said to meet, and instead of risking a bullet to his head by charging straight at the door, Joseph couldn’t help but agree.

“Well. Can’t say I’m happy to see you, now can I?”

Joseph took a step forward, his hands up and empty at the dark-haired man with the bow at his back. “Eli—”

 “Back up, Seed. You should know more than anyone on your god damn sanctuary you ain’t welcome here.” Eli Palmer raised his hands, and the gun of his guardian raised and clicked into place. “I got plenty of men with a target trained right on your forehead if you take a step closer. So, if you wanna risk some divine intervention on their aim, then, by all means.”

“Where is John?” Joseph asked, the dread left from Ana’s voicemail still fresh in his mind.

Eli shrugged. “He’s downstairs. Safe. Your boys are too. Not sure if She got a hold of you, but I’m keeping to my word. None of them leave until I know she’s got Jacob and you guys get the hell out of here or do whatever you need without causing more shit for my men or my mountains.”

Joseph cringed. His lips quivered as he thought of other comebacks to throw at Eli for those rude comments, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t his way. John’s for sure or even Jacob’s… Not his. “I want to see them.”

Eli snorted. “Why is it you Seeds think you can just waltz onto our turf and demand shit? Ain’t that how all this started?”

Joseph sighed, his jaw clenching tightly as he set his gun on the ground to comply.

“Now. By my count, it’s been a year since you’ve left the island. Why start now, huh? And of all places you go, you come here—right into the heart of enemy territory?” Eli huffed, “You might as well’ve cuffed yourself and gone right over to the prison on your own. Present yourself on a nice platter for the old Sheriff.”

“If you won’t let them out, then I need to see my brother. Not want. Need.

“Did you consider others’ needs when your Heralds set out to kill ‘em?”

“Eli, I—”

The dark-haired man growled. “If you want to keep breathing, then I suggest you let me finish.”

Joseph rolled his eyes.

“Tell me, Joseph. What was it like when you snuffed the life out of that boy who came to document your… church? When you grasped his head between your filthy hands and crushed his eyes inward? Did it feel the same when you strung up that girl for the entire county to see—the girl who devoted her life to follow you—who lost her innocence to become part of your flock…? She was only seventeen.” Eli darkened gaze offered Joseph a hard glare before he shook his head. “Yeah. That was my old buddy Harlan’s girl. The same man your brother Jacob locked up, screwed over with that little box that played that silly little tune to force him into his ranks…”

Joseph grumbled. He wasn’t here to talk about the deeds of the past. “Let me see my brother.”

“And why would I do that?”

“I need to speak with him, it’s urgent.”

Eli snickered, peeking over at the guard at his side. “Urgent, he says.”

Joseph took a moment to recalculate his next response. It was clear the militia leader was about as tame as a wild wolf. He was angry, and rightfully so, irritable which Joseph could easily relate to—but he needed to phrase everything correctly. “I couldn’t help but notice that you aren’t flying banners of Deputy Pratt over your den.”

Eli’s eyebrows furrowed

Joseph continued, “I know you’ve been fighting them off as often as you’ve been picking off the last of my people. We share a common interest in someone who is in danger, Eli.”

He ran a hand over his dark beard and shrugged. “She crossed a serious line coming here. A risky one. If you mean to tell me she’s in danger that’s nothing new. Everyone is in danger every damn day, and she wanted to know where Pratt’s been holding Jake. So, I told her. Last I monitored, she was headed for the F.A.N.G Center—”

“Yes. That place. Eli, she got ambushed.”

“What?”

Joseph’s jaw clenched. Eli had monitors all over his den, he assumed that he watched the entire thing unfold—whatever it may have been.

Eli spit off to the side and folded his arms over his chest. “How the fuck would you know that?”

Joseph didn’t know how much of a pull Diana had with Eli, but he still couldn’t fully trust him. He’d been at odds with Jacob since they set up shop in Hope County. But he couldn’t hold back the truth. “She…” He sighed. “She called me to check in. Must’ve been as soon as she left, said she was heading to there. She mentioned it was empty like it might have been a trap. But the call cut out. Someone must have got the jump on her.”

Eli’s eyes flicked over to a bashful Sharky who’d also tagged along, before returning his attention to Joseph. He’d already ripped the pyro a new one for aiding Diana more than what they’d originally offered, but this wasn’t the time to lay into him again. His focus needed to be on Joseph, the man of the hour.

Joseph sighed. “Could be Hudson or Pratt…”

“Could be one of your fanatics gone rogue, what’s your point?” Eli laughed.

“My point is… I didn’t come here to fight. I’ve done enough of that and I know you have too. It’s just… that I… I need you—”

Fuck. Joseph cursed inwardly. The words were so difficult to spit out. Pride was one of his strongest sins and he cursed the Voice and the will of the Lord for forcing him into this position. But Eli had John, Pratt had Jacob and who knew where the hell Diana was at this point? He felt sick.

“If the next words out of your mouth are to help me, you can fuck right off, Seed.” Eli snapped. “Hope is…” He cleared his throat, “Diana is a grown ass woman. She can knock out a coupl’a cans I put on the highest peak right up there right from where we’re standing. Deadly with a knife. Can knock someone out the size of your brother Jake. She could even take the flora of the county, mash ‘em together and heal up if she had to. If the tall-tales hold true, she’s faced a Blissed-out bear in a fire?”

“Badass…” Sharky chuckled, proudly cheering for his old friend at that feat. The guard at his side nudged his shoulder to get him to shut up.

Eli peeked over his shoulder to get Boshaw to stop, before turning back toward Joseph. “So, she’s resourceful.”

“I know that,” Joseph grumbled.

“I sent her out because I knew she could handle it. Resources I take away from my people to aid your family is already bad enough. Whitehorse catches wind of that, it’ll be more than a couple of trigger-happy pricks coming up my way to ruffle feathers. Pratt will send an army. Hudson will burn us. Whitehorse…” Eli sighed. “If it ever came to that Joseph you mark my words, I’ll pick you all off myself.”

“So that’s what it is, then? Pride? Fear? If I didn’t know any better, I would think that the militia lacked faith. A backbone, as it were.”

Eli’s hands tightly grasped at the collar of Joseph’s white shirt. His breath was short, heavy, aggravated by the wordsmith who knew every single button to press. “Got a mouth on you, don’t ya, Father? Must be where your rotten little shit brother got it from, but I ain’t buyin’ it.”

Ever the pacifist, Joseph kept his hands low, not shielding himself from Eli’s rough interference. He smirked. “It seems like you already have.”

The white-knuckled grasp of the Militia leader loosened and with a hard shove he pushed Joseph back a couple of paces to distance himself again. “Bottom line is, Seed, I extended help to someone I shouldn’t have. And my lieutenants will never let me hear the end of it even if it was my God damn decision to make. She’s lucky she had an ace up her sleeve—tugging at what’s left of my rotten heartstrings with our families’ connections. Even went as far as dragging her sick mama into this mess, so I at least know she’s still got some of her old memories in there somewhere. Of course, she mighta lost points as she emphasized how much she loves that asshole brother of yours.”

Joseph’s gaze fell to the ground. Of course, she would mention Jacob—even if it risked losing the favor of Eli. “We don’t have time for this… exposition. The story has been told. We’re all on the same page, yes?”

Eli raised a brow.

“I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think you cared about her. Diana was strong in her convictions that you would help, that you would be the only one who would listen if she came to you. She said you would help her, risked her own life to see you, to find my brother.”

That still didn’t sit well with Eli, as he narrowed his dark eyes again at Joseph. “As I recall, you’re one selfish son of a bitch. Why do you care so much?”

“She’s family, of course I care about her.” Joseph answered, vaguely, as not to tip anyone else off about just how much Diana meant to him.

A skeptical glare glimmered in Eli’s dark eyes. Something about Joseph’s tone, hell, even his mere presence was a tip-off that there was a lot more than what was said. “Actions speak louder than your words, Joseph. And you’ve done a hell of a lot of talking. But the fact that you’re here…” He trailed off, leaving Joseph and the others present to fill in the blanks, an insinuation that fortunately Joseph cunning enough to take the bait.

They were in a standoff now. A staring competition—which everyone knew was Joseph’s trademark. But Eli’s eyes were just as cold as he settled in there to match Joseph’s intensity.

He couldn’t reveal the truth. Not to Eli. Not Sharky. Not the unknown guard who’d tagged along for this meeting. Not to anyone but Diana and Jacob. This matter was personal, even if had been somehow leaked to people like John or Leah…

Leah

His teeth ground as he swallowed. This was growing more complicated with each passing day…

Joseph wouldn’t have to say another word to get his point across, only because it was then that Eli’s radio started up and as he looked to his man, the guy shrugged. It wasn’t one of theirs incoming.

This message is for Joseph Seed.”

“What the hell?” Eli muttered under his breath, unclipping the radio from his belt.

Earl Whitehorse here. You know I figured you would’ve surrendered by now, but if you’re with Palmer and his cronies I guess that means you’ve finally grown some balls and left your little hidey hole you’re callin’ ‘Sanctuary’.”

Joseph took a step toward Eli but stopped as soon as his guard raised his gun again. Dammit, he cursed. He loathed weaponry unlike most of the people in this county. He even hated that he had one strapped to his back. But this message was for him… more information he was not ready for—scenarios he had only gleaned from what the Voice had told him. There were so many possibilities, so many outcomes, but he did not think it would come to this.

The Sheriff laughed. “Party’s over. The Gate is closed. Yer family’s spread out worse than an easy-rider down in Billings. Jesus, how the hell did you mess Her up this bad?” The old man clucked his tongue and sighed. “She don’t even know who she really is, does she? At least that's what Pratt tells me. What's your play, Holy man? If you want her or your brother to keep breathing, there are terms. If you give a damn ‘bout Her, even a little bit, you'll listen. I’ll be in touch again. Over & out.”

The deafening silence that settled here was only accompanied by the gentle howl of the wind. Another round of rainfall was inbound, a storm Joseph had missed in his solo trek across the lake and into the mountains. His gaze hardened as he stared at Eli, ignoring the man whose gun was aimed directly for his chest.

“Now if you believe me…” Joseph slowly paced toward Eli, his hands open at his sides as he showed no sign of charging in for an attack. He noticed the tension of the guard and the cruel gaze of Boshaw peering over Eli’s shoulder, though he was now solely focused on the man he’d come to negotiate with. Pain filled his eyes as the worry for Ana, John, and Diana worsened with each second that passed as he faced such resistance. “I need to see John first.”

Chapter Text

J O H N

The Wolves Den
Whitetail Mountains
Two Days Ago

 

What time was it? Midnight?

John impatiently peeked at the clock after his last round of pacing. The last meal he had was hours ago, scraps from the militia dining hall scraped and mashed together was served to him on a chipped plate and dirty silverware. Normally John would tip his nose up at something like that, but he wasn’t about to turn down the only means of sustenance.

When the door to the common area opened, he barely turned his head. It was probably Tammy or Wheaty anyway, maybe even Jess, to come in and give him what they thought was a nice round of Hope County hospitality.

Hell, even Boshaw was preferred over them.

“Someone’s… here to see you.”

“Joseph?!” John leapt from the couch and made a dash toward his brother, causing the guard to flinch.

Eli held his hand out and pressed into John’s chest to stop him dead in his tracks. “You have five minutes. No more, no less. Starting now.” He jutted his head in the direction of the door, signaling Sharky and his other guard to leave the room. Cold eyes locked with Joseph’s before they acknowledged each other with a silent nod before he made his exit.

John breathed out. He didn’t care that Eli tried to intervene—it was brief enough—he had Joseph here and it was both relieving and terrifying at the same time. “My God…”

“I’m so glad you’re alive, brother.” Joseph grasped the back of his brother’s head, soft fingers tangling in the dark and curly locks that had grown out for some time now.

John closed his eyes as he clung to his older brother, his forehead placed against his, a feeling he didn’t know he needed until it happened. He sighed. “I’m so sorry,”

“Stop that now.” Joseph whispered.

“But if you’re here—” John cut himself off. His wide gaze found his brothers as he pulled away, still grasping at his arms.

Solemnly, Joseph nodded.

John couldn’t breathe. His head suddenly throbbed in pain, trickling down through his body as his nerves tingled with anxiety. His voice was barely a whisper. “No…”

“I have no confirmation of what might have happened but after you called, I heard from Her.”

John pulled away from Joseph and ran his hand through his greasy hair, exasperated. “And?”

Joseph shook his head.

“Fuck…” More and more bad news kept pouring in and he struggled making any sense of it, even if it was fairly clear what sort of horrific picture Joseph was painting. He turned away, leaving his back to his brother, regardless of the ache that struck him. He wanted nothing more than to be with his family, but he was at a loss. Grief-stricken. He felt ill.

“John—I’ve come here because… you know I-I have to stay this course. After I return you to the sanctuary—”

“No.”

“You must be with Faith. Ana, Seed Ranch—everything is under siege, nowhere is safe—”

“Ana…” A desperate whisper left John’s lips, the name of his lover. If Joseph made mention of her it only meant bad news, yet again. A sign of weakness was crying—but since it was just him and his brother, John let loose a flurry of emotions he would otherwise keep hidden away to uphold the façade of his burden, to be strong for his brothers. He slowly turned to face his older brother. “Joseph what about her? Wh-what are you saying?”

The horror in his brother’s face made Joseph realize what had come out of his mouth, a little too late. In the rush of informing John about all of the messages he had received, he let loose something he knew would only make John worry more.

“Tell me she’s alive. Joseph, tell me!” John pleaded, a glimpse of the terrified youth peeking through his glistening baby blues.

“I-I…” Joseph sighed, “I can’t do that.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

With pain in his eyes, Joseph took a beat before answering. “Ana called… in a panic. Said the ranch was under attack, screaming, cries, shouting… explosions. I didn’t know what to make of it… John, she mentioned a baby…”

That fear became more intense. John’s stomach churned. It was news he hadn’t yet confirmed, news he and Ana kept hidden from the family. Bringing a child into this fucked up world was terrifying enough, but the dread of losing the unborn life practically gutted him. John was silent, unable to utter anything more as he couldn’t find the words to describe the storm of emotions raging inside of him.

Joseph shook his head, weary eyes settling on John now. “If I was home I would have picked up. If I was there you know I would have helped her. If I had the power to do anything now—”

“You do! Joseph, you do! You left sanctuary for the first time—and…” John pounded his aching fists on the bookshelf nearby. “We need to get the fuck out of here and find her. We have to, Joseph—we have—We have to go after them—we have to—”

“No!” He said, firmly grasping at his baby brother’s shoulders to stabilize him.  “No… John, we can’t. I can’t lose sight of you, of her, of all that remains of our people. The Ranch has been taken. Even if we made it there, there’s no telling what’s left…”

“Ana…” Crumpling into the couch, John buried his head in his hands. His eyes were filled with tears that he couldn’t see straight. The last he’d spoken with his girl, it was before they left to find Eli, the only time he’d spoken with her since he got captured by Hudson. If what Joseph had said about her mentioning a baby was true, he wanted nothing more than to find her, and harm the ones who might hurt her.

“If you’re looking for Blain Avery and your girl Ana… they’ve been taken.”

Joseph stood as soon as Eli entered the room, leaving his brother seated and at a safe place behind him.

John launched himself off the couch but was stopped as Joseph raised his hand to brace against his chest, and Eli’s hand immediately grasped at the handle of his gun.

“John—”

“Wheaty just heard down the wire that Whitehorse’s men took a caravan out to Henbane. Figure I should let you both know while I got you here. I got this gut feeling he’s got Her too.”

Joseph shuddered at the thought.

“If Jess’ intel is any good, and she’s the best damn scout I got, I’d say she’s halfway to the Veteran’s Center now.”

“Because you set her up, didn’t you?”

“How about you cool your jets, John?”

“Cool it? Fuck you.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Right. You did nothing and let Boshaw send her out to die.” John was still bitter at the thought of seeing Diana leave the den without so much as a companion to help her keep watch. That was his job. One he promised to Joseph. One he’d failed.

“John, enough.” Joseph demanded, casting an apologetic glance at Eli. He let a beat settle before gesturing for Eli to continue.

“Hm. Well before you both start making demands—like I know all you Seeds do—I’ve already done what I said I would—that was watch over your brother here and your men and leave them unharmed. I even went as far as letting a scout patrol out to take a look around and have a gander at what they’re up to since we lost track of Diana at the F.A.N.G., it looks like they halted their burns in the South and the East.”

John stepped forward. “Eli, we—”

“WE don’t have to do a god damn thing. We didn’t survive up here this long to stick our necks out for the enemy and as far as I’m concerned, Joseph, you’re still public enemy number one.”

After a glance at John, Joseph looked over at Eli. “If we do nothing, she’ll be taken away by Whitehorse, extracted—or worse and you know that.”

“I don’t need you preaching at me, holy man. I already told you I could easily waltz you down to Whitehorse myself and reap the benefits of the bounty for turning in the most wanted man in Hope County.”

“Then what’s stopping you?”

Eli glared. “You’re about to go that way anyhow, aren’t you? You’re doing my job for me.”

“Joseph,” John started.

“I’ll be taking my brother.”

“Sure.”

“My men,”

“Even better.”

“—And leaving within the hour. We’ll do this without you.”

“No—” John shook his head.

“Non-negotiable.”

“Fine by me.”

“Good.”

“Now just wait a fucking minute!” John slammed his hand down on the dining table, causing it to shake and rattle at impact. The collective gaze of Joseph and Eli moved to him immediately, and “I’ve been on this journey, working in small numbers. Doing things my men could until they couldn’t. Doing things your way, Joseph, when you were too afraid to leave the island. Stuck here because you, Eli, say I have to follow your order or Jess would put a damn arrow in my neck. Now do we see how splitting up never works out? One of us gets taken. We get transported to some fucking dirty ass hellhole to get prodded and mutilated.”

Eli and Joseph stared at John from their respective corners, one by the door, the other leaned back against the small counter a few steps away.

John continued, “I don’t like it any more than either of you. Joining forces. Calling on each other when we were calling each other enemies just five seconds ago.”

“Well that hasn’t changed.”

Joseph’s lips pursed together in a sour expression at Eli’s retort.

“You.” John pointed at Eli with his damaged hand. “You can’t keep me here. And you?” He shifted to Joseph. “I will not go back to sanctuary. We’ve wasted so much time, energy, resources that we don’t have, and now what? We’re just going to let them have Jacob, Ana, Diana? Just let them win?”

Eli narrowed his eyes. “It’s not a matter of winning or losing because as I see it, you Seeds have already lost.”

“What happened to strength in numbers, huh? The militia, the church. God dammit! The two of you are leaders. So fucking lead.” The conviction in his eyes matched that of Joseph on every sermon he would deliver to his people. It was bad enough his brother and sister-in-law were mixed up in this war, but now that his girl and unborn child were in danger he would fight with everything he had to get them back. “Leaving our family out there, my family, my child to die because you want to wash your hands of each other? You’re no better than our parents.”

That struck a sour note with the two of them, but mostly with Joseph. His expression darkened at John’s remark, and his fists balled at his sides. John noticed his brother’s jaw clench, chewing on retorts that wouldn’t meet the air in the presence of Eli; He played that like an Ace up his sleeve, one he restrained himself from using since he knew that would likely create a greater conflict with his brother. John had only had what felt like a millisecond to process and decipher the news of Ana’s message, his head spinning so fast, it was surprising, even to himself, that he managed to rant at them, with their full attention. It was one way to get them to listen, and it seemed that the mention and admission of his own child being endangered was enough for them to stop bickering.

Eli was the first to break the thick silence. “And I thought your brother here was the preacher.” He closed the door shut and locked it tight, sealing the three men in the chamber to give them privacy. His tongue met his lips as he thought up what to say next, but instead of meeting John with another push back, his interest had been piqued. John had a point. Their fighting was pointless if they had a common enemy… and perhaps it was time the militia stopped sitting in the gray. He huffed, folding his arms as he pressed his back to the sealed door. “Well, Duncan. I take it you have a plan?”

John grimaced at Eli’s return, knowing that he’d only said it to grind his gears, to make it clear they were fragile allies, nowhere near friends.

He took a breath, running his fingers through his dark hair as he thought up a response. John didn’t know he’d get this far, but time was running out and he feared the worst for his family. His child. But one thing was for sure, arguing and plotting were always John’s strongest suits. He just needed them to listen.

 

 

D I A N A

 

Seed Family Ranch
Holland Valley

 

“So glad you guys could make it, come on in!” Ana’s brilliant smile greeted them as she opened the door. She looked radiant, still dressed to the nines in a gorgeous sundress with her strawberry blond tresses braided along the side of her head, which fell loosely into a wavy ponytail pulled over her shoulder. The way she was dressed and made-up seemed so formal, even if the dinner was in their home.

The sight of the heavenly-looking hostess made Diana feel quite underdressed in her burgundy blouse and leggings for the evening, but Jacob told her she looked fine. Or in his terms, she looked damn fine.

“Did you bring the them with you? I have some extra scraps I can send out later.” Ana winked.

Jacob grinned and jutted his head toward their truck where the pups were already chained and lying by front tires on the driver’s side. “Of course. Figured they earned a trip out to see you guys too.”

“I’m so glad! They’re going to be so excited to see the pups.” Ana’s smile widened, nearly blinding them with her perfect white teeth as she pulled the door open to wave them inside.

Diana tugged on Jacob’s hand as they strolled into John and Ana’s humble abode, the family ranch he declared as his own estate to keep up when he took the valley. The fragrance of herbs on a delicious roast filled their noses, mixed with the bouquet of floral notes and herbal aromas that already kept the house fresh.

“Dinner’s ready!” Ana’s voice was melodic and light as she called up the stairwell.

It was just as she remembered. Dinner with the family, but instead of John coming down the stairs to meet them, something had changed. John was already grabbing a stack of china from the cabinets.

So, who was she calling to? Diana wondered.

A few moments later, two children came hobbling down the stairs and immediately clung at the soldier’s legs and hip. The surprise attack would cause anyone else to lose balance, but as Jacob was sturdy as a deep-rooted tree, his heels dug in and he caught them both with a soft oomph.

“Uncle Jake!” The boy with dark hair clung to his uncle’s hip with a big smile on his face.

“Hey kiddo.” Jacob grinned as he gently patted the boy on the head and picked up the little girl on his shoulders.

The kid’s resemblance to their folks was uncanny, just beautiful and charming in their outfits. The boy had dark hair, and the girl a light-brown with gentle curls, both with perfect, pale complexions just like their mother. She watched as Jacob played with the children, spinning in place to twirl the girl around, much to her delight as she giggled. The boy wanted a turn too, and he scooped him up, pretending to be an airplane carting them around, like John always did, though Jacob did without the silly noises.

“It all smells so good…” Diana beamed, to which Jacob looked over at her with an impressed smile. Neither of them was much for small talk, but she did promise to try and make this dinner work.

It was the truth, though, and she knew it, gawking in awe at the feast Ana had set out on the long stretch of the family dining table. John’s girl really did know how to cook, which was more than what she could say for her own skills. But cooking for Jacob was a lot easier than someone like John who had tasted enough gourmet meals in the city to spoil his palate.

“It better. John almost burnt half of it trying to ‘help’.” Ana laughed, her grace and poise so sweet and darling. There was not a wrinkle or shadow on her perfect face as she scolded her little ones to get to the table.

“Mama!” A little boy ran into the room, his dark hair perfectly combed and trimmed at the sides. His bright blue-green eyes were filled with joy as he leapt up at her. She reached her arms out and caught him immediately, not wanting to let him fall if she hadn’t been there to save him. As soon as she laid her eyes on the boy, she knew exactly who it was.

This was her son.

“Where’s papa?” He asked, settling his feet on the ground before trotting away.

Diana swiveled her head to catch who the boy was running to, but Ana caught her by the shoulders and turned her around before leading her to her seat at the table.

“It’s about time us Seed girls get to know each other, right sis?” The beautiful blond winked, pulling a chair back and offering it to Diana.

She nervously smiled, “Yeah, sure.”

“Your boy is so well-behaved. I may have to ask your secret to keeping them tamed.”

Diana chuckled, though rather awkwardly as she peeked over to see Jacob’s reaction to the comment. Unfortunately, he didn’t react at all.

By the looks of it, Ana had given John two lovely children and judging by the size of the rock on her hand John made good on his promises to give her the world. But that wasn’t the prominent thought in her head, no. As the bustle of her family’s preparation for the meal buzzed around her, she noted the empty chair at the head of the table, the spot directly across from her on the far end.

“Where’s Joseph?” Diana asked, noting that the head of their family was missing.

It was then, that this entire scene froze. Everything stopped. Everyone stopped moving, forks held mid-air, food held before open mouths, some faces frozen in the middle of a laugh or conversation. It was picture perfect, though chilling to see that everything in sight ceased to move except for Diana and Faith.

She stood up from her seat, green smoke billowing from her lace gown. Her pace was quick; her steps feather-light and lightning fast. Faith appeared just behind Diana. “This isn’t where we belong, but you know that. This is what could have been. This is the life you wanted, one you carved out for yourself by coming here. To Hope County. To Eden’s Gate.”

What? Diana stared at the scene before her in confusion. She lived here. She grew up here. Sure, she might have gone away for a time, but what did Faith mean by all of that?

“Why are you showing me this? Did he put you up to this? Where is Joseph?” She asked, picking through the cacophony of nagging questions filling her mind, especially the inevitable one, the one that wasn’t immediately answered, again.

“I’m showing you what might have been because this is what you wanted to see. I’m showing you because I might not have a chance to do this again.” Faith said, mournfully, her usually optimistic tone filled with pain.

“What are you talking about? This isn’t real.” Diana admitted. How she was aware of her own reality in this alternate state of mind confused her further; she simultaneously felt in control and yet… lost. “This is the Bliss again—isn’t it?”

“Of course. It’s not real, but this could be the way, if only you would choose what’s right.” Faith gently placed a kiss on the top of Diana’s head, her lips sinking into the bed of raven tresses. A crown of flowers settled at her forehead, and when she looked down, Diana found herself in her wedding gown. Lace wrapped her arms to her elbows, the fragrance of flowers and lilies and perfume—as the skirt billowed to the floor at her feet now bare against the floor.  

She sharply gasped, leaping out of her seat at the sudden shift. The chair scooted back behind her and toppled over. When she spun around, the room emptied, the backdrop of the dining room at Seed Ranch fading to a black chasm filled with smoke that swirled and surrounded each of the dinner guests. First, were John and Ana’s children, before they vanished. She walked toward the boy who called her mama and he dissipated into the foul essence. “No, no…”

“We are your life, as you are ours.” Faith murmured.

“Jacob?” Diana reached at his back, her fingertips burned at the frigid surface of his jacket. He didn’t move or answer, he simply disappeared, devoured in the shadows. She was alone again, save the glowing apparition of the fae-like Faith still lurking over her shoulder. But after a few moments, the smiling visage of her sister-in-law faded too.

“Joseph?!” Diana cried out.

“I’m here.” Joseph said, “I’m always here.”

Twirling around, she found nothing. No one. Not one glimmer of the yellow-shades in the distance. Not shadow or sense that he was present. Just his voice.

“Truth is not for the faint. And you know that. The truth lies ahead on your journey, something you know will gut you—will only make this abyss, this madness, worse. I worked so hard to keep you safe. To lead you down the path. To tell you what the Voice has told me.”

“Joseph…”

“My name always sounded so lovely from these lips…”

He was standing directly behind her, his arms wrapping around her to pull her close against his firm body. When she spun around once more, she stood before the Father in her gown, of lace and wildflower, and he took her hand into his. His grasp was always warm and welcoming, his fingers entwining with hers. They uttered no words to one another as Joseph led her out of the darkness and into the open field, and the Bliss faded away.

“This was our home.” He said, a monochrome view of Hope County from the Sanctuary could be seen, the glistening sun shining high over Silver Lake.

“This is where we will die.” She replied, speaking without prompt, speaking the words that came to her mind as they matched his. Her bare feet squished into the wet grass, a thick substance slipping between her toes. Diana looked down, staring at the tattered lace at the bottom of her gown which was now tainted by the essence that covered her feet.

Blood.

 

*

Hope County Jail
Henbane River
One Day Ago

 

“Jesus, Pratt—I said not to hurt her!”

“You said no casualties. But I got her nice and ready for you.”

“The Bliss is not something we can keep messing around with like this. The more we use it, the smaller the chances we have of getting her memory back.”

“It was a small dose, harmless.”

“Pratt!”

“I know, I know. Whatever you say, boss.”

“…And Jacob?”

“Pff. Old man’s fine. He’s locked away. Tucked somewhere no one’ll find him. Don’t you worry.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Shit… If I didn’t have the integrity…”

“Then you’d what, Pratt?”

Pratt cackled, choosing not to voice the lewd thoughts of fucking with her just to get under Jacob’s skin. “I would turn this bitch in for the bounty. Do you know how many dollar signs are just flashing over her fucking head? The things I could do with that. But I did this because it was my orders of course. You said bring her here before anything. So… I did. Sir.

“I’m aware of Mrs. Seed’s worth…”

Voices.

Chatter.

Footsteps.

Noises.

Her hearing was fuzzy and her head heavy, but she was able to focus on the people in the room with her. Diana tried not to feel motion sickness when she looked up at the old man’s face. She had suffered vertigo before, her body spiraling even when she stood perfectly still, but it never held a candle to the effects of the family’s drug. The Bliss made it hard to control her own body, but she forced herself to zero in on the striking features she could spot in the layered shadows of this dark prison.

White mustache. Hat. Shield.

The Sheriff.

Earl Whitehorse had strolled up close. He slid his tongue over his teeth, softly smacking his lips as he returned his focus to her. Standing there. Hands tied, chained up to the rafters, strung up in a position where she was barely hanging, the tips of her toes brushing against the floor. Whitehorse called it a safety precaution. It was so she couldn’t try anything too hasty if Pratt’s restraints didn’t hold. In the shape she was in, Diana couldn’t hurt a fly. Whitehorse just didn’t want to give her the chance.

“They say you don’t remember anything. That you’ve become this… Diana now. Trying to leave everything behind and start a life with the enemy of the county. If only it were that easy, honey. We’re worried you’re too far gone, that it might be too late for you, but thanks to this Bliss—” He held up a small vial between his fingers for her to see, and then shoved it back into his pocket, “There may be some hope for you, some Hope left in there… to salvage.” Whitehorse tapped her temple. “You must love your husband a whole lot to be runnin’ through the Whitetails like John Rambo.”

The Sheriff made himself laugh.

She held her eyes open with all the energy she had left, but still couldn’t see him clearly. However, she was quite certain of her company. Diana feared what these two might do to her, physical or mental turmoil from either of them was something she had been dreading from the start.

“In war… there is no room for love.” Whitehorse wearily shook his head, noting the brilliant rock gleaming from her ring finger. “No room for romance. Family. Though I guess that’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? Your allies… people you get close to. They could be considered family too, right? People you think saved you, people you think have your back when the going gets tough…” He chuckled, his mustache shifting when his smile vanished. “They sure got you good, didn’t they? Your precious family.”

The cool, wrinkled fingertips of the old man brushed her hair out of her perspiring face. Pratt loomed somewhere behind him like a shadow, staring just as intently at Diana as if he were trying to understand what Whitehorse was looking at.

But they both sure they were looking at a ghost, or worse yet, a hollow husk of a woman everyone seemed to know from before.

Diana groaned. There was so much she wanted to say, to protest against almighty Whitehorse and his lackey, Pratt. Oh, the profane words she had for that disgusting rat. She might not have been in full control of herself, but she was damn sure she wanted to strangle him for what he’d done to Jacob.

Pratt snapped the locking band of his holster over the handle of his gun on his hip and shrugged. “Well, you’ve got your proof of life. I told you I wouldn’t kill her, didn’t I?”

“That you did. That’s a good boy there, Pratt.” Whitehorse smirked.

“Can’t wait to tell Jo.” The deputy muttered.

Whitehorse snapped his gaze to his subordinate. “You tell Hudson nothing of this.”

“Sir?”

The old man didn’t answer. Pratt didn’t deserve one. That was his order.

Clicking his tongue, Pratt folded his arms. “So, what’s the play now?”

“You see how they work. How much they mean to Jacob and the rest. If she’s the key to get them off of that fucking island and into the open? Hold her here, until further notice. I’ll have scouts track them… maybe it’s time to apply more pressure on Joseph Seed.”

Pratt liked the sound of that. Whitehorse prompted him to take her down, and when the chains were loosened, her body crumpled to the floor at their feet. Whitehorse stood above her, his boots close to her face. He tilted his head to get one last look at her.

“Pratt has been taking good enough care of you I think it’d do you some good to spend a little more time with him. Whaddya say, kiddo?” Whitehorse smiled.

Diana grunted, unable to respond. She felt Pratt’s filthy hands on her neck as he pulled her up like a mere pup.

“And may the powers that be, whatever God you got looking out for you have mercy on you… Hope.” The silhouette of the Sherriff disappeared in the distance.

 

*

 

Some Time Later…

 

Blink.

The ride was bumpy.

Blink blink.

Everything was… sideways.

Her cheek pressed against the bench seat along the wall of the old van. It was moving, she knew, given the turbulent rattling and rocking she was put through as it drove along. Two others were present, faces unfamiliar until she blinked a bit more to focus.

“And here I thought you were dead.”

“Might as well be.”

Paster Jerome and Mary May spoke in tandem, one interested in her welfare, the other not.

Jerome lowered his eyes to the open bible in his hands. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”

Mary May smirked, her thin lips curled “I think you’re missin’ a few passages there.”

“Relevance.” Jerome huffed, snapping the book shut. “She might need all the prayer she can get, if he’s bringing her home.”

“Maybe he should be reading your last rites now instead if you prefer?”

“Death might be too swift and too…”

“Merciful?” Mary May spat, rolling her eyes in disgust. “Yeah I’ve been hearing that way too much from Whitehorse lately, I’m almost thinkin’ the old man’s lettin’ her off easy.”

“Yeah, probably. But he’s the word of the law, and the word of the county now. If she came out unscathed… well…” Jerome sighed wearily and shook his head. He closed his bible and leaned forward to whisper, “What happened to you, Hope? You were supposed to be something. Something great, you know?”

Everyone said that to her. Well, everyone willing to talk to her without putting her down. They might have known her before. Hope. Hope Evans of Henbane.

She closed her eyes tight, flashes of her family, once happy, coming to mind. Her father, the fighter. Her mother, the provider. Her siblings… Back when Hope County was free of Whitehorse’s unjust rule and the Seed’s fantastical ideals of a perfect world. That was her perfect life. Her happiness. But knowing what she knew now, how could she know such happiness without Jacob?

The foul smell of wet dog wafted into her nose, but the way she was bound, with her mouth taped shut, Diana couldn’t turn her head to see where it was coming from. A thick drop of slobber hit her face when she turned, only to face the hero, Boomer, sitting on his hind legs beside her. He looked happy, his tail wagging behind him as he stared at Diana with big, curious orbs.

She panicked, puffs of breath exhaled frantically through her nose as she wiggled her body to scoot away but Boomer advanced. He didn’t look hostile, the same way she knew he would approach enemies, but she didn’t want to take any chances.

Mary May and Pastor Jerome looked at each other, an awkward, sideways glance, as they noticed the dog’s behavior.

“Boomer’s a smart pup, but I’m thinking he’s havin’ trouble seeing between the bad and the good.” Mary May shook her head.

“Maybe he just ain’t hungry today.”

“Nothing Peaches or Cheeseburger can’t handle if he isn’t interested.”

There was a subtle tone of smug pleasure in Mary May’s tone; one that irked Diana and unsettled her all the same. Was that where she was headed now? To the cages where she’d have to fend off the animals, fight them off before they fed on her? Behind the tape, she swallowed hard. Her vision was still blurry and her mind swirling in a pit of fogginess as she tried to shake it off. The Bliss… Or was it? She couldn’t tell anymore.

“Looks like we’re here.”

“We won’t stay long; Kim and Nick are expecting us for dinner.” Mary May brushed off her jeans and stretched her legs out a bit in preparation to get out.

Diana frowned. Nick

She remembered a better time with Kimiko, when they all got along. When they had beers in the hangar and heckled Nick as he fixed up his planes. More of those better days she longed for…

With a distressed look, Jerome peered over at Diana again. He shook his head. “Wish I could say the same for you, child.”

What did he mean by that? She wondered, still scooting away from Boomer who was still eagerly panting and wagging his tail at her. Where am I going?

The van stopped. A sharp whistle prompted a few more foot soldiers to approach, as she saw five people through the bulletproof windows of the back doors. When the doors to the van opened, Jerome and Mary May exited first. With one slobbering lick over her forehead, Boomer hopped out, leaving Diana alone. As they were some of the few civil citizens

Broad hands grasped at her legs and tugged her out, and she hit the dirt with an unladylike oof. Diana squinted her eyes, the shine of the sun peeking through the break in the gray clouds was bright enough to obscure her vision. She rolled over to her stomach, trying to bend her knees so she could prop herself upright, but she apparently didn’t move fast enough for the men waiting for her.

Again, she felt hands on her, grasping tight to her collar. She was yanked up to her feet, her knees buckling slightly until two of Pratt’s soldiers held her upright.

“There she is!” Pratt taunted, his hands clasped behind his back.

Morris stood at his left, with another man she recognized as her own assistant, Archer to his right.

Her eyebrows furrowed, puffs of hot, rampant breath beat against the tape over her mouth as she grunted.

“Go on in and get cleaned up, you two, I know you aren’t here for long. Feel free to take the car back to Falls End. While you’re at it, I may have you send a little memo to Jo for me.” Pratt winked at Jerome, before he and Mary vanished behind her. He knew Whitehorse didn’t want Hudson to know she’d been bested, but far be it from Pratt to miss out on the opportunity to gloat. He won. He nabbed her, fair and square. For the most part.

The deputy strolled closer, once more a little too close for comfort. She felt his slick, sweaty cheek and the scratch of his scruff along her aching jaw as he practically put his lips on her ear. “As for you, my dear… Oh… I have something very special planned for you.”

When the men turned her around, she gasped and beheld the building where she’d been delivered. The place she wanted to start from all along.

St. Francis Veteran’s Center, the sign read.

Her heart skipped a beat.

She was home.

Chapter Text

D I A N A

St. Francis Veterans Center 
Whitetail Mountains
Present Day

A whistling came from behind her.

When she came to, Diana noticed she hadn’t been thrown into some prison cell like many times before. No, this time she was seated in a wooden dining chair in the newly refurnished dining room, a project she and Jacob finished before they got word Faith had been kidnapped. Everything was still intact here, from the long oak dining table to its matching chairs, dressed in red and off-white skirts and a blood-red tablecloth to match. There was a crystal chandelier above the table, mirrors and portraits on the walls, with a curio of figures and china along the wall as well as a wet bar and other furnishings here that made it feel more like a home than an old Veteran’s center, or a base.

Jacob often gave her guff for having so many material things. He was a simple man, he’d always say… but he let her handle some of the interior décor to liven up the otherwise dreary homestead.

The whistling continued; the tune was so familiar, as it was one she knew as a hymn from the church that graced the radio waves in many of their follower’s cars.

“Keep your rifle by your side…” Pratt sang. After a beat he just cracked up; he spit somewhere to the side, landing on the nice wood floor finish beneath him. “Always thought that song was stupid as hell, but it always got stuck in my head with its catchy ass tune. Still. I think it’s fitting… seeing as you brought this beauty down to me. You know, I’d been wanting to get my hands on this for some time. Thanks for that, darlin.”

Diana tensed.

“Jacob never let anyone touch his weapons, but you know that, right? You know he’d beat the shit out of his men for even laying a finger on any part of it—his rifle, his treasure, his prize. Same would go for his girl, but,” Pratt clucked his tongue, “in the shape your old man’s in, I don’t think he’d mind if I have my way with it, hm?”

With a low growl in her chest, Diana grasped onto the arms of the wooden chair. She was surprised she hadn’t been bound, the freedom of movement almost foreign to her as she squeezed her aching fingers together around the wood. The burns of the ropes used before left a nasty rash around her wrists but she didn’t care. Just more scarring to add to the rest of the ones on her body. Pressing down on the rests, she used them to prop herself up to stand—but the click of the dreaded weapon locking into place made her stop. Her eyes focused on the fearsome barrel of Jacob’s bright-red .50 caliber rifle, and slowly trailed up at the man behind the scope. Staci Pratt’s thin lips curled up in an amused smirk.

“Nuh-uh-uh,” He taunted in a sing-song voice, “I’d have a seat on that pretty little ass of yours if you even dream of seeing Jacob again.”

Her face twitched. For a split-second she thought she’d launch herself across the length of the table to choke him, but the immediate threat of a bullet of that size, at this distance, made her consider differently. A round like that would leave nothing but a mist of red and pieces of her spattered against the walls and furniture, and at Pratt’s level of sanity she didn’t want to test the limits. She felt her bones pop and crack as she eased back down onto the chair, leaving her hands at her sides in case Pratt wanted to fire at her anyway, with any weapon he had within reach.

His pistol. The .22 sitting on the dining table. A throwing knife, even.

Sadly, she’d been disarmed, but that was a given. At least they left her jewelry on, her wedding band and necklace, and from what she could tell no item of clothing, save the weapon holsters and sheath for her blade were missing, placed on the table beside Jacob’s rifle.

“Atta girl. I sure do love that you listen.” Pratt grinned, pulling a pair of glasses and a bottle of bourbon from the wet bar.

Diana didn’t speak, even if the tape had been torn from her face after she arrived. It confused her, made her wonder what Pratt’s agenda was now that he had her—and he’d chosen not to restrain her. She watched the dark liquid pour from the bottle, a little bit in one tumbler and he matched the amount in the other glass. Her eyes followed him as he slowly paced toward her. Pratt set the glass down on the table and slid it closer, holding his up to clink it with hers.

But she refused.

“You gonna deny me this? After I brought you here, to the place you wanted to get to this whole time? And after everything we’ve been through…” Pratt leaned in close, a little too close to her face as he continuously did, and each time was harder to bear than the last. He forcefully settled her glass on the table in front of her and growled, “Drink.”

Diana flinched. Every muscle in her body tensed, her eyes squeezing shut as she wished so deeply that this would end. That she’d retrieve Jacob and escape the clutches of the Madman. Her mouth was thick with nerves and saliva and swallowing down the spit and words she wanted to unleash at Pratt she granted him only silence as it was the opposite of what he desired. He wanted her to talk. To fight back. To fuel his ego and arrogance.

Trembling fingers grasped the tumbler she remembered as her own, memories of shared drinks in these crystalline glasses, moments spent in secret with her love, were now replaced with this intense exchange with Deputy Pratt.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” He winked, clinking his glass against hers before tossing back the entire contents of his drink into his throat. Pratt hissed and whistled at the bitter liquor; Her favored drink was tainted by him. “Damn, I dunno how you always liked that shit. I was always more of a vodka man, myself.”

Diana merely sipped from the glass before setting it down, watching Pratt like a hawk as he retreated to the wet bar. With his back turned, she envisioned the sensation of driving a blade into his back for what he’d done. Her heart started to race, her shaking hands tightly grabbing onto the rests of her chair again.

The silence left her a moment to think, and she wondered if seeing Whitehorse, or Mary May and Jerome, was just a dream. With the Bliss in and out of her system, her trust was already thin, trust in anything she could see was perhaps a manipulation of the drug, or her own paranoia.

She was about to stand again when the door opened.

A towering figure thudded against the door frame, pushed along by two men behind him, forcing him deeper into the room. It had been a long time since she’d seen him with her own eyes, even the crown of freshly groomed red hair was barely enough to convince her he was real.

“Jacob!” Diana cried out, shifting in her seat.

Pratt was behind her instantly, his thick fingers squeezed her aching shoulders and pressed her down, holding her firm in her seat and she complied without much fight in her to resist. “Oh-No no, sweetheart you stay sitting or this lug gets a fresh zap from his old buddies here. You got that?”

When she settled back down, the two attending guards grabbed Jacob by his shoulders and sat him down where Pratt pointed. The seat across from hers, at the other end of the table. He was so close but still felt so far away, the stretch of their dining table felt like acres of open, barren land as he was still out of reach.

Jacob grunted as he was placed down in his chair, bitter and disgruntled that the ones handling him were their lieutenants, and trusted confidants. Diana glared daggers at Archer but wanted nothing more than to take Morris down for his treachery. Working against them after all this time, after everything they did to take them in as something more than their men, but their brethren, and she would daresay treated them like their own sons.

Archer hung his head low, averting his eyes from her as if he knew she was quietly scrutinizing him for what he’d done. Morris, however, did nothing of the sort—his dark gaze focused on her with a malevolent smirk.

Diana watched as the door closed, catching a glimpse of a small, pale blond woman with a bandana over her head.

Adelaide?

Pratt plopped down between them, taking a chair about halfway down the table. “Now that we’re all here, one happy fucked up family, lovers reunited in the most pathetic re-telling of Romeo and Juliet if you ask me—we have Mr. and Mrs. Seed. How nice of you to join me.”

When Jacob looked up, her eyes instantly locked to his and her heart melted. This was what she’d been waiting for, what she’d been dreaming of in desperation and pain for every night he’d been away. In the condition Pratt had been keeping him, she was surprised to see him cleaned up well, and dressed in a fresh set of clothes. His beard was trimmed, hair slicked back, but this grooming did not mask the new wounds from his captivity. It was without a doubt her husband, the veteran soldier who sat across from her. Diana noticed the deep cut on his cheek, ones that matched the slashes on his arms and shoulder as he sat there in a tank-top that bared his rash and scar-covered arms as she remembered.

His eyes were different. A gaze that was strong and commanded those around him were tamed, relieved, and yet troubled at the same time.

“You’ll have to pardon the manners, I know I had this whole thing planned a grand meal and everything—but then that’d give you guys an advantage and all, what with this one being able to slit someone’s throat with a spoon and I wouldn’t trust you with utensils either, but I do have to say I admire the fine china you guys keep here. Didn’t expect to see that in Jacob Seed’s cupboards. Maybe that’s your gift from John? He always handled the financials, didn’t he?” Pratt snickered. “Did you know that motherfucker is gonna be a dad? I mean could you imagine that prick as a dad? Damn do I ever pity the poor woman knocked up by your little brother dearest.”

Diana gasped. It seemed like it was news to Jacob too, as they both stared at Pratt, now hanging on for more details, for confirmation on whether or not it was true, but they weren’t given that privilege. Fear washed over Diana at the thought, worry about Ana’s welfare and how Pratt was even privy to that information too. So many questions were built up in her mind, but she still refused to speak.

“Now… where was I? AH! Yes. Dinner. Then the cook mouthed off, so he had to be taken care of and well… I wanted you both here, so I could cut to the chase.” Pratt unsheathed his blade from his hip, Jacob’s blade, and pierced it into the wood so it was standing in front of him. He glanced between the two of them before tangling his fingers in a comfortable place over his stomach, amused at the longing between the reunited lovers.

“I brought you here today to renew your vows.”

Diana narrowed her eyes, prompting Jacob to glare at his former pet.

“To rip off the band-aid—to bring to light some truth that has otherwise found itself swept underneath the rug.” Pratt grinned proudly, waiting for either of them to respond before he scoffed, gagging at his own speech. “Fuck, I’ve been listening to too much of that fucker’s speeches, haven’t I? The sermons of the prophet Joseph.” He snickered. “Research, and all. But it was all well-worth it because I happened to stumble upon some reeeeeeally vital information that you should probably know.” Pratt leaned over and gave a chilling smile to Diana, “Because I’m a good guy and all, eh?”

“What are you talking about?” Jacob was first to break the vow of silence, grumbling between gritted teeth. He was sick of hearing the Madman soliloquize—sick of him beating around the bush.

“She doesn’t know why she doesn’t like her own fucking name, does she?”

Diana’s eyebrows knitted together.

“Spending too much time in your sister’s Bliss patches, eh? So many times she offered to dance around and twirl in the mist—not realizing how strong this shit really is?” Pratt chuckled, “And I take it by that look you’re still not talking—so let me help this little birdie SING!”

Jacob shifted. Diana sucked in a breath.

“See, I promised old man I wouldn’t hurt you. Much. But he didn’t really put parameters on the big guy.”

“Pratt—” Jacob started, already held back by the guards looming over him. His hands were placed flat on the table before him, as if he’d been trained to do so long before Diana arrived.

Pratt folded his leg over the other, waving at Morris to draw blood from Jacob. Without hesitation, Pratt’s favored pup drew his knife from his hip and stabbed it through Jacob’s hand, pinning it to the table.

“Jacob!” Diana shouted, a thick rasp in her tired voice as if she hadn’t spoken a word in weeks. “Morris—don’t do this—how could you fucking do this?!”

The boy ignored her.

Jacob felt the thick, cold steel as it penetrated through flesh and bones in his off-hand, his fingers spasming and wriggling as he struggled to sit still. His right hand clenched into a fist. He bit down tight, his body trembling as he fought the pain, grunting and groaning as he rocked in his seat. Warm blood oozed from the wound, squishing between his hand and linen tablecloth.

“Why??” Diana asked. She tightly squeezed the armrests, her heart breaking as she listened to Jacob’s painful sobs across the table.

Staring at Diana with an amused smirk, Pratt tilted his head at her. He waited a moment before waving his hand again, a sign to have Morris retrieve the knife. “Aww, isn’t that precious… You just can’t take watching your someone you love, someone you care deeply about in pain? Don’t you worry your pretty little head over this one darlin’ he’s gonna be just fine.”

His words were hardly convincing as her broken, battered soldier crumpled in his chair, forced to endure this exchange by Pratt and his attendants, his stolen allies.

“Lemme try something different then, Hope. Because there’s no harm in showing you what you refuse to see.” Reaching behind his back, both Seeds panicked. They wondered what he had hidden, tucked away for a reveal at ‘just the right’ moment. He proudly smiled, placing a small bronze shield on the table. He pressed it down with two fingers and slid it closer to her, and it stopped just before hitting her glass. Pratt’s dark, beady eyes bored into Diana, awaiting her reaction. “Recognize this, officer?”

“Wh-What?” Diana looked up at Jacob, but all he could focus on was his injured hand as he struggled across from her.

“Diana—” Jacob tried to stand, but Morris quickly pressed the prod to his back, applying a sharp jolt to his beaten body.

Diana cringed, the empath in her twisted her stomach at the sight and sound of her husband in distress.

“Well, I didn’t have to get that information from Joseph… Ohhh no. I got that information directly from you. This is yours. This belonged to you, Hope. I swear it as I swore on the bible the first day I joined up as a Deputy myself.”

Diana frantically shook her head in pure denial. “You’re wrong… you’re on the Bliss… this isn’t true…”

“I don’t fuck around with that shit. But I can tell you for a fact that your name is Hope Evans. Born in Hope County. Sure, you knew that already. That much is actually true. Your dad was a firefighter or hunter or whatever and you were born from the bowels of the Henbane, blah blah… But what you fail to remember, my dear, is that you donned these greens just the same as me. As Hudson. As Whitehorse.”

Her eyes widened. “No.”

“Oh yeah.” Pratt laughed, sitting back in his chair.

“Di—don’t listen to him!”

“And just a little plot twist for ya. Maybe some food for thought? Your brother isn’t missing. Jacob here made me string him up myself the day he caught him in the Whitetails. Wandering around like a lost little lamb, and when he wouldn’t fall in line…”

“No… No that’s not true…” Diana uttered.

“It was my initiation. Let’s see if old man Seed will lie through his bleeding teeth about this one, shall we?”

“I’ll fucking kill you, Pratt…” Jacob snarled.

Pratt shifted his eyes to the guards, jutting his head again at the red-headed soldier. Archer hesitated, but Morris was more than happy to oblige. Jacob wailed at the next hit, trying to stifle it with his mouth clamped shut but the longer Morris held it there, even at his mass, he couldn’t withstand the pain.

“Stop!” Diana screamed, knowing that he couldn’t take any more. “Pratt—stop this please!”

“And here we went through all the trouble to clean you up and get you all nice for this reunion! Ugh, I bet you’re just dying to hold her, right? Dying to wrap your arms around your beloved… kiss her… fuck her.” Pratt held his hand up in a fist to make his lackeys stop, and they obeyed. They stopped an stepped away. “But when you lie… Mmm that just makes this all the more beautiful, don’t you think?”

As difficult as it was to peel her gaze away from Jacob, Diana was pleading with them with her eyes, taking note of the remorse in Archer’s face.

“Your name is Hope Evans. Everything I said earlier was true. Everything I say now is fucking true. I didn’t just bring you together out of mercy. I didn’t keep this precious little cunt alive because I actually care to have him breathing the same air we are… And Whitehorse? Well, he knows to leave us alone here. I told him it may take longer than anticipated to jog your memory.”

Diana swallowed hard. She shook her head, a little white lie in her denial, but Pratt could see right through that. He had to be wrong about her brother, about the shield, about everything. He was just trying to convince her to switch sides, wasn’t he? Was that Whitehorse’s plan all along, to pull the only one who hadn’t been with the family for long, one who wasn’t born of blood or Bliss?

…But then, Diana knew that Faith wasn’t their blood-relative either…

“The more important question here is: do you even know why your name changed?”

Jacob’s head hung down low, facing the surface of the table, staring at the spot of blood where his hand rested. She saw him frown, strained huffs of breath, but no words to defend or answer her.

“She really doesn’t know?” Deputy Pratt’s eyebrows raised, as he cackled between them, clapping like he’d just won the jackpot. “I’m not just talking about you marrying this scumbag piece of shit—and changing your name—you aren’t who you think you are and I’m here to show you everything!”

“Pratt—I swear to you, you are a f-fucking dead man, you hear me?!” Jacob growled, but his threat was ignored.

When Pratt gestured Morris to walk over, he placed a small item in Pratt’s hands, which was quickly relayed to the table in clear sight of all of them. It was a small, wooden box, one she slowly recognized, even before Pratt flicked it open.

“Don’t!” Jacob shouted.

A flicker.

A church.

A light.

A voice.

“Di—Diana! Don’t listen to him!” Her husband pleaded.

Only you, can make the darkness bright…

As the music played on, there were stars in her eyes, a frame of red in her vision as her body began to run hot.

Water.

A strike to the face.

An open field.

Blood.

“It’s… It’s the song. It’s our song.” She whimpered, her hands raised to her temples to shake off the feeling of her head being squeezed by a vice. Notes of the familiar tune Only You rang out in the room, plucked out by the old music box, causing everything to spin. Her heartbeat thumped in her chest, her ears, her head, each note of the song thrumming through her entire form. As she raised her green eyes to her company in the room, the smug guards, her husband, and Deputy Pratt—the music was affecting her… and only her.

“News flash, sweetheart! It is your song. You wanna know why?”

“No!!” Jacob roared, the aged soldier weak with the traces of Bliss against the grasp of the younger guards.

“D-Don’t hurt him… don’t hurt Jacob—” she cried.

Pratt finally leapt to his feet and pulled the knife from the table in one swift swipe. “I’m not going to hurt him, that’s all your boys. Heh. Or I guess they’re really mine now, aren’t they?”

“Pratt!” Jacob stood up, but Archer and Morris instantly restrained him. They pushed Jacob against the wall and jabbed knives into his chest just at his shoulders to pin him down, to which he screamed. They stood back as he writhed, bound to the wall as the knives cut at his skin. They were skilled enough to miss anything vital, any arteries or tendons that would leave him useless. No, they missed that, only tearing through his muscle to cause enough pain for him to keep him busy. Chaos had erupted in the dining hall, screams and shouts, blood and mayhem…

Deputy Pratt slashed open the top part of her tattered blouse to reveal her chest. He raised her from her chair, forcing her to look at the mirror hanging on the wall behind Jacob.

It had been awhile since she’d seen herself bared in front of a mirror. She’d gone this long without makeup, without fixing herself up every single day other than dressing for work in the same outfits of plaid button-downs and jeans, something she considered her “uniforms”. Until now, Diana hadn’t really gotten a good look at herself in the mirror. It was never a priority, envy, lust, pride—all of those things were shut out of her mind after sitting through enough of Joseph’s sermons.

Only you… and you alone…

At this point in time, she was haggard, slightly matted hair and filthy clothes from all the tumbles in the dirt and mud. But that wasn’t what Pratt wanted her to see…

Right between her breasts, just below her collarbone, was something she’d been missing all along.

Pratt was a little overzealous with his reach, causing Jacob to growl where he stood. With Morris and Archer at his sides, holding him in place under threat of the prod or worse, her face tightened into an expression of worry and confusion. The vile touch of Deputy Pratt cupped her breast, and a spine-tingling chill of disgust trickled through her, swirling together with the headache brought on by the music.

But she couldn’t fight him off. She couldn’t believe her eyes.

“Pride… Lust… Envy…” He read off the etchings on her skin. “Made it out before Jo could get to you, sadly… but the most important thing you’ve missed is the most important sin of them all. Meanwhile your own husband who’s gotten to see you naked more times than I could count, I’m sure… has never mentioned this to you?”

Just below the area where the pendant of her mother’s sat was a word etched into her chest, scarred over and faded away into her tan skin.

WRATH, It read.

“Surprise…”

She felt his nose and cheek run along the muscular line of her shoulder before he brought his lips close to her ear again. The music was seemingly in time with her heart, as the image of herself shattered in her head.

Wrath She read again.

One and only you…

“Deputy…” 

Chapter Text

[A video plays, with Diana seated inside an office, staring straight into a phone camera. She's in her Deputy Greens, shield on her chest, hair tied back into a tight bun.]

 

If you're watching this, I may already be dead.

[She laughs nervously, shrugging off the fact that there may be some truth to that.]

 

My appointment to Eden's Gate was different than the other Deputies. I... grew up in Hope County, born in-house somewhere near Dead Man's River, to Adam and Liliana Evans. My older sister Cassandra and my younger brother Oliver were a pain to grow up with... but I loved them. I knew the people and most of the locale fairly well. The Rye's... The Palmer's...

I went to San Francisco State University. Lived in California before moving back to Montana. I joined the PD in Missoula. Spent enough time monitoring gang activity there so that must be why Whitehorse agreed I would be perfect for the task. He gave me shit about leaving a cozy detective spot—but I told him I wanted to come home. He said it wasn't going to be a walk in the park, that much I knew was true. It was going to be taxing. It was going to change me. I remember my old partner Fisher wasn't quite the same when he came home, after spending time undercover with the local Irish mob that had settled in the city. Missoula, of all places... it was so odd. I expected something like that out of New York City proper. Jersey, Chicago. Not my city. He'd forgotten things about himself. His family, his own children... it was heartbreaking. Yvette left him after about six months of him getting out. He could never discern the difference between Clancy O'Riordan and James Fisher.

The plan, Whitehorse said, was to infiltrate. Assimilate. Retaliate. We would stop them from the inside. And I agreed.

When I got back, Nancy was kind enough to give me a little insight to what I was getting myself into. She told me she'd done extensive research on the Seeds, a new family who'd moved into town sometime ago. Within months, their reach was far into the outer territories; Holland Valley, where I used to help my mama pick fruit in the orchards. The Whitetail Mountains where my papa used to take me and my siblings fishing as a monthly tradition when he wasn't working as one of Adelaide's mechanics. We had a small family encampment of homes and bunkers out in the Henbane, Preppers starting to become a thing when I was at least ten, and my siblings eight and twelve. Lots of the townsfolk called them 'crazy' or 'paranoid' but my brother knew they were onto something.

The county I returned to after transferring? That wasn't the same place where I grew up...

It wasn't my county anymore.

[The video cuts out, and a new reel starts.]

 

If you want to know where I've been or what's happened...

From what I remember, the night I set out to meet them, we had a Marshal... Burke I think his name was? Hudson was there... Old man Whitehorse—who just couldn't sit back and "twiddle his thumbs behind his damn desk" when a fed was on the case waving around some warrant like he owned the place. He kept rambling about jurisdiction and tried to pull rank... smug bastard. I was just glad I had Staci there with me. He'd been so nice, so helpful getting me re-acclimated to the place and the new shield.

I remember traveling via chopper to the church, on the island where Joseph held his sermons. It was a quaint little place, that looked wicked from the outside, especially in the dead of night when we arrived. Burke would take point with Whitehorse not far behind.

[A cut in the video. A stretch of time has passed. Diana has changed. Her hair is longer, her demeanor is different. Subdued. Her body is somewhat scarred and the way she is dressed and sitting, you can see bruising on her skin. She hardly makes eye contact with the camera.]

 

I remember hearing His voice... the way He looked at me as we approached.

This was the family I'd been warned about. People made out to be insane, freaks, murderers... all of them.

They were staring at me like fresh meat at feeding time.

The beautiful, glistening eyes of the fae-like woman standing barefoot at His side was matched her kind smile when she saw me. Like she'd been expecting me all along. The intensity of the well-dressed man behind her, his hands behind his back. He grinned. Coy and demure, like there were other plans swimming in his head. The red-headed soldier, donning his camo jacket, stood half a foot above most of the congregation, including myself. With his arms crossed, he held a steady authoritative stance, a gruff expression as if to uphold some sort of dominance. There was something about him... chilling and thrilling, I dunno. He had such a predatory gaze that was terrifying and alluring all the same. He was a hunter, I could tell. He could probably hear my heart thumping in my chest.

And yet, when The Father said all those words, stepped forward with a bold confidence in His intense blue eyes—He told me to cuff him. His voice was a silken serpent that reverberated between my ears, and when I heard what He said, I felt something change within me.

There were other words there, a verbal waterfall that cascaded over the people present with a commanding power before he said:

God will not let you take me...

But I did.

Wracked with this eerie guilt I slapped the metal bracelets on the Father's wrists. His hands in mine, His touch so warm and welcoming as I pulled Him toward me. It felt strange. Had I done something wrong?

[The video glitches.]

 

... like I was supposed to be here, in this time and place, before the family, among these people, because I belonged there. Beside Him.

The frantic shouting and calls from Burke and Whitehorse beckoned me out of this hypnosis to lure the Father into the open, to bring him to our extraction point. Slowly we walked along the aisle, foot-before-foot, step after step, the green mile as it were. Burke said this was the way it had to be. Whitehorse agreed, with a slight of hesitation that made me question everything I was doing—every action I was doing against Him. Against the Father. Against the Family.

[Another slight glitch.]

 

Stay on the path, Rookie! Whitehorse and Burke kept nagging me because I'd stop. The Marshal's voice was grating on my brain, my nerves, every fiber shifting to understand right and wrong. He'd waved around that warrant like he was some valiant warrior—when he was really just an agent causing trouble. Wanting to cause harm to the people here.

Get him to the chopper! Burke shouted.

And I—

[Her fingers curled as she worked herself up talking about this scene, her breathing heavy, her expression intense as she recall the night she and the Deputies moved in on Eden's Gate. She sounds a bit exasperated, frustrated and scared as she says these things, as if someone has been shifting and changing the story to correct her. Like she'd forgotten some details along the way. There is a long pause as she stares off to the side. A quiet voice, a male, seated off-screen, asks her something.]

 

I didn't. I stopped. I hesitated. It was over.

The chopper never made it off the island.

And again, He said: I told you God would not let you take me.

I hadn't been to a church function in some time, nor did I believe in a God who was merciless enough to take my parents from me, and my brother. When I laid my hands upon the Father, my fingers to the soft skin of his bare shoulder, the feeling of belonging did not fade away. He promised me a place there if I would just surrender. If I would take my place in Eden's Gate. Shed my earthly belongings, the sin, the frivolity. I was not the law here, they were. John. Faith. Jacob. I would have to earn my keep. Learn my place. He would show me the way.

[The video cuts again.]

 

The lord giveth and the lord taketh away... He said.

I never really got that. What it all meant. But I knew no one was coming to get me.

I did this... because it could only be me. Right?

I did this... because it was the right thing to do.

[When she turns to the camera, there are some overlaps and glitching with the footage of Deputy Evans in her greens—before finally settling on this final frame of Diana in her white gown. There's a haunting look in her dark-green eyes. Her face is thin, pale, and has a slight gaunt. She has a lowly expression on her face, one of loss and confusion. There are sins carved into the skin that can be seen.]

 

I'm not... Hope. My name is Diana.

They promised to keep me safe.

This is my calling. My purpose.

I was blind, but now...

I see.

[END VIDEO]

The Account of Diana Evans-Seed, Former Deputy Hope Evans
Footage spliced from Sheriff's Office archives and correspondence from Lieutenant Avery of John Seed's Camp, after her induction to Eden's Gate.

Chapter Text

Hope County
The Spread Eagle, Falls End
About Two Years Ago

The Spread Eagle was thriving. Mary May Fairgrave stood behind the bar, shouts and laughter and booze passed around and the clinking of glasses filled the room. Her blond hair was fixed into a messy ponytail, something she’d said made it easier to keep track of people in her peripheral vision, a skill a bartender had to learn on day one.

Grace Armstrong and Hurk Jr. had a bit of an audience as they were matched up in a battle to drink each other under the table. They lost track of what round it was, and even though Grace appeared to be winning this one, Hurk was putting up a decent fight to best her. Jess and Nick were playing darts causing the pilot to bitch about the fact that she was cheating. She wasn’t, she was just that damn good of a shot. Sharky busied himself, searching for the perfect tune to throw onto the jukebox.

“Just pick something already, dammit!” Adelaide shouted from behind the bar, popping a couple of tops to slide down to Jerome and the rest.

Sharky didn’t deal well with the pressure of their impatience and slammed his fist down on the numbers. Black Velvet by Alannah Myles started playing on the speakers overhead. Whoops and hollers erupted, and people began to dance at what Sharky claimed to be one of the sexiest songs of our time.

“Hey girl!” Kim waved at her from the door when she walked through.

Deputy Hope Evans had secluded herself at a quiet table at the far end of the bar and waved back, hoping to keep herself tucked away in her private booth. She enjoyed people-watching, studying their actions, their behaviors, and the way these people, from all walks of life, intermingled.

This was Hope County, she mused.

Though she was surrounded by many of these familiar, comforting presences, she somehow felt alone and empty. Perhaps it was the nerves. The fact that she had mountains of files to get through, several papers to study for the role she was supposed to play for tomorrow’s visit to the island. Tonight’s festivities were held under the cover of darkness, all lights were off out front, and even the music wasn’t blaring as loud because they needed to keep this place quiet as not to alert the one they called John Seed. Alcohol had been prohibited in the town, but she managed to smuggle in a few things from her town just outside of county lines.

Whitehorse called it a risk coming into the territory like this, but Eli and Nick insisted. They wanted to give her a proper farewell, as most of them were privy to the fact that she was about to get her first big break in her first case as a Hope County Deputy. However, no one knew how deep that rabbit hole really was. The longer she dwelled on it, the tighter the knot became in the pit of her nearly empty stomach.

“Whiskey?” A voice caught her attention, and when she looked up, she saw Eli Palmer, fresh from a hunt, hair tied back in a pony that rather suited him.

Pulling a long draw from her glass, she swallowed the bitter liquid from it before holding it down on the table in both hands. “Bourbon.”

“When’s your first day?”

“Supposed to be tomorrow but, I dunno.”

“Nervous?”

“Yeah… you could say that.”

“Ahh don’t sweat it and shake out those cold feet of yers.” Eli pointed at the shield on her chest. “I bet your mom and pop would be proud of you anyhow. Just keep your head in the game. Keep it clear. You’ll be fine, kiddo.”

“Kiddo? Eli, we’re the same age.” Hope snickered, “But I guess I don’t have the wisdom of that fine beard you’ve got growing, eh?”

Eli laughed when she reached over and ruffled his beard, something she’d done many times as he made the effort to grow it out. “Listen. Earl’s been real tightlipped about what’s about to go down. I’m sure there’s good reason for it, but I just wanna wish you good luck. I got this gut feeling that… well, you’re gonna need it.”

“Hm.” Hope shrugged at Eli’s words. “Sounds like you’re sending me off to die, doesn’t it?”

A grim expression shadowed Eli’s face. He took a deep breath before answering, “If you’re here to meet the Seeds… it could very well be just that.”

“Whitehorse said this guy Burke wants us to go all out. Chopper. Grand entrance. The works.”

“Typical.”

“Eli, what’s up with these guys anyway? I’d never heard of them. Other than maybe the lawyer kid’s data from Atlanta—or a clean service record from the older brother, I’ve never seen them on the wire. Who are they? What sort of shit is going on here?”

“He didn’t tell you?”

“Only what I have the clearance to know.”

“Oh, so typical,” He repeated his comment from earlier, rolling his eyes.

Eli wasn’t wrong. Red tape wrapped everything up as if to preserve the mystique of this family, knowledge given in small morsels barely enough to get a real grip on it, divvied out on a need-to-know basis.

Hope was about to risk her ass to save every single life in this bar tonight, and no matter how much reading or research she’d done on her own hometown and its new inhabitants, The Seeds, she still felt like she was blind. The file only had images of John and Joseph and small tidbits of what they were able to gather on them over time, locations to steer clear from, and the coordinates of the ‘church’ at the heart of the County, on an island not too far from where they were now.  

Still, she hated the fact that she was essentially still in the dark.

“They take people from their homes… go through what’s called a baptism to join the ranks of their church. They paint it as an operation of salvation, to follow the Father into Eden. Well they can paint it with sparkles and rainbows and unicorns but it don’t change the fact that they’re a fucking cult causing more damage to our town. Our county.” Eli leaned forward, still clutching his drink in his hand. His expression was nothing short of desperate as he clearly feared the worst for whatever she’d gotten herself into. “I mean it, Hope. You gotta be careful…”

Hope huffed, as if to swat away whatever dread and concern Eli was putting on her. “Don’t worry about me, Eli. From what I heard, you have a whole troop that’s gotta be ready for the backlash if this thing goes to shit.”

Eli nodded in agreement, a bit impressed she’d heard about the Whitetail Militia, but he remembered she had family who was a part of the operation before. “I’ve lost a lot of my men to this family. Your father included, your brother too. Just know that if you need me, I have your back.”

Hope smiled. Even if they were just words, coming from Eli, they meant a lot. “Thanks, Eli.”

“Any time.” Eli threw back what was left in his glass and watched as Hope stood from her chair. “Oh what, you leavin’ your own shindig so soon?”

“Miss me already, Eli?” Hope winked at him playfully, to which he responded with a snort. “Just need some air.”

“Be careful out there.”

“I’ll be fine. I’ll be right back.”

As she walked outside, she whipped out her favorite lighter and a pack of cigarettes, packing it with the heel of her hand before unwrapping it and setting one of the sticks between her lips. She didn’t get as far as lighting it before noticing a man sitting on a bench across the street from her. There wasn’t much traffic, nor was there a bus stop there. Most of the county was here tonight anyway, but a truck with an unusual crest printed on its hood had parked a few meters away.

Hope wanted to pay the man no mind, but there was something about the way he looked at her that told her not to turn her back to him. A quick glance at the dirt path, she peered up at him. He shifted, sitting upright and patting the bench seat at his left. Dumbly, she looked over her shoulders to see if anyone else was around to accept his offer, but there was no one else outside. They were all warned about that John Seed character to be stupid enough to hang out outside of a party.

She lit the tip of her fresh cigarette, pulling a soft puff out of it before returning her gaze to him. There were alarms blaring inside her head, red flags about approaching someone she didn’t recognize told her to stay in place. Deputy or not, she was told that the Seeds or their followers wouldn’t give a damn about knocking her out and taking her into custody. But he didn’t look hostile, at least… not yet. He didn’t look like John or Joseph, so she set all gears to neutral in terms of danger. Though she might have been off-duty for the night, she still had her gun and her knife. It was difficult to judge the capabilities of this mysterious onlooker right off the bat—but she decided to take a chance. The others were close enough that if she hollered, they’d come running. She was sure of it.

As Hope blew the exhaust over her shoulder and tucked her lighter and cigarettes away, shoving her hands in her pockets to cross the road. At this point, she thought the stranger would be an idiot to try and cross her alone, a woman of the law donning her Deputy greens with the shield and patch on her coat.

As a polite gesture and a bit of a thanks for offering a place to sit, she offered the man a cigarette, holding the pack out for him to see.

“No, thank you.” His voice was low and rough. He had his hands in his pockets too, sitting tall with his back against the rest of the bench. Hope noticed he was of a mountainous stature, even in his seated position, which kept those red flags waving in the back of her head.

She smirked. “Not much a smoker?”

“No. Not anymore, at least.” The man glanced at the bar.

Hope nodded out of respect for his response. “Well, feel free to head in, I think there’s still plenty to drink.”

“Thank you but… no.”

“That your favorite word or something, big guy?” She chuckled, counting the third time he’d denied any offers from her.

The man breathed in to answer, but his mouth clamped shut with a bit of a devious scowl on his face. Hope tried not to stare, but for some reason it was difficult to look away.  

“They seem to really like your company.” He nodded toward the building; the blackout on the bar perimeter not taking away from the party inside its walls.

“Me?” She snorted. “Doubtful. I’m an outsider.”

His thick brows furrowed.

“I mean—I grew up here but I’m an outsider now. I hardly recognize this place. I think throwing me a party was them giving me an excuse to come out and have a drink… calm the nerves before tomorrow.”

“What’s tomorrow?” He curiously asked, turning slightly to observe the expression on her moonlit face.

“I… dunno.” Hope feared she’d said too much. What the hell, had the drinks gotten to her already that she was about to blow her own cover before the mission even started? When she turned to get a clear view of the stranger’s face, the first thing she was drawn to were his eyes. It was naturally blue out here under the soft cover of the velvet night sky, but they stood out like they were stars themselves. His masculinity was chiseled in his angled features, from his strong jaw to his lips, straightened brow ridge, all the way up to his well-maintained haircut.

“Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll be fine, Miss.”

“Deputy.” She corrected him.

“Alright, my bad… Deputy.” He chuckled. When he stood up, it was as if he wouldn’t stop. He rose to a height that was certainly much taller than her. It wasn’t until she saw him tug at the cuffs of his camouflage jacket that she noticed he was badly scarred on his arms. A flash of a red pistol holstered at her hip made her tilt her head to get a better peek at the weaponry fastened to him. “Enjoy your evening…”

Hope flicked the cigarette butt to the ground and smashed it with her boot as she stood. It was a bit of a waste considering she’d only smoked half of it before letting the rest of it run to ash, but she had a burning question in her mind she needed to let loose. The man was already heading toward his truck when she called out, “Hey, you got a name?”

He stopped.

She almost regretted asking, her senses on overdrive after this brief encounter. Hope’s fingers twitched, pulling back her coat to reach for her gun at a moment’s notice if he was ballsy enough to pull his gun on her. She watched as he turned to look over his shoulder, the shimmer of his sapphire eyes gleaming even at this distance.

He grinned. “Something tells me you’ll find me soon enough.”

*

Holland Valley
John Seed’s Bunker
Months After The Invasion…

“Your name is Diana.”

“M… My name is…” She slurred, hungover from the long night. With her head strapped to the back of the chair, she couldn’t crane her neck to peer down at the wound that still stung on her chest. “D-iana.”

The young man smiled, pleased by her answer. He looked about his mid-twenties, groome as neatly as the Herald he worked for. John. “Diana, we have to warn you that there are people out there, lots of them, who will tell you otherwise. They’ll tell you all these tall tales about who you were before you came to us, that you were someone named Hope. But that’s not your name anymore. Do you understand?”

Diana blinked and slowly nodded, moving her head as much as she could against the restraint.

He clicked the button on the fob in his hand, casting a brilliant high-definition photograph of the landscape she quickly recognized. It was an aerial view of the Henbane territory. “You grew up here. Hope County.”

She nodded again.

“You were raised by your mother and father, your siblings—a brother and a sister. That we know is the truth as we were given—the Father was given—a vision of your arrival. That you would come to us. The family you know? They’re gone now, but you don’t have to worry. We’re your family now.”

“F…Family.” She repeated quietly.

The man lowered himself, propping his hands onto his thighs to get a good look in her eyes. “That’s right. We welcome you, Diana. A lovely addition as a member of Eden’s Gate as long as you fulfill the promise from your atonement. We accept you, as a follower of our brother Joseph Seed.”

“F… Father.”

Once more a smile graced the thin lips of the man standing before her. He stood upright and pressed the button again, turning to watch more visuals on the projector. A few seconds lapsed with each click, more photographs of the peaceful mountain county, interspersed with images of the congregation, propaganda of the Heralds and portraitures of the family. There was an occasional image of gore, the bloodied fangs of the wolves over their prey, a slicing of flesh or a photo of a victim taking a leap off of the Devil’s Drop.

Diana gasped, suddenly trembling in her chair when she heard voices coming toward the room.

“Jake—I told you we have this covered. How about you leave it to me like Joseph told us—”

The door opened, pushed hard enough to strain the hinge backward and slam against the wall inside.

“Sir?” The man standing in front of her flipped around to face John and Jacob Seed in the doorway. He dropped to a knee out of respect.

“At ease, Avery.” John said, still trying to prevent Jacob from intervening further.

“What the hell is this?” Jacob shoulder-checked his brother and walked deeper into the room.

John raced forward to stop Jacob again, the two of them standing right behind Diana’s chair. “It’s not stepping on toes if it gets the job done, right?”

Jacob glared at his younger brother, bringing a hand up to brush over his mouth and beard. He put his hands on his hips, clearly pissed off at the sight of her being bound to the chair, given far harsher treatment than the other inductees. “Do you think this is going to work?”

“I think it already has.” John smugly grinned, “But you’re this self-proclaimed king of conditioning, aren’t you? You tell me.”

“She was already willing to join us, why sully her mind with that Bliss shit?” Jacob spat.

“Got a crush on her, do you?”

“I’ll crush your skull if you say shit like that again, John.”

“Bad enough you had her locked up after that bear incident—and you thought I wouldn’t find out she slept with you?”

“We slept. That’s it. Nothing else happened, we already discussed that, and I said that in confidence. Count on the youngest to rat on me to Joseph.” Jacob growled. “What. You jealous or something, brother?”

“Jealous? Of You? You’re kidding me right? Joseph’s set rules in place and what the hell sort of Heralds are we if we don’t follow them?”

“Stop bullshitting me with your self-righteous shit, John. She was on my turf, and I had it handled. You stepped over the line sending your asshats up into my territory to take her. To punish her for something she didn’t do.”

“Open your fucking eyes, Jacob. She’s the enemy.”

“She surrendered—”

“She caved. She was on orders to take us away and on some random plot twist she decides to have a change of heart, we have to trust her right away?”

“No one said we had to trust her. We have to keep her contained.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing. Hello? Look at her.”

“You fucked up, John.”

In a flash, Jacob’s hands were at John’s collar, practically raising him up from the floor. “I fucked up? I didn’t let her into bed to sing me to sleep like some baby—”

“Jake!” John grasped at his wrists.

“Stop this… now.” A voice came from the open doorway.

With a grunt, Jacob let his brother down, taking a couple of steps back to cool off.

Joseph, accompanied by Faith and his priestess Leah, had arrived. The girls remained near the threshold, and with one wave of his hand Joseph relieved Avery of his current post for now. He slithered into the room with his hands behind his back, stepping light on his feet to observe the woman in the chair. The Deputy. The fortunate soul he had been expecting for some time had been bound here, for how long, he didn’t know. He raised his hand to her cheek, offering a gentle caress with he back of his hand before looking up at his brothers.

A warmth spread through her veins at his touch, and her tear-filled eyes closed when she was graced by the Father.

“What’s this about?” Joseph asked, finding it difficult to peel his gaze from the poor woman.

Jacob waved a hand up to dismiss the brief spat with John before folding his arms.

John snorted. “Jake here came by to check on the new member of your flock. Not sure if it’s jealousy or what—but he’s just pissed I utilized his techniques to find the truth.”

“She lashed out at you, Joseph. Said that Faith’s Bliss treatments were failing, that she was starting to remember everything. You said she tried to leave, but now you want to put her up to be baptized? Didn’t she already go through that bullshit?” It was natural for Jacob to walk against the grain of his brother’s ideals, but he was logical, and if what Joseph accused her of was true then he wondered one thing, “At this point, can we even trust her?”

“About as far as we can throw her. Believe me, I’d like to try.”

Joseph narrowed his eyes at John. “Are you mocking the Voice, John? The fact that she was delivered unto us… our key to reaching the remainder of the resistance? The Forsaken?”

“No, I—”

Joseph’s glare intensified as he locked his eyes on John. “Do you mock me, John?”

Bowing his head, John sighed. “No, Joseph.”

“She could probably take you anyway, John.” Jacob laughed.

“Jacob, that’s enough.” Joseph growled, and his brother’s relaxed as best as they could, given the tension built up between them. “A mere lapse can be forgiven. We’ll find a way to convince her that the Path is one she must take. That Eden’s Gate would hate to lose someone so valuable to our cause. To our family.”

Faith, who was staring at the trio from the doorway, smiled, nodding at the thought of getting another chance to use a fresh batch of Bliss on the Deputy. The formula had been fixed up, a poison specifically meant to handle her and the fortification of her mental walls.

“Let me deal with her.” Jacob unraveled his arms and gestured at the weary woman in the chair. “Let me take her to the Center and keep an eye on her. You guys can do what you need to, to keep her head on straight. But I’ll make sure she stays in line.”

“What?” John snapped.

“She’s a Deputy… well trained. Sturdy. Stubborn. Strong. Let me take her in and train her myself. With her skillset, she’ll be a nice addition as one of my soldiers.”

Joseph’s lips pressed together. His jaw clenched tight at the offer. A flicker of envy in his cerulean gaze was blinked away, hiding the sin that filled his head. What was he feeling anyway? Wrath, greed, envy… lust. With just one word he could deny Jacob what he was so valiantly offering. With one word he could wipe away the thoughts from either of their minds. He could claim the Deputy right there for himself, and let it be known that she was not to be sullied or harmed… not by anyone else.

But he raised an eyebrow. And eventually, he nodded.

“Fine.” He said.

John threw his hands up and clicked his tongue in disapproval. “Hey, I brought her back here to prepare for her baptism. I made her confess. She came to me first.”

“Actually, she didn’t.” Joseph coyly grinned, but his brothers were ignorant to the reason behind it. “Nevertheless, this isn’t a matter of who saw her first, John.”

“Well… I did.” He muttered, shaking his head as he walked forward to pick up the fob that Avery left behind on the table. When he clicked the button, he found a picture of Falls End, generating a quiet sob from Diana.

The three of them watched her reaction, to which Joseph took a deep breath and decided, “The Deputy will remain here for a while longer. After her baptism… after everything is clear I will see to her welfare myself. Faith will continue with treatment, and we’ll monitor her thusly. I will be the judge of where she is placed.”

* *

Everything flashed forward, pieces falling into place, things that had been said between the family making more sense now than it ever did. She wasn’t sure if she was just aloof or too foggy-headed with the Bliss, or maybe in a state of denial that pushed all of the strange phrasings or occurrences out of her mind. It was all hidden in plain sight, just like she was, just like the mission objective. But she could see the truth now; The way they kept her from seeing most of the County, kept her locked away most of the time in this figurative tower that was the Veteran’s center. No matter where she went, she had someone with her, if not Jacob then John or even Faith to guide her along this linear path to things like church gatherings, family outings or to do the work for Eden’s Gate. They monitored her, shielded her from anyone who could give her the honest truth.

Scattered in fragments, it was easy to wipe away, and the Bliss she worked to protect was the same weapon being used against her… even to this day.

Unfortunately, the only ones with the full story, the parameters of her mission, were the Whitehorse and the Forsaken. Everyone called her Hope, and she knew that was her name… but she thought it was just because she changed it when she moved back home. That she did this of her own volition, prior to joining the church.

It wasn’t until Pratt unlocked that door, long-sealed for the last two years, that she realized why…

* *

Henbane River
Faith Seed’s Gate
Approx. 1 month ago

“Your family has evaded us for far too long. You’re going to tell me how to get onto his island. And you’re going to tell me. NOW!

Faith sobbed, her body dangling under the wraps of chains she thought were vines, attaching her to the rafters of her bunker’s dungeon. Her tears rolled down her cheeks as Burke stepped back, startled by the sound of another presence stepping into the room. Arguing ensued, crashing of items and a struggle between Burke and this faceless interloper. When Faith spun around, she forced her tiptoes to the damp cement, trying to stop so she could see who had come to possibly save her.

“Let her go.”

Burke gasped, “Rook?”

Faith whimpered as the bindings burned at her wrists, her brain fuzzy from her exposure to her own venomous weapon.

“What the fuck is the matter with you, Deputy? We were supposed to get you in, infiltrate the family and get them all extracted. Those were your orders.”

 “Plans change.” The click of her 9mm hammer pulled back, causing Burke to raise his hands at his sides.

“Whoa whoa whoa—Rook, what the fuck are you doing?”

Diana’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re kidding me, right?”

She shook her head, a firm, steely gaze as cold as the Henbane ran in the winter, locked her aim down the sights of her gun.

“We thought you were dead until news came in you married that son of a bitch. A ghost that resurfaced after, fuck, who knows how long?” Burke was appalled. “And now you’re gonna put them above me? These people who fucked with your head—these assholes who have kidnapped and killed their own people or people who won’t conform to their bullshit ways?”

Maybe he expected her to show some sort of emotion at his bitter monologue, but instead she nonchalantly shrugged. Over time she’d heard a lot of resistance, a lot of Forsaken wrath against the Seeds, and now she was one of them. She’d grown cold and numb to such hate. “Collateral damage. We’ve lost people in our ranks too, Marshal.”

We?” Burke’s dark eyes widened. “You can’t be serious.”

“Diana—Diana just go…” Faith pleaded.

“I’m not leaving you here, Faith. Just hang tight.”

Marshal laughed at her poor choice of words. “Think about this real carefully. Look what you’re about to do, Rook. Do you know the consequences of killing someone, let alone a federal agent?”

“I’m not a fucking rook anymore, Burke.” Diana growled. “Look at what you’ve done to her. This isn’t the law, this isn’t justice. This is brutality and unjust wrath, Marshal. I can’t let you hurt my family.”

“Fuck!” He cursed, “This is insane—this is—Deputy snap out of it. The mission was aborted when we lost you. You don’t have to play the part of their sheep—their blind follower—anymore. It’s over! Now, you gotta open your eyes. Wake the fuck up! This isn’t you!”

“You weren’t yourself either when she had you. You saw for yourself… the path. The Bliss. If you and Whitehorse and everyone else would have left us, walked away? Sometimes it’s best to leave well alone.”

Burke threw his hands up, noting that Diana’s hawk-like gaze watched his every movement. “Spoken like a true sheep, Rook! Those aren’t your words, those are Joseph’s fucking ramblings and you believe him?”

“My name is Diana. Not Rook. I’m not a fucking Rook anymore.” She stepped forward and put the barrel of his gun to his head, watching him tremble where he knelt. Unforgiving orbs of jade fixated on him as he muttered more vulgar words to himself. But she must have gotten too close. Burke tried to disarm her, turning the gun away from him and using his grip around her wrist, but she was faster. With the thin mist of Bliss around them, she defended herself at Burke’s maneuver. He leapt to his feet, trying to get the upper hand by going for a grapple. She dodged what he threw at her, matching his strikes. Diana barred a swing at her face, but he was quick to shift to another blow. Burke was using downward momentum, his height advantage putting Diana at a severe handicap.

He kicked at her midsection, sending her skidding backward past Faith and deeper into the room. Diana scrambled forward, grabbed the nearest chain, and caught his wrist in a shackle. She threw the other end over the rafters and fastened the other end to a hook loop on a pole that looked like a support for the room’s foundation. It was far enough out of his reach he couldn’t let himself free, at least not without her intervention.

Diana nearly stumbled over a crack in the floor until she hit the wall. Her eyes were wide as Burke charged at full force her until the chain pulled taut, jerking him backward just three feet from where she skid. She hugged the wall, watching him use both hands to try and snap the chain. Using this time while Burke was distracted, Diana quickly turned to Faith, cutting her loose from the bindings. The fatigued girl crumpled to the floor, but Diana darted over to scoop her up and back onto her feet. The rush of victory and pride swelled within her, as she reached for a weapon that was set on a nearby table. It was a .22, fully loaded, and it was cocked and aimed straight at Burke’s forehead.

Their fight was ending just as it had began. Before she could pull the trigger, a nagging alarm sounded through the bunker, bringing her out of her red-hued haze and back into reality.

Burke cackled. “Think you’re getting far with her weighing you down? They’ll find you. Bring you back to me… and I will end you.”

She had to think. She had a split second to decide if she would shoot him or find something far worse for him to experience for the damage he had caused here. To her county. To her family. He kept egging her on, shouting profanity and slurs as if to convince her to let him down, even offering to give her a head start.

But she couldn’t do that.

All of the shouting and chaos was truly blinding. Diana needed to move. Now.

Disengaging the hammer, she threw it into the room, far enough she knew Burke would never get to it in time. She turned the Bliss valves to full blast, stabbing her knife through the thin pipe facing him. A deadly concentration of the gas filled the room, until it was thick with green mist she nearly lost track of her distance to the exit. Covering her mouth, she gestured for Faith to do the same, pulling her close to her side so she could use her shoulder as some leverage to make their escape.

“What the fuck are you doing? Rook? ROOK! You’re DEAD, you hear me?!”

“Goodbye, Burke.”

Flicking her lighter open, she snapped the flame onto the wick and tossed it into the room. Diana struggled to push the door closed, but she wasn’t fast enough, feeling the force of the blast push her backward. She hit her head against the opposite wall, feeling the crack and the ooze of blood down the back of her neck. With Faith’s weak effort to lift her up, Diana was back on her feet, shaking the stars out of her eyes.

“Let’s go.” Diana croaked, hooking her arm into Faith’s, sweeping the fragile young angel out of the bunker hallway and anywhere to see their escape.

Chapter Text

Stone Ridge Chalet
Whitetail Mountains
A little over a year and a half ago…

His hands grasped at her bare hips and tightened as she slid back onto his length. A gasp escaped her barely parted lips, pulling a grunt from him as they relaxed into the union of their naked bodies. She rocked onto his length, still growing accustomed to the reward of being with him. Everything about their relationship was new to her—this freedom to make love to him without restraint, the ability to wander the compound without being followed too close by his sister or being around him without worry of his brothers watching on like hawks… or vultures. But she couldn’t think of anyone else now. This was his time with her, and her with him, as she let him claim her body.

Jacob’s hips smacked against her backside with such power that surprised her—coming from a man of his age—so much so that she nearly bit through her own tongue trying to stifle her cries. Diana was afraid she would be too loud, but the way he pounded her made it difficult to keep quiet.

Even with the assurance that Jacob had cleared out the chalet for their private use, she wanted to keep her noise to a minimum. It was difficult, given that each time he thrust into her was at the right spot, it numbed her body with a pleasurable tremor. Her fingers tightened around the feather pillow, the nearest thing within reach, and the harder he fucked her she squeezed. She leaned down and bit down on the pillowcase to muffle her moans. 

The chalet was compromise he made with his brothers since they didn’t permit either of them stray too far away from the Veteran’s Center for too long. They’d said that Seed Cabin was too much out of reach in case of emergency… so this was a happy medium. It was the perfect location in his region with a large enough bedroom furnished for their activities—and several other rooms and places for their escapades if they wanted a change of scene. The vast lobby was comfortable too, with its lounge area, long, wooden tables and the front desk, all emptied of any staff or employees that would normally be working here.

But ‘private use’ to Jacob meant he still had henchmen with him for their protection, wolves too, all on patrol outside, conducting business while Jacob and Diana were otherwise, busy. The perimeter of the grounds, including the training course, was wide enough that Jacob ensured they took the farthest path around, to put Diana’s mind at ease that no one would be listening.

Not that he cared, he loved it when she screamed.

For at least a couple of days, this place was all theirs.

Diana’s back arched when she felt his hand tangle into her hair, releasing a hiss of pleasure when he pulled. His fingers raked over her scalp as he grasped at her hair. He used the thick twist of her dark tresses like reins, leverage to yank her backward onto his cock as he fucked her with an animalistic vigor. She whimpered breathlessly when he stopped for a moment, releasing the hold he had on her hair.

Jacob leaned down, his tongue running over her back before he wrapped his arms around her chest to take hold of her. She breathed out, feeling him squeeze her firm breasts, both big enough to spill over in his large hands. Guiding her body up toward him, Jacob’s slick chest pressed against her back as they sat up. One hand gently massaged while the other tweaked at the peak of her erect nipple, enjoying the way her body shuddered at the sensation.

The way her hair fell, off to the side opened her neck for him to dip down and nibble at the open flesh, teasing her slightly before biting a little harder than a typical loving nip. His teeth nearly broke the skin as he hungrily devoured her, enveloping her in his massive arms.

She bent her knees and sat backward, eagerly rocking onto his arousal, her ass bouncing on his thighs. Her eyes slowly shut. In this position, her desire was appeased by several points of pleasure; The way he licked and bit her flesh, how his hands cupped and squeezed at her breasts, the sound of his moans in her ear as they simultaneously vibrated against her, and the sheer power of his thickness striking a new sensitive spot while she pushed back against him.

His hot breath bounced off her skin as he panted, faster and faster as he picked up the pace. She could feel him throbbing, the low, rumbling growl in him between breaths meant he was closer to the edge—just as she was—so she leaned forward to brace herself again on all fours to let him take full control. Jacob thrust into her, filling her center to the hilt with each movement, the headboard of this old bed frame thudding against the wall, echoing in the room. Her eyes shut tight, his nails dug deep into her skin as they found her hips again. The sharp sting of his broad hand smacking the tense surface of her ass sent her mind spinning into her climax, as she gasped to catch her breath.

Suddenly, a bright white light burst behind her eyes.

With her mouth opened wide, Diana cried out as she came, her walls tightening and contracting around his cock. After three more deep thrusts, Jacob found his peak as well, the eruption of his release burst from him as he held himself deep inside of her. She felt his hot essence shooting into her, their bodies stiffening as they clung to the few seconds of their climax in tandem.

When they both finished, her body relaxed, sinking into the mattress—which she found was not as comfortable as the one back at the Veteran’s Center. It was still far better than the one she had slept on before she met Jacob, an old cot which was just a breath away from breaking on the daily. There was no way that bedding would have survived her activities with Jacob, and in a few seconds, she tried to sum up how baffled she was that she’d managed to get here, in this very room, almost fortunate enough to be with one of the Heralds.

Unsheathing himself from her slickened core, Jacob moaned and slumped down onto the bed beside her. He shuffled a bit to climb under the sheets.

Diana’s eyes were fixated elsewhere, distracted some as they stared at the personalized, hard-bound copy of the Book of Joseph that Joseph Seed himself, had bestowed upon her. There was a note tucked just inside the first few pages, right before the first chapter. It was handwritten, torn from the very parchment of a very familiar journal only some were privy to know of… Joseph’s journal. It said: “I miss you, Hope.” She knew it was there, because it was a bookmarker of sorts, a heart wrenching reminder that she needed to stay away from him.

From the Father

Jacob surprised her as he draped his arm over her stomach, curling around her to ease her back against him. Their breathing slowed from their previous activities, now in sync, but what further mesmerized her was the fact that he gingerly pressed his soft lips against her bare shoulder. His thumb grazed over her belly. The rough calluses of his fingers were slightly softened, slick with her own essence from the evening’s foreplay. His beard tickled her shoulder as he nestled his head in the crook of her neck, the soft humming in his throat as he caught his breath, she found adorable.

Diana tangled her legs with his, leaning back against the solid chest of her beloved soldier. She needed to forget about that note.

They weren’t generally much for words after sex. Not that she was an expert at knowing any of that—but since they’d slept together regularly, she knew he was about five seconds from passing out.

But he surprised her, again.

“I love you.” He murmured into her shoulder, kissing her skin again.

She could tell his eyes were closed by the way he spoke, but he sounded very much awake. “Are you sleep-talking already?” Diana laughed.

“Do you want me to take that back?” He snickered, his throaty, groggy voice sent a shiver down her back.

Diana smiled lightly, still staring at the book which contained her openly concealed note; the one only she and its author knew about. Not John, not Faith and most certainly not Jacob. Just her… and Joseph.

She waited a beat before she answered. He’d definitely floored her with that one, three words any other woman eagerly waited for just sideswiped her. She never thought he’d say them to her, let alone be the first between them to say it.

This was dangerous, she thought. It was bizarre how she opened herself up to one of the most dangerous men in the County, and strange how he took to her of all people.

What started as a curious venture with this man who was addicting and all-sorts of wrong for her, according to her previous standards, turned into something more. Then again, she almost never did follow her guidelines. She followed her instincts. Sometimes, those instincts got her into trouble.

The bed shifted and creaked as Jacob leaned up on his elbow to get a better view of the angel beside him. He craned his neck to peer down at her, the sheer glow of sweat from their activities shimmered on her skin. There were shadows hovering over his brow in the dim light from the fireplace.

“What is it? Did I fuck it up? I fucked it up, didn’t I?” He groaned, bringing his free hand that was once wrapped around her waist to his forehead. He ran his fingers through his thick, ginger hair. “Fuck!”

Immediately, Diana turned to face him, “No-no…” She shook her head, “It’s not that.”

Jacob was so irritated with himself, she felt the heat radiating from him, something hotter than the aftermath of their activities. He was already sitting up when she spoke, and by the looks of it a millisecond away from throwing his legs over the edge of the bed to leave. “If this is the it’s not you it’s me talk I’ll just get dressed and head up to—”

“Jake.”

“What?” He growled, frustration filling his face as he watched her turn toward him with a bemused smirk. That only made him angrier.

It only amused her because she thought that sort of outburst would be expected from someone like John, but it was proof that they were in fact related. She would never say that out loud, or at least not right now, but it was still entertaining to see this reaction as it clearly tugged at her heart.

Diana climbed on top of his lap, straddling his waist as she brought both hands to his face. Diana could have explained herself, told him that she’d never had anyone like him before in her life. That she’d hated trusting anyone as much as she did him or his family. She could have gone into some sappy backstory about how much he meant to her. But she didn’t. Instead, she let the silence pass, losing herself in the sea of his shimmering blue eyes as he waited for her to talk.

Jacob was a man of instinct and silence, she knew, so she wouldn’t let the words spill in the fear he would despise hearing her talk for so long. But this was all new for both of them, something she would feel out, over time, if he’d give her the chance to speak as freely… as Joseph always did. Joseph was his opposite, she knew that. Where Jacob was stoic and preferred silence, Joseph was poetic and enjoyed the beauty of expression.

She swallowed. She knew she needed to push Joseph from her mind.

Just like the first night she spent with Jacob, in a position just like this, Diana studied Jacob’s face. It was as if each day she peered at this same face she found something new. A new scar, a new look, a new light. As she observed him in this silence, she sensed his impatience for an answer. Diana doubled back to the thought of going against the grain when it came to standards, because her father advised her and her siblings growing up.

“Go with your gut,” he said to her, words she could still hear in his gentle, soothing voice as he always did when she asked him for advice. “Follow that heart. Because of your mother, I know you were born with a big heart.”

So, she smiled.

“I love you too, darling.” she said back, and she felt his body relax, as she leaned down to kiss his lips.

 

*

 

Whitetail Mountains
St. Francis Veteran’s Center
Present Day

 

“Listen to me… f-follow my voice, Di—I l-love you… d-don’t do this!” Jacob pleaded.

And yet, the song taunted her… “Only you…”

Pratt laughed maniacally as he watched Diana lose herself to the music. He could have cut off the pathetic dialogue here, he was all too perfect how his plot for revenge was playing out.

What was supposed to be a song of love, a moment of reunion – a flourish, a beautiful recollection of their marriage and life together was cut short by the nature of this standoff. Diana stared down the sights of Jacob’s gun in her hands, the red pistol that matched the ruby sniper rifle Pratt still had placed like a trophy on display on the back table. As the music played on its loop, she felt the pounding in her head take over—the blinding hue of red that clouded her vision. Her limbs moved as if out of her own control; With her right hand positioned to fire and her left hand gripped tight to support her aim, she brought aimed down the sight, the bullseye between Jacob’s beautiful blue eyes directly in her crosshairs.

“Baby—you don’t have to do this.” He begged. Jacob was never one to fear death, but she knew it was the way he was about to die that tore him apart the most. Killing him would remain with her forever; pulling the trigger and ending his life was never something she ever considered, not even once, not since she grew to love the man behind those scars.

Tears filled her eyes, an overwhelming feeling of helplessness swimming through her. She shakily held the weapon in front of her. Her arms relaxed, her feet planted, her right forefinger trembled as it hovered over the trigger. The urge was there, forced upon her by the music, but she could already feel the remorse and despair of its consequences, which caused her to fight her own conditioning which was buried deep in the back of her mind, until hearing that melody once more.

“Only you…” Pratt grinned, singing along with the music. “Fucking hell I hate this song. Don’t you, Rook?”

“J… Jacob—”

“No!”

“You know how fucking long it took me to break those chains, old man? Whitehorse and Hudson had to lock me up tight in some detox and even now it’s tough not to pick up a gun and shoot both of ya until you’re a bloody pile of swiss fuckin’ cheese. And Rook here?” Pratt snickered. His voice sounded like a garbled mess. Diana couldn’t hear anything over the music, other than echoes of his monotonous monologue as he droned on. “Well… I guess stealing the princess and locking her in your tower didn’t help her forget anything, now did it? Just pushed it back until one day…”

He snapped. “We could use this. Use her. Against you.” The haughty look in his face, curves of malice and pompous victory made Pratt every bit of the villain as he’d let on this entire time. He existed to torture her and Jacob. He thrived on their tragedy; the way the tables had turned on them, more specifically on Jacob himself, made him swell with immense pride that was evident when he pressed himself against her. He was aroused by this scene; after all this time he’d waited for the revenge on Jacob Seed, exacting it in the best way possible. Diana, his own wife, his love, his everything would end it for him now.

“Now. Dep. Think about this… think hard,” Pratt chided her in a way that only he could, because he knew her, because he cared for her at one point… like a coaxing coo to lure her, like a moth into the flame of his command. His teeth like fangs bit over his lower lip as he savored this moment. “After everything you know he did before you. Every crime this fucking prick committed here against our county, against your own flesh and blood, could fill a ledger of a lifetime and then some. Think about your brother. Think about him.”

“Diana don’t—Aaaahhh!!” Jacob pleaded, writhing against the blades pierced through his scarred flesh as Morris and Archer held them buried in their wounds.

Pratt’s hands slid on the curves of her body until they came to her hips. He teased his thumbs into her jeans, tracing a line along the inside of it, until finally closing his grasp at her sides. “Be a good soldier. Take the shot.”

“I-I can’t.”

He brought his nose to her hair and gave a deep inhale. “You will.”

“Fight it, Diana. Fight it!” Jacob urged, trying to break her from the spell.

Pratt called. “Yes. YES! Fight the urge to work against all the mindfuckery your old man did. Go with those instincts, Rook. Go with your gut. Your pop told you that once, didn’t he?”

“Papa…” She whispered, her shaky forefinger curling into the gun, hovering dangerously over the trigger.

“That’s right.” Pratt chuckled, pleased that she took the bait, “And the reason I know that, is because your brother was telling himself that when the conditioning failed. When he tried to break out of it just like I did. Just like you are now. Oli kept saying he didn’t trust this piece of shit. He didn’t trust Jacob but he was forced to sleep in the cages—to do all the dirty work for him—to kill when he didn’t want anything to do with killin’. And to his last gasp of air, Oli didn’t trust the operation your new fucking family has set up here.”

“You’re l-lying—” Diana cried out through her teeth.

“Go with your gut, Hope.”

“No!” Jacob shouted.

“The Seeds fucked over this county six ways to Sunday. You’d be doing us all a favor.”

“I c-can’t—”

“Diana!”

“Do it!”

“No, I can’t—”

“Shoot him!”

“I’m sorry J-Jake—”

“NOW!”

Boom!

An explosion rumbled like a thunderclap throughout the compound. The windows burst, and glass flew in every direction. The grounds quaked, shaking the room like a demolition crew. Frames fell from the walls, glass, dishes, furniture toppled over where they stood. Whatever had happened outside was close, something more than just a mere shipment of Bliss exploding inside the walls of the Veteran’s center.

Gunfire soon followed, bullets piercing through the walls.

Pratt dove for cover.

Diana flew backward, smacking her head against mirror behind her, losing all sense of direction and placement as she braced herself along the flat surface of the table to stand again. The benefit to this sudden interruption was that the speakers playing the song had ceased, but the lingering effects of the haunting melody continued the rampant pounding on the walls of her mind; like a pair of hard mallets beating on a bass drum.

Pratt was distracted, barking orders at Archer to see what was going on outside, so she scrambled for the pistol she’d dropped to force it on her former colleague. However, Pratt saw her rise to attack, so he swung without hesitation. His fist crushed against the side of her skull, knocking her back down again.

Jacob kicked out at the guards, sending the boys flying backward for long enough to give him time to escape. His shaking hands rose to grasp at the handles of the blades at his shoulders.

The alarm sounded outside.

Diana blinked again, shaking off the dizzying hit. Her breath was loud in her head, coughing as she inhaled the scent of smoke and fire growing thicker as the seconds passed. Her heartbeat still reverberated in her head.

Rising from his spot on the floor, Morris frantically beat against the side of his jammed gun; a failed attempt at trying to put a bullet in the soldier’s head. Jacob’s thick fingers tightened around the hilt of his own blade, and the blood-thirsty metal penetrated the side of his former right hand’s neck. The serrated blade tore through the opened muscles and flesh of Morris’ neck, spattering blood like a fountain on Jacob’s face. Morris watched, wide-eyed, as the feral giant retracted his blade only to turn it, deftly in his hands, and plunged it deep into his treacherous heart. Morris gurgled out a futile plea for Jacob to stop, his hands now free of the weapon he’d dropped patting weakly on Jacob’s firm chest. Words were unnecessary now; The boy he mistakenly trusted, betrayed him and Diana in such a way that was unforgiveable and the wounds he suffered would never heal. He was going to die here. Though, no matter how poetic this moment might have been, Jacob saw nothing but red.

Pratt struggled with Diana, who was still trying to rid herself of the sharp, agonizing pain of the conditioning flooding back to her. Even with the music gone, she it left something worse than a hangover looming over her consciousness, and the hit she endured from Pratt only exacerbated her pain. Pratt grabbed his former colleague by the arms to keep her from taking a swing, but in these vital seconds of recovery, she met him with a headbutt and a swift knee to the gut. His cartilage crunched at her forehead and the sound of his pitiful grunt when her knee made contact gave her the space she needed to deliver one more uppercut to his chin with all the power she had left in her. All the fight…the urgency she had fueling her in this smoke-filled room… Diana heard the voices of her lost family telling her to keep fighting.

Pratt crumpled to the ground, blood dripping from his face in this scuffle, as Diana stumbled back against the broken window. The fire raged on, and she coughed out what shallow breaths flowed in as the tendrils of the flames teased in from the blocked exit of the dining room.

Keep fighting, love. Her mother’s voice whispered, as the cool breeze from the window blew through to cool her heated skin.

With the ruby rifle on his back, Jacob grasped at Pratt’s collar and lifted him with only slight discomfort to his shoulders. Adrenaline was fueling his every move now. He practically tossed Pratt through the opposite wall, wanting to put as much distance between him and his wife as possible. His first worry was for her, hoping she had enough energy to stand, if they were going to make it out of the burning building alive.

The smoke became a thick wall in the room. It made it more difficult to see and breathe, but Jacob locked onto her right away and rushed over to grab her.

“We gotta go!” Jacob wheezed, fighting for breath as if he’d just run a marathon. He scooped her into her arms and kicked open the nearest door, the only other exit from this hall. He thought to himself it was a good thing he hadn’t walled it over like he originally wanted, since their other means of escape was barricaded by flame and debris.

Jacob knew the Veteran’s Center like the back of his marred hands, so he’d get them to one of the exits no matter who or what stood in his way.

For Diana, the trip outside was a blur. As she clung to her wounded husband who was rushing them outside, she caught small glimpses of the hallways rushing by her. She could hear screaming, shouting, gunfire and more explosions thundering from the outer grounds. Closing her eyes tight, she held onto his muscular form as he ran, focusing on his footsteps. Their home, her and Jacob’s, was being destroyed all around them, and they were making their great escape.  

“Hold on, baby…” He whispered to her, and only moments later she felt the cold breeze at her skin. It was only now that she’d been made aware of the blood, sweat and tears on her face, the trails on her skin were as brisk as the night air.

Easing her feet down to the earth, Diana was gently placed upon a large boulder by a set of trees whose shadow mixed with the wall of smoke kept them covered from the chaos of the battlefield within the walls. Jacob fell to a knee, an unceremonious thud as his weary mass slumped closed to her. He groaned, reaching for one of the open wounds on his chest. Blood oozed from the gaping hole on his shoulder, one of which was covered with an old handkerchief he weakly pulled from his back pocket. Given the time to stabilize, Diana’s eyes focused on him, kneeling before her.

Tucking away the bloody cloth, his shaking arms wrapped about her waist to keep her steady. His hands were in no condition to grasp anything tightly, but Jacob’s intent was to hold onto his wife and never let her go.

Their racing hearts met in time, their breathing slowed at a synchronized pace. Diana’s verdant gaze found Jacob’s weary sapphires as they slowly realized what had just unfolded. Not only had they narrowly escaped death that faced them in a variety of ways; Pratt, the Forsaken, the Resistance and other elements—but they finally reunited after weeks of searching for one another and fighting for their own survival. It wasn’t ever fated to be a joyous reunion, she knew that much, but her gut wrenched as the tender strings of her heart had been yanked, tugged and ripped with the revelations that were had inside the walls of their own home.

Diana blinked, her shaky hands raised to ever so slightly touch his face. He was real, but she couldn’t believe it, as if this was another fucked up reverie brought on by the very drug that caused them both pain and suffering through visions and distant memory.

She wished she could go back. He wished the same, as they sat speechlessly for what felt like a lifetime of words hiding behind their sealed lips, threatening to come out. She brushed her fingertips along the side of his face, a long cut which had scarred over his right cheek. Diana’s eyebrow’s furrowed as Jacob’s eyes were soon filled with a sadness that she struggled to fathom. They were both silent, fighting the demons of their mind, the questions that were raised, the regret and sorrow they wanted to express.

What was there to say? Where would they start? How long could they stay there in this purgatory, this façade of peace until they were discovered?

Suddenly, two sets of footsteps charged toward them, crunching through the rubble and rock. Jacob sharply inhaled through his nose, and reflexively reached for his pistol at his waistband. His primal gaze was still keen enough, even with the smoke obstructing his vision. He was exhausted, but still primed to let loose a set of bullets at these newcomers if they weren’t friendly. But when those people came to view, Diana palmed the barrel of the gun and swiped it aside. She was still catching her breath as she squinted her eyes in an attempt to get her sight to reach beyond smoke.

Two familiar figures drew near, both armed as well, but when she recognized them, she limped toward the man in front.

“Joseph—”

“Diana!” Joseph relaxed at the sight of her, loosening his grasp on his weapon and it dangled on the strap he’d fastened to his chest. He immediately scooped her into his arms, the warmth of his embrace immediately putting her at ease. Whatever their quarrel was before was dropped—at least for the moment—as they clung to each other, unified by this common enemy. As he pulled back, Joseph pressed his soft lips onto her forehead before holding her again.

“You’re alive…” He breathed out.

She nearly crumpled in tears but withheld any outburst of emotion as she let the feeling wash over her. She was safe now, she told herself. She was safe… with her family. Their reunion wasn’t disturbed, not even when the booming shot left the rifle of Grace Armstrong, the woman who had followed Joseph to this side of the building. Again, her green laser aimed through the fog and soot, sending another blasting shot at her target unseen by the naked eye.

“You left the island…” Diana whispered, her voice a quiet shudder as she buried her face into his shoulder.

“I had to.” Joseph cooed. “You know I had to…”

She felt the tears slide off her cheeks before she realized they’d even left her eyes at all. Joseph never left the island, not in recent months at least. She’d only known him to sneak into his sibling’s regions prior to Whitehorse’s takeover—prior to everything turning upside down on them. But he did… for her.

As Diana peered up at Joseph’s face, she felt a sliver of peace—a feeling of genuine care for her. He kissed her forehead again.

Grace and Jacob appeared behind her, with Jacob propped up against her, his arm dangling over her shoulder. She turned her ear toward the front of the compound, listening for the breaks in the gunfight that seemed to have dulled down from the rampant smattering of bullets to a couple here and there. People were either dead, retreating, or heading their way.

The sniper jutted her head toward the break in the fence, a demolished opening that looked wide enough for a vehicle to pass through, and clear of any fire or Bliss. It led out toward a path only lit by moonlight and seemed like Grace was ready to take the lead. “Time to go, Eli’s waiting.”

“Eli?” Diana’s eyes narrowed. More questions raced through her mind—about herself, about Jacob, about Joseph—and now the Whitetail Militia were involved? Made sense if Joseph was here without any restraints, fighting beside one of the strongest guns for hire.

“Come on—” Joseph took her hand, ready to move at a pace comfortable for her in the shape she was in—but they weren’t but ten paces away when a voice shouted down the narrow alley on the side of the Veteran’s Center.

“Evans!”

Fuck!

They stopped.

Dragging one twisted ankle behind him, the injured Deputy Pratt emerged from the exit she and Jacob took just moments ago. He limped through the fiery debris. His face was covered in blood, his shoulder contorted as it looked seemingly out of place—as if Jacob’s throw dislocated his joints. Joseph tensed, Jacob growled, and Grace held tight to the massive man at her side as they realized Pratt was still alive, stalking toward them, with his rifle ready to fire.

Joseph knew he wasn’t going to stop Pratt’s bullets in time, so he instinctively grabbed Diana’s shoulders to twist around and provide a shield to her already battered body. But she wouldn’t be a distressed damsel now—no. She followed Joseph’s guided movement, and in a blink of an eye, pulled a throwing knife from his belt. Instead of stopping where he wanted to place her, she sidestepped and twirled around, calculating a backhanded throw which was aimed directly at Pratt’s neck. The arc fell a little short and even a little bit to the right, but before he could squeeze the trigger, the cold steel of the knife whipped through the air and plunged into his chest, right below his heart.

Diana thought fast, pulling Joseph down in case he was able to fire—but on impact of the blade, it sent his bullets into the air, lost somewhere beyond them in the open forest. Damning herself for the miss, it was still a happy little compromise—that target—but this was going to give her a chance to confront her torturer, her executioner, one last time.

“Stay here,” Diana told them.

Joseph was reluctant to let her go, but she shrugged off his grasp. His brows furrowed but did not proceed at her request. Jacob struggled, but Grace held him in place as Diana walked toward the fallen Deputy.

He laughed where he lay, flat on his back, his eyes staring up at the night sky. It was painful to turn his head, to watch the fall of the boots as Diana stepped closer. Her trigger finger twitched as she closed the distance, kicking the gun out of his reach. Her other boot found his fingers, slowly crushing them beneath her sole. Pratt cried out in pain as his bones crunched at her feet, those cries turning into a fit of laughter as he coped with the realization that he was perhaps about to die.

“Only y-you…” He laughed to himself, delirium setting in quick as his hand wrapped around the throwing knife in his chest. “Can make… the darkness—Oof!”

Diana kicked him in the side, a sense of reward warming her blood as she caused him pain.

Panting, Pratt slowly turned his head to get a better look of his death bringer as she crouched beside him. “That y-you, H-Hope?”

She didn’t answer, but she crouched beside him to get a better look.

Blood stained his eyes, blood dripped from nearly every crevice of his head. The Madman coughed. He stirred. He laughed. “I always l-liked you, y-you know. E-Even if you w-were Whitehorse’s f-fav…f-favorite.”

Diana tilted her head as she watched him. Silently. Carefully. She heard Joseph and Jacob struggling to abide by her wish to stay away. She knew they were uncomfortable letting her face him alone, but she also knew this wasn’t going to take long. Whitehorse’s favorite? She mused. That was a new one. Earl Whitehorse put up with her, just like he did Marshal Burke. He was convinced she was going to be dead weight in this case, so he put up a front to appease the County, as he marched her off to die that night. While her memory might be foggy, candid conversation from Pratt hit her with this clear memory of her place with the Sherriff’s department.

Fresh meat on a big operation? That’s a death sentence for you. Whitehorse told Burke when they thought she wasn’t listening.

Pulling a small item from his pocket, Diana snapped at his wrist to ensure he wasn’t holding a grenade or something more dangerous to attack her with at this range. He had nothing to lose anyhow, and she didn’t want to take any risks. But when Diana opened his shaking fist, Pratt revealed a piece of a tattered, red ribbon in his hand.

“Find the d-dead at the d-drop. Wh-where they all g-go to d-die.” It was redundant, but somehow that all made sense to her. “I-I’m gonna m-miss you, Hope.”

She glared, her trigger finger twitched again. Even at death’s door, Pratt still knew how to push her buttons. “My name is Diana Seed.”

There was a gun in her hand. How? She didn’t question it. He kept calling her Hope and Rook and laughing like this was all a fucking joke.

Pratt chuckled. “You are and always w-will b-be… Hope.”

She could have gone for the head. She could have ended it quickly but in everything she just remembered—although they were weak flickers of things she’d been forced to suppress, Diana wanted Pratt to suffer. She pulled the trigger twice, aiming first for his legs so he couldn’t stand. His screams rend the air, the sweet satisfaction in the madman’s agony stoking the fiery rage inside of her. She watched as he gasped, writhed, groaning loudly into the open air, filled with smoke and bliss.

“This isn’t over…” Pratt babbled, his injured limbs twitching as he tried to scoot away. A trail of blood followed, and so did Diana.

She stopped, clicking her tongue as if she took pity on this scum who violated her and her husband for the last time. “It is for you.”

After one sharp whistle, the howls of her and Jacob’s precious wolves echoed in the distance.

Bloodshot eyes quickly widened as he realized what she had done. The Judges were coming. “Don’t d-do this Hope! HOPE!—”

“My name is Diana. Fucking. Seed.” She said again, through gritted teeth. “And may whatever the fuck you believe in… have mercy on your soul.”

“No—NO!!”

Diana backed away, drowning out the cries of Staci Pratt as she turned heel. She needed to return to the escapees who’d been waiting for her for… God knows how long. She’d remembered Eli was waiting for them at the rendezvous, as Grace would lead them there.

As sharp of a shot as she was, Diana would take pleasure in knowing that her beloved Judges would take care of what remained of the Madman… and he would be conscious until his very end.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Devil’s Drop
Whitetail Mountains
Later That Night…

 

She couldn’t wait.

They kept on arguing that she needed rest, a hot bath, something to wind down from the events of the evening, but she refused to treat herself to anything rewarding until she knew the truth. Pratt was full of revelations that night, but the small piece of red ribbon she fetched from his cold, callused hands, made her realize one thing. She needed to find this place he talked about.

“Find the d-dead at the d-drop. Wh-where they all g-go to d-die.”

There was only one place this could be, she thought.

She’d vaguely remembered stumbling out of here one day, surrounded by lifeless corpses, mangled and broken, parts separated from bodies at the foot of the cliff. “Devil’s Drop” they called it, a place she never thought she’d see again. A place she thought was only made in her worst nightmares.

When the truck stopped at the path, she launched herself from the vehicle. A voice called to her to wait, telling her to stop and not have a go at it alone.

But she didn’t.

She couldn’t.

Foot before foot, she ran, her steps thudding into the earth leaving an imprint of her trail behind.

She didn’t care.

Diana desperately wanted to reach this place, without thinking of the gruesome scene that would greet her at the mouth of the Devil’s Drop. A surreal mural of bones and blood were found here. Ominous green fog trailed through from an overturned barrel of Bliss that she kicked away, sending it tumbling down the path. All that remained of the unburied bodies here led all the way to the wall of the mountain. There were several piles of dirt here too, telling her she was close.

She stopped when she found a small grave marked with a worn wooden cross. It was staked in a mound of dirt, now overgrown with grass covered the earth where a body was buried. Stones circled outlined the grave, and a piece of tattered red cloth indicated that this was what she was looking for…

This is it, she told herself. The place Pratt revealed with one of his last breaths.

Diana’s stomach roiled, her heart breaking at the sight. She fell to her knees. Her eyes filled with tears as she wept over the grave, the small droplets sinking into the packed earth. It was bad enough she knew her brother was here beneath the ground on which she stood—but she even recognized the dirty, sopping wet sweater worn by an old colleague in the grave beside his. Walker…

Fucking hell…

Jacob reached for her shoulder, hesitating for a moment before deciding to touch her.

Disgust flowed through her when his rough fingertips brushed her scarred skin. She rolled her shoulder, knocking off his hand. She didn’t want to be touched. If she were a wild horse, she would have kicked him right in the teeth.

Jacob frowned, sighing heavily as he stepped back. “Di…” His voice was something she always cherished, and in the matter of seconds, a turning point of Pratt’s undoing, became something she despised. “If I would have known…”

“You knew…” She breathed out, stifling her sobs with her hand.

“What?”

“All this time, you did know.”

“I didn’t. I swear to you, I-I didn’t know he was your brother, I—” It was a feeble defense, but Jacob stood his ground for his decisions, knowing that every choice led him to Diana and every choice thereafter was made with her guidance.

“What difference does it make, Jake? Huh? What the fuck difference does it make that it was Oli—my baby b…” Diana bit back, “he was my baby brother, and you killed him! You fucking killed him, you son of a bitch! How could you?!”

“Baby—sweetheart—just—” He hissed, grasping at her wrists as she flailed her arms. He tried to stop her from beating at his chest, which was still barely healing from the knife wounds Archer and Morris placed on him in the dining hall.

“I can’t even look at you right now.” She spat. “I trusted you. I defended you, defended your family!”

“Our family—”

“No. No. My blood is in the ground, while yours still live and breathe—and because I fought for them. I fought for you!” She scoffed. “The only blood I got left is probably miles away from here while everyone rots in the ground covered in the blood you shed. Don’t you dare come to me like you understand.”

At her wrath, Jacob’s face suddenly shifted. No, it wasn’t because she was mad, it was because of something she’d said. His anger, his own frustration, boiled over. “What did you think this was about, Eden’s Gate? The soldiers I was… we were enlisting to our side? Did you think for once that we didn’t have to make sacrifices? That culling the herd was a hardcore way of keeping people in line without a little death involved?” The hardened line of his brow was shadowed by the light of the moon as he stared down the line of his nose at her. “You saying that I didn’t bury my brothers at war?”

Diana glared at him, “That’s not what I meant—”

Jacob didn’t let up, “Every step of the way, since we’ve been together, you were right there. You knew what we put those boys through. You knew about the atonement, the baptism, first hand, mind you, and you not once batted an eye when you took up as Regent over the city. The Whitetails. My territory. We cull the herd, my love, it’s what we do… and only the strongest would survive.”

Diana breathed out in disbelief as he carried on, “I’ve NEVER—”

Jacob pointed at her with gusto, “Whitehorse brought you here. You came to us. You joined us willingly—the night you decided to become… whatever it is you are now, you became one of us.”

Why was he twisting the knife? Was she not allowed to mourn the loss of Oli without this scrutiny?

“It wasn’t in any plan to be brainfucked by you or John or Joseph!”

The corner of Jacob’s mouth twitched. He was seething. The redness in his skin brilliant and as bright as his hair as he scolded her. “It was part of the plan.”

Her neck jerked back in surprise. “What did you just say?”

“Wasn’t it part of the whole scheme? Huh? To kill us all from the inside? Pratt told me about it. Everything. Every fucking day I was with him he told me you didn’t mean any of this. That Whitehorse treated you like a puppet, that you never really loved me. But I didn’t wanna believe it…” He laughed at himself, “That you weren’t Diana, that you were Hope, that you were just a piece of the puzzle… and even after all of that, we made you a Queen.”

“Jake, stop—” Diana closed her eyes, her body trembling as he spoke. She felt hot, feverish, like a kettle that was about to go off—

“Queen of everything—We all know she is the strongest player on the board, and you were mine, and your boy Oliver was just a pawn!”

Diana shook her head, letting loose the tears in her eyes as they fell down her cheeks. She was breathless, appalled, shocked. For some reason, twinkles shimmered in her eyes as she struggled to catch her breath. The lingering melody of a once-cherished song that now made her want to vomit dissipated into the whoosh of the wind-kissed trees. The clouds cleared for just a moment to illuminate this gruesome setting. And when her breath calmed, Diana felt a stinging in her right hand. She looked up at her husband, who towered half a foot above her, and he was holding the left side of his already mangled face.

“The lies… all of you, your whole family built this fucking empire on lies and death. If I knew that… I wouldn’t have signed up for it.” Diana turned away, debating whether now to walk away or to stay and continue this fight.

She remembered once how Joseph told her that sometimes it would be best to just walk away…

Jacob growled. “If it was anyone else you would have felt differently.”

That was it. Diana pulled at her left hand. It was her cue to leave. “Go to hell, Jacob.”

It was as if something snapped, a switch flipping off, when Jacob realized what he’d said…

Day and night.

…because the tension in his face switched from anger to remorse…

Back and forth.

…the look on her face made this seem like it could not be forgiven; it would not be undone…

In and out.

…And when the ring hit his chest, the silence in the dead air around him forced him to hear the impact of the small band hitting his chest and falling beside his boot.

Up and down.

Her voice echoed in the narrow alley of the macabre landmark.

“Fuck you! Stay the hell away from me!” She cried out, pushing him away. Her teary eyes stared north, seeking out the stars behind the clouds that would be her guide toward the Wolves Den. She’d find her way back to the bay, back to the place they had said would be their rendezvous to lay low for a while. “It’s over.”

At this time, when she was supposed to rejoice in the victory of rescuing her lost husband, rekindling the flame that kept her charging through the mission to save him, to preserve their relationship, to keep her love alive. But Diana was through. She didn’t give a shit what sort of hellish storm she left in her wake.

Sometime, maybe soon, she would return here alone to pay her respects… but for now, she wanted to grieve the memory of her fallen brother, who lie dead before his time should have come, in peace.

 

*

 

Grand View Hotel
Whitetail Mountains
Midnight, that same night…

 

Cold.

It didn’t matter how hot the water was, or the fact that it was burning her bruises and cuts on her skin, Diana felt cold inside.

And who was she now? Was she to admit—succumb to the name she left behind? Or was she going to carry on with the identity she assumed when she returned to Hope County; the lush, thriving countryside that had been rendered to a bloody battlefield, a wasteland of memories and ghosts of her past?

Hope. Diana. Hope. Diana. Deputy. Regent. Martyr. Killer.

Who even was she anymore?

Blood. Dirt. Sweat. Tears. Death.

She sat on the tub, hugging her legs to her chest, holding tight to her arms. The streams of water trickling over her washed away the filth she’d been sitting in for days. She was silently juggling the thoughts of two lives lived by one.

She watched as the grime swirled the drain. It would be a great while before the water ran clear, so she sat beneath there, left to her own devices—or worse yet, left only with her thoughts to pass the time. A bath would have been more practical, but she had no patience to wait for the tub to fill.

“Now… I suggest you heed my advice.”

Remembering His voice made her shudder.

“Follow the rules, they’re simple enough. And when you follow me into the light, I’ll free you from the darkness. I will protect you. I will save you.”

Her jaw clenched. Her muscles tightened. She recalled what it was like when he first officially met her. Not the day she ascended onto the church, no. The day he truly saw her, became fond of her, and took her into his home. It was there, that he first tested her.

“As much as you belong here in this place, you belong to me.”

Everyone in the women’s camp said she was a fool to let him in. At least, the ones who were still of sound mind. They were the ones held back by John since he was going to test them further. Since Faith was going to help them see… and Jacob would train them to conform.

But to let herself be treated that way…by the Father?

A flash carried her forward in time.

Beyond the time she avoided Joseph after his sermons—and sometimes even being absent for those… It was clear now she was avoiding him. She didn’t want to face him. She didn’t want to be taken in the night, forced to see him, trapped again in his Estate. His Sanctuary. Diana cringed at the thought, at the fact that her parents taught her better than this. And yet she fell victim to what her partner had when she was a cop in Missoula. She had no idea who she was anymore, other than the details Whitehorse, John, and everyone else had corroborated was true.

Everything after diving back into Hope County was a god damn blur.

Thanks to Pratt, she recalled these dark moments. The points in time she wanted to will away. Her operation turned upside down, her capture and conditioning, the baptism, the shame… and most of all, the fact that the man she turned to, the one she opened up to… The man who would later become her husband—she found out he’d used his own tricks against her. What was she supposed to trust? Who could she trust now, if she couldn’t even trust herself?

Crescent indentations ran along the back of her arms, cutting into the scar of Envy she remembered being branded with by John. She would never be rid of that night…

The reminder that Jacob orchestrated the death of her own brother simply gutted her. It was a given. Diana needed to question everything.

Thanks to something Jacob had said earlier, Diana thought back to the night her life really changed. Not the invasion, not the baptism, hell—not even the night she signed her paperwork to join this outlandish brigade.

 

*

 

Church of Eden’s Gate
Joseph Seed’s Island
Two Years Ago

Elegant and a dream, quaint and peaceful.

Diana breathed out as she set down her glass of cider. As much as John wanted whiskey or champagne in every glass, Joseph vetoed that right away. It was bad enough he’d snuck it in every now and again, but one thing was for sure, she’d hit him up for some of “the good stuff” later on.

She felt an arm drape over her shoulder, the warmth of Jacob’s slight embrace grounding her from the thoughts fluttering in her mind. But those scattered doubts, questions and uncertainties couldn’t keep her from feeling the joy, the grand cloud of elation over their shared, special day.

Once John’s elaborate “Best Man” speech was done, the air was filled with laughter, cheers and conversation, allowing some of the church members to come along and greet the couple with words of best wishes and congratulatory gestures for their nuptials. It was hard to discern whether or not they’d been forced or encouraged to speak to one of the Herald’s and his wife this way, but Diana accepted them with a smile that made her face ache after a while.

It didn’t take long for Diana to spot a shadow at the back of the reception area. Even in the soft illumination of the dim torch lights, she saw him. Yellow glasses… A glint from the lenses shimmered at her.

Diana’s stomach lurched.

“Excuse me, a moment.”

Jacob’s brow furrowed. “Everything alright, my love?”

She couldn’t help but smile. She always loved that he wasn’t afraid to use a term of endearment at her in public. “I’ll be right back.” Diana jerked her head toward the house, which was more than enough for Jacob to let her go. “I won’t be long darling, I’ll be fine.”

With a reluctant nod, Jacob leaned down and brushed his lips against hers. Her heart skipped a beat with his delicious kiss. She gently scratched at the scruff on his jawline before pulling away to excuse herself.

Bunching the material of her dress at her sides, Diana made the short trek toward Joseph’s house. However, instead of going inside, she took a small detour toward the porch out front and kept walking into the front yard. Her bare feet felt good on the cooled earth, the grass freshly cut, and the dirt was dry. She was careful not to let the train of lace get dirty on her walk, but when she hit the wood of the short dock, Diana released the cloth and let it fall free.

She wondered where he might have run off to…

Hell, she wondered if he’d really even been there at all. Knowing the current state of affairs between them, she thought he was kind enough to run the ceremony and even let them run the reception there… but maybe her mind was playing tricks on her? Why would he want to stick around for a celebration that didn’t revolve around him? That was the Father’s home after all, and even with praises in his name, the day was not for him, nor was it for John—no matter how many times he tried to step into their limelight. The night celebrated hers and Jacob.

Joseph could have been halfway to East Henbane by now adrift on a private craft to clear his mind. He could have ventured out to pray in a small grove of blooming fruit trees in Holland Valley. Or, if he would be so melodramatic and poetic at once, he might have taken a hike north into the Whitetails. These were all things he’d done before, times she’d once spent with him, and as much as she’d want him present for Jacob’s sake, she always wanted to be as far away from Joseph Seed as possible.

Chirps of the nighttime creatures tittered in the calm, cool air. Diana hugged her arms over her chest, keeping herself warm beneath the thin fabric of wildflower and lace as a breeze blew through.

And in the second she thought she would turn back and head toward the reception again, his voice cut through the air.

“…And beneath the velvet sky, His eyes beheld a beauty kissed by full moon’s light. A Goddess, whom all would hail, and worship the ground on which she walks… in grace.”

Her breath hitched.

His poetic timing, the melodic eloquence with which he always spoke, on cords of perfect baritone, was always stunning. She didn’t even hear his steps as he approached; he was that quiet. Careful. His words painted her as if she were a Herald herself, someone to be hailed and praised as highly as the Seeds themselves. As flattered as she was, Diana blushed, but shook her head slightly at his gratifying address.

She was chilled by his stealthy entrance. She kept her eyes on the water as he casually strolled up to join her on the dock, stopping at her side.

“You look beautiful, Diana.”

She closed her eyes and breathed deep. Even with a compliment, his gracefulness made her shudder. Part of her had hoped he would have strayed away from here. The other part, a sliver of her sensible self, was actually relieved he’d come.

But still, she didn’t say a word.

“Wandering so far from your own party—your own congregation, it would seem?” He sounded like he was smiling, faintly, but Diana didn’t face him. When he came to a steady halt, Joseph put his hands behind his back and let the silence take over them as they observed the glorious scenery laid out beyond the shore.

The tranquil waters were dark, a reflection of the moon on the surface lighting up their private rendezvous.

“…Or should I leave you to the peace here? I would do that, if you so wish.” Joseph shifted slightly, gesturing as if he was about to leave, but Diana tilted her head.

“No. I… I figured you wanted to talk.”

He sighed. It clearly wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. While he always admired her straightforwardness, he was a little discouraged by the tone of her voice. His expression hardened.

She asked, “What’s left to say that hasn’t already been said? What would it change?”

Joseph looked up. There was a certain wistfulness in his eyes,

“Why did you leave, Diana?”

She narrowed her eyes. His question was point blank, and she should have expected it, but she wasn’t prepared.

“I chose you. I wanted you to be the next one in line, my Faith, I wanted you to be by my side.”

Diana turned to face him, but he’d turned away. “Are you hearing yourself? I don’t want to be next in line, Joseph! I don’t want to belong to someone—”

“And marriage was the solution? You belong to Jacob now, my brother—”

“Doesn’t own me, Joseph. He loves me, and I…him. He chose me to be his wife, not a replacement in an endless line of women you want to enslave.”

As quickly as the hand came up, it slid back down to his side. A flash of when he’d struck her before came to her mind, quickly dissolving as Joseph bit down. She could see the muscles in his jaw clench.

“Again?” Her voice wavered. “Huh? Again?”

Joseph swallowed hard. He didn’t handle her taunting well, as his hands balled up at his sides.

After growing into her own here and being respected by the man who commanded respect from his own troops, Diana made a silent vow to herself that she would never let him lay a finger on her ever again. Even with his eyes down it was difficult to look at him, but she let her gaze settle on the rim of his glasses to focus on his angelic face.

“You. Are. A. Coward.” She said through gritted teeth. “Your patience is only a front for what you put me through… Me, and the others. Your grace is a lie. The Father was supposed to be a man of peace and what I learned is that your own Wrath is disguised by Greed and Envy—” She viciously prodded him in the chest, when he reached up to grip at her wrist.

She gasped.

His nostrils flared, his face feigning peace when she could feel the hot fury burning in his fingertips.

“Let me go, Joseph.”

“You know I cannot do that.” His eyes like glimmering sapphires finally met hers. Even incensed at her insults, Joseph sounded calm. He didn’t release her wrist, using this to pull her closer. His free hand raised to her face, to which she visibly tensed and turned away. Joseph delicately brushed a stray hair over her ear and shifted to trace her jawline with his fingers. His touch was electrifying. He curled his finger under her chin and gently tipped her face up to look at him again, captivating her with his gaze. “My brother should know about me… and you. About us…”

“Not now—”

“Not ever, then?”

She felt his hands wrapped around her arms now, tightening.

The aura he exuded hadn’t been tamed by the night, nor had it been extinguished in the distance she put between them. He was powerful, and he knew it.

“You were supposed to be my wife, Hope.”

“Joseph… stop.”

That burning look in his eyes intensified. “You were supposed to be the Mother—the matriarch of Eden’s Gate. Don’t you remember?”

Tears burned beneath her eyelids and she breathed out in a whisper, “How could I forget?”

Sensing her discomfort, Joseph’s grasp loosened around her, and his hands slid down to take hers. He wanted to show her how he could be gentle. That she deserved this now. The tip of his tongue softly swiped over his lips as he sorted out what he wanted to say. Diana was like a timebomb… and he needed to diffuse her contention. Carefully. His mouth was slightly open a moment before he spoke again. “In this place, I reign as its King. I broke my own promise, my own oath, when I decided I wanted you as my Queen.”

“And crown me with broken ribs, the bruises, the sprains and burns? Those might have healed, but how about the tattoos your brother gave me? The way you treated me was no way to treat a Queen.”

Joseph’s shoulders shrank down. He knew he was a sinner, but he never liked his mistakes being brought to light. It visibly pained him to recall his misdeeds against her. “And I will apologize forever if you let me. The words… the poor treatment… those were never meant to hurt you.”

Diana’s lips quivered as the words he spoke struck a serious chord in her heart. She shook her head, almost as if she were pleading. “Why are you doing this now?”

Leaning in close, Joseph whispered: “Because you had a place here with me… and I believe you’re throwing it all away.”

And there it was. Admittance. It was everything Joseph wanted to say, everything Diana wanted to hear, words that had come a little too late. When she placed her palms on his chest, she saw the ring on her finger. Her band, her commitment to Jacob. Joseph watched her closely with imploring eyes, but at the same time he was enjoying this closeness, regardless of how brief the moment might be. He studied her face as she fought with herself internally, in search of the next words that would fall between them.

“Forget me.” She replied. “Forget me and anything that has to do with me here.”

He sighed. “You know that will never happen…”

“But you have to, okay? I may be Mrs. Seed now. I may be a part of your… your project, your church… whatever happened before was then, this is now. I’ll never belong to you.”

And in a flash, Joseph closed the distance. The moment was so swift, and so fleeting, that he savored the taste of her lips upon his. At first, she sank against him, feeling the warmth of his tongue slipping past her lips into her mouth, exploring what was once his. He tasted of honey and cologne, mixing with the floral bouquet of her perfume and delectable sweetness. He softly breathed out in pleasure, enjoying this moment—until she began to resist. She pushed away. Forcefully.

Diana struggled to keep her balance on the old dock, careful not to fall backward into the black waters of Silver Lake. She dreaded what just occurred, about as much as she dreaded having to explain to Jacob what this moment meant. Or would she? Would she be able to keep this from him? After all, everything she long buried, Joseph dug up and brought it into the light. Would they be able to keep this hidden for long?

“What are you—”

“Ahem…”

John.

Two pairs of wide eyes turned to see the former lawyer in his finest suit, stepping closer to the docks. His tie undone, his first two buttons taken down, exposed the top of his bare, tattooed chest. Whatever bubbled up as nerves and being mortified over the kiss got worse at the sound of John’s voice.

“Am I interrupting something?” Joseph’s younger brother asked, eyebrow raised high, as he tucked his flask into his back pocket.

“John, we were just—”

“No.” Diana interrupted, before Joseph could finish responding.

John raised an inquisitive eyebrow, one he’d seemingly perfected.

Wondering what he might have witnessed, she tried not to let the fear show in her face even more so, when she spotted a large silhouette behind him.

Jacob.

“They’re lookin’ for the bride since they’re about to start the first dance and uh…” John scratched the back of his neck with an awkward chuckle. “Figured I’d come get ya and bring ya back.”

Diana gulped, wondering how much of that he’d actually seen or heard—but it wasn’t until the towering soldier drew closer that she stepped back from Joseph altogether. “Right. It’s fine, we were just…”

“Talking.” Joseph finished for her.

“Right. And I think we’re through here.” Diana nodded at Joseph. She looked at him with a sadness that he matched impeccably with a longing glance of his own. It pained her to say the next two words, but she stated clearly and firmly what she hoped to be a final farewell to the Father. “Goodbye, Joseph.”

She didn’t mean to, but Diana bumped John on her way out. She was in a hurry to get to Jacob before he got too close, like diffusing a bomb before it went off. It wasn’t like they’d done anything wrong, in fact, she felt relieved that it would be over… for now.

His face lit up when she approached, instantly calming her when he held his hand out for her to take. “Hey, I was wondering what took so long,”

With a nervous laugh, Diana took his hand and laced her fingers with his before redirecting them back to the party. “Just took a pit stop on the way back. You know how I love the view of the moon…”

She couldn’t turn back. She didn’t want to see the look on his face as she left him standing there with John. Hope, or whoever he wanted her to be was gone. She was Jacob’s.

Jacob chuckled, “That I do.” He kissed the top of her head, fixing the crown of flowers before they returned to the bustling reception that awaited them.

 

*


Grand View Hotel
Whitetail Mountains
Present Day

 

A gentle knock startled her.

“Hey… are you alright in there?”

She didn’t know when she did it, but the faucet was turned off. Diana sat there, naked, in a pool of clear water, shivering in the brisk bathroom.

“Diana?”

She expected to be back at the Sanctuary, or even in a prison cell again when she snapped out of it. Instead, there was a different voice calling to her, one she didn’t expect to hear from, at least not this soon. “Y-yeah?”

“There you are.”

The door was cracked, but her visitor hadn’t come through.

“Grace?”

The woman huffed. “No, the police.”

Diana put her head back on the edge of the tub, her muscles relaxing as she sat back. “Oh.”

“Sorry if I’m not who you were expecting…” Grace muttered, “The guard out front said you didn’t want any visitors, but everyone’s been worried about you. So… they sent me.”

“It’s fine.” Diana replied softly, wringing her hair out into the tub. “Everyone?”

Grace chuckled. “Sure. The family. Whoever answered the call is here.”

Diana shrugged. “I guess I never thought I’d see you again.”

“Likewise.” Grace grinned.

“Lemme rephrase. Never thought I’d see you again, not aiming your rifle at me.” When they warned the sniper was still around, Diana always figured she would be the one to take her out.

Grace laughed, “And once again, I say the same. Water under the bridge, right?”

Diana chuckled. “Yeah. Right.”

They had seen each other before, faced off on opposite sides of the battlefield, and Diana was surprised to see her in leagues with their alliance… how fragile that must have been.

When she turned, a towel dangled between the crack of the open door, held by Grace no less.

“Thought you might need this.”

“Thanks.” Diana tugged it into her hands. Patting herself dry, she stepped out of the tub and stepped closer to the counter, where she found a fresh set of clothes and her jewelry laid out on the clean surface.

“What made you switch, Grace? Last I heard, you were gunning for Hudson.”

A hearty huff came from the other side of the door. “I haven’t been fightin for anyone for a long time. Ever since your brother-in-law moved to town… tch… ever since I shipped home from the war, I’ve been on my own. Watching out for everyone else, but I’ve been in this for me.”

Grace continued, “Don’t get me wrong. There’s no way in hell I’m signing my life to Eden’s Gate.”

“Me either.” Came another voice.

Diana pulled the door open and stepped into the adjoining room. A sparky, petite older woman was standing there with a smile ready, beaming at her. “Addie?”

“Good to see you… intact, darlin’.”

The older woman blew the exhaust from her cigarette into the room, which Grace swatted away from her and moved to open the window a bit.

Diana didn’t know whether to hug her or to hit her—but the latter would have opened up a whole can of worms. She didn’t really want to strike Adelaide Drubman, no. She was simply marveled that she was in the presence of two of people who stood their ground against Joseph not long ago, that she wanted to make sure they were real.

Here they were. Close quarters. Being civil.

Adelaide was the first to move. She was only a bit shorter than her, but her attitude was taller than her and Grace Armstrong together, and far exceeded the capacity of the room. She instantly wrapped her arms around her, squeezing her gently, as she knew what her body had been through in the last 24 hours. Diana clutched her tight, the motherly grace oozing from Adelaide calming her instantly.

“Dunno how long ya plan to stay, but I hope this place is alright living for the time being.” Adelaide puffed out a cloud of smoke as she pulled back, “sure as hell better than the state of your old digs, but it’s something. We were fixin’ it up for some of the refugees to hide out. From Whitehorse… and even Joseph, er what’s left of ya. As soon as Eli called, I knew this would be the best and closest place to get y’all safe.”

“It’s more than enough. Thank you.” Diana nodded thankfully and took a seat at the edge of the bed, keeping Grace and Adelaide in her sights. “This… all of this was Eli?”

“He had a big hand in it, sure.” Grace answered, folding her arms and leaning against the wall beside the bathroom door. “A few of us have been on the line for some time. Seeing the good and the bad, weighing the pros and con of this little in-house warfare Whitehorse and Joseph have had going for some time. People like Tammy, Jess, Virgil, Bo… can’t change their mind. But Eli told us that the stakes were high on this.”

Eli Palmer… coming through for her. Now she had to be dreaming. After the scolding she got back at the Wolves’ Den, being sent off to fend for herself—this was a twist she didn’t expect. But everything since the sibling’s capture had been twists and turns, and damn did she ever want off of this wild roller-coaster.

“Gotta hand it to the Seed boys, though.”

Diana turned to Adelaide. “What do you mean?”

“I think what really got to us was that it turned out they got something big at stake.” Adelaide flicked the tip of her cigarette over the ashtray on the table beside her, before offering a stick to Diana. “That you guys had something to lose.”

Of course, she happily took one. She didn’t care what the boys thought about her rekindling her smoking habits, after all she’d been through so far. When she took a deep inhale of the cigarette, Grace leaned over and opened the window a bit wider.

“So… it’s true?” Diana ran a hand through her hair. Pratt murmuring something about John being a dad was a bit fuzzy. “John and Ana—”

“Oh yeah. A future. A new life. A baby…” Adelaide’s face lit up in amusement. “Boy I never thought John’d be the first one to spawn somethin’ out here in Hope County of all places. Then again you and Jake never showed signs of wantin’ a kiddo and Joseph… well…”

Diana shifted awkwardly.

“As a mother m’self, I couldn’t find it in me to say no.”

“Me either.” Grace added, peeking out the window. She turned back to look at them with a raised brow, “Well, not the mom thing, but… yeah. You know.”

Diana nodded.

“Di, I gotta tell you, Jake was in rough shape when Pratt had him, too. I tried to help him, I did. Watching him get through the gauntlet every fuckin’ day—the knife, the prod, the brainwashing, the Bliss. Oddly broke my heart to watch him withering away in the cage in the heat, and even in the mud and rain and all that. With your lieutenants watchin’ on like hawks and the wolves rattin’ me out every chance I could get—”

“Addie, you did what you could. I… I appreciate it.” Regardless of how she felt about Jacob (just thinking about him made her dizzy and sick), Diana was grateful there was someone of sound mind watching over him. “Sound” being used lightly, but it was a private guardian angel he didn’t know about, and he would unknowingly owe his life to her efforts.

“Oh sure. You guarded my boy as best as you could all those years, I had to find some way to repay you. I might make comments here n’ there about jumpin’ your old man’s bones, and in the same breath say I wanna wring his neck… but it’s the least I could do.” Adelaide winked, her blond curls bouncing as she sat back.

Diana was grateful, that was for sure. She thought to ask about Hurk later—but needed to move with the flow of her current, more prominent thoughts. “Wow… You didn’t have to do that.”

“‘Course I did. Who else is gonna stand up to Crazy Earl anyhow?” With her perfectly plump red lips, Adelaide smirked. She stared at Diana a moment with a proud adoration only a mother could convey. “My goodness if only your mama and daddy could see you now. Such a shame, my dear. They loved you so much.”

Diana set down her cigarette and ran her hands over her face and through her damp hair. That was just it. How the hell was she supposed to go up against Whitehorse? Joey was in her way now too, and everything would be ramped up in security once word reached Henbane that Pratt was out of the picture.

“We need you, Di. We need you here. You’re the only one who has seen both sides. The Law and the Land.” Adelaide drove her point home, tugging at the bandana around her hair to straighten it. “Whether you wanna hear it or not, you are the key.”

Diana gulped. How the hell was she supposed to take that? The link between worlds, the only one who they thought could stand up to the Sherriff—the only hope they had left in the sea of the Forsaken… It was the truth, as hard and honest as it could be, the only kind Adelaide was known to serve up.

After a beat, Grace spoke again, exhaling deeply with a nod. “I gotta hand it to you. This is probably worse than… than fucking Troy.”

Flabbergasted at the notion, Diana couldn’t help but laugh. “Grace—I know you didn’t just call me Helen.”

“If the toga fits.” Grace smirked.

It was an odd little anecdote, but Diana saw that she made a connection there that was bizarrely close to their situation at hand. “And here I thought you were too busy doodling guns and trajectories to pay attention in World History.”

Grace sounded amused: “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

“I’m sure.” Diana nodded. She wouldn’t assume much more now. People she knew, faces she was familiar with, were still surprising her at every turn.

“Well…” Adelaide put out her cigarette in the ashtray and tactfully changed the subject, “word on the wire says Whitehorse and Hudson are retreating for now. Might not last long but it’ll be enough time to regroup. Maybe… catch up on things that need catchin’ up?”

Diana shrugged. She was at a loss, thoughts and questions and traumatic experiences ruining her current thought process so badly she thought she was still on the Bliss. She’d be eternally gratefully for the guidance of these ladies. “So… where do we go from here?”

Adelaide and Grace exchanged looks, before deciding it was time to bring her down to meet everyone.

Diana dreaded it, but willingly joined them, as she knew she couldn’t spare a minute to wallow as she’d more than likely let it catch up with her when it was all over. If she survived. Heading down the steps, she caught sight of the faces here to greet her… she saw them all. Eli, Wheaty, Sharky, a few they’d rescued from the Veteran’s center and her eyes were still a little blurry to catch and recognize every face in the room, but it was an impressive spread… It made her curious to know if Archer had made it out alive, and she created an imaginary bookmark to sort out what that confrontation would be like. She wondered what excuses he’d feed her—what sad, sob story he’d give her about fitting in to survive. Her fists clenched at the thought, but that was a molehill. She had a mountain of conflict in front of her, when the two gentlemen in question rose from their seats to greet her.

Neither of them stepped forward. Joseph faced her and watched on with a worried look in his beautiful eyes. Jacob stared somewhere beyond her but shoved his hands into his pockets as he respectfully stood from his chair. They both knew her so well. They both knew she needed space and that she would approach them if she so wished. They didn’t force themselves on her when she clearly wanted to be alone. At least, this time they did.

John was quietly in the back of the room against the window sill with his arms folded. He looked somber, which was a given, impatience written all over his face. A pained expression. She would leave him be, for now, knowing he needed space to fathom what was going on. They had a shared drive, she and John. She knew he was longing for Ana and his child at this moment.

Bypassing Joseph and Jacob altogether, Diana thanked everyone for meeting there, especially Eli. They all showed relief that she was alive, and before they could bombard her with questions and plans and things that would only prolong the inevitable, Eli whispered something into her ear. To this, she nodded. After one sharp whistle from the Whitetail leader, the room was cleared of every inhabitant from the space. Addie and Grace stepped out too and Eli was the last to leave, jutting his head in the direction he was headed to inform her that he would still be close by if needed. It was good to know he still had her back. Even after she strayed from much of his advice from before, but such was the relationship between Hope Evans and Eli Palmer. The same coin, different sides, bound by their odd friendship.

She appreciated that he would allow this break, that he would give her the chance to speak to her husband and the Father without direct intervention. Diana nodded at him before his exit and returned her attention to those who remained.

Jacob.

Joseph.

John had sauntered upstairs at some point, to pray, to focus… no matter what he did, she knew he would not relax for one second until they addressed what their next move would be. His absence left two-thirds of the family that ruined her life standing across the table, facing her.

Her verdant eyes were cold and unwelcoming, as chilly as the longest winter in the north, as she glanced between Jacob and Joseph. It was strange, the control she had at this moment. A family of talkers, speech-givers, motivational or conditional chatter usually took the spotlight from her by now. But they were still… and silent, like children who knew they were in trouble by their mother, and all she had to do was keep a strong demeanor and a powerful glare to keep their mouths shut.

Diana watched Joseph cling to the prayer beads in his hands as he focused on his own book on the tabletop. Diana saw how uncomfortable Jacob was getting, standing there in silence, so much that he had to wring his hands idly to keep the movement. There was fear between them, as if everything they worked for, all that they’ve been through thus far, was to meet at this crossroads.

“I suppose now is a good time to talk.” Diana finally said, pulling the chair out from her side of the table. Before she could ease into her seat, she placed her palms on the polished wood and leaned forward, a halo beaming down through her blue-black curls from the lamp that shone above her. “I suppose we all need to clear the air of so many things that have plagued this family for some time.”

Jacob’s lips quivered. Not as if he were going to cry, oh no, it was beyond that now. It wasn’t a weariness or tragedy. It was impatience. Joseph had a look of focus as he always did, mentally preparing himself for what was to come.

“Then tell me everything. Leave nothing out.” Diana looked at the two of them with a stern authority that demanded their obedience. “And start from the beginning.”

Chapter Text

Grandview Hotel
Whitetail Mountains
That Same Night…

 

Tick tock, goes the clock.
The words sail as a ship from the dock.
The world will fall to their knees
And all sins fade away…
And then
there were three…

 

Her mind had composed a silly rhyme to pass the time when they all sat there. Jacob had his arms folded, Joseph his fingers laced together in front of him on the table. Diana had stood up, pacing slightly in impatience as they had not done much aside from exchange irritable glances as to who would go first.

It had been a long time coming; a stand-off between three of the five figureheads in Eden’s Gate. And while it had little to do with actual church business, it involved the church entirely, and why Diana was here at all. She dreaded this moment since the night she left him there on the dock—but she hadn’t fathomed the gravitas of the conversation she was about to have.

It took a while to get the engines running, but when push came to shove—or rather, a furious threat to take the next flight out of Dodge from Diana, Jacob broke his silence.

“Fine… so what are we doing, hm? We’re just gonna hold hands and pray that Sheriff gets the message when we send Pratt to him in a bag and him and his friends will just up and leave us alone?”

Diana set her emerald glare on Jacob instantly. He wasn’t ever known for his patience, and as the clock ticked on, the aggravation of the repetitive noise against the palpable tension between them made him irritable.

“It’s time to regroup. Heal what wounds have been opened…” Joseph muttered, to which Diana nodded in agreement. “None of us are in any shape to go anywhere, we know that. So… we plan our next move. And in the meantime, clear up some things that have been brought up…”

Jacob’s brow’s furrowed, more than a little ticked off to see that this was the first time in a long time that Diana and Joseph agreed on something. They’d shared a distaste of one another, even if it seemed a little one-sided, where Diana would rather not face him—leaving Joseph to ask where she had been in her avoidance… So why are they being like this now? He wondered. He wanted to know what changed. He need to know. So, he had to step up to the plate first.

Running a hand over his beard, Jacob sat forward and did as his wife had asked. He had what she likened to a conversational shorthand, a way to paraphrase the events from his account that brought them to the present. He verified most of what she believed was true; how he met her after the Bliss explosion, the Judge bear attacks at the lodge where they escorted citizens to safety. It was followed up with her recovery from that accident, the mistrust in John who ratted them out when she stayed with him.

Slowly, she was starting to see in the clearing fog of her mind, corroborating the pieces given to her by Pratt and the others. Jacob did his best to fill in those blanks, everything seemed as if it had been caused by that dreadful drug, and the ultimate weapon of choice… The Bliss.

She said nothing, however.

No hmms or huh’s to validate him. It was difficult to discern truths from lies now, but she admired that he was candid, giving his own take on how he felt about John’s treatment of her, during the atonement, as she went through the trials of judgment.

He even summed up their first real night together; the night he brought her to her future home after she’d already been punished for sharing a bed with him. That had been for tempting him. But as he had assured her he would keep her safe from being punished again by his brothers, she let him in, trusted him, and they made love.

Joseph noticeably frowned at that. He struggled to keep his face neutral, hiding the disappointment in his eyes behind those yellow glasses.

Diana’s hand idly traced the scar she’d been cut with on her chest, LUST, one dangerously close to her scar of WRATH…and she huffed. It pissed her off she hadn’t discovered that one sooner, as it might have answered so much and spared them all of this heartbreak. “But… I saw you. That first night—before I went to the church. You were in the valley…”

When Diana peered at him, Jacob’s mouth became a stiff line, as if he’d been caught up in something he didn’t think she’d remember. But for all intents and purposes here, he would be honest. He nodded.

“I was wearing my greens that day, so you already knew—”

He shrugged. “I had a hunch, sure—”

“You can take that hunch and shove it up your ass. So, you were aware of that this whole time. You lied to me. All of you. Messed me up in something worse than I was in for…” Diana shook her head. “Top that with the fact that you had my brother…”

When she trailed off, Jacob recoiled. It was still a tender wound, the subject of her brother, one gouged open with no signs of letting up anytime soon. He was never going to live that down, and all the hatred for his former pet aside, it was a matter of time before she would discover that harsh reality. He would pay for that for the rest of his life, unless she felt it in her to kill him for it, blood for blood… and even though he hadn’t said it yet, he knew without a shadow of a doubt, would let her.

A sparkle of the diamonds on his chest caught her eye, and for a second, she peeked down at her wedding band on the chain holding his tags around his neck. She immediately regretted giving in to her curiosity, but it didn’t change the anger in her heart.

The Father, who had been sitting very still beside his brother cast a sidelong glance at Jacob before sighing softly.

Jacob exhaled softly. If he was going to get anywhere with this, he had to press on. He continued, “I heard at some point Whitehorse asked for a truce… hold all fire until they extracted you. We wanted to let you go. We even opened that door so many times, but you wanted to stay. You were stubborn as hell about it, you said you wanted to be here.”

Diana’s hands tightened around the back of the chair. She hadn’t sat down. She couldn’t bring herself to relax in a stand-off like this. “That didn’t give you the right to brainwash me. Condition me like all the rest.”

Jacob bristled. They’d all been through a hell of a time as of late, through talk after talk, endless disputes of persecution and blame… He even poised himself to walk away, sitting upright, but he remained in his seat for now. In some ways it seemed worse than when Pratt had him locked away in that cell. “You were adamant about being here, Di. I wouldn’t have picked you up from John’s that night, I wouldn’t have begged my brother to spare you from everything, or taken you home—to our home if I didn’t respect at least that—”

She scoffed.

“I…”

“What?” She asked.

He sat there for a second, staring at the grains in the fine-wood of the table before looking up at her again. Softly, he said, “I wouldn’t have asked you to marry me…”

Diana turned away. She was fidgeting—fuck she hated fidgeting—and it took everything within her not to reach over the table and add another welt where she’d clocked her husband just yesterday. “Don’t tug at that right now Jacob… don’t.”

Impatiently, Jacob threw his hands up. He might not have intended to sound so terse, so harsh, but her reaction to his outreach was beyond frustrating. “Well what kept you here then?”

“Jake…”

“What’s keeping you here now?”

“I-I don’t…” Her voice wavered, and when she turned back around, she couldn’t help but notice the look on Joseph’s face. He was fixated on her hands… he had been throughout this exchange, but it wasn’t until right now that he discovered something was missing.

Trailing that longing gaze of alluring sapphire to her face, he raised his brows in disbelief. This made Diana cover her hands nervously, because his distracting judgment of her naked hand was becoming overwhelming now.

“Yeah. This is all a fucking mess, Diana. Every retreat from the Forsaken was a chance for you to leave, but you didn’t. I fucked up, he fucked up—we all did. But the life we built together—all that bullshit in the past never changed how I feel about you.” Jacob said, as he leaned forward on the table. The mass of him nearly cleared half the space, a way of reaching for her without physically stretching his arm out, as not to seem too pitiful.

Diana shook her head. He was right… it was a mess. And she had no clue how to answer that. If she wanted to leave, and had been given opportunities to do so… why was she still here? Her entire family was gone, her blood family, and the one she married into had swept her up into madness. And then Jacob spoke in present tense—that he still might feel strongly for her, as she did for him, otherwise she wouldn’t have insisted to go after him when he’d been abducted.

Fuck, she thought.

“It was a mistake not to tell you but allow me to echo what my brother said. We’ve tried.” Joseph rose from his chair and moved to the window. “Perhaps not our greatest efforts to date—as I look back maybe we should have persisted…”

Jacob nodded, grimacing at the fact that he agreed with Joseph.

“But the fact remains… we’re in this now.”

Diana wondered if there was a time in this plot—in this ordeal—that she didn’t feel sick to her stomach.

“At first I thought you were too good to be true. You know, Nancy, she was always so loyal. But you… when you and your colleagues and your superiors descended upon our church… how you changed your ways when you saw us… how quickly you wanted to become part of our fold… I couldn’t believe for one second that it was a façade. I didn’t want to…” Joseph spoke in a solemn timbre, “but then, Whitehorse informed me about a plan he’d devised. I hoped wasn’t true, yet all signs kept pointing to you.”

She frowned. So that prick blew my cover… Even if it had been a critical failure, it bothered her to know Earl had gone against the code… to see the mission through, or abort if things went south. And it had done far more than simply “go south”, it turned inside out and then some. But he shouldn’t have crossed that line. She had agreed to the danger, after all.

“He said there was a traitor in our midst, begged for your life in exchange for his or one of his others.” Joseph explained. “But your reluctant steps at the church, when you helped us get away—and the way you came to me, and smiled, and agreed to join us, who was I to stand in your way of what you wanted to do?”

She knew how Joseph worked, a lot better than his own brothers, and that prelude was just the beginning of something that was going to be even more difficult for her to handle, and a revelation to her husband Jacob.

“We said that Hope had died. Because you became the woman you came here to be.”

 

*

Gethsemane Greenhouse
Henbane River
Weeks after the Invasion

 

“Are you alright?”

The book closed, and a few stray tears had fallen onto its cover. Diana traced her hand over the crest of the church that was embossed into the leather, wiping them away.

“Joseph, I…”

When she turned to look at him, she expected to get a scolding for stealing away without informing him, or even because she might have damaged such a sacred book. But instead, Joseph was smiling. “It’s quite alright. Faith told me you would be here.”

She’d been sitting in the gardens for some time, surrounded by the sweet aroma of wildflower and Bliss, calmed by the peaceful air that enveloped her. She’d asked Faith if she could find a quiet place to read, somewhere away from the island for a change. She didn’t know how many days had passed as she had become acclimated to the new place, her new home, settled in a small, humble cabin amongst the other women of Eden’s Gate. Faith agreed that she could seek a quiet retreat in one of her favored places in the Henbane region—as long as she had guards on watch.

Her cheeks flushed a bit, worried as she’d been caught unawares, by the Father himself. And she was crying, mixed emotions drawn up by the words she’d just finished reading. “I… um.…”

Stammering was hardly flattering, but she couldn’t find the right thing to say after scanning over the pages from cover to cover in the Book of Joseph.

His lips pursed together, almost sheepishly, but it was a look of understanding that he graced her with. “I see.”

Nervously, she’d set the book aside, and greeted him with a formal bow to which he politely waved away. She pressed down on the fabric of her white dress, straightening a few of the wrinkles that had settled when she sat down, and her voice was a slight whisper when she said, “I had no idea…”

It was a harrowing tale, the story of the Seeds, and the book had opened her eyes. It simply gutted her to know what he and his brothers had gone through to get where they were now, and it helped her gain more understanding of the why they were doing this… and perhaps, why they had chosen this place.

Joseph nodded. “Not many do. All of the technology in the world and this isn’t made to share in such a way. It’s as private as I let it be, believe me, my brother has tried convincing me to spread it wider than our reach here in this humble place… but it is only given to those who have made the choice… to walk the path and join us in Eden.”

He was close now, so dangerously close, when he came to a halt beside her. She felt his hands at her waist, turning her slightly to face him. And with his hands at her hips, Diana reached up to place her hands at his bare chest. She must have let a few more tears loose, but as she could hardly look up to at him, she could still see in her periphery that his normally stoic face had softened. His brows relaxed, pulled down a bit as he felt her fingertips at his skin.  

“There is no need for the tears. The book is just a chronicle of the past, something that is a part of me and my family that we hope to move on from, especially now that we are here.”

There was a finality to his words, as if he were staking his claim upon her. It was all so confusing, and new, being a part of this organization that had more to it than a simple follow the leader concept. It was a community, brought together by this one man and his pain—rallying his family to be his heralds, to stretch his voice into the County she had grown up in. For a moment, Diana wondered if her parents would have approved, but when she was near Joseph, there was a strong pull… a strong feeling in her gut that this was the right place to be. And the right person to be with.

“I-I’m sorry if my absence disturbed any of the tasks you had for today. I know you are a very busy man…”

Joseph’s lips curled into a small grin, a chuckle exhaled through his nose. He shook his head. “Hardly disturbed, and no trouble at all.”

But it raised the questions, so many of them, as to why he had zeroed in on her when there were plenty of priestesses who were more than willing to go as far as die for him. She was new, someone insignificant, but he was surely placing her on a pedestal above the rest.

Her induction into the church had only just begun. Diana knew that. It made for a few sleepless nights and caused her stomach to be riddled with anxiety, but when he spoke, she was instantly put at ease at the sound of his voice. Warm breath escaped her lips as she ventured to touch him, fingers absently stroking the exposed skin of his well-toned chest.

Somewhat surprised at her actions, Joseph hummed softly, almost too light to be missed by anyone. But there was little distance between them that she even felt the rumble of his voice when she touched him. Her fingers lightly traced each line, each scar that he donned, each tattoo he had there. The crown. The birds. The scars of sin. She felt his muscles flex, and he let out a shudder at her feather-light grace.

Reaching up with his left hand, Joseph gripped her wrist, and then slowly moved to take her hand in his. With his right, his fingers curled under her chin, tipping her head up to look into his eyes.

Those mysterious, hypnotizing eyes. Pools of blue met her verdant orbs as she lost herself there. It was so serene, this scene alone, the chittering of passing wildlife, the soothing fragrance of the flowers mixed with their own—almost dizzying with the flowers of Bliss—and the light that shown down above them. But his presence only amplified that. That calming presence…

“I would make all the time in the world for you.” He said, his voice low and smooth.

And he closed the distance, leaning down to press his lips against hers. Melting into his kiss, Diana wrapped her arms about his neck, feeling him pull her against him, his hands lightly squeezing at her hips.

In that moment, all was forgotten. Their surroundings, the patrols that were told to stay far away from where they were, but close enough to keep watch, especially since the Father was present. They had each other, they needed each other, and Diana willingly gave herself to him.

 

*

 

Grand View Hotel
Whitetail Mountains
Present Day

 

“What…” Jacob trailed off.

His voice snapped her out of her daze.

Diana closed her eyes. She was turned away from the two, listening to the shuffle as Jacob impatiently shifted in his seat. She was thankful he’d been spared the erotic details of that memory, but she remembered then. Every kiss, every touch, every movement of her body linked with Joseph’s in that garden of Bliss. But it also drew back the painful memory of what followed; because of the sin they had committed, there were scars of repentance she wore on her flesh.

“And I was never told about that, why?” Jacob’s raised voice caused Diana to wince. He was at a loss, hearing this for the first time in the two years since Diana had arrived. Of course, he was right to be angry.

“You didn’t need to know.”

“The fuck I didn’t—”

“Due to her origin—the fact that she came to us originally to arrest us only to change her mind, I had her kept close. In the camp, yes.”

Jacob scoffed, muttering more vulgar insults into the air as he did. He tried to keep breathing, to keep himself from destroying everything in sight, and it was apparent that it was difficult to hold that all inside.

“Unfortunately, brother… That’s not where it ended.”

“Of course not.” Jacob growled.

“Joseph…” Diana pleaded.

“No. He has to hear this. We said he deserves to know, we agreed, yes? And when else would we have a break in the storm to tell him?”

Jacob huffed, the bristle of his beard heard as he ran his hand over his face. “Tell me… just fucking tell me then, since we’re all enjoying this little sharing hour, right? Then what? What else don’t I know?”

Diana could hear her heart thudding in her ears. All the twisted paths they had taken, together or separately, had come to this crossroads. Why she had been so distant from Joseph, why she didn’t want to get too close to him again. But she wondered what else he had to say, as the first recollection was damaging enough.

“Not long after, she wanted to leave.”

Diana scoffed, shaking her head as if he’d just insulted her. It was indeed hard to forget the treachery laid against her, when she could still feel the bumps of scarring on her arms and back. She clearly remembered… “Because I couldn’t take the pain anymore. What went on behind the closed doors to your priestesses… what you continue to do to Leah, what you did to me… It disgusts me to this day that I was forced to repent for what you were doing to me.”

Jacob gasped, as if that wasn’t what he’d expected to hear. “You… what?” He gritted his teeth. “You…” His words were lost in the fury, and he clamped his mouth shut in fear he would say something he might soon regret. But that internal debate raged on within him, as they seemingly had nothing to lose now… aside from each other. Resentment and regret came over him; Jacob knew he had nowhere to go if he left the County, and he had fought so hard to get off of those streets when he came back from the war. He would never go back to that again. And while he weighed the dilemma of venturing out like a lone wolf would, he wanted to remain here at least until Joseph was through speaking, to at least justify any separation if that need would arise.

Joseph gulped. It wasn’t common knowledge that his harem of priestesses would commit such foul deeds in the name of the Father—only to suffer penance for their sins. Lust, above all else, was one of them. “She…” He turned removed his yellow-tinted shades from his face and tucked the arm of it onto his vest before casting a glance at Diana over his shoulder. “She was one of them. Yes.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jacob raised his voice again, only to be cut off when Joseph continued.

“…And I regret what I have done. Please forgive me.”

“That’s not how it works, Joseph, you fucking know better than that—I thought we agreed—I never signed off on that shit, the stuff you and John were so famous for doing, I didn’t want any of that and yet you had the fucking gall to hurt her!” His words, though jumbled in his anger, had a tremendous weight on them, especially when he said, “Our own fucking parents paved the way we didn’t want to take and—you just… you… I can’t…”

Jacob was so furious, he rose from his chair so fast and it tumbled back onto the floor. He darted in one direction before stopping just short of exiting the room. He didn’t know where to go. He had nowhere to go, really. And as much as he wanted to get as far away from his brother before decking him, he delivered a thundering punch onto the back of the couch nearby. It would suffice for now. “Unbelievable…”

Diana wanted to go to him, but she didn’t, watching him with wide, worried eyes.

Joseph didn’t let Jacob’s words get to him. At least, physically. It what he thought would be the right thing to say, to air the mental scars their abusive parents had left him with, and as he viewed them in hindsight, it internally crushed him. But he went on: “Before I sent Hope to… be set free with Faith… The last time I saw her was at the Sanctuary. Bliss cleared anything she didn’t want to remember, and the incident at the lodge that followed still holds true. That was the start of your life together… but believe me when I say that that chance meeting didn’t come without a price.” His voice shook. “I… I lost her only for you to find her…”

“Fuck off,” Jacob clucked his tongue, laughing ironically at his brother. “So that’s why you were so against us being together? Why you forced her to stay at John’s Gate, when all she was doing was trying to ease my own suffering that night. Yes, I’m a liar, but by my count we all are!”

Diana closed her eyes, the constant push and pull, rise and fall of everyone’s argument nearly tearing her apart. Nothing was in the right here. They were getting nowhere except more and more broken by the second.

Jacob faced her, “But I swear to you we didn’t do anything then—we didn’t do anything until after I found out she was forced to go through the atonement twice!”

“She was to be treated like any other member of our church—”

“The fuck she was!” Jacob exclaimed. “Picking and choosing what policies you created for this damnable project? Celibacy and prohibition—when you were fucking each of those women, and the Bliss that’s worse than anything John’s brought in, and you turn a blind fucking eye. I never agreed to put you through all that, Di—please know that—I didn’t know.”

Diana breathed out, surprised to see a silver lining here that he hadn’t completely lost his cool, that he hadn’t yet thrown anything across the room. But the rage and anger was palpable, she could feel it, and at the moment she was confused to see it mostly directed at Joseph. Softly, she replied: “I know you didn’t, Jake.”

Joseph turned, narrowing his eyes at his elder brother. “And the trials? The piles of bodies when we asked for no casualties. Testing it over and over and watching it fail, only to succeed when you used the song, one that you knew she loved—”

Jacob’s eyebrows raised. “No, that’s—”

“No different than what we did. Me, John, Faith.”

Jacob huffed in frustration. He was practically vibrating with such animosity toward Joseph, especially as he felt trapped by his words. No matter what direction he turned, no matter what he said, they were all caught up in this massive web of deceit.

“And our legacy… ruined. Now our only chance is out there. That was something we nearly had, before you two found each other.”

“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Jacob asked, his eyes shifting from Joseph to Diana.

“I-I don’t even know what he’s referring to.”

Jacob’s broad hands flexed at his sides, moving until he was equidistant from Joseph as his wife, and stopped at the back of the lounge couch again. Leaning down, Jacob calmed himself, slowed his breathing some. But it hardly eased the tension in his shoulders that stiffened his entire body.

Joseph waited a beat. They were all present, but facing away from one another, unable to look each other in the eye—especially for the piece of the puzzle he was about to reveal.

 

*

 

The Infirmary
Joseph Seed’s Sanctuary
About 2 and a half years ago…

 

“How is she?” Joseph asked.

The doctor just hung his clipboard on the hook beside the door, offering a quick bow to Joseph before addressing his question. “She’s awake. Still not eating, and she’s weak… but you can see her now.”

It wasn’t so much permission that he’d been granted, more of a warning of what he was about to walk into. Diana had made it clear she didn’t want any visitors until today, so Joseph wanted to be sure he came to see her before anything else stole his attentions away. Church business, one-on-one meetings with his followers, sermon preparations… that was all bumped down to cater to his need to see her.

The Father’s steps were quiet when he entered the room, but she stirred, knowing that the peace had been disturbed.

Raven hair splayed out on her pillow, and Diana was facing the window. She slightly tensed when the door clicked shut and tried to focus on the rays of light that were peering through the window, the amber glow of sunset before the night. “Go away…”

“You know I can’t do that.” Joseph whispered, walking further into the room. He rounded the end of the bed, her frail body curled in almost a fetal position beneath the heavily padded comforter.

Her pale skin had a blue tint to it, signs of exhaustion, dehydration and malnourishment evident. It pained Joseph to see her in such a condition, but he didn’t find her any less beautiful. As he lowered himself into the chair beside the bed, he didn’t once take his eyes off her. The cushion creaked and whined when he pulled it closer, in an attempt to show her that he would likely be there awhile.

Her brilliant eyes were a stark contrast against her sallowness, staring daggers at him when he sat there. She didn’t reach for him, as he might have been expecting, she remained still in the position she found most comfortable. Joseph reached for her hand, that felt like ice, bony fingers that would not latch onto his grasp. It was clear she didn’t want him there.

They sat in silence for what felt like an eternity. The second-hand of the clock ticking along to fill the dreadful quiet. Joseph watched her thinned eyelashes bat as she blinked, unsettled to hear the struggle she had with her own breath.

“I’m… sorry…” He whispered, “I never wanted this to happen.”

Pulling her eyes away from Joseph, she looked beyond where he sat to the window again. The gaze she held, once full of life, had faded. The smile he’d be graced with replaced with a perpetual frown. She swallowed hard, the sensation of gravel in her dried throat. “Then you don’t have to worry anymore. Because it won’t…”

Joseph slouched, an unusual sight to behold, but he was disappointed in her demeanor. Of course, she had every right to feel so dejected, a mutual feeling shared as he’d spent days mourning everything that had come to pass. “It was going to be us. All of us. Our home here would finally be filled with more joy than our two hearts could bring, more glory in our legacy.”

“And something that will never be.” She added, her voice flat and emotionless. And yet, filled with such despair that it hurt him.

Joseph’s tongue traced his own lips as he wondered what he could possibly say to help her, to pull her out of this mindset… to give her hope again. It was difficult to keep his eyes on her, because he wanted more than anything to bring her home, where he would assure her that he would protect her, and that they could get through this together. It was a trial set forth for the two of them, but he had faith they would be able to overcome it. The trouble brewing within him now, however, was how to convey that to her without seeming too overbearing.

But then, Diana spoke. It would have been missed, too, if he hadn’t been so fixated on her at that moment. “I want out…”

His gut twisted, everything he’d been carrying thus far; a shining optimism to get her through this, dissipated. Joseph’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned closer to her. “We can’t let this set us back, Diana. We can try again and—”

Shaking her head, Diana insisted, “No.” She released his hand immediately and whimpered as she rolled onto her back, trying to separate from him as best as she could, being confined by her own aching body to the bed. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t live here. I can’t stand this place… just look at me!” She sat up, her once peaceful face contorted into something filled with desperation and physical pain.

“You are clear to remain here until you are well again, and no one will disturb you, I can assure you that. And when we get home, I will be there for you, as much as I am now…” It wasn’t exactly what he wanted to say, but Joseph felt that concise thought was enough to get the point across.

Her glistening eyes rolled a bit as if she were turned off by his implication. That he’d want to keep her there, and that he’d want to do this all over again. “No… I’m not going through this, not again. Not for anyone… not for me, and especially not for you!”

Her words were weighted, an undertone that there was more than just the loss of their unborn child that made her insist on this decision. Tears streamed down her cheeks when she showed him that the bump in her belly had gone, that it left her in a weakened state, so fragile and empty. Situations like this took a toll on one’s body, that much he understood, but Diana had endured the brunt of it, the loss, the pain, everything.

Joseph sat back, disbelief in his own expression. He felt as if he’d been swept up in a storm, her insistence to leave hammered down by the display of her current condition. It was realization that had crashed down on him now. It was almost like all those years ago when he’d lost his Faith, and unfortunate loss of his first child. He thought it would be a fresh start, something changed in the lull of the heated battle with Whitehorse having retreated for a while, that he could bring her and their baby, a new family into Eden. But it fled as swiftly as it arrived—his chance to be a father again. It was gone.

His mind was swimming now with rage, with hatred, with regret—something that had a chance of making him stray from his own convictions. He was watching and trying to listen to her as she was still going on about it now, but her words were jumbled in his ears.

She wanted to leave him, that was the overall message he could comprehend.

Instead of forcefully pinning her down to simultaneously calm her and talk sense into her, and maybe convince her to stay, he simply stood and cast a shadowy gaze upon her.

“As you wish.” He said quietly, pulling the yellow glasses onto his face before speaking again. “We can fetch your things, and you will go.” There was barely time for a reprieve, for Diana to recoil with relief, when he added, “and Leah will see you transported safely to John’s Gate. Where you go from there is your choice…”

Diana sharply gasped, furiously shaking her head when he’d realized what he’d said. “No—”

“It didn’t have to end like this, Diana. We would have been… unstoppable.” There was something ominous in the way he said those words that left her with an eerie tingle down her spine.

Joseph turned heel, intent on retreating to his home, certain that this would be the last time he would ever see her ever in this capacity, ever again.

“Joseph? JOSEPH!”

Chapter Text

Grandview Hotel
Whitetail Mountains
The Next Day

She remembers the smell of coffee in the hotel.

She hadn’t slept a wink. How could she when her husband was just next door, probably having just as much trouble sleeping too? He’d gone away after Joseph recalled the days after she’d lost their baby, finding it too much for him to handle anymore. Everything he tried to bottle up forced him out of there. Bringing that memory to the surface was debilitating to her own sanity, so much that she didn’t remember how the hell she got to her room that night.

There was shouting, so much of it, to where Jacob was in his brother’s face, just ready to knock him out for it—and then the blur of Eli and Adelaide coming to put out the fire that Joseph started. And when the door slammed, everything else went black.

But she couldn’t blame Jacob for how he reacted.

And when she closed her eyes, flickers of distant times kept rushing back to her.

How the arms of her husband always made her feel safe—the vow he’d made to her before their wedding—that he would protect her.

Then, there were times with Joseph… waking up with his arm draped over her hips, his nose nestled in the crook of her neck, and the calming presence of being with him.

The picnic in the mountains.

The fields of Bliss.

She found it was best to keep her eyes open than be haunted by the images she’d been trying to suppress.

When she dressed for the day, Diana took a moment to leave her room. It was early morning, so Grace, Eli and a few of the early-risers were wandering about, and she quietly walked, avoiding their attention. Or as she wanted to justify it, it was as not to disturb them.

She stopped at Jacob’s door that morning, got as far as raising her hand to knock, but she didn’t. Even with a tremulous hand on the doorknob, she tried to force herself to go inside—but she couldn’t. In her mind she assumed he might have yelled right in her face then, if he even bothered to answer it.

So… she left him alone.

Diana intended on leaving the hotel altogether, taking off without a word to anyone in her company, but she knew there was something she wanted to do first… no… something she needed to do.

Finding her way outside, she stepped around the building, careful not to alert anyone out there. Even if she’d been caught she would have somehow stolen away to where she wanted to go, but it would cause more of a ruckus than she wanted to deal with now, that she kept light on her feet, until she rounded the corner behind the nearby shed.

“Who’s there?” A boy’s voice asked, whimpering from the corner of his steel confines.

Stalking toward the old, rusted Judge cage slowly… quietly… Diana fixated on the boy’s face. She’d only recently come to know where Archer had been kept, thanks to two of Eli’s men talking about their guard shifts. With no one in sight, she was proud that she’d picked the perfect time to come out here, to visit the boy who had the nerve to betray her, and Jacob.

“Please… Please you have to get me out of here!” His head turned left and right, and with his hands bound behind his back, he found it difficult to remove his blindfold.

Stopping just beside the metal cell, Diana watched him. She observed the pitiful sight, the traitor begging and pleading to be set free. Thoughts rushed back to her of the numerous times she and Jacob went out of their way to treat him and Morris as if they were their own children. Training them to fight, teaching them how to handle a gun, inviting them for a meal when the rest of their soldiers were reduced to the leftover slop and gruel in the Veteran’s Center mess hall. Her lips twitched, that betrayal still too fresh for her to fully handle when she thought back to the very fresh memory of the way he’d treated Jacob. She closed her eyes when she thought of him stabbing the blade into Jacob’s shoulders, electrocuting him at Pratt’s command.

Diana tasted bile at her lips again, at the thought of Staci Pratt. Regardless if he’d become the Madman of the county, Pratt was supposed to have been her colleague and friend—one of the main reasons she’d been involved in this operation at all, and from the day they landed to his last breath, he’d burned that trust to ash.

She didn’t know when she pulled her gun out of its holster, but she used the handle to pound on the cage. The boy jumped, rattled by the noise and he scooted as far back as he could. His fearful struggle to move away had loosened his blindfold until it slid down, and his eyes were settled on her in terror.

“No! Mrs. Seed I—no, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, I’m—” He knew that he might have been killed then, as he stared down the barrel of her gun.

Diana said nothing, watching him down the sights, as he began to cry. It should have moved her. It should have convinced her that he had taken some missteps and might deserve another chance on life. As she watched him, observing how everything was crumbling for him at that instant, her shaking hands pulled the hammer back.

The more he sobbed, thrashing as loudly as he could to alert the others, Diana knew that at least for a few minutes, no one would come. She was at a crossroads, debating whether or not she should cause him pain, end his life, to pay for everything he’d caused for her and her family. She remembered the looks she’d exchange with Morris, versus the ones shared with him back at home. There was obviously greed and pride when it came to Morris, but Archer…

He was… afraid. Somehow coerced by Pratt and Morris to do all of that. Of course, he would be the only one left alive. The weak link, the one who felt some remorse for what deeds he committed against the family.

“It was Pratt… M-Morris, he told me it was the only way, I-I didn’t want to, I—I’m so sorry…” The more he blabbered on, Diana was sure someone would take notice of them soon.

The longer she stood there, the faster her heart raced as she contemplated her decision. Everything could change in a heartbeat, she knew, and if she had his blood on her hands, it would never end. Blood begets blood, she thought to herself, flashing back to an argument she once had with the Seeds when she’d taken up her post as Jacob’s Regent. But what was she to do? Let him free and give him another chance that he didn’t deserve because of what he’d done?

A vengeful stare was all she’d give him, still holding the gun up to the cage, and after a moment, a flicker of her brother’s face was cast over Archer’s. She gasped, frightened by the sudden flash, and the screaming Oliver must have done when Pratt and the others did this very thing to him before.

FUCK!

What was she to do? Why was her mind doing this to her now? The tingle of Wrath prickled at her senses. That song Oliver and the others must have heard—that fucking song—came back to her, and wrapped her in a cocoon of rage and retribution, urging her to take the shot. This was to pay for what he’d done—wasn’t that what the church did? Punish those who stood against them, and by following Pratt, Archer did far more damage than he would ever know. He deserved this, didn’t he?  

With her finger shaking over the trigger, and the boy crumpled in a display of terror that his life might surely be over, Diana heard the words of the Father echo in her mind.

Sometimes it’s best to do nothing at all… Just walk away.

The answer she’d needed to hear had come. It silenced everything else. The fury, the violent desire, the need to end the life of this boy. There was a scornful look in her own eyes as she relaxed, moving her finger away from the trigger. It wouldn’t be worth it, she knew. It would only temporarily satisfy her thirst for blood and balance, but it wouldn’t satiate the beast of revenge that was in desperate need to tear down anyone associated with her old colleagues, and Whitehorse.

She couldn’t do it.

 

The Devil’s Drop
Whitetail Mountains
That afternoon

 

There was a light trickle of rain under the dark pillows of clouds that shrouded the area.

After what’d happened the night before, and her battle of conscience at Archer’s makeshift cell, she set out alone to clear her head. She needed to see the grave again, to visit the last of her family buried there. Since the cemetery containing her parents was a dark zone, and heavily guarded by Whitehorse’s men, Oli was the closest thing she had of her past she desperately needed to see. Times were far from peaceful, and even if she bothered to ask for a partial truce to see them, it would be far too dangerous to go there. But the desire was there, and her heart ached because of it.

She’d been warned not to go outside, but she needed to take a breath of fresh air. Learning all of these new things, filling in the blanks that her husband and brother-in-law had known all this time was suffocating. If it was anything she feared, it was the walls closing in on her, and everything that had been said so far had destroyed her.

When she arrived, she unleashed everything. She had punched the rock wall and yelled. She screamed into the mouth of that inlet so loudly her voice bounced back, the force of her shout so powerful and freeing, though it felt like she’d knocked the wind out of herself. Stumbling on her hands and knees in the mud, she fell beside his gravesite in agony, weeping harder than she had ever had in the last month since her world crumbled. When the Seeds had been taken, finding everything in her world in disarray—that would never compete with the loss of her baby brother.

It wrecked her inside to hear the last story that Joseph told, one she had repressed so far down it had almost been forgotten. But the smell of the sterile infirmary of the women’s camp was far from erased. She clutched at her belly, remembering the dark-haired boy that ran to her in that Bliss-dream, in that… nightmare.

Was that what could have been…?

She’d always thought she might have a girl, but no matter what, she would have wanted to experience that—to bring a child into this world, and she would love them with everything she had. And it was gone. At her age, and the time rapidly ticking away, bundled into the fact that they were constantly at war, made the possibility practically non-existent. She wasn’t even sure if she would want to risk bringing a child into the thick of the mess she was in. It wouldn’t be fair to them.

Diana clawed her hands and began into the earth, thinking that she might reach him if she kept digging, but about three feet down, she felt nauseated. Disgusted. She loathed herself with the thought of disturbing his grave… so she stopped. And scrambling out of the small hole, she retched—and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the ground. She hated the taste of Bliss, but it was the only thing that made her relax after her conversation with Joseph and Jacob that had gone completely awry after he brought up the loss of her child. Of their child. It made Diana feel even worse, as children had always been a touchy subject between her and Jacob for some time.

Now she was left with everything and yet, nothing, after they spoke. She deserved to know what they’d said, and yes, Jacob needed to hear it all—and that was what kept her away for the day. It was a matter of when, not if, she would retreat to the hotel, it was likely Diana would find herself alone again in the empty bedroom.

Wiping the bile from her lips and the bitter tears from her face, she stood. She kicked dirt over her mess to hide the rancid stench and called it good, plopping down beside the cross that held fast to the marker, the red ribbon… with the tattered piece she’d been given by Pratt wrapped around her wrist as a reminder. A memorial.

“I wanted it to be different, Oli, I did. I wanted to find you. I wanted you to be alive and…” Diana trailed off, speaking to him as if he were sitting right beside her, alive and well.

Though not a God-fearing woman until she arrived here—she prayed. She hoped her mother could hear her… her father too, and Oli would be with them, she knew. She was thankful they weren’t around to see the hell-on-earth that had become of their beloved home.

“I miss you… I miss all of you…” She said into the air, sobbing softly. “But maybe it’s better you aren’t here for this…”

Perhaps it was the hope she’d felt that they might have heard her, but the howl of the wind blowing through with the ominous clouds that were rolling in seemed like they had. She’d still wonder if they would ever forgive her, but she tried to bring herself down from the overwhelming emotions that had beat down on her.

Moments passed, and she wasn’t sure how much time exactly. The only thing she was pleased with now was that it was quiet here. No chatter from the Whitetail militia and old friends, no thudding footsteps of people wandering about the hotel, no one come to see if she was okay. It was just her, Oliver, and the bodies lying here in the boneyard of death and despair.

Why is this happening to me? She thought, on her journey back. Why had she been chosen for such a mission that was supposed to be simple, a one and done, but here she was, years later with a world of pain and confusion, in a place torn by a war that no one knew about, and a broken heart.

 

The Grandview Hotel
Whitetail Mountains
Later on that evening…

 

The sun had set moments ago, and the twilight hour was nothing short of mesmerizing. This was the landscape she wanted to cherish since she didn’t know how long the settled peace would last. Diana found herself wandering at the shoreline near the hotel, the mud and dirt washed away in the rain water that fell when she got back. It might have done her some good to go inside and change, but it would take her a while to muster up the energy and courage to head inside. She was far more comforted, rejuvenated even, by the light of the moon that peeked through the thick patches of clouds overhead. A solemn sanctuary, she always called it, a place in the outdoors to herself, and she clutched to the moon pendant around her neck.

“Where’ve you been all day?”

The voice caught her by surprise, and her immediate instinct was to draw the blade from her holster and hold it out to them, bringing it close to their neck. Her knuckles where white as she tightened her grip on the handle, wide green eyes meeting a mahogany brown and she soon realized who’d come to speak to her.

“Whoa there, cowboy. No need for that.”

“Eli…” She relaxed, feeling her body loosen from the tight knots that formed at his approach. Eli had taken a jab at a piece of their past, when they would play together as kids, your standard Cowboys and Indians sort of hunt and rivalry, between her siblings, him, and the other children in town. She loved her guns and fancier hardware, as he preferred the silent, natural weaponry. They used to be thick as thieves… and now… she wasn’t sure.

Eli’s features softened as he chuckled softly, putting his hands down from being raised up to down at his sides. Eli waved away the guard of Grace and one other she couldn’t see, and the pair hesitated before taking their leave. He turned to her, shaking the hair out of his face before asking, “You alright?”

She shrugged. “As I can be.”

“I’m uh…” He sighed. “I’m sorry about Oli.”

Diana shook her head, wanting to leave the memory of him alone for awhile.

“That’s where you went, didn’t you?” Eli pressed.

She whipped around to face him. “I came out here to be alone, not to be yelled at for leaving—”

“I’m not here to do that. I just wanted to check in. Things got…” He puffed out a breath of air with a shrug, “a little heated last night.”

With a grunt in response, she agreed, even if it was a clear understatement of that night’s events.

“I just wanted to tell you that we spent a lot of time trying to find him when we heard he got taken, Di. I want you to know.”

“It’s okay,” she shrugged it off. This was an olive branch, she knew, something Eli didn’t have to say to her at all, but the efforts put forth by him were still appreciated. Thinking about what her brother must have gone through, everything Jacob put their soldiers through, made her skin itch. It took a beat to finally say, “Thank you, Eli.”

He hummed back, nodding solemnly at her response, as if he were surprised to hear it.  

But that resolve was brief, before she added: “The last time we saw each other you sent me out alone… to die,”

With a furrowed brow, Eli peered over at her. “And did you?”

Diana scoffed. “Now’s really not the time for this—”

“Now is the time, more than ever, kid.”

She glowered in his general direction. He always called her kid, treated her like they were more distant generationally than they really were, but they both knew that wasn’t true. Diana had always been grateful for Eli’s family being there for her when her mother was sick, but there were so many sick, unforgiveable turns since her time back that she wasn’t sure what their friendship could be considered now. An unholy alliance, that was for sure.

It was obvious he had more to say, but Eli shifted the conversation. “I think one of your pups had a visitor today. Know anything about that?”

Diana felt a grimace pull at her lips. She knew the little shit might say something, or maybe she left a set of footprints behind that made it all too obvious she’d been there at Archer’s cell. She was chilled by how close she was to actually executing the boy. He’d pleaded, cried and even pissed himself when she took aim—and she wanted to tell him that he might’ve had Joseph to thank for sparing his pathetic life. While part of her needed that release, for something to be set right for once, she was still unsure if she’d made the right call.

A bit uneasy at her silence, Eli sighed. “Kid was just doing what he was told, you know. It’s a bitter pill to swallow ‘n all but… guess we gotta figure out what to do with him now.”

Regardless of what they wanted to do with the boy, she convinced herself it was better not to care. He’d crossed the line, orders or not, and even though she knew exactly what it felt like to be an operative forced to do things they didn’t want to… she would leave it up to fate now. Wherever the Church would stand when it was all over, she wanted nothing to do with him.

He should just be grateful it was me and not Jake… She thought, wanting to say that aloud, but instead went with her chance to turn the conversation.

“Eli, how did they manage to convince you of this? All of this? When I came to you, you were pretty sure you didn’t want to help us, and now…?”

The grizzled man scratched the back of his neck as she asked him that, a nervous grimace on his face. “To be honest, I didn’t want to.” He paused to gauge how she might handle that, but then continued, “I was ready to ship Joseph and John back to the Sanctuary, let ‘em off ‘n all just like I had you. That was all before they hit me with an idea I didn’t think we’d ever agree on.”

“And what’s that?”

Eli breathed out softly. There was much seriousness in his face, a colder demeanor than when they originally started speaking. “If we do this… If we try an’ nix the war between your family and Whitehorse? The County is ours. Y’all can get up and go wherever your little hearts wanna take ya, and leave us the hell alone.”

Her mouth clamped shut. Any response was rendered invalid as he explained since it floored her. Where would they go? Why would Joseph agree to all of that—how the hell were they going to relocate everything, if they managed to survive? Did it matter?

“John there told us he had much more at stake than a house and things. That it went beyond the sick and twisted ideals Joseph’s church had goin’. Kinda caught me off-guard, not gonna lie, since I’ve always known that boy to be a greedy ass bastard.” Eli huffed. “But then he told me all about his girl and the kid, and the danger they’re in now that Hudson’s taken Seed Ranch.”

A knot in Diana’s stomach twisted.

“No one should go through anything like that. Me, you, the Seeds—no one. Bundle that up with the promise of you guys taking off… I figure it might be in our best interest to just push past this and get you the tickets outta town to get the hell out of our hair. Maybe then, we can all get on with our lives.”

His explanation, peppered with a few harsher words than she’d expected, made it clear to Diana where Eli currently stood. She was still perplexed, not fully convinced he was actually behind this. Not to mention his words cut her. They might have been fighting on opposite sides for some time, but part of her still wanted to mend this with Eli.

But something was still bothering her. “And Tammy? Wheaty? What about Jess—you can’t tell me they’re onboard.”

“They’re not.” He said quickly.

Now that it was mentioned, Diana was sure she hadn’t seen any of them at the skirmish at the Veteran’s Center, or at the hotel. It should’ve been obvious, as none of them cared for the Seeds, and her association with them either. Guilt washed over her. The last thing she wanted was to have fragmented the ranks of Eli’s militia, but ultimately, he was their leader, and had the power to flex in either direction, at his discretion.

“Thank you, Eli.” Was all she could say, and it was quiet, and meek. Any doubts she had about him being there for her fizzled away.

“Don’t go thankin’ me yet. We have a long road ahead of us. Two down and two to go… Whitehorse isn’t going to take any of this lightly. Not to mention we still have a few of our own who feel the same as Tammy and them so…” He trailed off, taking a deep breath before looking at her again. “Just thank me when this is all over, alright?”

It wasn’t what she thought she’d even deserved, from Eli; civil conversation that sparked, after the long day of being torn apart by her emotions, was welcome. She was grateful for the truce, as fragile as it might stand, and she was relieved to have him there with her. He was a part of her past, as much as he’d been there for her presently, and he’d kept her grounded while the others sent her flying through the painful memories of the past.

Unfortunately, the moment was interrupted with the arrival of a new presence on the shore.

Just as Diana had threatened Eli moments ago, Eli turned his gun on the man who’d come out to join them. He aimed at Joseph, in a clear threat of territorial protection over Diana. She instinctively stepped in front of his gun in an attempt to diffuse any spat between rival leaders.

“Step aside.” He growled at her, dark brown orbs shadowed as the moon cast its light on them.

Joseph raised an eyebrow, his hands out and open to show he meant them no harm. “I thought we were past this.”

Eli scoffed. “Our ‘agreement’ hasn’t limited anything on me, Seed.”

“I’m here to speak with her.” He gestured toward Diana, which drew another sound of disproval from Eli.

“And what if she doesn’t want to speak to you?”

Diana reached up slowly and put her hand over the top of his gun, gently guiding it down to the ground. “It’s alright, Eli. Really.”

With his glare fixated on Joseph, Eli allowed Diana to step back as he holstered his gun. Whatever went down last night, when Diana lost all sense of where everyone had gone in the tussle between Joseph and his brother, had clearly left a sour taste in Eli’s mouth. It’d been tense between the militia and the church anyhow, but that must have made things even worse, putting all of the Seeds on thin ice in this unstable truce.

He looked over at Diana one last time before nodding at her, that same signal he’d given her before that he’d still be nearby. Eli eventually retreated, granting Diana the chance to speak with the newcomer.

Joseph waited a moment until they were completely alone, breathing in the night air, and then he finally spoke. “I somehow knew I would find you here.”

The earth crunched beneath his boots as he strolled up beside her. With his hands in his pockets, he sighed, drinking in the same beautiful landscape she’d been enjoying. He didn’t want to say it, but he found it even more breathtaking with her in it. Instead, he wanted to warn her. “The passing of Pratt doesn’t mean you’re safe from the Forsaken, you know.”

It was Joseph’s way of somewhat scolding her for taking off, but she let it roll off her back.

“We should get back inside. It’s safer there.” Joseph reached out to her, with a slight smile. His allure was ever-present… always.

She jerked her head in the direction of the torches that were patrolling the perimeter around the hotel, and then in the direction where Eli had wandered off. It indicated that she didn’t care for Joseph’s honey-venom candor—that he was trying to be some sort of white knight to her, the damsel in distress. In all honesty, Diana felt safer out here, with Eli and his guards on watch, even if Joseph was right.

Diana wasn’t sure whether she should take his hand or tell him to piss off. As the latter would grant her brief satisfaction, she decided she didn’t care to waste the energy. She’d learned in the past that pushing him away never worked, and it would do her no good to do it now.

“We’re never safe,” she muttered.

Joseph was rarely at a loss for words, and even though he knew she far preferred the sound of silence for now, he addressed the topic he knew she’d been pondering, and the reason why she’d stepped off the premises for a while today. “Listen… I am truly sorry for your loss…”

Diana winced. Condolences and regards would more than likely become a mandatory greeting to her, she was sure of it, but it didn’t change a damn thing. It just made the acceptance more difficult to overcome. But after a moment, she wondered what he actually meant. Was Joseph consoling her, giving regards to her brother or was it their child that she was mourning? Both related by blood, only she hadn’t had the chance to know her child, and that made the abyss of her despair even darker.

“Tell me what I can do… anything I am able to do to help you through this.”

She didn’t answer, only curling into herself a bit more to distance herself from him.

“About last night, I would say I didn’t mean for things to go that far but…” He ran a hand over his beard. “I also understand if I’m the last person you wish to talk to.”

What response was he expecting? They knew, walking into that discussion last night, that things would be far from easy, but it wasn’t until they were in that moment that she saw the pain in her husband’s eyes—betrayed and heartbroken—more and more revelations that they had each done to one another in the past. Was that his way of guilting her into conversation?

Again, Diana did not say a word.

Taking in her silence as refusal to interact further, Joseph frowned and conceded to such defeat. “Very well… I’ll leave you be. I’ll call when supper is—”

“He loved hunting.”

Joseph had already turned to walk away, but when she finally said something, he stopped. He took a deep breath, hanging on the thin thread of her thoughts, cherishing the sweet sound of her voice.

“We loved looking at the stars.” She quietly added, bringing her emerald eyes to the sky.

Turning back around to face her, Joseph kept his hands shoved deep in his pockets as he planted himself again a few feet away. If this was what she needed to grieve, he would let her, and carry on in this bittersweet eulogy that he was sure Oliver never received.

“My sister, my brother and I, we always counted the stars until we lost track and we would start over again. Oli always knew where North star was. Where the constellations were. Our signs… Like they ever meant anything.”

Joseph chewed on his tongue, rolling around thoughts of letters and words, strings of sentences that may or may not be valid here. It was odd that he had any sort of consideration like this. Right now, the stage was hers, the floor to vent her anguish.

Dia… He’d call me that. He’d say, Dia... If we ever move away, then just find this star here. If we follow it, it will guide us home.” Diana felt two warm streaks trickle down her face, and she unceremoniously wiped them away with the back of her hands. “That’s why I picked my name. Oli always called me Diana because he’d hear my mom scolding me with it. I picked it because it reminded me of them. Cass—my sister—she went by her middle name too, for a time. That much I remember. I think…”

As her words faded, she lowered her gaze to the waters on the shoreline before her, and she breathed out softly.

“I did it for them… I did it so I wouldn’t forget, so I would have a piece of them to ground me, to make sure I knew who I was before. But…”

“Hope…”

“Don’t.” She closed her eyes, forcing tears out again. It was possibly the worst time to hear that name again—and from Joseph’s lips to boot. “I was so stupid, you know? Taking this on. Agreeing to “the plan”, everything. If I hadn’t come here, none of this would have happened—”

“Do you regret it?” Joseph stepped closer but was careful not to set her off. “Any of this…?”

His queries stopped her mid-thought, blindsided by them.

Oh, what a loaded question that was.

If the recent revelations meant anything to her, as she pieced her life back together from beginning to present, Diana had mixed feelings about what Joseph had just asked. So she took the easy route for now, and focused on her family.

“I…” She started, shaking her head. “I regret not being there for him. For my sister. My mom got sick and… and what did I do?” It frustrated her that even the earlier parts of her life were still missing, or hazy at best. From what she’d learned she’d been programmed and reprogrammed and reset so many times by the Seeds and the Bliss that it thoroughly ruined her. “I ran off to California, joined the force, stayed away because I was told that would be the right thing to do, for me, and look where that got me.”

There was a dilemma brewing in his mind; That draw was always there, the need to feel her against him, to comfort her… and even more, have her at his side. But Joseph resisted, only moving closer until he was right beside her.

Sniffling back a few more tears, Diana quietly asked, “Where is he?” Saying his name aloud only brought more sadness she knew she’d never be through with. But separating for now to mend these open wounds was necessary for the two of them. Still, Diana feared what he might think, should he see Joseph here talking to her.

He visibly shrunk down, his shoulders relaxed but not comfortable, tense at the roundabout way of mentioning her husband. “Upstairs. Took several people to make sure he didn’t step off premises… but he’s still here.”

As much as she craved the touch of another, to calm the storm of sorrow she’d been thrown into, Diana kept to herself.

“We’ve all been through the ringer in recent days, and I don’t know what this means to you… but for what it’s worth, I wanted to tell you…”

Rolling her eyes, Diana scoffed and interjected, finally turning to face him. “And you always knew that about me? That I was sent here by Whitehorse?”

“Yes.” Joseph nodded, surprising her that he had little hesitation to bring forth the truth now.

As confusing as it was to be angry at him for doing so, she passed on the knee-jerk reaction of rage and it only raised more questions. If she’d really seen the Sheriff before Pratt brought her to the Veteran’s Center, something she thought was just another twisted Bliss dream, why didn’t he just take her then? More importantly, why didn’t he kill her? It would have saved them time and at the rate they were going, all of the lives that were lost might have been for naught.

Joseph continued: “He’d said you’d been trained to assume a new mind, a new… identity… and with everything carrying on for so long, all he wanted was for you to return safely.”

Diana narrowed her eyes. He was giving her answers, but it still didn’t feel right. None of it did. “And you let me carry on like your… sick puppet?”

He tilted his head to her, “I told you I tried to make you see. I really did.”

She scoffed. “I’d like to believe that… I’d like to believe anything—”

“Every day that passed—as long as you were with us—I realized that my brother’s treatments were too strong. John… and Jacob’s. Especially the Bliss it… changed you. Don’t think for one second that I wanted to see you like this—that I wanted you to carry on with only pieces of the puzzle. You called me a liar, every single time I called you that—and you said you knew that was your name. You spat in my face, said that it was just a name—and that with your new life… Diana, you spoke so strongly, so powerfully, holding onto the belief that you left that woman behind. But we both knew that you never really understood why it bothered you so much. Why it hurt you so much to hear it…”

“And yet you were calling me that, even if you knew it hurt me?” She spat the question before realizing it was foolish to do so. It was contradictory, she knew, punishing him for his efforts that she had been begging for. The knowledge of her identity.

There was a pregnant pause before Joseph answered. “Because it hurt to see you become someone else.”

Diana scoffed, stepping away from him for a spell. Part of her wanted Joseph would tell her it was just a sick joke, that none of this was real, maybe another round of Bliss, and everything would soon blow over? No, it was far too deep into the rabbit hole now. She struggled with her response, but eventually said, “If it’s any consolation, I don’t know who I am anymore…”

Treatments she’d undergone—God only knew how many times—from each sibling collectively, had caused everything she had in line to scatter. The tattoo gun, the cutting of her flesh, the drowning in the Bliss. She even shuddered to think about that song now. One she had always heard in pieces, one that caused her headaches she shrugged off, until hearing it in its full capacity to trigger the vengeful beast that showed itself back at the Veteran’s Center. It caused her hands to ball into fists at her sides, only relieved by the gentle brush of light fingers over hers. She immediately relaxed.

Joseph softly cleared his throat when he turned her around to face him, finding no easy segue into what he was about to say. “I know you said, time and again to me, that you love him. But give me a chance. Hear what I have to say.”

Diana didn’t move, blindsided again as he steered the conversation to something she dreaded talking about. Them. If she tried to leave now, she knew that wherever she would go, he would follow. He always managed to slither into her mind again. So she remained where she was, steeling herself for the speech to come, scraping the pieces of her shattered heart only to wait for it to be broken again.

“I meant what I said to you, back at the dock. The night you were wed. To him.”

How could she forget?

“When God brought you to me… I thought it was too good to be true. Then he told me who you were, and it should have shaken me out of my… my lust that I felt for you. And I couldn’t. Because it was something more. I wanted to keep you at the sanctuary, to protect you, to nurture whatever was blossoming between us. Yet something stopped me. Out of respect for my wife I knew I couldn’t be with you.”

“Joseph I can’t… I can’t right now, please.” Diana knew he was opening that door again, and sprinkling the guilt of his late wife on top of that. She’d heard it all before, when they were together. The pleasure rewarded with pain for their sin, and the gift that had been given to them briefly, ripped away from her. It was never part of the plan, she knew, being that close to the Father. And if she’d learned anything in her time here, nothing would ever go according to plans.

“W-when the child came to us…” Joseph’s voice broke, and it tugged at her heart. “I knew this was the answer to my prayers all along. After everything I’d done…and everything we did to build this place as it should have been for the preparation of the collapse, I just never imagined an angel would be sent to my life. I never thought I would be so lucky.”

“A collapse that may never happen, Joseph—”

“—and when you told me, I fasted and prayed for days that you would be by my side as the Mother of Eden’s Gate and that we would carry on… together.”

“Please stop…”

“And then… it was gone.”

Diana’s gaze fell to the ground, trying to focus on the rocks and the dirt and the blood on her boots.

Joseph carried on, a shudder of sadness shaking his voice, “And then you were gone… And when the Sheriff’s Forsaken ascended to the church once more and Eden’s Gate fell into ruin… that’s why I gave up. I was losing my faith when I lost you, Hope.”

They stood there in silence for a moment, his hands grasping at her arms, her body stiffened by the words as they poured from his voice. The voice that hypnotized her, pulled her in, every single time he unleashed this vulnerability to the Father’s otherwise strong exterior.

“Please… don’t go.” She whispered.

“I was always here,” He pressed forehead to hers and ran his fingers through her soft, raven hair. “And I will not go, if that is what you wish. I lost you once. I don’t want to lose you again.”

She couldn’t help but laugh, even through the tears she’d grown tired of letting go. “I was never anyone’s to lose…”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Hope…” Joseph tilted her head up to face him, and that spellbinding look in his eyes locked with hers instantly. “I can’t imagine a place in Eden without you by my side. When the collapse comes, the inevitable end, there will be a place for us. Everything we’ve built is still there, everything we’ve prepared for that day. I know with everything there is inside of me—we must be ready. Together.”

 

*

Later that night…

 

“I’ll go get them…” Adelaide said, offering to fetch the two Seed brothers who were holed up in their rooms for most of the day. She scrunched the set of blond curls held up by her bandana and started for the stairs.

“No… I got it.” Diana said, setting down the plates she’d pulled from a stack in the curio on the table. She wiped her hands on the fresh set of jeans she’d changed into, after coming inside from her talk with Eli and after that, Joseph.

Adelaide shot her a look that screamed what the hell but really meant are you sure—and Diana obliged. Though she was unsure how she felt about letting Diana retrieve the boys, one of whom was not too happy with her at the moment, she eventually let it go, and went to join Grace in the kitchen. She made an awkward oof! squeaking noise when she nearly bumped into Joseph who was exiting the door she’d been heading toward.

Joseph grinned at her, holding the door and letting her pass.

She turned away when Joseph came into the room, hiding the flush of heat behind her cheeks. All thoughts of what he had to say to her needed to be pushed aside, not forgotten, but left to consider when she was going to make her choice.

Was it really a choice? She wondered, knowing how much she still loved her husband, despite everything they had done to each other, some things without truly knowing it. But she had no clue how he felt about her now. It should have felt like a burden lifted from her shoulders when the truth was set free, but it only left her with more questions and worries than she could have ever imagined. How would he handle talking to her about her lost child? Or about Joseph and what he’d put her through before they met? How could they mend what bridges that might have burned?

She felt a chill down her back.

Regardless, at the moment, she had a job to do, and that was the simple task of retrieving Jacob and John to settle in for a meal. It would be their prerogative to sit and put on a façade of making peace with the people who had helped them get this far.

Diana had only seen John once, that morning, as he passed her on the stairs, but when she said hello, he didn’t say much else to her. Rightfully so, since he’d been begging Eli to turn him loose, only to face refusal time after time with the argument that no one was in any shape to head anywhere, much less alone. Of course, he did not take to the denial of passage well, hearing that he’d stormed off, breaking a few things in his path, throwing a justified tantrum in his bedroom in the chaos of concern he had for Ana.

She wondered if she would get Jacob first, maybe gauge his mood to figure out what she could say to at least get him to eat. He’d been no stranger to fasting, to missing meals in case of emergencies, but there was no way she would let him succumb to that. She couldn’t.

Diana found herself at the door again. The wide oak door feeling like the blockade in front of a beast’s den, with her husband hibernating inside of it. It was difficult enough to bring herself to stand here, let alone knock. Just like the other time she’d been here, she raised her hand with the intention of gently rapping against the wood door, but before her knuckles hit, she stopped.

Her gut twisted and turned, and a cold fear rattled her so badly that her blood turned to ice. She closed her eyes, hearing his voice raised, the clattering of broken furniture, the taste of Bliss and bile coming back to her. Anticipation of possibility, of the version of Jacob she could quite possibly face, made her sick and unstable as she took a step back to brace against the banister behind her. Diana raised a palm to her chest, feeling her heart beating fast as she stared at the closed door.

He might kill me, she thought. And it hurt her to think that after going through the trials of Pratt and Hudson just to find him, that she might have actually lost him.

With an exasperated sigh, she quickly turned and moved two doors down, to where John had been staying for the last few days. She would get Jacob after, she told herself.

“John?” Diana called down the hallway, followed by a couple of short knocks, but there was no answer. She knocked a couple more times, waiting a bit in between, before deciding to head inside.

As she pushed open the door, she expected to see her brother-in-law inside, but found the room cold and empty. The drapes immediately caught her attention as they lightly billowed inward from the chilly air coming from outside.

“John?” Her eyes darted around, from wall to wall, and she stepped toward the open bathroom and pushed the door open. Nothing.

A voice coming from the television screen caught her attention, so she stopped to watch as the loop of a video broadcast had started over.

A dark figure strolled past a blurry figure tied to a chair.

And then again.

Diana squinted her eyes, drawing closer to the television screen to get a better view.

Joey Hudson stood in front of the camera. Her gloved hands folded in front of her, with a devilish smirk on her face. “To the elusive John Seed. You think this is over? You think because your family managed to get out of the claws of my colleague, and that you’ve somehow managed to turn some of our people against us that that’s it? Happily ever after?”

When she stepped to the side, the lens came into focus, showing a blond woman strapped to a dining chair. She wriggled, her hands tied behind her back, and her legs bound, ankles crossed over one another. Stains of mascara and dirt trickled down her full, reddened cheeks as she moaned and pleaded behind the tape. Her hair was tied back, her flannel top torn in the front, exposing her chest. It was an open target for the weapon in Hudson’s hands.

“And yea as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Joey reached up and ripped the piece of duct tape from the girl’s face and Diana immediately recognized her.

Ana!

The girl could have screamed, but she didn’t. Instead she burst into tears, her head rolling down as she sobbed.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those hiding like rats in the shadows of MY VALLEY!” Joey chuckled, “Oh… the light will shine on them. And may the iron glow lead them here…”

“No… no! Please NO!!!!”

Joey reached up, took a handful of Ana’s gorgeous hair, and pulled. “I think the word you’re looking for, my dear, is YES.”

Diana clapped a hand over her mouth, green eyes watching on in horror. The image on the screen did not turn from the bound victim and the predator looming above her as she forced the iron onto Ana’s pure, pale and previously unmarked skin. The blood-curdling screams were muffled behind Joey’s hand and Diana observed helplessly as Ana’s legs tried to kick out, her body writhing against the hold of Deputy Hudson.

When she released the iron, Ana fell limp in her chair, the pop and sizzle of the blisters already forming under the brand of the iron settling. Joey threw the iron to the side, and it clanged against the floor when she once again faced the camera. “We’ll be waiting right here for you. And if you try and wait this out, thinking we’ll turn her over after a friendly little chat? Then think again. We will find you.”

Deputy Hudson licked her lips before giving the camera a smile, the haunting glimmer in her dark eyes which turned Diana’s stomach. “And I’ll keep her company. I promise.”

Diana stumbled backward, a dizzy spell caused the room to spin. She needed to get out now, she needed to tell the others, but she could hardly stand.

“Oh fuck…” A voice mumbled, and she felt their hands around her forearms.

Diana blinked as he stabilized her, holding her upright, and tightly. Whoever it was, was strong, bringing her over to the edge of the bed to sit, not once letting her go. His touch set her blood on fire, warming her instantly from the frigid numbness she felt at witnessing the footage of Ana’s torture.

Footsteps shuffled in through the door. “What’s going on?” Joseph’s blue gaze settled on Diana.

She realized the man who had caught her, was Jacob, who had little else to say about what was happening. He sat there with a hardened glare at Joseph, his breathing shallow, an indication that he was not handling this news well, either.

Barely able to muster out any words, Diana looked at Joseph and whispered: “He’s gone.”

Chapter Text

JOHN

 

Lamb of God Church
Holland Valley
One Year Ago…

 

“Thank you for coming…”

“Have a blessed day…”

“We will see you again soon…”

“Let me know if I can be of any assistance…”

The greetings and bids farewell were the same. Every time, no matter if it was at his own gala’s (he rather liked calling them that for the sake of sounding prestigious), or after Joseph’s sermons on the main island, or in the north at his brother’s rallies, or in the east at his sister’s conservatory in the gardens… the words he left with the people of Eden’s Gate were the exact same. They’d praise him, with a smile or embrace, or leave humming the hymn that he rather high-key enjoyed, even when it was sung out of tune.

All this joy, the passion in his leadership; the Baptist leading as the co-shepherd to his brother’s flock, was held in high regard with Joseph… and that made him swell with his own pride. Not so much that he would have to fall victim to his own Confession—as Joseph always did well to keep him in line. Not only was Joseph constantly reminding him to keep his vices to a minimum, but the Latin ink etched onto his hand was a reminder to keep it all in check.

As the visitor count diminished, he was sure to meet them all and see them out the door, just before closing them behind the last attendee. Turning the lock, John braced himself against the doors and let out a deep sigh to have gotten through his last sermon.

But it was then, he heard a soft, feminine voice, humming Oh, the Bliss behind him, and it somewhat startled him.

His breath caught in his throat, and with a hand on his chest, John turned around with a surprised look as he faced her. “Oh… I’m… sorry, I thought everyone had left.”

When she turned, it left him as breathless as he was when he’d heard her sing. Waves of gorgeous, flaxen hair flowed down her back, gentle waves bouncing slightly when she faced him. A wide smile spread across her youthful features. John was instantly entranced by her face. The way the rays of light streamed in through the high-set windows of stained glass cast a heavenly glow behind her.

The woman’s face scrunched as she smiled. Not taking away from her fair beauty, only enhancing it. She held up a handful of hymnals and copies of the Book of Joseph for him to see. “That’s quite alright, sir… I was just trying to help,”

The sound of her speaking voice gave him a slight chill, and he felt a small grin tug at his features. Even the full beard he had couldn’t hide the rush of redness in his cheeks. He gulped, watching closely as she continued to help clean up the mess left behind by the congregation.

After a moment, John cleared his throat as he made sure the door had been shut behind him, and finally strolled down the aisle to meet her.

“I hope that’s no trouble,” She added.

His voice cracked slightly as he responded, “N-no, no trouble at all. That’s quite alright, my dear. But you’re free to leave if you’d like, I can take it from here.”

When he reached for the book, his hand brushed hers, and the sensation that he felt at his fingertips was nothing short of captivating. His keen ears didn’t miss the slight gasp when she felt his light touch over the back of her palm. It had startled her so much that she lost her grip on the stack of books, fumbling them onto the floor.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” She exclaimed in a bit of panic.

The two of them nearly knocked heads as they both bent down to retrieve the fallen books, and when they looked up at each other, there was an awkward moment of stunned silence before they erupted in a fit of laughter.

That was where it all began.

The pair decided to separate for a minute, John sauntering over to the other set of pews to fetch the rest of the books. He carefully placed them in a neat pile on the table beside the door, his heart thudding in his chest, only to skip a beat again when she spoke once more.

“I’ve been coming here to listen for some time now.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow, turning back again.

The girl giggled. “Take this as a confession if you’d like, but I rather like hearing your voice…” She blushed, “nothing against your brother or anything. The Father always has a way of showcasing his passion for his people and the church, and I must say that is unparalleled but…”

John couldn’t stop himself from smiling. What was it about this girl that was so striking that he could hardly find the right thing to say, to interject, or to even ask her to elaborate. He didn’t have to, though. She loved to talk, and he enjoyed hearing her talk. For once in his life he had found something to shut him up.

“I’m John,” He said nervously, holding out his hand to her.

“I know,” She giggled.

You idiot. He thought to himself, flushed and flustered at his faux pas. But John felt her soft hand take his, in a gesture of introduction, and lightly squeezed it as she nodded.

“Ana.”

It was as typical as you could get, for a small-town meeting, boy meets girl, boy falls hard for the girl, and girl shows interest in return. It wasn’t long before they discovered that they couldn’t get enough of each other. Night after night, he met with her at the church. She was self-appointed as an assistant to clean the facility, even when he told her she didn’t have to do any work for him. He would sometimes lose his place in his sermon, because of the way she would look at him.

It didn’t help that he wanted her so badly that he would forget what he was saying entirely, and it made him grateful that he was meticulous enough to have written notes to help him along.

One afternoon, as this affair had gone on for several weeks now, the two of them couldn’t keep a lid on their need… their want… their desire that was burning between them.

When everyone had gone, and the doors were locked up tight, John picked her up into his arms. He hiked her up on the podium where he gave every speech in Holland Valley, kissing her passionately as he did. His hands explored her body, sneaking up the short length of her floral dress to brush against the soft skin of her thighs. Normally he would limit himself, keep it all under control, partly out of respect for her not wanting to go too far, and the other part halted with the worry that someone would walk in and catch them. It was exciting, they both agreed, their little secret…

But today, they were reassured that no one would find them. Everyone from his territory would be heading East to see Faith and Joseph in the gardens… no one would be around.

She softly gasped when he slid his fingers under the thin material of her panties. He moaned in response to find that she was already wet for him.

John grinned against her lips as she raised herself slightly to let him pull them down, a little surprised to feel her already tugging at his belt. He softly massaged her center, pressing down a bit on the nub of flesh, feeling her essence on his fingers. The noises she made when he teased her excited him. The way she arched her back when he teased a finger inside made her hair fall back and trickle down freely from the bun she had up just moments earlier.

But he wasn’t ready just yet. He wanted to do something he had been thinking about for a while now. John needed a taste of her.

John bent down on his knees and softly kissed her thighs, hearing her giggle as his beard tickled the sensitive flesh there. Bringing his mouth to her core, he flicked out his tongue, slipping it past her lips and into her center, feeling her tremble above him. He loved the feel of her nails on his scalp, and even more so the sounds that came from her when he continued a bit deeper to taste her.

He opened her up with his fingers, using the tip of his skillful tongue to play with the small but of flesh that caused her to moan and slightly push her hips up to his face. John chuckled, his voice sending a low rumble through her body that drove her wild. It caused the muscles to tighten, and her breath to catch, so he did it once more.

His hands grasped the curves of her slender waist as he lapped her up, teasing her, listening for the right cues of rapid, high-pitched moans which meant it was the right time to stop.

She pouted slightly, peering down at him with a playful glare when he peeked up at her, and he smiled.

“Don’t you worry, my dear… I’ll take good care of you,” he said, wrapping his arms around her and kissing at her neck. He had been fantasizing about this since he met her, and he would even confess to thinking about her as he pleasured himself … if she asked.

Shedding the restraint of fabric and leather, John lowered her onto the soft velvet rug of the altar. He pressed his naked form pressed against her, lowering himself to lightly suck at her neck. She ran her thin fingers through his thick head of hair and tugged gently, pulling a low grunt from him.

John positioned himself between her legs, feeling her latch onto him at his hips. He ran his hands down the back of thighs and squeezed softly before reaching up to grip her hips. John examined her carefully, watching her reach up and cup her own breasts, stimulating herself at the sight of his bare form. Ana admired the tattoos she’d only seen peeking through his opened shirt before, but it was obvious that every mark he bore turned her on. He was entranced at this sight, wrapping his hand at the base of his cock. His eyes matched her aqua gaze when he pulled back to look at her, wanting to see the look on her face when he eased his throbbing arousal inside of her. Ana bit down on her lip and with a shudder as he filled her, her body leaning up to press against his chest, and her long, blond waves splayed out against the crushed red velvet carpet beneath her.

The sensation was something he had been missing for some time. Not long after Joseph called him to take part in this project, he vowed to push away his physical desires. It wasn’t until the invasion of the Deputies, and effectively, his approval of Jacob taking a wife that he was allowed to pursue anything like this. However, he was sure his brother would not approve of such an activity in the such a sacred place… but that made it all the more thrilling.

He thrusted into her, slowly at first, enthralled by the tightness of her core. Gradually, he increased his pace, finding it difficult to withstand his nearing peak, when she bucked up to meet him. He wanted to feel her, all of her, and as he braced himself on the floor with one hand, he continued to feel the curves of her petite body. John felt her hand grasp at his wrist, trailing it up to what felt like… her neck?

He cocked an eyebrow at her, silently questioning if that was her intent, not for one second losing the rhythm as he rocked into her.

When she looked up, a small grin formed on her lips, and she nodded.

John’s fingers sought out the right placement for her intriguing request, and when the time was right, he applied gentle pressure on it. Her fingers tightened around his forearm and he felt the walls of her core twitch, causing a shudder to ripple through him. He was careful, not wanting to hurt her, and her slick, throbbing walls were urging him closer and closer.

He could hardly keep his eyes open, their cries becoming louder as he pounded into her heat. His hand squeezed tighter, the muscles in his entire body tensing, her breathy, choked moans of pleasure finally sending him over the edge and he released her neck, his hand falling to the ground beside her head. He was so close… he would give her everything he had now.

Ana screamed out as she came, John’s climax just seconds after hers, as he felt her nails dig into his back. 

They were out of breath, chests heaving when he felt the last bit of his essence leave him. He leaned down and kissed her, her warm tongue tangling with his, as once again, she ran her fingers through his hair.

When the two of them lie beneath a black tablecloth he’d found to cover their bodies and lee[ them warm, John held her close and leaned down to kiss the top of her head. She hummed softly, placing kisses along the lines of his tattoos on his chest. They said little else for a while, enjoying the simple moment of silence after their activities.

Nights like this would carry on, even after she moved into Seed Ranch.

But that wasn’t the basis of their passionate romance. It wasn’t just the sex that kept John around, it was the woman herself, and how she dazzled him at every turn. They flew together, enjoyed the same books, shared a love of the arts, she would laugh at his jokes no matter how terrible they were, and he didn’t care when she poked fun at his pristine hair care regimen—which was a running joke in the entire family. She was even a wonderful cook, if it was a meal for the two of them, or they invited his lieutenant, Avery, or the rest of the family over. Even if it was a feast for the church she was a lovely hostess and a caring lover… it was wonderful.

To him, she was absolutely perfect.

But John knew from the moment he caught her in the church, on day one, that he loved her.

 

*

 

The Iron Fortress (Formerly John’s Gate)
Holland Valley
Present Day

 

John was never a man of patience, but the days spent at the Grandview were maddening. He was tired of sitting around.

It was frustrating, being told that he couldn’t leave by outsiders—by Forsaken turncoats no less, or people who had claimed to be neutral when there was hardly any room for such a stance. It was all black and white, the war between Whitehorse and Joseph.

On top of that, John was irritated to say the least, watching the melodrama of Diana’s involvement with his brothers get in the way of his mission. As he saw it, they all had each other now, and whatever they wanted to seek out amongst themselves would have no bearing on the survival of his beloved and their unborn child. It angered him that it had even come to that ridiculous display of wallowing in emotions and piecing together the fragments of the broken woman that should have been aired out in the first place.

For years he had known most of the truth behind Deputy Evans’ identity, while Joseph and Jacob had only been privy to pieces of it. And from the sound of it, everyone had a piece of the puzzle, never a complete set. It was because he’d been forced to know; as free will would see to it that everything would be revealed if she would let it… and also because his brothers had asked that he not get involved. It was that resentment built upon the fact that he’d been the keeper of such secrets, and that it had led to this…

John was in a dark place, when he looked down. The woman he finally held in his arms was the one he’d been daydreaming of, the one he had journeyed out for at least a day ahead of his siblings to rescue. He wondered if they had even discovered by he’d left. It was possible that they might have seen Hudson’s video broadcasting in the north, because as he’d heard upon his venture here that it was shown everywhere across the county.

It was expected, the retaliation. The messages sent out as an answer to the loss of one of their own leaders. But he didn’t think it would take such a turn.

John softly sobbed as he brushed the golden hair that had fallen on her face. The color in her skin faded from its rosy flawlessness to a ghostly white. Her lips were toned a ghastly blue, and the small veins of stress spread out like spiderwebs around her eyes. A redness surrounded her eyes, nose and lips. Aside from the look of a fight she might have put up when they abducted her at Seed Ranch—cuts along the fabric of her dress and bruises on her skin—he saw the brand Joey had chosen for her, as she’d been touched by the scalding hot iron just over her heart.

Caritas…

Charity. Benevolence… Sacrifice.

It was indeed Hudson’s calling card, and was a clear callout to contradict the trade John had chosen in his old life. His most haunting vice: Greed. It tore him apart inside, a perspective that he’d never anticipated seeing, from the other side. He was the Herald that made the marks, he was the Inquisitor that drew the followers in to the Atonement. This was Joey’s way of getting under his skin, by ruining the unmarked skin he left untouched on Ana, his beloved. Rage welled up within him to see that his innocent lover had been caught in this crossfire as collateral for the sins of the Father.

He placed a trembling hand at her swollen belly, feeling for the life within it, hoping desperately that she was alive, and even more so that their child had been unharmed. He knew the signs of a Bliss overdose; seeing the characteristics of Faith’s Angels start to transform Ana. It didn’t look like she had been under long, but with enough of its concentrated formula in her bloodstream, it might have damaged them both.

“Ana…” He whispered, trying desperately to wrap her in a cocoon of warmth, praying to the powers above that she would wake at any moment. “My Ana…”

And he wept…

When he closed his eyes tight, John reached for the memory of her, wishing so badly, with every fiber of his being, that he could rewind everything and runaway with her as he’d planned to before everything turned upside down. When he was with her, he didn’t care about the Collapse, about Eden, none of it—he wanted her, and only her, and wanted to take her out of the life he vowed to leave if it meant they could be happy together. Their family.

“Don’t do this to me…” He cried, his voice wavering in his heartbreak.

John remembered when she said they were going to be parents. He thought about the light in her eyes that only amplified when she had shaken him out of his stunned daze. How his range of emotions ranged from terrified to excited in the span of two seconds, and every day he woke up in the months after that, he had to tell himself that he could do this. That they could do this.

It was inspiring; how his life had changed in that moment. How this hot-shot lawyer who had girls on each arm every weekend, no last names, fake first names probably, and all the riches to spend on himself. It was different now. No one knew Duncan. Everyone knew the Seed name in this county in Montana, and he realized it was a change for the better. Carte blanche. He could start over and eventually build his life the way he and his brothers wanted, out of the shadows and darkness his parents or guardians had granted them. They didn’t give them much else, just sorrow and torment that set the bar so low he figured the only way to go was up.

Therein lie the fear he held within himself, one he hadn’t expressed to anyone, not even Ana. But deep down, he knew his brothers would understand.

The guardians who had taken him in, after he split from his brothers, were no shining stars in the parenting department. This was after his own parents had shirked their responsibilities of parenthood too, causing him to act out… to learn how to live his own life and succeed without the nurturing support of those who were trusted to guide him. He didn’t need them. He would learn patience and love once he held his newborn in his arms, just as he learned to settle down and share his heart and homestead with Ana.

Everyone’s face when they announced it privately to his family was priceless. Faith was first to speak up, delighted that they would be carrying on the Seed legacy through them. Jacob was surprised, but definitely thrilled, too. His head still hurt where his eldest brother playfully rubbed his knuckles into it, boasting about being a proud old uncle to their baby. He even went as far as suggesting names for boys and girls, which Ana kindly swatted away in so many words to let him down gently, but it was that genuine love and kindness he was surprised to hear from Jacob of all people.

But Diana…

John would never forget the look she gave, the one she’d exchanged with Joseph who seemed equally bothered by it too. It was no real secret she and Jacob wanted to try, but it leaned more on her trying harder than he did, as he always complained about being too old to be a dad. John knew that hurt her… as did Joseph… but they kept their thoughts to themselves and feigned some happiness instead, for Ana’s sake. She was new to the family… new to the demons that plagued the Seed name, but that only urged him to make this turn for the better.

Regret washed over him.

I should have told her…

Ana, that is. That perhaps joining their family was going to be more than she bargained for.

They would grow the family by not only one, but two, welcoming Ana as his wife and the baby.

When he and Jacob built the crib at the ranch, it dawned on him that it was no longer a fantasy. It wasn’t a figment of his imagination. It was real. Every so often, he’d catch Ana reading in there, one of the books she’d grabbed from the shelves downstairs, singing to herself, but really, singing to their child.

God… he truly missed the sound of her voice, the floral scent of her skin—especially after a bath—and the feel of her breath when he held her close as they slept.

That breath was so light now, shallow, forcing him to listen intently, afraid he might hear the last. Gently, he rocked her, stifling his sobs. All these muddled thoughts, these feeble grasps at memories, sent him into a wave of hysteria, built up so much like a beast rumbling within him. He screamed at the top of his lungs.

Part of him hoped Ana would hear him then; maybe this was all a figment of his imagination, maybe he could bring her to life somehow—maybe Joseph could undo all of this?

No…

He thought to himself. That was fucking stupid. Joseph couldn’t heal the sick. Joseph didn’t perform miracles, not even the Bliss could save him now, not when the Bliss is what caused this. Joseph fed lies to the people, even Jacob thought so, doubting the power of The Father and that his Will was just some ideal, a façade of his own madness.

But…

Joseph would understand, right? Once upon a time, he was to be a dad too—wait… No, he couldn’t possibly fathom this. Not after doing that to his own daughter!

He shuddered to think about the unfortunate incident that cost John his niece. That was his ultimate fear, that he would be like his own unforgivable parents, his despicable, abusive foster parents, or even worse, like his own brother Joseph!

How could he be the Father if he couldn’t handle the life of his own flesh and blood?

FUCK!

John’s thoughts were piling up, non-stop, one string violating the other, a mess of questioning himself and his own beliefs, and his belief in Joseph that had done some good as it brought them all back, reunited them with Jacob in this place that was supposed to be a quiet spot for their New Eden. Joseph found Faith among the followers. He was open to calling her their sister, even if they weren’t related by blood, but her devotion to the flock and to Joseph was well-received.

Then, there was Diana…

No. Hope.

Everything swung back around to Hope, didn’t it?

Perhaps this was her fault, and not Joseph’s. If she hadn’t come to the church, with Whitehorse and the others, none of this would have ever happened. None of it. Except the getaway he’d planned with Ana, and the lives they could have led without the war that had been going on for the better part of two years. They had gone through the worst together, sure, and even the turmoil of war had brought them closer, but at what cost? That didn’t change where he was, or what he had gotten himself into, just to save Ana and the baby.

So help me if I lose them…

He thought, his body quaking from the assault of devastating misery and desolation he felt in this cold and nearly empty room.

“Ah… They told me company had arrived, but I had no idea it would be you… and you alone.”

It felt as if he’d been injected with ice, as a cold fury burned within him. A chill prickled at his skin when she entered the room. She did well to disturb his thought process, the contention against his sister-in-law and his internal dispute of blame only confusing him—but more infuriating was that she was disturbing his time with Ana.

Sure, John had been in this very cell before, the stain of his own, dried blood not ten feet away from where he sat on the ground with the light, comatose body of Ana laid out in front of him in his arms. But he knew he was in no place to argue with her now.

The trespasser’s steps were slow, but the acoustic was so tight down here that he could hear every single step as it echoed on the concrete. She came to a halt just outside the iron bars that held John Seed and his love inside the cold, dark cell. “She’s alive, I can promise you that. Your girl is bolder and braver than you would ever be.”

His tears fell upon her skin, and he wiped them away with the cuff of his sleeve as it mixed with the ooze and blood of her infected brand. If this were any other situation he might have bitched about how his designer clothing had become so ragged and filthy. But that was the old John, not the angered, disheveled man that he had become—someone who didn’t care about such petty things anymore. Not since he put the life of this woman above his. Not since he was about to become a father…

Hudson was smiling, he could hear it in her voice when she said, “But what are we to do to you, now that… is the question.”

John’s eyes never left Ana as he focused on the blissful state of her calm and still-beautiful face. As his breath rose to heaving with anger, he growled at the Deputy watching at his back. “What have you done…”

Chapter Text

JOEY

 

The Iron Fortress
Joey Hudson’s quarters
Holland Valley North

 

Birds were chirping, insects buzzing. There was a mild break in the storm, which meant the wildlife would quickly run from point to point to hide from the inbound rainfall. To anyone else, it was a marvel to behold, but after spending much of her life in this shithole, to her it was just another day.

When the sunlight peered into the window, deep brown eyes fluttered open behind thick dark lashes. Joey yawned and stretched, her muscles throbbing as she did. She rolled to throw her feet over the edge of her king-sized bed, a minor luxury that was otherwise tainted by the sound of bottles clanking beside her.

It crashed down on her then… it had been a long night.

How did they manage to rally anyone when the Peggies are the scum of the fucking earth?

She often wondered how the Seed family were still alive, and their followers too. She even thought back to ‘Day Zero’—she called it—the day they arrived by chopper to that cursed island. That wasn’t exactly the time it all went to shit, at least not for them, since the mission was to drop off Deputy Evans to get an inside track on the Project at Eden’s Gate. Sure, she, Pratt and Burke had spent some time in each gate set up for the siblings after being kidnapped by them and taken to their respective territories… but Joey considers the backlash that followed the real turning point. They’d gotten out of there alive, save Evans, but the since the Seeds continued to flourish, that rotten old man ordered them to go back, and it was endless bloodshed ever since. Coming into the County all that time ago, she never imagined it taking such a turn. She never wanted this to happen—who the hell would—to a place she treasured so much.

That was when she began her residency here…

Joey pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to shake off the headache that made itself known when she sat up.

After Whitehorse sent word that her colleague Pratt had been wiped off the map by the Seeds, she found solace in the best way she knew how. Granted, the quality of booze in this County was sub-par since the Seeds took everything or destroyed it by casting it into the waters around Joseph’s Island. However, the siege of Seed Ranch was successful, so they were able to obtain the contraband John had not-so-sneakily kept at his residence.

Her eyes trailed over the paper she’d kept on her nightstand.

“…If one of us goes first, especially if it’s me?

You better take care of that bitch for me. And Jo? Make sure it’s for good…”

Pratt wrote, the scrawl barely legible, which almost made her chuckle aloud. She crumpled the note in her hands, one he had so kindly left her during his last visit. They were words of endearment mixed with minor jabs and jeers she found insulting. It was kind of eerie, the whole document, as if Pratt had sensed the end of everything too, having written his own last will. Normally, she would have torn it to pieces, shredded everything and burned it in the furnace downstairs… but now that he was gone, she felt as if she should hold onto the note… for sentimental reasons.

There was a gentle caress at her back, fingertips along the side of her neck, nails lightly scratching at her skin. Teasing. Playful. Joey reached up and placed a hand where those fingers should have been, where she really felt that touch, but it was gone. And that phantom touch brought with it a look into her past.

“I told you to never touch that shit, Cassandra—”

“Come on, give me a break! I just took a little hit. It makes me feel something, it makes me feel good, Joey.”

“It’s dangerous!”

“It’s all I HAVE!”

“You have me.”

“Not when you’re out looking for someone who is probably already fucking dead. Give it up, Jo. Let’s just go like we said we would? Like you promised!”

There were fights like this. Often. She never should have let Cassandra near the Bliss, and part of her knew she never should have kept her here at all. Long days and even longer nights away meant she’d be left to fend for herself; a Rapunzel in the tower in the Iron Fortress. She cared about the woman as much as she cared for her County, which is why she fought so damn hard to cleanse the Seeds and the Peggies from this forsaken place.

Joey was a woman of discipline, routine, even. And as much as it pained her to stare at herself in the standing mirror, she did so before getting dressed. Sometimes seconds passed, other times minutes, of examining her own reflection. Joey stood there in her tank-top and panties, reading each and every carving and mark on her body. Knife wounds, bullet grazing, animal bites… those were among her scars but the words that had been left on her from Eden’s Gate were what stood out the most. Time had done its magic of letting them fade down into her caramel skin, but they were still there, and no matter the days, months or years that had passed since her captivity with John Seed, she could still feel the cold steel on her, tearing her open, oozing with blood and infection until they scabbed over.

Her eyes were perpetually shaded with dark shadow of exhaustion. Though she was fit and toned, she knew she might never be strong enough to withstand this for much longer. She’d lost enough, they all had, but she was tired of everything.

Squeezing the neck of the bottle at the edge of her bed, Joey angrily launched it into the glass, causing it to crack, raining shards of it onto the floor.

The satisfaction of bringing the Peggies to her compound for justice never filled the void. They killed Pratt and were still trying to fight back, which meant her job would never be done unless she killed them all.

Hungover and dragging her boots down the stairs, Joey greeted the others who’d been stationed there. Her eyes were bloodshot behind the shades she knew, and surely, they did too, since this behavior was nothing new to her men. It didn’t matter to her what they thought. All that mattered was that they listened when she gave their orders, especially the ones passed on from Whitehorse himself. It was a growing concern the old man never left the stronghold, the Jail that was now in his command. With Marshal Burke and Staci Pratt out of the picture, the pressure bore down on her shoulders to carry out the rest of their plans.

Whitehorse would have no one else to blame but her if anything went wrong now.

She scratched at the scars John Seed had left on her, before the turn of the tide. It made her itch with an even greater need to wipe him out, to extinguish the lives she now held in her hands.

John and Ana Seed. No, they weren’t married yet, were they? She wondered. And the girl had the nerve to get pregnant.

Joey pleaded with Whitehorse to just end this now, to give John and the girl the end they deserved for what they’d done to her, her colleagues and Hope County, but Whitehorse said no. In fact, he’d denied her so many times that she grew to hate the word: NO. Was it because of John’s incessant instilment of the word that forced her to expect to hear nothing but… YES?

It was a reasonable request, right? She tried to convince herself of it. It was the only viable option, the only one that made sense to her, to grant them death since they did not deserve to live!

The thought ignited her anger so much she’d turned the gas on in her furnace to a blazing hot temperature to light it. It nearly singed the hairs of her braid when she got too close.

Joey tried to compose herself, get a handle on all the things racing in her mind right now, when she came to a halt in front of one of the blast-doors. Peeking inside, she watched as a woman lie curled within herself on the floor. She placed her bare hand on the door and her forehead to the window. Observing this prisoner for a moment, it took every nerve in her to reach for the valve to open it. Before she could turn it one way or the other, she heard someone approach, stopping her instantly.

“What do you want?” She barked, about-facing to address this interloper. Even if he was one of her higher-ranked guards, it didn’t make him exempt of her ire.

The boy bowed his head, before speaking. “D-Deputy Hudson, ma’am. We found a couple of ‘em wandering the perimeter. Probably trying to rescue those two,” her lieutenant spat, in a haughty annoyance that showed he was both proud and disgusted by the Peggies’ stubbornness to rescue John and his girl. “You’d think they’d know better by now.”

She smirked. The refugees from the raid on Seed Ranch had scattered, but so many of them were stupid enough to try and infiltrate her facility. To her, it just meant more fodder, more victims for the iron, and less morons left to come around to break out the Seeds.

Never again, she thought to herself—she wouldn’t make the same mistake of letting John out of this place unless ordered to.

“Don’t let your guard down for once, you hear me?” Joey spoke to him, low and commanding. “I’ve no doubt they’re gonna send everything they got at me now, and we have to be ready.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He said. “They’re down the hall, ready for you.”

Pulling the iron from its seat inside the furnace, Joey watched the end of it and its magnificent glow. “Good. Bring them to me.”

 

*

 

DIANA

 

“If you want my take on it, it’s a bad call.”

“We have to move now. I’m not going to waste any more time sitting here.”

Joseph shook his head. “How many times are you going to insist you go out alone?”

“Let’s recap—neither of you had issue making me take the leap—washing your hands of the Forsaken business when they had them, Faith, John, Jacob… Hudson has John again and Ana, and all of a sudden, you’re trying to stop me?”

Eli pounded his fist on the table, rattling the map and the trinkets they used as markers to denote patrols and other areas to avoid. “This isn’t a damn game, Diana. You can’t just expect to wake up the next day after taking a beating like you have and run in there as a one-man army!”

“That’s why I’m coming to you—not like I have a choice, being locked up here for what, indefinitely?”

“He’s right, you know.” Grace’s deep voice chimed in from behind her.

Her fists tightened at her sides, clearly frustrated at the push back. “What choice are you giving me? Shit, maybe, I should’ve just left instead of wasting more time arguing.”

Seeing that Eli and Joseph were having trouble convincing Diana otherwise, Grace chimed in again: “It’s different now, it can only get worse from here. With Pratt dead, you gotta know Hudson ain’t fuckin’ around.”

Eli added, “If she’s got Ana and John…”

“There’s no if, Eli. She has them, you saw the tape. And if something happens to that baby, you can expect a hell worse than Joseph or Jacob ever rained down on you and the Whitetails!”

Eli’s dark brows furrowed. “Are you threatening me, kid?”

Diana gritted her teeth. That was it, she was done hearing that term, even if it was meant with charming playfulness; they did not have time for anymore. “I’m not kid to you. And I’m going, taking whatever we got, and breaking them the fuck out of the Fortress. With or without your help. Thanks for keepin’ me alive this far, but I’m done waiting around. You know how to reach me.”

It was an ongoing hindrance; pleading her case before a jury who were bound to be guiltier than even her, begging for alliances and assistance when the answer should be clear. Diana knew she could never wipe the misdeeds of her chosen family from the map of Hope County, that she could never ask them to forgive and forget. If they could, then the last three years of war and peace and more war, might have been ousted by now. Perhaps it was the fact that Joseph reminded her that she was nearly a mother that lit the fire under her once more, but she’d done far too much to save what was left of them to give up now.

 

 

Flicking out the last of her cigarette, Diana stomped on the butt to kill the flame before packing her gun and blade into their designated places. It’d taken a while to get her mind in order, pushing down all the nerves of going at this without anyone’s help. Eli submitted to her demand and said he wanted to hold down the mountains for the time being. It made sense to her, and she wouldn’t convince him otherwise, since their victory over Pratt had to mean something for the northern territory rebuild.

Luckily, Joseph decided to head back to the Sanctuary while the path was clear, though it didn’t go without any parting words. They were being watched, so he’d kept it brief, praying for her safe passage. To Diana, his departure meant this would give her the distance she needed from him for now.

While there were so many things she wanted to say after their talk on the shoreline, she still had one more beast to face.

Jacob.

He still hadn’t said much of anything to anyone since the blowout with Joseph, but she didn’t press. Family was far more important than what revelations had done to them, and though she wasn’t sure if she’d have anyone to come back to—let alone come back at all to straighten it out, they didn’t have time to waste on further arguments on relationships right now.

Just then, a tall shadow towered over her, and the sounds of a loadout being set, piece by piece. It’d startled her and forced her to turn around to see who’d come out to the hotel’s crude armory.

She sucked in a breath when she realized it was Jacob standing there at the opposite table, arming himself to the teeth.

“What’re you—”

“I’m going with you.” Jacob muttered, checking the slide and setting the safety on his pistol before he holstered it. It was the first thing he’d said to her in days, and not something she thought she’d hear. Not from him…

Diana shook her head. “Jake—”

“John is my brother.” Jacob snapped, harshly. He’d spoken up so quickly, like he already anticipated she’d protest. His hard glare trailed away from her, unable to look Diana in the eyes. He shook his head slightly as he pulled his trademark rifle over his shoulder. “She’s got him, his girl, and his kid. I’m going.”

No questions asked.

And no questions needed, because he didn’t give her time to object. She watched him throw a bag of his belongings over his shoulder and head toward the entrance of the hotel.

Diana watched as Jacob retreated. It was the first time that he referred to the family as his and not theirs.

 

*

 

Langford Lake
Whitetail Mountains South
Present

 

The sound of a duffel closing snapped her out of her daydream. It wasn’t so much of a dream than it was a recollection of how they got here.

Diana peered over at Jacob who had just pulled his jacket from his shoulders. His muscles were rippling in the thin, gray tank he’d worn beneath, so she found it difficult not to gawk at him as he draped the garment over his bag. They’d just set up camp, fresh from a hunt to which he’d immediately gone into skinning for their quick meal.

The water rushed over her boots. She looked down, quickly realizing that she was at the edge of the water with a fishing rod in hand. Diana didn’t even remember packing it, let alone casting the line into the lake. Light from the sun shimmered in her peripheral vision, so she looked over at her husband again. It was her ring, still attached to the chain around his neck, its facets catching a bit of the sunlight overhead. Her heart sank at the sight of it, though she’d grown somewhat numb to heartaches as of late.

Before she could even mention it, she suddenly felt a tug on her hook. It was a big one, it felt like, pulling her forward since she hadn’t exactly planted her feet the way he’d once told her.

“Whoa there… hold it down.” Jacob leapt to his feet and walked over to help her.

Diana’s feet skidded along the soft earth, feeling the water fill her boots and soak through her socks and the bottoms of her jeans. She tightened her grip on the pole, turning her body to guide the line as she dialed back the reel.

Then, she felt him, and gasped when he made contact. It stole her away again, taking her mind elsewhere instead of a dizzy panic to reel in the fish. Diana remembered the way he held her. The way he would embrace her when she tidied up or got dressed. She even recalled a pleasant surprise when he came home after a hunt and she was hanging laundry on the line; the scent of fresh linens hanging to dry mixed with the musk of the forest when his arms enveloped her. Those were the better days she’d longed for; if she could only rewind to the sweeter times she’d taken for granted, and she’d stay there.

Leaning into his chest, Diana felt Jacob’s hands at her forearms. He was guiding her to lead the fish to the shore. He squeezed her, though careful not to hurt her, and pulled back on the pole.

With one final tug, water splashed back onto them. Flopping frantically, the fish was lifted out of the water, and immediately caught in Diana’s hands. Taking it from her quickly, Jacob tossed it into a nearby bucket, and she released the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

“Shit!” He cursed, under his breath, retreating to where he’d set his gear.

He winced a bit, reaching up to touch the wound at his shoulder. Blood seeped through his shirt, indicating that he’d torn open one of the knife cuts from a few days ago, which Adelaide had so kindly stitched shut when they got back to the Grandview.

 “Lemme get that,” She offered, to which he’d waved her off.

Typical. Diana glared at the back of his head, watching him throw his stuff around until he found some ointment and bandages from his pack. It was at the right point on his shoulder that he couldn’t see very well, and after a few seconds of watching his struggle, she threw the pole down and walked over. She said nothing, only holding out her hand to take the items he’d fetched from the medkit (which was now splayed out at his feet).

Jacob stopped. He knew there was no point in arguing, at least, not without letting the injury worsen if he kept resisting. The older man let out an exasperated huff through his nose and looked away, shoving the contents from his broad hands into both of hers.

She could have scolded him some, chastised him for being so damn stubborn, but Diana refrained, eased him back onto a rock. Neither of them had been strangers to injury, but when others assumed he would put on a tough face and see it through, she knew he would need her help. She raised his shirt from his waist and held it up so he could carefully maneuver out of it, exposing not only his scarred body, but the oozing wound as well.

With a grimace, she poured some peroxide onto her hands and lightly touched it, feeling him tense beneath her fingertips.

“You gotta sit still,” she said.

He rolled his eyes but did as she asked. It was a pride thing, she knew, one of the sins her husband carried in his own way. Sure, a soldier of his size, having seen what he’d seen, it was probably the last thing he’d wanted, to show another moment of weakness. Though he’d never treated her as his lesser, Diana sensed it was discomfort of sorts, like a blow to his ego to have been beaten down so badly he was now in need of help. Jacob was a lick his own wounds sort of lone wolf, but if he’d learned anything from their marriage, she would not let him suffer if she could help it. She only wished she could say that aloud without setting him off.

Sterilizing the wound and the torn flesh around it, she started bandaging him up. If he’d bothered to talk to her, she figured this was her chance, a door left open she should take. “You didn’t have to come along. You’re barely in any shape to fight.”

Turning his head slightly, Jacob glared in her direction. “Don’t worry about me.”

Diana scoffed at his tone. It was confusing, all of this. How to handle a volatile creature like her husband was a battle in itself, let alone everything else she’s had to face in the last couple of months. But he was responsive, so she persisted. “Like I’d stop worryin’ bout you.”

He huffed again, sitting perfectly still as she placed the bandage. “You wanted to put your faith in Eli, and what does he do? Says he’s fine with you heading out alone. He’s not a hero, he’s a fucking coward.”

“Eli could’ve killed us all back there, but did he?” Diana was somewhat offended.

Jacob smirked, “It means he would rather sit pretty. Hide. Pratt’s gone, so why risk his life, huh? I bet he’d let the County rot under Whitehorse. It’s always been that way… Whitetail Militia, housewives, kids and all the others stupid enough to take up arms when they probably don’t know a .22 from a nine mil. We were doing fine until they stepped in our way. And now look at them, running around like they own this place, though still not even sure whose side they’re on.”

Diana’s mouth set into a thin line, letting him go on about his distaste and distrust of the Militia leader. Jacob and Eli’s beef went back before she ever set foot in the County again. Even before the recent mess, she always found herself in the middle of arguments, trying to reason with either of them. When she became Regent, she didn’t have much choice, other than to follow her Herald’s way but now she lived with the mistake of looking away from the bloodshed caused by either of them continuously fighting one another. To move the conversation away from letting Jacob rant about how much he loathed Eli, she carried on.

“Listen… about last night,” she lightly patted the tape on the edge of the cloth bandage, but was cut short when he reached up to take hold of her wrists. Her brows furrowed, seeking some sort of connection with him, but Jacob still wouldn’t look directly at her.

“If you’re gonna go on about that shit, I’d rather pack up and get moving. We don’t have time as it is.” He released her, but she could still feel the sting of his strong grasp.

“We can’t move ‘til nightfall, you know that.” She replied, just as sharply.

Jacob raised his eyes to the sky which still showed at least another hour or two before sunset. The muscles in his jaw clenched at her point, and he shook his head.

“And as much as you’d like to, we can’t just sweep this under the rug. We went on with all this secrecy, but we shouldn’t hide anything anymore. What’s the point?”

“Yeah, well what’s the point of airing it out? I’m tired of stepping on the bones—skeletons just pouring out of closets. You were with Joseph, end of story.” Jacob waved it off, but it was obvious in his tone that he was far from being done with it.

“I was.” She gulped, trying not to apply too much pressure to his wound. But once the front was sealed, she stood and walked around to his back, which appeared to be just as damaged. “I was also a cop, sent here on some fucking suicide mission to arrest all of you but look how that turned out? I dunno why that old bastard thought this would work, that sending me undercover was going to shake out in all sunshine and daisies—and I went in with one identity… ending up with three.”

At least…

Jacob sat upright, stretching a bit before settling again. He let out a soft grunt as he slowly moved, trying to let his breath calm himself instead of barking at her. He hissed softly and shuddered when she trailed her fingers over his skin. He’d never admit it, but he was tickled by the light touch along the flesh of his back, just below the nape of his neck, and he knew exactly where she’d stopped. Right between his shoulder blades, the small etchings of sins were there. He’d kept them hidden from everyone but his family, and Diana knew them very well.

Pride. Envy. They matched the ones on her arms, he once told her. He felt her finger follow the faint line that was struck through the word Envy. There was room for argument there, for either of them to bring up these words and the reasons behind them, but nothing came, only more silence.

When he started to move again, Diana squeezed his shoulder to get him to stop so she could continue her work to fix him up. They listened to the score of fire crackling beside them, filling the thick tension between them. He closed his eyes and let her apply the cleanser and only squirmed a little the ointment that followed, only to be jarred out of any serene thoughts by the sound of rustling gauze and the tearing of tape.

“You know, I spent all that time trying not to hate either of you. But I’m a simple man and hate is all I know.” He chuckled at himself, “I have no one to hate but myself.”

“Jake…”

“Let me finish. Everything my brothers put you through, for what I did…” He sighed. “It doesn’t change the past, nothing does. And I don’t know what any of us were thinking. Can’t even chalk it up to being young and stupid either.”

Carefully placing her palms on his shoulders, Diana leaned against him. It was difficult to refrain from pulling him into a hug as she always did, but she didn’t want him to clam up again if she made the wrong move, so she didn’t impose on his safe space. “We all made bad choices.”

Jacob shrugged. It was as if he wanted to wave that off, too. “I’m not any good with words like He is. And I know how he works so I guess I shouldn’t be so damn surprised about all of it. We’re not good people, Diana, you never should have come around to deal with the likes of us.” Jacob had resorted to picking at a piece of kindling, splitting it piece by piece with his fingers. “But knowing what I know now… I could kill him…”

Diana sighed. “Jacob, you just said it won’t change the past. It won’t change anything…”

“I knew the bullshit he put the girls through, the Faith’s he kept enlisting like they could ever replace my sister-in-law,” he retorted, a bitterness in his tone she knew was fitting for those words.

She felt sick at what he’d said, but the truth behind them stopped her from denying it. If that was Joseph’s goal, to mend his own broken-heart by using replicas of his late wife, it made her involvement with him even more appalling. “I never wanted to be her—or any of the Faith’s, I didn’t know what I wanted because I…”

“You were programmed to be someone else. Yeah. Right.” He chucked the piece of wood into the flame next to their cooking pot.

It was difficult not to take offense at the way he’d said that, but she let any rebuttal fade away. They were going around in circles, it seemed. Everything went back to who she was and what they’d done, and it felt impossible to get anywhere in the conversation, until he spoke up again.

“You know how much that broke me up to hear what he did to my niece? Every single time he told that story to anyone who would listen… losing Faith, the real one, and then young, innocent life he held in his own fucking hands just… gone…” Jacob stopped a second as he’d caught his voice wavering so badly it’d cracked, but after a deep breath, he carried on, “it made him numb, I knew it. It made me numb to it too, like somehow it was my fault. You know, kids—shit, bringing kids into this little slice of hell ain’t gonna fix anything, you know? It wouldn’t do them any good raising them in a place like this.”

He turned his head, so he could see her in the corner of his eye, “I told you I’m too old to be a dad—and I know you were so hellbent on passing on the name and having one for ourselves but look around, Diana. Is that really what you wanted?”

It was an inevitable turn, this conversation shift, one Diana knew she had to face sooner or later. The trouble was, she had no answer for his question. The first instinct was to blurt out: YES because she’d wanted that for so long, but his perspective stopped her from saying anything

He continued, “You know the kinda life I’ve led, shitbag parents… That didn’t give me much motivation to put myself in their shoes.”

Diana shook her head, “You really think that would happen? You are better than that—”

“So you think.”

“You will not be like them, Jake, we’ve been through this!”

“You have no idea what happened to me, and to my brothers… and apparently, you underestimate what I’m capable of.”

He was wrong, she thought, every intimate detail Jacob had let slip in his most vulnerable state—especially after they’d made love and he was on the edge of slumber—he’d bared some of his closest and darkest secrets. Diana kept shaking her head, side to side, as if it would convince him. “I wasn’t there, but I know enough, and I’m damn sure you would never be like that.”

Jacob laughed, “Oh yeah? How can you be so sure? Because you read the Book of Joseph? He can paint all our pain with pretty words to carve that agony into the souls of our followers, but to me it was black and white. Or black and blue, even. Diana, I might not be the brightest of the bunch, but I hoped He was smarter than that, reasonable, compassionate, considerate, but that? Putting those women through that shit, trying to recreate or replace what he had and lost, will never ever bring them back. And knowing all of that, listening to the stories that aren’t fables they’re fact—I feel like my time has passed, like I was placed here to make up for lost time. Just to watch them, like I should have done a long time ago instead of running off to join the Army.”

His thoughts were like whiplash; the bitterness for his brother’s darkest deeds, snapping to the rightful resentment he felt for their parents, the regret of leaving his brothers, and back again. She tried to make sense of it in breaths as he droned on in his sorrowful soliloquy, but it was doing nothing except making her feel the sting of his own mental scars.

Eventually, she answered softly, “But you didn’t have a choice.”

“Of course, I did. You said it yourself. We all make bad ones, and I’ve made plenty of ‘em for almost fifty years.” Jacob grumbled, not caring for the pity she was exuding as she stood there behind him. “And by the way, you didn’t have to risk your hide to come get me. I know you went through hell getting to Faith and John. But maybe if Pratt were still alive, I wouldn’t be around anymore to get in the way of whatever Joseph wants. Hell, maybe if we get out of this alive then it might be best to let me go.”

It was as if he’d taken out his knife and plunged it into her chest. It was then she felt the cool breeze at her skin, chilling her since her clothing was still a bit damp from earlier, but it’d also brought Joseph’s words into her head again.

“Return safely. Return to me, Hope.” He’d said.

But she shook that away, bringing herself back to what Jacob had just said. Diana could barely eke out the words, they were so quiet. “What are you saying?”

“Don’t give me that, as if you don’t have your mind made up. If you want to pick him, run away into the sunset, then fine!” He growled, reaching for his shirt to slip it back on. “Figured I’d rot here anyway. You deserve better. You deserve to be happy.”

Her eyes widened as he’d leapt to a conclusion that came out of left field. “No! No, it’s not that! I’m not picking anyone or anything, I just—”

“Then what is it?!”

“I shouldn’t have come here. I shouldn’t have meddled with the family. I shouldn’t have messed with any of this, and maybe things would just be—”

“My life would have no purpose without you!” he shouted, contradicting his previous efforts to push her away. It caught them both by surprise as he stood up and faced her. They finally locked eyes and stayed there, as an awkward silence fell between them.

Diana couldn’t shy away this time, and Jacob held his ground so firmly he showed no signs of looking away either.

“What don’t you get about that?”

He was selling himself short about his eloquence, she thought. While he might not have the same exuberance or confidence in speech like John or Joseph, he still had a way of talking (when he bothered ‘wasting his breath’), that she admired, and what he’d just said floored her. She expected much more backlash from him, as he tended to bottle up his thoughts and feelings, but she welcomed the notion that he was fighting for them, just as she’d been throughout their time together. But, little did she know that it was only the beginning.

“Everything we did together? That was always real for me, Di. And of all the lives I took, your brother’s—and even yours… that’s real too. Things I may never earn forgiveness for, things that will be a part of me until I die. Yeah, I met you back at the Eagle. Joseph sent me to scout somethin’ in the Valley because John was out doin’ something else, I dunno. The next thing I know you’re tearin’ down the doors of the church to cuff him… and then between the two of them and ‘Faith’ trying to get their paws on you, I was helpless, pushed to the sidelines to watch the Bliss work its twisted magic on you like He said—that we could mold you into something… until everything made you into this—this machine I could hardly recognize. I guess before I lose my chance to say this, what I did was a mistake, and I regret every second of conditioning you!”

He paused a beat. Jacob must have caught himself spouting off what he thought was nonsense, but Diana hadn’t interrupted since she wanted him to let out his thoughts… because he rarely did. She’d never deemed herself clairvoyant but spending time with Jacob meant that she had to read the man of pure action. His intentions, his brevity, she’d learned to read him rather quickly. However, she didn’t see this coming.

“Even when I didn’t know you, I wanted you, and I didn’t care who you were before.”

Diana looked at her hands. She’d finished up the bandage on his back a while ago, but she still held the meds and other things in her hands, gripping onto them like a lifeline. “That’s something I always told you.”

“I’ll never forget it.” He stated, eventually closing his eyes to take a deep breath, and hopefully calm himself.

She walked over to stand in front of him, almost tip-toeing, thinking he was going to push her away. When he didn’t, she threw the meds into the kit and looked up at him. Slowly, carefully. Diana touched his arms, feeling him relax beneath her touch. He tilted his head a bit and finally opened his eyes when she said, “It’s okay…”

“It ain’t okay, and you know it.” He chuckled, not so much in amusement than it was in embarrassment of letting his emotions loose.

“It’s a vicious cycle. The more we uncover, the more we might realize how bad we are for each other.”

Jacob frowned. “Now that ain’t right, Diana—”

She placed her finger on his lips, hushing him a moment. “…but I’m still here, were in this god damn mess together.”

At first, she wondered if he was going to smack her hand away, but he didn’t. Instead he backed up a bit and shrugged, shaking his head. He’d mumbled something under his breath, and rather than ask him to repeat himself, she decided to take a chance on an idea that had been stewing in her mind all morning.

“Once we get John and Ana… maybe we can actually get the hell out of town.” They’d fantasized about moving away from Hope County when they were first wed, but Jacob never seemed like he took the thought seriously. Diana didn’t want to go anywhere without him, and that never changed.

“Oh sure, make it sound so damn easy,” Jacob snickered, “How the hell are we supposed to do that, huh? The Collapse is coming, and Joseph—”

“Fuck the Collapse. Fuck everything!” She shouted, which stunned him. “Do you remember what you told me last year? You don’t know if he really has a…a gift or if there’s even a fucking voice or if he really talks to God. Maybe it’s all a crock of shit he threw together to make this Project work. Even if He’s been right about some things, which has kept everyone together after all this time, there are things he got wrong and we can’t ignore that.”

“We can’t even breathe in this County without Forsaken catching on. Maybe the only thing we got left is the hope that the Collapse would just wipe the slate clean.”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying, Jake. They made an agreement with Eli, and I know you don’t like the man but he’s only helping us to get everyone cleared so we can get out of the County.”

Jacob took a second to process everything she’d said before scratching at his beard. “And you think we can make it anywhere else?”

“Yes.” She said, to which he laughed, and when he stepped aside to try and tidy up the mess they’d made, she followed, still trying to reason with him. “We go north to Canada? Or southwest—where I used to live—I mean we can go wherever the hell we want. Start over. The house is gone, Jake. Most of our men, our homestead, the church. As far as I’m concerned, it’s over. The family can do whatever they want, I don’t care. I just want you… We can leave this all behind us and start somewhere new.”

Bracing herself for another rise in the conversation, Diana threw another log onto the fire. The wind kept the smoke from rising beyond their site, another subtle warning of the rainfall that would surely hit the Valley that night. She figured if they were going at each other, gloves off, he might just piss all over her idea and mock her for thinking of something so foolish.

Then, she gasped when a pair of arms encircled her again, this time pulling her up into a much-needed embrace. Jacob had closed the distance between them and swept her up into his arms. She held on tight, wrapping her arms around his neck as he kissed her, making her realize this had been what they were both craving. She put her hand to his cheek, gently stroking the scar on his face with her thumb. Diana breathed out when he backed her against a nearby tree, pressing her firmly against his hard chest, his mouth still locked with hers.

This was what should have happened when she found him. This was how she wanted to be with him, a reunion from time away and pain endured, with her beloved. Diana missed this. She missed him. And no matter what tore them apart, either themselves or an outside party, she couldn’t deny how she felt about him or how much she needed him. She was warmed by his touch, enthralled by this passionate contact. He’d reignited her, filled her with a flame that shut out the cold that had otherwise claimed her over the last few days. As she softly tugged at his hair, she felt him hum against her lips, separating briefly to catch their breath. He left a trail of kisses on her neck, her flesh pinched between his teeth as he softly nipped at her.

“I take that as a yes?” She whispered. Her eyes fluttered shut, giggling softly at the feel of his scraggly red beard tickling her neck.

Jacob simply chuckled in response, as he lifted her up. He was sold on the idea, or so she assumed, the words she wanted to say finally having spilled out—and he agreed with her.  

Her lips found his again, feeling his hands teasingly slip up the back of her shirt. It didn’t matter how much they’d suffered, they would find relief and release in one another.

Just as he lowered her to the blanket he spread out earlier, a roar echoed in the distance. It cut their moment short, setting them both to high alert. Jacob leapt to his feet, instinctively reaching for his rifle, and Diana quickly followed.

The radio sitting beside the fire beeped before a voice and the sound of whirring came through the speaker. “I know I’m the last person you thought you’d see, but if you even thought about comin’ down to my turf again, you had to know I’d find you right?”

“Rye?” Jacob glared at the sky.

“Fuck—”

Nick laughed. “Come on girl, just surrender now and we don’t have to make a mess of ya.”

Diana scrambled over to the fire and snatched the radio, hearing the plastic creak as she smashed the talk button. “Nick, this doesn’t concern you—”

“Like hell it does. Now I’m givin’ ya one more chance, darlin’. Come quietly and ol’ Cheeseburger there won’t claim you for tonight’s supper. Keep resisting, and well… I’m sure you’re smart enough in that brain of yours to know what’s comin’.”

Throwing on his coat and kicking out the fire, Jacob made quick work of sweeping up their small camp. It was a good thing they hadn’t completely unpacked as they’d planned to for the last bit of sunlight they had left, but now they had no choice but to get moving. Unfortunately, it was a lose-lose situation, so they had to think fast. They were both survivalists in their own way, the gears chugging along as quickly as each second ticked by. Unlike her last encounter with the pilot, she didn’t have a heavy gun on her to shoot down his prized plane and running on fumes meant they would be no match for the bear.

Jacob slid her pack onto her shoulders and set their gear into place, taking her hand… but she resisted. The peak nearby was just a few meters south, and she was glad to have thought to pack a parachute for this excursion. While the valley didn’t have too much in the way of hilly cliffs compared to the mountains or the riverside, it was an emergency like this, in this locale, that it would come in handy.

“Come on, honey—we gotta move now!” Jacob urged her.

She shook her hand out of his grasp, “No—you have to go. Get to the fort, save the others, I’ll try and lose them!”

His bright blue eyes widened, “What?!”

Squeezing his hand for reassurance, Diana’s green gaze locked into his. “Hudson wants me dead more than any of you. If you want to give your brother and Ana the fighting chance they deserve, you have to get the hell out of here!”

“Like hell I will!”

“I love you…” Diana pulled him against her and gave him one last kiss, her causing her heart to stutter. She savored these last seconds, cherishing the taste of him and the look on his handsome face before parting again. “GO!”

Pushing him back, Diana took off in the opposite direction to get a running start. Her heartbeat thumped in her ears, her stomach twisting and turning as she launched herself off the cliff. She heard one last shout of protest from Jacob as she gained distance, sailing through the trees. She tugged at the string on the pack, releasing a parachute from it. It yanked her backward, her heart racing as she saw the canvas twist as it did not fully open.

Shit!

She turned and yanked at the cords to maneuver it as best as she could, trying not to kick and panic. Thoughts raced through her mind that this might be her end, that she might have been her own undoing. But the air filled up in the chute just in time, as the tops of the trees whisked by her feet. The gust of wind that blew through tugged her up and back, but she recovered with enough sense to ease into the glide. She floated down an open path, trying to guide herself back down to land.

Her bones crunched when she hit the ground, though she found herself lucky she hadn’t broken anything in the process. One quick swipe of her knife cut the strings of the chute and she had no choice but to keep running. She assumed Nick might have already seen her take the leap off the mountains and into the northern valley, but what concerned her the most was whether or not Jacob got away in time.

Troubled by the worried thoughts about Jacob, Diana cried out and took a nasty tumble down a hillside. Her ankle had twisted when she stepped on a rock, an injury that sent a shooting pain up her leg when she tried to stand.

“Fuck!” She cried out, slipping and sliding through the thick mud on the edge of this small creek. There was no way she could stand and having heard the skid of Carmina on the water nearby, she knew she was helpless to this hunter. She had nowhere left to go but with her captor.

Dragging herself along the dirt, Diana heard the thud of a quadrupedal animal stalking toward her. It was faster than her, especially in her current state, and she wondered if by her failed luck it would be a feral wildling that had discovered her landing zone. The animal slowly sauntered up beside her once she stopped. When she turned her head, she felt the sandpapery tongue run down the side of her face, and a paw at least three times the size of her face press down on her chest. She’d been caught by what seemed to be a tamed beast, but it was a beast nonetheless.

“Shit…” She rolled to her back, staring up at Cheeseburger who looked oddly excited to see her. He leaned down, his giant face hovering above her before his sandpapery tongue covered her cheek. He grunted and groaned at her, watching her struggle to sit up.

“Move aside there, ol boy.” A voice commanded, and the beast moved away.

Cheeseburger stood up for a moment before plopping down on his backside, just as another figure strolled her way.

I don’t blame you, boy. You’re just following orders.

The once-captive animal who’d been trained by Wade at the F.A.N.G. was an old friend and treated her as such. While it warmed her heart to see he’d remembered her, she knew he couldn’t be blamed for listening to her enemy.

The back of her head thumped against the ground as she conceded to her injury. It was pointless to get up and take off now. Footsteps crunched onto the rocks and gravel, coming to a halt beside her.

Dark hair, hat…sunglasses. Fucking Nick Rye.

“Wish I could say it was good to see you.”

Everyone kept saying shit like that, but from Nick in particular, it didn’t promise her any sort of friendly candor that most of the County had provided after such a greeting.

Focusing on the man looming over her to distract her from the pain, Diana turned and spat on his boot.

He smirked, nudging her leg aside with his soiled boot and seemed pleased to draw a cry from her. Nick raised what looked like a dart gun to her leg, checking the ammo carefully before firing. There was no hesitation; he shot her. “Now how’s about we go for a ride.”

Venom quickly worked its way into her bloodstream, making everything blur into one bold block of color with sparkles of light shining around it. Sounds of Nick whistling and the grating noise of sand scraping at her back echoed and morphed into a cacophony of dizziness, as he took her by the wrists and dragged her away.

And then, everything went black.

Chapter Text

A powerful and familiar aroma filled the air, creating a tingle to prickle at her senses.

Diana’s ears were greeted by the buzzing of wildlife, and footsteps in the distance. Taking in a deep breath, she felt alive, rejuvenated even, as if she were waking to a new dawn. However, she saw nothing when she tried to open her eyes. The earth was flat against her back, grass and flowers from what she could feel served as a bed in her current state. The light touch of harmless insects tickled her bare feet, feeling the sensation of fluttering butterflies trailing up her bared arms. The air was so thick with the essence of its thriving flora that she could taste it, fragrant and bitter, yet sweet like honey laced with herb and a vanilla aftertaste.

The grass rustled beneath her as she sat up, but when she tried to open her eyes again, she felt her lashes scrape along a blinding cloth. Without sight, she created the imagery of her surroundings, trying to feel out where she was based on her senses. Diana scrambled to her feet, hardly surprised she could use the ankle she’d thought she twisted when she tumbled down the hill.

She felt someone walk past her, cutting through the teasing rays of color that peeked beneath the shield that was fastened to her eyes. Raising her hands to the cloth on her face, she tugged and pulled and scraped—but it would not budge.

A charming voice hummed somewhere behind her, and when she turned, it transferred to her back again. Diana recognized the song as the hymn “Oh, The Bliss”, which was favored by their sister, Faith. As she recalled the face she’d seen prior to her blackout, it didn’t take Diana much longer to realize that it was once again a spell of Bliss.

“W-where am I?” She called out, turning her head side to side, calling out to a presence she sensed in front of her.

Faith giggled, and no matter which way she turned, her sister’s voice was over her shoulder.

“Faith, I don’t have time for games—”

“Shh…” The girl’s thin finger touched her lips, hushing her at once.

Faith reached down to take her hand and a gust of wind blew past her as they moved. They flew across the stretch of what she assumed was the garden of Bliss. “The river runs red. The howls of the mountains are silent. Yet, the darkness in the valley thrives… I can feel them though. Our family. They’re alive, and they need you.”

When they stopped, Faith continued to hum the hymn’s verse. She was incredibly close, her body nearly pressed against Diana when she loosened the blindfold. Another whisper of wind whooshed by them, swirling outward and around in the green mist, until a path cleared before her. Sure enough, the heavenly visage of Faith was there.

Everything was just as she’d imagined, grey skies looming high above her, crisp freshness of Spring before rain, with wisps of clouds like soft cotton moving swiftly in the passing storm. Deer, elk and other peaceful creatures wandered around her, picking at the grass. She was looking at this realm of Montana through green lenses, as if her irises oversaturated the colors here.

The lithe fae of the Bliss stepped aside to present another clue to what she might have to face. She continued to sing, humming through the chorus until finally singing the lyrics.

“Oh, the Bliss will set you free…

Oh, the Bliss is gonna make you see…”

It was haunting, Faith’s voice, the apparition twirling on the balls of her feet. She was as lackadaisical as ever, a specter of the alluring poison.

Diana took a beat to focus, and when she could clearly see through the smoke, there were people here, ones she didn’t recognize, walking about. They didn’t see her, however, as if they were ghosts among the mass of aimless wanderers strolling past them.

“You have to open yourself, open your mind, your body, your soul, to really listen to what will be asked of you. I don’t have much time to tell you…”

“Tell me what?”

She was taken aback, confused at the strange garments they were wearing. Clothing of leather and wool, fur and linen, plain and simple, matched with crude weaponry at their backs. They donned insignia much like that of Eden’s Gate, paint and markings that mimicked that of the scars of atonement or ranks among the congregation, but there were no recognizable faces among them.

It was almost as if they were not of this time…

“What is this,” Diana whispered, turning to Faith who was already staring directly at her face, “Where am I? And who are these people?”

Faith giggled again, bringing light to this otherwise dreary scene. “You’re safe, for now.”

They quietly observed as these strange people gathered scraps and things from the wreckage of the buildings she recognized, places that had been torn asunder. To her left, a church… wood was gathered, and the iron from the Eden’s Gate crests, as the men and women began scooping the soft earth to bury their dead. To her right, the bar. Glass and stone, wooden chair legs and round tables they might fashion into shields. Straight ahead, Diana noticed the red banners that once hung from the posts in the Whitetails… her banners… Jacob’s banners…

Faith did little to watch the strangers, and instead studied Diana’s bewildered state. She tilted her head slightly, gaining Diana’s attention, as a smile claimed her full, pale lips. “You can feel it, can’t you?”

When she spoke this time, her tone was intertwined with the baritone timbre of another voice.

“We are creeping toward the edge… and there will be a reckoning.”

This was eerily familiar too; these words she swore she’d heard before, but they were not from Faith. No, they derived from a speech delivered before… from someone else.

When the dense fog gave way for another visitor, a stretch of magenta and periwinkle flowers bloomed along the path. There was a lone man walking in her direction. Diana settled her eyes on Joseph, whose half-bare form gracefully paced toward her. Such was his entrance in many other Bliss-induced visions before, but she had never been shown a sight in this much detail. The lines of his scars, words etched into his skin were aglow, almost as if they’d been burned in, fresh from Hudson’s unforgiving iron.

Petals of these beautiful and mysterious blooms swirled around him, mixing in the mists of the Bliss as it was picked up in the breeze that blew through. Joseph’s footsteps drew him closer to her faster than she expected at the distance where he’d started, it was as if each step, the image of him swiftly moved, until he phased through the apparition of Faith. The Angel of Bliss vanished when he took her place.

The cloth used to cover her eyes transformed, shifting to a color as red as blood and a material thin as the tattered silk wrapped on Oliver’s grave. It had transferred from Faith to Joseph, curled around his hand just as his prayer beads, like a serpent clinging to its master.

Diana sucked in a breath at the mystical, yet tangible mirage, but Joseph caught her as she tried to step away.

“Do not be afraid,” He said, as his fingers laced with hers.

With a knot in the pit of her stomach urging her to run, she did everything against her own instincts. Running would get her nowhere, she knew, as she’d tried to run before, but Joseph always found her in this place. The Bliss was a world of his own creation, and she would never outrun his reach.

Waving his hand at the strangers from a strange land, it was as if he were presenting her with a message, a taste of the visions he’d seen before. “Everything is unfolding… this is God’s plan, this is what the Voice told me would come to pass. We take what we need, what preserve what we have. There will be no more suffering.”

Suddenly, that calming demeanor of his transferred to her. The knot in her stomach loosened some, the tightness in her muscles relaxed. Joseph guided her down the trail, and where their feet should have been cut or grazed by the sharp rocks protruding from the dirt, she was surprised to see the mass of pink flowers rising through the dirt wherever they stepped.

“The End is coming. The Collapse.”

Walking at his side, she turned to look at him. “You’ve always said that, Joseph, but nothing has happened.”

Somehow, whatever space they were in didn’t change the way she thought. It was the same as Jacob had said before she was taken by Nick, a shared doubt in the Prophecy that Joseph said would happen in time. Now here she was, expressing said doubt in the words of the Father, even in this bizarre, otherworldly plane.

“Everything you’ve seen before will align with what’s in store… for you. For us.” He didn’t look at her yet, but he smirked. “You became not only a part of our flock, but our family; you’ve shouldered many burdens that have prepared you for this.”

“Prepared me… for what?”

“You must not let him trick you, ne’er shall he take you. Do not stray from the path you have chosen.”

She tugged at his arm, “Joseph, we don’t have time for riddles, we have to get John and Ana and—”

“The Whitehorse… and hell that followed with him has cast a shadow over us all… and the place without Hope beckons for that Hope to return…” He stopped for a moment, just as the blooms of these wildflowers pooled around their feet. Sensing her doubts, Joseph firmly squeezed her hand. “He will try to change your mind, feed you more lies—or even worse, the truth.”

When Joseph waved his hand again, they were transported to a peak where his statue once stood. His likeness that had held the book open to the Prophecy, chiseled to perfection atop this hill, now lie in ruin; the frame of its foundation surrounded by rubble, debris, and shards of white rock. Together, they surveyed the vast countryside which was picturesque and breathtaking; the county from here was a remarkable sight to behold. The air was thin and chilly in the rafters of the statue’s remains. Though she wasn’t terribly afraid of heights, it was a whole new perspective from the top of this landmark.

Joseph, appeased by her amazement, watched as she picked out notable places they could see from where they stood. He carefully led her to the edge of the plank, and her stomach swam with a sudden unease when she realized just how high up she was: several hundred feet up and just inches from a deadly fall.

But would she die here? She wondered. The Bliss was fascinating in that aspect; would she revive elsewhere, back here with Joseph, or simply keep falling? Part of her was curious… the other part, the sensible part, warned her not to try.

Joseph held onto her, raising his free hand and snapped his fingers, causing the skies to flash forward. The sun and the moon began chase, rotating through the days faster than the true passage of time—the stars in the velvet sky replaced by a sea of blue and pillows of clouds as dawn and dusk revolved at a rapid pace.

“What is it you want me to see? Why am I here?” She asked, though still seeking out the beacon above John’s old bunker in the west.

“You are here because you were Chosen. Blessed. Like the day we met—on that day, something shifted in the balance.”

The glint of the dazzling stars, the full moon, and even the bold sunshine flickered in the lenses of his yellow-tinted glasses as they passed. Joseph was unfazed, his demeanor balanced hers—as it always had—the stillness of his soul opposing the frenzy of her anxiety. Countless days rushed by, and it was as if the seasons changed with it, greenery wilting to brown, to a snowy winter, and then back again, as she watched in awe.

“In your waking hour, believe not what your eyes may see, not just in the Henbane but anywhere in the County. The ruins of Bliss turn to ash, its holy majesty wafting in the air… you will see things that aren’t real. The gates will fall open with no masters to guard the seals that break. Just know that He will beckon you. Call to you. Summon you… And He will prey upon you at your weakest moment, vulnerabilities you’ve already had cut open… and pull the sins to the forefront.”

As he spoke his last warning, the sky stopped. When the ground shook, an ominous cloud of copper and titian appeared in the distance. It rose to the skies, shadowing the mountain range in a vermillion hue.

Immediately clinging to Joseph, Diana held on for dear life as they watched the sun drown in the coming of the apocalypse; ash and fire and doom wiped out any signs of light. But she felt no heat, no pain, nothing except the helplessness of seeing Hope County as it was decimated by the blast. Homes that stood tall and proud in her hometown were covered in flame, as the screams of its inhabitants joined in an agonizing dissonance, a cry that became painfully louder than the air-raid sirens that resonated through the land. All of the color that majestically enveloped them before, the blooming flowers, the green of the mystic Bliss, the red of his scars and tattoos, the enamoring landscape of their once-vibrant homestead, had been sucked into the vortex of shadow, leaving only one layer of color on them, a sanguine ochre of a bittersweet end.

The cloud expanded, bringing the dust and hellfire in a massive wave that started to rush toward them. Panicked, and awaiting the impact of the blast to wipe them out, she screamed. It was then that the Father’s arms wrapped around her shoulders; He was trying to shield her and cast away her fear. She braced herself, holding her breath as she anticipated the hit—but instead of knocking them off the top of the mountain, it simply passed through them.

After a moment passed, she felt Joseph’s fingers run through the length of her hair, and she breathed out. Despite the chaos surrounding them, the whirlwind of ruin and death, he remained calm and lowered his head to touch hers. His voice, though low and quiet, was heard through the noise of destruction, as clearly as if he’d spoken at full voice.

“Though the path may have diverged from what was told before, the outcome may remain the same.”

When she looked down at their hands, Joseph the red ribbon had somehow wrapped around theirs, binding them at the wrists. It was intricately knotted, locking them together, and she could not pull away. The blacked-out sun left them standing in endless nightfall, beams of light diminished to nothing and she could only see him in the darkness, in the rush of a sandstorm that threatened to devour them both.

“You must withstand the darkness. You must resist. You must survive.”

After spending so much time with him, Diana knew that she could read his intentions in the way he spoke, that she could decipher the puzzles in his words. But this time it was different… She was just as lost as when she first arrived here. “I don’t understand, what does it mean, Joseph?!”

With a small smile, which she assumed was to reassure her, brought an unsteady calm to this blackened void.

Joseph leaned down and kissed her forehead. “You must come back to me, Diana.”

Chapter Text

Rye & Daughter Aviation
Holland Valley South
A little while later…

 

Always mysterious, the Bliss.

Whether or not it had mystical powers was something Diana still didn’t fully understand, but now she couldn’t ignore the signs she’d just recently witnessed. Joseph was watching, as he always did, and he managed to pass along a message from afar, as if he’d known she was in danger. There was repetition in these strange occurrences, words and phrases pieced together from the past and somehow a warning of the future, and it always came back around to his final words. Then again, she wondered if there was something amiss elsewhere—that perhaps something had happened to him or Faith on the island…

“You must come back to me, Diana.”

As if there were finality in what he’d said, she couldn’t shake the way Joseph insisted she return… to him. Had he seen the end—the real end—without John or Jacob or anyone else in the picture? The latter was more her concern, as much as she adored John, but her husband, whom she’d fought so hard to get back was gone again, just out of reach… and the visions she’d seen were almost always apart from him. She wouldn’t want to live in this world, wasteland or thriving, if it meant to be apart from Jacob any longer.

When the dizzying effects of the drug wore off, Diana returned to consciousness, gasping for air and kicking out at anything nearby. Her mouth was dry and her body ached, the usual warping headache throbbing at her temples. Her body hit the barrier of metal and glass beside her, and she discovered she was seated inside an aircraft. She sat up straight, feeling the resistance of a seatbelt at her neck and waist. Jutting forward, she raised her hands to free herself, but found them bound too, knotted just as tightly as the ribbon had held her hands to Joseph’s in that dreamscape.

There was laughter at her futile attempts to break free stopped her, forcing her to look up when she heard a voice.

“You know I thought when ya came back you’d be some sorta badass. Actually, I knew you were, the way you dodged them bullets when I tracked you and John that day—boy that feels like ages ago, don’t it? And like some Guy Marvel superstar went stuntin’ your way to safety. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to beat out Clutch Nixon, or something!”

Nick Rye. You bastard.

It didn’t matter that he was complimenting her, it was a backhanded way of mocking the fact that she’d failed an escape this time.

Without much choice but to stay put until they landed, Diana turned to watch the landscape as they soared over Holland Valley. It was more entertaining than staring at the back of Nick’s head, imagining the satisfaction she would have by knocking him out for what he’d done. However, at this high up and no control over the plane that was transporting her hundreds of feet in the air, she decided it best to stay put, and not endanger herself or Rye. Her shoot was lost in the last jump, and she would likely fall to her death if she tried anything that foolish.

She followed the course that she and Jacob had planned to take toward John’s Gate—better known to the County presently as the Iron Fortress. To her surprise, she noted that Nick was flying a course to the south, which meant she might pay his home a visit before her unfortunate demise with Hudson. Curious, she thought, following the roadways around the cliff from Langford Lake to the south, through the farmlands east of the Pumpkin farm, all the way down through Fall’s End.

Nick must have sensed her glaring daggers at the back of his head, and he briefly looked over his shoulder. “Don’t worry yourself too much, I ain’t gonna kill you. Was never really my aim, to be honest. But I’m on strict orders to keep you breathin’ and all your pieces intact, whatever that meant. Anyway, we’re just about here. You got a little while before I take you up there.”

Diana rolled her eyes, returning her focus to the outside. Whatever she’d done to piss him off so badly that he would willingly work for Joey Hudson and Whitehorse—she wasn’t too sure… other than the fact that she was married into the family he swore to take down. No, she couldn’t blame him for that. John had staked his claim on Holland Valley and went as far as taking a literal chunk out of him and Jerome, so he was right to hate them. But no matter how much she would try to plead her case, tell him that the family had changed, he may not want to hear it.

No one ever did.

That was one of the curses of carrying the Seed name.

Nick took a slight turn toward the aviation center, decelerating and lowering the pitch to descend to the runway. They passed the large sign for his aviation company at the entrance. Rye and Daughter, it said. Even in her current situation, Diana found that alteration to the long-standing Rye company name a huge leap for Nick—who had always sworn he would have a son.

She remembered how ecstatic he was when he and Kim announced their new addition to the family, talking big about how their boy would grow up to carry on the Rye legacy, and how he was gonna be as handsome as he was (but really because he’d have Kim’s genes). Having a child really changed him she knew, and after their daughter was born they’d heard about it at the Veteran’s center. It was a somber yet celebratory day, one that brought on many mixed feelings among the congregation, and from what she recalled was part of her growing envy to start a family… but thinking about the next generation made her thoughts drift back to John, and then to Joseph.

Fuck. She mentally kicked herself. It wasn’t all her fault, of course, having forgotten the progeny that could have been. That was all Joseph… and the Bliss. Perhaps that was why she was so guilt-stricken and adamant about taking this on, this rescue mission that might certainly end in her own death, to assist John and Ana’s child the same way the Rye’s would protect their daughter.

Diana closed her eyes and sat back, feeling the elevation in her gut as they dipped through the slight turbulence while Nick expertly landed on the strip. She bounced a bit in her seat when the wheels touched down on the dirt path. He guided it toward the garage that was attached to their house.

As she was about to breathe out in relief of their safe landing, Nick’s lead foot stomped on the brakes and she jerked forward, hitting her head on the seat in front of her. It amused him too, sounded like, and he laughed. “We’re here.”

The pilot’s door opened and welcomed the cool air to blow inside. Feeling the center of the pain in the middle of her forehead, Diana grumbled something behind the piece of duct tape that sealed her mouth shut, glaring daggers at her old friend for his antics.

“Oh, my bad. Lemme help you with that.” He smirked, reaching over while keeping one hand on the wheel to rip the tape from her mouth. “Whatcha sayin’? Couldn’t quite make it out.”

There was so much to say, so much fire to spit at the man she once called a friend, but Diana resisted the urge to scream, to yell until she was blue in the face, because it wouldn’t do her any good. He was a stubborn man, and always had been, so there was no changing his mind if he was hauling her off… to die.

Nick chortled. “Fine then, be that way.”

Succumbed to her status as a prisoner, Diana kept still and let Nick walk around the side to open the door for her. She was in no position to take off running, but if they were armed like the rest of the County, she wouldn’t get very far. Hudson might have said to keep her intact, but a bullet or arrow wound wouldn’t cross those parameters… and between Nick and his wife, she wouldn’t put it past them to put another Bliss dart or bullet in her if she tried.

“Honey?” A dark-haired woman came rushing out of the screen door, stopping just a few feet away from them. Her eyes widened when she saw who had been accompanying Nick, a bundle of bones and torn up flesh, limping toward their house. “Oh my God…”

“Kim.” Diana uttered softly, embarrassedly casting her eyes to the ground.

“I got ‘er, baby.” Nick pushed her forward and hooted in celebratory fashion, as if nabbing Diana was the victory he’d been wanting all along.

“You’re all covered in—”

“Mud. It’s just mud, babydoll. Cheeseburger’d found her long before I did, coming down from the mountains all sneaky-like. Is he here?”

Kim nodded, though she frowned at just how awful Diana must have looked. “Hurk said he picked him up and was heading back down this way later…”

“I didn’t hurt her or nothin’. Maybe a pin-prick from the Bliss darts—and I told you they’d come in handy. I think she might’a sprained her foot back there though.” Nick explained, before turning his head to look at Diana. He shoved her forward and she yelped, stumbling on her one good foot until Kim caught her before she fell. “Kim’ll get you patched up. Doubt you’ll be able to do much walkin’ til tomorrow.”

Kim’s lips pursed, in clear disapproval of her husband’s cold treatment of their guest. She held out her arm to offer herself as a bit of a crutch for Diana to hobble alongside her. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”

Nick scoffed, stubbornly maintaining the distaste of having Diana around at all. “Yeah, don’t get too comfortable or anything. You’ll only be here ‘til dawn… unless we can figure out what else to do with ya.”

It was an odd feeling, being behind enemy lines, and in the home of an enemy. Even if he didn’t plan to execute her or keep her locked in a dark bunker to starve or go mad, Diana still felt trapped and there was nothing she could do about it. There was no means of escape, no way to defend herself, and no notice of help being on its way. However, she would take Kim’s kindness as it came, even if she felt undeserving.

 “I heard what you did to Pratt,” Kim whispered, but there was something in the way she said it that almost sounded… relieved. Diana let the comment go without questioning it, carefully taking each step up the stairs with Kim beside her. They moved together, slowly, one step at a time. “At least the Whitetails are free, I mean, not like anything’s better here with Hudson…”

Diana didn’t really respond, mostly because she didn’t know how to. She didn’t want to cause any trouble between Nick and his wife, but if her gut was telling her anything, Kim might actually be on her side… but she wouldn’t let her guard down just yet.

The two of them crossed the threshold into what Diana assumed was their bedroom. It made her uncomfortable, knowing that Nick would certainly not approve. Despite that, Kim looked around to make sure they were clear, and pushed the door until it almost shut. She eased Diana onto the wooden chair beside the bed, and it felt like heaven to take the weight off of her ankle.

Working against time, Kim quickly flipped through her drawers, tugging and pulling at some garments that looked like she hadn’t worn them in a while. She muttered things to herself, almost nagging herself that she might need to throw out some of these old clothes, until finally, she held up a shirt and a pair of jeans with a pleased “Aha.

When she turned to face Diana, she hesitated slightly, taking in the sight of her old friend. They stared at one another for a moment, a glance of pity with a hint of worry worn on Kim’s kind face.

“I’m not… I’m not gonna do anything to you, Kim.” Diana muttered softly, and the sounds of a baby cooing in the next room made her eyes shift to the open door. That move unsettled Kim some, the already uneasy tension between them shifted from the warmth she’d been greeted with. Holding her bound hands up to her captor—or rather her captor adjacent—she shook her head. “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”

Kim gulped and stared at her a moment longer before nodding, possibly finding a sliver of truth in Diana’s words. There was a reason she’d taken her here instead of being banished in a shed behind the hangar until Nick was ready to take her to Hudson. This exchange, paired with Kim’s comment about Pratt and her obvious distaste of treating Diana like a prisoner was a slight reprieve; Kim’s generosity was Diana’s lifeline.

It was all true, though, Diana knew. She believed wholeheartedly in what she said. She wasn’t there to harm anyone, not even Nick, and especially not the girls. Even if she was able to stand on both feet and armed with every weapon in Jacob’s armory—that wasn’t her purpose here. Aside from the fact that Nick was antagonizing her intensely, she held no animosity against them and it never dawned on her to hurt them. Not once.

Diana had one thing on her mind… or rather, a million and one things, but what was important to her now was how the hell she was going to get out of this mess and back on track, if she had any chance to get John and Ana to safety.

“I just want this to be over.” Surrendering the clothing she’d piled up neatly for Diana, Kim set them on the bed. Deftly undoing the rather complicated knot Nick had used to tie her up, Kim took a couple of steps back, to let her change. “And for what it’s worth, I’m… really sorry to hear about everything. Oliver.” She clicked her tongue, shaking her head solemnly.

 “Thank you.” Diana clenched her fists as she’d mentioned his name, letting out a soft sigh.

As strange as this captivity was, since Kim’s husband did not share the same sentiment, Kim’s condolences and hospitality was worth its weight in gold; any alliances and amends made no matter how thin or unreliable they might be, meant everything to her. She didn’t ask how Kim had come to know about Oliver’s death, since it was probably common knowledge now. The revelation was only new to her because there were several barriers in her way, people who withheld that truth until Pratt brought it forward to her.

 “Is it true?”

“What?” Diana asked, as she turned away to set out each piece of her borrowed wardrobe.

“Ana Morgan… she and John…?”

Diana was running her hand along the fabric of the plaid shirt, and she stopped as Kim’s voice trailed off, like she was waiting for her to fill in the blanks. Turning her head to peek at Kim over her shoulder, Diana simply nodded. “It’s true.”

“Wow…” Kim sounded both disgusted and surprised at the same time. “Mary May told me she’d seen her around Fall’s End every now and again. Something about seeing her with John… but…”

Again, Kim trailed off. Diana didn’t know how much she wanted to elaborate and interrupt her thought process as she struggled to comprehend. Though Diana didn’t know too much about her anyhow, she could confidently confirm that the Morgan girl, a pure and devoted waif of a thing, had indeed caught the attention of the unlikely monogamous brother of the three.

Diana recalled a few happy moments she’d caught between her and John, but then remembered the video she’d witnessed back at the Grandview, thus tainting the sweet and loving memory of her—replacing it with the grotesque image of Hudson pressing the scalding hot iron into her flesh. Diana’s mind battled with it for a time, fighting to keep the lighthearted capture of the Herald smiling and laughing with the innocent Ana Morgan, instead of the chilling sight of the torture instilled on the soon-to-be-mother of John’s child.

“I… saw the video. The one Hudson’s sent out to the County. I didn’t know she was…” Kim’s voice jarred her out of her thoughts, trailing off again as if she was at a sheer loss for the right words to say. Diana was seen as their enemy after all, and she figured Kim might’ve caught herself sympathizing for the wrong side, considering everything she’d said and done so far.

Normally, someone who couldn’t finish their sentences would irritate her, but Diana knew it was an upsetting sight, no matter what side they were on. It was a simple fact: Ana was pregnant and endangering the life of the unborn Seed was shameful and merciless. “Neither did I… Pratt told me and Jacob back at the Veteran’s Center.”

“Oh…”

There was so much she could have said there, bared herself to the one glint of hope standing there with her. She could have exposed the true tragedy that lie behind the walls of the Seed’s compound.

“Things changed for Eden’s Gate. After Whitehorse started his crusade to exterminate us, the goal, the vision… things changed.”

“I see.”

Diana could have told Kim about her time at the convent, how she was guided by Faith and eventually welcomed by John… her first vows to Joseph and the loss her mind had worked so hard to forget… then her dedication to Jacob and their struggle to start a family… but that would never overcome the wrongdoing at the forefront of the Project, behind the façade of strength and unity. The basis of the original project after all was to sift through the lost souls to herd the sheep into their flock, which affected the Rye’s in the worst possible way. Diana couldn’t humanize the family that had since demonized themselves to the world.

However, their conversation was cut short as the door flung open, timed perfectly as she’d removed her mud-covered top.

Kim gasped.

“Jesus H. in holy heaven—what is goin’ on in here?” Nick exclaimed.

And just like that, the grave and serious tone of their previous conversation changed, mostly because of Nick’s rowdy entrance.

Kim rushed toward the door to hush him, “Shh! Sweetie, you’re going to startle Carmina!”

Nick jutted his head back in shock. His usually tanned cheeks were now glowing a healthy shade of red, his eyes wandering to the corners of the room as he made it quite obvious he’d unintentionally caught a glimpse of Diana.

Topless.

“B-But you just—I didn’t—She’s—”

“Changing, yes.” Kim narrowed her eyes at her flabbergasted husband and flipped him around, to give Diana some decency in this otherwise compromising scene. “You might be marching around like the Johnny Lawmaker, but I wasn’t about to let her sit around and catch a cold in that filthy outfit.”

“Her shirt—and—our room—” He continued to fumble his words, gesturing wildly as he frustrated himself for not getting a full sentence out without losing his way.

Kim was trying so hard not to laugh at him, letting out a small chuckle when she looked at Diana who was just as amused. “Sweetie? Honey Bear?” Her voice as sweet as saccharine tried to coo her husband out of his tree of embarrassment. “Give her two minutes to change, and I’m going to prepare supper. That’s all I ask.”

Huffing at the open doorway, the girls could hear how mortified Nick was, even if he were trying to uphold a tough exterior. Perhaps it was also because they all knew it wasn’t the first time he’d walked in on Diana, but even reminiscing on comical moments of the past would not save their unsteady relationships now.

Raising his well-worn Rye & Sons Aviation cap and scratching at his scalp, Nick let out a grunt and shook his head. “Two minutes.” Was all he’d said, before leaving the room.

“I’ll be right outside.” Kim nodded in Diana’s direction.

Covering herself with the red flannel top Kim gave to her, Diana thanked her with a slight smile. Kim stepped out of the room, leaving the door as it was, to give her privacy.

 

*

 

A few hours later, just after sunset, Diana could smell the meal Kim had been preparing. She lay face up on the bed in their bedroom, having been confined here in the Rye’s quaint and humble home.

She could have run. She should have, the longer the clock ticked on, since running would have given her any semblance of self as this solitary confinement forced her to be lost in her own thoughts, but the compress had barely started to help mend her foot. After she’d changed and got cleaned up, Kim returned to the room to wrap her ankle. She fastened it up tight, using a balm mixed with herbs and ice around the bandage that she called a family secret. As impatient as Diana was, she needed a bit longer before she could stand up straight. But if she attempted an escape? Knowing her luck, she’d be ambushed just outside of the property anyway, so she stayed where she was, and waited.

Time spent in this solitary confinement forced her to piece together what the Bliss had done to her. It was almost as if Joseph and Faith had spoken to her in person, she feared that everything they said would come true. The Voice, the Bliss, neither of them had lied to her thus far, though the jarring mental trips it took her on made it seem like a devastating and outlandish angle devised in fantasy literature than it was her reality. Though the seals hadn’t been broken in the ways Joseph had once foreseen, the path they were on now meant their days were still numbered… and if what she had seen recently was their future, she knew that as the seconds passed here in this unusual prison cell, the less time she would have to get to John and Ana.

The sudden kick at the bedroom door made her sit upright, and she looked to see Nick standing there. Expressionless, yet exasperated all at once, he jerked his head to the hallway, signaling her to follow him.

She gulped. Was he taking her to Hudson now?

Diana winced as she planted her feet, pitifully walking behind Nick as they descended the stairs. She noticed their dining table was set and watched in awe as Kim flew back and forth between the kitchen and the table, setting out a stunningly cooked meal and all the fixin’s for herself and Nick. Her eyebrows raised when she saw a third place-setting on the table and an empty chair.

“Sit.” He ordered her, pulling the chair back for her to take.

Plopping down into the seat, she felt him push it forward, taken aback by the manners he’d shown her, even if it was brash and sharp.

Diana sat perfectly still and watched Kim dish everything out in decent-sized portions on every plate, nodding to give thanks as she was offered this home cooked meal. It had been a long time since she’d enjoyed something like this, as meals were simple when it came to dining with Jacob.

They even said a quick prayer over their meal before diving in.

“So… tell me, Diana…” Kim hesitated at first, as she still seemed a little uncomfortable using her new name. “Where uh… have you been?”

Small talk? Really?

Diana swallowed a bit of food she was able to scoop onto her fork with her hands tied. Her eyes flitted over to Nick briefly, who strangely looked interested in this information too. “Um… The Grandview. They… you took down the Veteran’s center… so we had to lie low someplace that wasn’t still overrun by Pratt’s people.”

“Hey, don’t go bundling me up in that mess.” Nick’s face soured, tucking a bit of the food he’d just shoved into his mouth into the side of his cheek. “I’ve been here trying to take care of my family while everyone’s out killin’ each other. Take this how you want, but it’s about damn time someone took down the center.”

Diana sighed, picking at her food with her fork in the awkward grip she held it in.

“Wait… The Grandview—isn’t that where…” Kim trailed off, turning her head toward Nick with a gravely expression on her face.

Slowly chewing and swallowing the big gulp of food he’d been chomping on for a few seconds, Nick understood the concern that now took hold of his wife. They were familiar with that hotel and hadn’t visited it much… for good reason. Most of the big tourist stops became outposts when Eden’s Gate moved into Hope County, but that was one of the landmarks Eli warned them to stay away from shortly after Jacob took over the Whitetails. Not long after, they were made aware of what Jacob had used it for, before…

“It’s… different now.” Diana knew what they were insinuating, and she shook her head. “Eli or whoever oversaw restoration of the outposts, fixed it up after it was… liberated from Jacob.” Withholding the notes of resentment in her explanation, that did not reassure them or stifle the apprehension around the stigma that surrounded that location.

The walls were painted over, removing the words Jacob used in his conditioning. Meat. Weak. Only You… What was supposed to affirm and strengthen his mental hold over his soldiers as he took physical holds on them as puppets—were long gone, from what she could remember. They’d stayed there, settled for days, which was longer than she’d taken at most of her stops on this journey… but it was difficult for her to remember what the wallpaper looked like now, as it was set aside, into the shadow of the events of her the forgotten events that were exposed.

“And you?” Nick’s fingers twitched, almost as if he wanted to over to his gun that was on the table. He didn’t look ready to pick it up, but it was a power move ensure Diana wasn’t going to do anything foolish.

Diana sighed, avoiding eye-contact with either of them as they were seemingly persecuting her for something she had not done. “I’m fine.”

Squinting at her, Nick’s jaw clenched. “Fine, she says.”

“What is your problem with me?” Diana snapped.

Kim sat up, “Diana—”

Nick reached over and placed a hand on his wife’s forearm. “No, no, honey, let her finish.”

Inhaling deeply through her nose, Diana settled down from her outburst. There wasn’t much to lose, she thought, something she constantly reminded herself of in recent days, so she wanted to clear the air as best she could with her old friends. “We used to get along just fine. Oli, Cass—they loved you guys too. Just because I married someone I love, into a family you disagree with, you forget about all of that?”

When the words came, Diana regretted them immediately. It was shallow to say, heartless even, but she couldn’t retract them.

“Are you shitting me right now? You’re really gonna wave names around like that?” Nick laughed, more irritated and angry than jolly, “No. I haven’t had a chance to meet your acquaintance, Mrs. Seed. Wish I could say it’s a pleasure and all, but it ain’t, and you know it. Now, as much as I’ve tried, I haven’t forgotten the days we would hang out. The days we’d play outside when it was safe to do so without getting kidnapped or shot… or brainwashed into some fucking cult. No, I haven’t forgotten town meetings and get-togethers downtown for the Testy Festy or big parties for things like Jerome’s birthday or Grace’s Homecoming, or the announcement of our kiddo… but those are old days, old times… that’s long gone now, erased because some whacked out hippie moved into town with his family and his groupies, and they wiped out all the happy shit with it.”

“Honey, don’t do this now—” Kim tried to stop him, taking hold of his hand but he swiped her away to forcefully point at the prisoner in front of him.

“…And the girl I used to know? Gone with all that. Hope Evans is dead. Just like her brother and probably her sister too!”

Diana felt as if the wind got knocked out of her with his remarks. It was her fault for bringing her siblings into the argument, but she had a feeling with the way Nick was going after her he would have brought them up regardless. A beat of tense silence set between them, leaving everyone speechless, before he carried on.

“Nick, please…” Even Kim was disturbed by that mention, knowing for certain it was a low blow.

“You might think you love that dick bag but deep down you know he’s a monster, don’t you? Didn’t they tell you all the stories of him nabbing people in the night, putting him through the same treatment—that if I got my facts straight—even you got first hand? Now I’d probably have this here anyway, but if you’ve spent time at Grandview, there is no way in hell we’re letting you roam free,” Nick took a big swig of the water from his mug before carrying on, “Guy you love… Hah. His family ain’t any better… And you bet your ass if that shitstick John Seed was with you, I’d have shot him dead without question for what he’s done here!”

With a heavy sigh, Kim shifted in her seat and set her fork down beside her barely-touched plate.

“Have you asked yourself—if what you think you feel is real?” Nick continued.

“Yes…” Diana replied.

“Have you thought about the lives they took before and after they waltzed in here, and the people that were affected by their bullshit? Do you think they showed even an ounce of mercy? Not just adults but the kids they forced into cages, cut up just as bad as the rest of us, shot dead for not saying Yes—”

Diana’s eyes darted up to him. “Th-they’ve changed.”

“Hah, now that’s a nice crock of shit,”

“Things are different—they’re good people who have done bad things and I’m—”

“No different from them. Got it!”

Much like a trapped animal, Diana became irate at the prosecution. It wasn’t something she took lightly, but no one wanted to move on from the past. Rightfully so, but it was just cyclical now—being faced with the sins of the past. Unlike the others, Eli, Tammy, Mary May, and the lot, Nick hadn’t had his chance to say his piece in front of Diana and he was coming at her full force.

 “Then why haven’t you killed me yet, huh?!”

Nick reached for the gun, however Kim quickly placed her hand down onto his to stop him.

No one is going to be doing any of that!” Kim snapped, trying to intervene and stop the hostility.

Diana shrugged it off since she couldn’t gesture with her hands. “Wine and dine me like it’s my last supper, fine, I appreciate the hospitality, Kim, I really do, but maybe at this point I should just march up to Hudson myself.”

Taken aback by her threat, Nick sat back. He took another drink and slammed the empty mug down, which made the girls jump. He stood from his seat and leaned down on the table as if to emphasize his point. “The Seed family? They aren’t people, Diana. People—sane people—don’t do the shit they’ve done to everyone. So quit lying to yourself, and the sooner you get that through to your thick, stubborn, Evans head of yours, the better off we’ll all be.”

“Everyone needs to calm down, now.” Kim said firmly.

However, Nick continued, ignoring Kim’s request. “You know, I thought better of you, and most of us wanted better for you too. Your parents, God rest their souls… shit, you thought about what old man Evans would think about his daughter being in leagues with these devils? Come on, Diana, I’m sure you’ve heard that from us survivors, what with all the galivanting you’ve done, trotting around the county on Jacob’s arm, on a high horse like you’re some Queen of the castle huh?”

The word queen bothered Diana more than he would ever know. “That’s not how it—”

“And now look at you… brick by brick, stone by stone… it all came tumbling down, didn’t it?” His searing glare was relentless at Diana, “And after all that, you expect us to help? Forgive everything you’ve collectively done because you asked?

Nick’s words, above everyone else, carried a tremendous weight. Similar accusations spouted off in anger she’d heard from everyone else too—most notably from Eli in his own way—but Nick’s words pressed down on her even harder. The contrast between the Nick Rye she knew versus the one she faced was stark, someone aside from Eli and Sharky who had her back through thick and thin, was beyond angry with her… and he had every right to be.

“We were all proud, and I do mean all of us, seeing our hometown girl shine in her new case to save the County. I’ve been told now that it was part of some fucked up operation, and we were all supposed to ignore the fact that she turned her back on us. Then she did nothing looked on as the Seeds kept reaping and baptizing and killing—and look where that got us!”

Standing from her chair, Diana met Nick’s eyes without wavering and she shouted, with gusto, “I didn’t have a choice!”

Pounding his hand on the table as if he’d heard enough, Nick shouted back, “We all have a choice! I don’t give a fuck if Whitehorse ordered you to throw yourself off of Raptor Peak—”

Carmina’s cries could be heard from her room upstairs.

Nick’s lips pursed a moment as he grunted. “And now you’ve upset my girl.”

The one other person in the house Diana tried so hard not to disturb was crying because of their shouting match, and she felt awful for doing so. Her shoulders slumped down, her tied hands hanging in front of her as she held her head low.

“I’ll go.” Scooting her chair out and making a dash for the stairs, Kim left the two of them in the dining room to tend to her child, and the warmth that she brought to the table left with her.

Like a fire that had run to the end of its wick, the rush of heat in the argument between Nick and Diana had run out. There wasn’t much left to be said that hadn’t been aired out already, so many things she’d heard before.

 When the room went quiet, save the soft whispers of Kim calming their child on the second floor, it didn’t lighten the mood. It didn’t change anything, except perhaps worsen the contention. Nick lowered himself into his chair, and Diana did the same, the two of them focusing on objects in front of them instead of each other, to get grounded. For Diana, it was the food that was cooling on her plate. For Nick, it was the loaded pistol placed beside his plate as if it were another utensil he needed to keep handy.

Diana could hear the clock ticking in the background, so she fixated on that noise as a metronome to Kim’s gentle lullaby as she closed her eyes. She was waiting for Nick to say something, perhaps to continue the tirade against her.

“When he said you’d come around he told us you would be doing something dangerous, and I had no idea you’d sell your soul to those fuckers.”

Beaten down with defeat, and at a loss in the fact that Nick had made up his mind, Diana shrugged. There was no ally here, just another messenger for the Forsaken force that was bound to see her very soon. “I didn’t either.”

Nick’s brows furrowed at that remark, and before he could ask her what she meant, before he could ask for clarification, Kim returned. Her feet were light on the steps, only noticed when she walked into the kitchen again.

“Not to worry, Carmina’s fine… I just put her to sleep.”

“Thank you, darlin.” Nick said, leaning up to kiss her cheek when she walked around the table. Nick whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Without responding to his apology, Kim began to tidy up the dishes, scooping some of the untouched food back into its containers. It was not lost on any of them how unsettled things were now, shaken up after the argument between Nick and Diana.

“I can help,” Diana offered, starting to stand from her chair.

“No.” Kim stopped for a moment and cast a sidelong glance at Diana before stacking the plates. “You’ve done enough.”

Diana watched, still posed half-standing, half-seated, her weight on her good leg, as Kim left her there.

“You heard the lady.” Nick grasped at her shoulder and pressed down, forcing her back down into her chair. “Now you sit, and you wait.”

Chapter Text

Rye & Daughter Aviation
Holland Valley
That Same Night…

 

It had to be midnight, give or take, based on the position of the moon she could see from where she was held. After their meal was cut short, Diana was forced outside, since Nick refused to let her out of his sight. He’d been busy for the last hour or so, tuning up his plane from the damage it suffered on his last excursion.

The radio was on, playing Heart’s Barracuda at a low volume, and Diana found it difficult to resist bobbing her head to the song. Her hands were still tied, but she was at least seated in a chair close by, toward the back end of the garage while Nick sifted through his toolbox to find the right one for the task. If this was how life was going to go for the final hours before her judgment, Diana couldn’t complain. Other than the spat with Nick and causing trouble with Kim and Carmina, she knew this was a little cushier than she deserved.

She dreaded facing Hudson again, and the condition she might find her in-laws.

“I gotta tell you, for a man of his age—Jake Seed’s still got it.” Nick tossed one of the rags down he’d wiped along the scuffed wing, peering over at her through the open space beneath the fuselage. Of course, he then realized what he’d just said. “Not like that—I mean… uh…”

Despite their tensions, Diana couldn’t help but snicker at the folly of his unintended double entendre, seeing the redness in his round cheeks again. It was one of the first things he’d said to her since their fight, and she wasn’t expecting anything other than harsh comments or insults… but humor? That was Nick’s strong suit, even if he didn’t mean to let it out.

“I mean he put more holes in her than I thought—”

Her lips pursed tight, finding it odd to laugh while being held prisoner, but he was making it too easy.

Fuck’s sake…” Nick glowered at her, “I meant… The old brute must have landed more shots on the plane than I thought he could. At his age, you know, I figured his eyes might be failing him.”

Diana merely shrugged at him when he corrected himself in a thorough explanation. Though, instead of rolling her eyes, she just chuckled back. Everyone took potshots at her because of Jacob’s age, hell, even John did from time to time. Diana closer to Nick and John’s age, after all, and the fact that she’d married the ‘old man’ always boggled minds. “I expect that from someone like Hurk but keep it up. You’re on a roll.”

Scowling at her snide retort, Nick turned his head when a truck pulled up and shut off near the house. “Speak of the devil,”

Holy shit… Hurk Motherfucking Drubman Jr.

Diana gasped when she saw Hurk peek into the garage, as she never thought she’d be so thrilled to see that sonovabitch. While she hadn’t seen Hurk Drubman Jr. in a very long time, in appearance he was still the same, if not a little more over-the-top than she remembered. He was in his muscle-tank and shorts, despite the weather, socks that looked a little worse for the wear in raggedy boots, topped off with a bandana wrap on his forehead.

She expected no less.

“Uhh, hey Nick!” He waved as he strolled in. “Sorry to stop by all unannounced but I was just in the area and wanted to see how things were goin’!”

“You didn’t, though.” Nick raised an eyebrow.

“Huh?”

“Kim said you were coming by to bring Cheeseburger home, where’s he at?”

“Oh! Hah! Yeah, yeah, ya got me!” Hurk’s wheezing laugh echoed through the garage, “Your uh… pet’s a li’l rowdier than your average teddy bear, you know, I wouldn’t mind if he went for the face, I’d be more concerned if he went for my manparts. So, heh, I had to drop him off before I turned into Hurk o’ filet.”

“He’s just excited to see you.”

“I just put him in the pen out back…” Hurk’s eyes went wide when he noticed Diana, though he didn’t seem as surprised. “Oh heh—I didn’t know y-you had company, how rude of me. How’s it goin? You know, aside from the whole, prisoner of war thing?”

Diana raised her gaze to him but was cut off before she could speak.

“Ah, just ignore her…” Nick scoffed, clicking off the repair torch and setting it on the toolbox beside him. “I’m just tuning up ol’ Carmina here—eh—my plane that is—and Kim’s sure to have some leftovers ready for ya if you wanna grab a quick bite.”

Hurk’s face lit up at the offering, “Heh… thanks buddy, you know that means a whole lot ‘n all, my stomach’s been grumbling so bad since I left the marina—soundin’ like that chest-burster’s about to just tear outta me, ya know?”

Nick snorted at Hurk’s countless references, “Yeah yeah, I gotcha.”

However, Diana sensed there was something different in his tone. The usually boisterous (and some would even consider overbearing) Hurk seemed a little off… or rather, a little stranger than what would be deemed his norm. The way he was standing too, seemed more like a child being punished than a grown man. Or even, someone forced to an errand…

Hm…

Hurk looked over at her at that moment, as if he knew she was assessing him. “Uh… what’s she still doing here anyway? No offense meant, Diana, you know, I always liked you and everything don’t mean anything bad or nothin’.”

Nick rolled his eyes. “Well, say your goodbyes if you gotta. I’m bringing her up to the Fortress once we get Carmina here fixed up. Why?”

“N-No reason really, I was just curious you know, you got the Enemy of the State here just sayin’ you should probably get her outta her unless you want the po-po flying out here, don’t want anything bad on Kim or Carmina… either Carmina’s, you know?” Hurk’s face was a dead giveaway, that something was wrong, but that detail was missed by Nick, who was still busy tinkering away with his prized plane than paying attention to their new company.

Nick snickered, “Sure appreciate that bud.”

“Hurk, what’s going on?” Diana asked, wincing as she stood up to walk closer to the two of them.

Stepping aside to stop her, Nick raised the wrench he’d been holding and aimed it at her. “Hey, you just keep your trap shut over there, Seed, huh? This is an A-B conversation.”

Diana stopped and exchanged an embarrassed look with Hurk who seemed just as uncomfortable with this situation as she was.

“I’m just sayin’ the County’s been lookin’ like that Westeros or something, real R. R. Martin shit, everyone turning their back and getting a knife in it, you know? Like I said, I just don’t want nothing like that on you or your family. Bad enough my dad’s been arguing with everyone he comes across about how our hometown’s playing out like a political shit show.”

“Don’t want any bad?” Tilting his head as he caught onto what sounded like the hundredth ‘curious warning’ from Hurk, Nick straightened up where he stood. “What are you goin’ on about, Hurk?”

Hurk chuckled, “Heh—what, c-can’t I just be worried?”

“Nothin’ to worry about, dude, I just gotta get this last thing patched up and…”

The click of a gun’s hammer being pulled made Nick tighten the grip on the wrench he had in hand. As stubborn as he was to keep Diana where he could see her, he’d made the mistake and turned his back on the open mouth of the garage entrance.

“What the hell is this now…” He grumbled.

To Diana, Hurk’s bizarre demeanor made sense.

“I’m… I’m sorry Nick, I didn’t wanna do it, they said they’d go after Peaches and—”

“No one was going for Peaches, Hurk…” Another voice said, but Nick couldn’t turn his head to look at the moment, as he’d been compromised.

“Ain’t your fault Hurk,” Nick slowly shifted his glare to Diana, who was just as dumbfounded by the turn of events. “I should have known something was off, and I’m not just sayin’ that because it’s you.”

Hurk nodded, bowing his head embarrassedly. “Yeah, yeah…”

“Jake!” Diana exclaimed, when he stepped into view. To her relief, he appeared unscathed, unharmed by anything after she separated from him earlier today. Wherever Hurk went, explosions and destruction followed, but to Diana’s surprise, this quiet cavalry had come to break her out.

A twitch of a grin appeared at Jacob’s lips, but to maintain his dominant presence here, he kept his eyes on his target: Nick Rye.

Clicking his tongue, Nick’s shoulders slouched back, and his head raised. He did his best to keep still while raising his arms at his sides. “Jacob Seed…” He growled. “The last I heard you were about to fry in the chair. Shame Pratt couldn’t make good on his word.”

“It’ll take a lot more than that to get rid of me,” Jacob huffed, not once moving the pistol away from the back of Nick’s head. “I’m here to take my wife and go.”

“The hell you will!” Nick scoffed. “You think trespassing is a forgivable offense? Because if you face me like a real man, I can show you what that means, strolling up on my property—”

Carefully stepping closer, Diana wanted to prevent this from escalating. “This is not how it has to go down.”

Nick spit in her direction. “The fuck it does, Hope—you know the rules. You know that this is the only way—”

“It isn’t!” She declared, “There are no rules, and I gotta set this straight. You know I’m the only one who can.”

Nick’s brows furrowed. “How can you say that when we have gone through years of this? Claiming, losing, reclaiming property that wasn’t anyone’s to come around here and take… And then you’re over here keeping up the lie that you’re tryin’a be someone you ain’t and it’s put the county through hell. You gotta understand where I’m coming from.”

“I do!”

“Nah, I don’t think you do.” He laughed, “I’m tired… I’m done being part of this, to be honest. Kim and Carmina, they are my life now. Whatever beef you got cookin’ with old man Earl isn’t gonna end good, you know that. I’m just doin’ my part.”

“To what? Hand me over to burn?”

“Whatever she’s got on the docket? I don’t care.” Nick grumbled. “Hudson’s orders were to take you in. I didn’t have to keep you here, in my house, give you a home cooked meal ‘n all—”

“You didn’t have to serve me anything to know this is a load of bullshit! I don’t think you understand what’s at stake here!” Diana barked back.

“What’s at stake is my family’s lives. John Shitbag Seed said and done enough to me to convince me I don’t owe him a God damn thing. If I gotta work for the good guys—”

“They aren’t good. Trust me.” Diana replied, quietly. Regardless of the Seed’s misdeeds, the Sheriff’s Elite and their allies had created a battlefield in the ruins of Hope County.

Scoffing at her pathetic attempt at pulling the pity card, Nick shook his head. “It’ll take a lot more than tears and fears to shake me, girl.”

“You saw the tape, didn’t you? You saw exactly what I did, what Kim saw, what we’ve all seen. Hudson is about to kill an unborn child, and if you keep leaning on the fact that you want Carmina to have a world to wake up to—even if you hate that baby’s father—they didn’t ask for this. They don’t deserve this. “You know you have to let me go. Let me go, and I will end this.”

Nick sighed, proving to her that something she just said might have gotten through to him. His face softened, and even the tight grip he had on the wrench looked loose. He chewed on the desperate speech she’d delivered, fighting against everything he’d stood so firmly on before, as he considered the shift. Instead of responding to her demands head on, he turned slowly to get a peek at Jacob’s sidekick… to which he couldn’t help but laugh. “Well I’ll be… You’re in on this too then, huh? Did they use the Bliss to take good common sense outta you Palmer, or what? Or carve out a bitta yer skin too?”

The leader of the Militia lowered his bow and gestured for Hurk to step behind him. “We’re on the same side, Nick.”

“I’m not sure you know what that means.”

“The County. This place. Everything we’re supposed to be out there protectin’…”

Nick bristled. “Sure lotta good you’ve done, though. Whitetails are burnin’ to shit, Henbane’s been a shithole since you offed the Marshal.” Nick jabbed at Diana again, “If all we’ve got left is this Valley? I’mma protect it anyway I know how.”

“You think I wanted to do this?” Eli asked, “Stand with the family that’s tortured, killed my men? Before you get all high and mighty on me, the answer is no. I don’t. We had an agreement,”

Nick couldn’t help but laugh again, in disbelief of Eli’s fragile alliance. “Agreement? And… what, this will all blow over? Bring back the people we lost? Un-fuck this whole town? Man, did the Grandview scramble up your brain too?”

Diana looked over at Jacob when he said that, and they both frowned.

As diplomatic as he could be with him, Eli kept patient as he talked Nick down. “I hate to say it but what’s done, is done. Diana agreed take care of the problem, minimum casualties if we act accordingly and work together, and they get the hell out of Hope County. That should be something that piques your interest, right? Aren’t you tired of losing our people?”

Nick seemed blown away by Eli’s change of stance. His teeth raked over his bottom lip and he shook his head. “So, you sold yourself to liars and killers too. That’s good work.”

Jacob sighed, his blatant impatience rearing its ugly head at the worst possible moment. “Rye, you either comply or you’re done, what’s it going to be?”

The glint of the moonlight shimmering off Jacob’s dog tags caught her eye. Diana gulped as she watched his steady trigger finger. He would easily pull if he was pushed far enough, and since they were all working against time, it only made matters worse.

Trying to distract Nick from Jacob’s threat, she held her tied hands up for him to see, to gesture without seeming hostile. “I said I wasn’t about to hurt you or your family. But my family’s out there and they need saving. We can do this quietly or…”

“Or what?”

Jacob sneered. “Or you can try me.”

Nick laughed. “I got enough guff from your brother to think you might be all bark no bite.”

“Don’t—” Diana started to step between them, surprised to notice her foot was healing faster than she’d expected.

Jacob grinned as Nick continued to test him. “The choice is yours, Rye.”

“How about you try this?!”

The swing came out of nowhere; Nick pivoted and used the wrench to get a good angle on an attempted strike to Jacob’s head. Quick to react, Jacob raised his forearm to block, the sound of bone colliding with metal rang out. Hurk’s audible gasp, Eli’s shuffling footsteps were only a distraction, but Diana darted closer to separate the two as they tangled. One, two, three punches swung, Diana was unsure of who had hit who as the dried dirt raised in a cloud around the fight.

“Hey! Stop!” Diana cried out, shouting as best as her tired voice could.

To their surprise, Nick had gotten the upper hand and ended up on top. He started wailing on the Jacob’s face—or any other part of him that he could reach. It was perhaps because he’d surprised them all with the initial attack, but there was an unusual pacifism with Jacob that forced him to go onto defense. Nick shouted profanities and other insults as he swung, and gradually pushed Jacob to fully shift into fighting mode.

Kicking his leg out and turning, he used this leverage to twist out from beneath his attacker. Nick was thrown off and to the ground in an instant. Jacob’s massive form was shockingly spry as he jumped to his feet, appearing to be ready and willing to go for the next round.

Taking their cue at the sign that this might go on a little too far than necessary, Eli and Hurk moved to assist. Eli hooked his arm under Nick’s and held him back. Jacob, now with a bloodied mouth, effortlessly waved Hurk aside as he refused to be touched by anyone at that moment. He was a beast, caged until now, holding in every ounce of animosity in for the sake of keeping things civil.

Diana moved quickly to his side. Even in this flash that she’d been able to get a good look at him, she was sure Nick’s damage would leave an even darker bruising than her punch had left from the day before.

Nick squirmed and thrashed to break out of Eli’s hold. He quickly scrambled toward the gun Jacob dropped in the scuffle.

She felt Jacob’s hand try to push her out of the way but instead she snatched up the wrench that Nick had subsequently dropped and raised it above her head. She used her body to shield Jacob, disregarding the fact that he cleared a half of a foot above her. That didn’t matter, even if Nick hastily pulled the trigger; She’d gladly take the bullet. She was there to put this all to an end.

He pulled back and was ready to fire, Diana standing firm in front of her husband when another voice shouted loud enough to bring everything to a standstill.

“NICK!”

WHAT?” Nick swiveled his head to a new interloper, but his eyes widened when he realized who’d come in to join this standoff, unarmed, and looking at her husband like a deer in headlights. Nick cleared his throat, keeping his aim at both Seeds as steady as he could. “Shit, Kim—would you get back inside please, this doesn’t concern you.”

Scowling at that command, Kim folded her arms. “They’re on our property. You’re out here raising your voices and pointing your guns and knocking the shit out of each other—and frankly this is all just a little too close for comfort to our baby. You can stand your ground, puff out your chest and act tough, but I’ve done enough sticking back and watching all this!”

“I mean h-he started it,”

“Hurk.” Eli shook his head, trying once again to keep him out of the arguments.

After returning her attention back to Nick, Kim took a deep breath and calmly said, “Nick… I think it’s best you listen to them.”

Nick threw his hands up and turned quickly to face his wife. “Oh, come on, you gotta be kiddin’ me!”

“I hate to admit it,” Kim shot a dirty look between Diana and Jacob before placing her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “But you have to.”

Nick let those words sink in before he sighed, lowering his voice slightly as if the conversation were only meant between him and Kim. “Hudson’ll be after us, do you want that? Because I sure as shit don’t want them getting near you or our baby girl!”

“That’s what I’m saying. The longer you keep her here, and as I see it—the longer they are here, we’re gonna be at risk of Hudson coming here and the psychopaths she keeps around will follow. Carmina is my number one priority, and she should be yours too. You heard her. You’ve seen the broadcast. She’s got John and Ana and their baby too. The longer you let this go on, it might be too late.”

Nick scoffed.

“If it were me, you’d fight like hell to get us back. Right?”

“I mean, I know I would…” Hurk said, earning him a heavy nudge from Eli, who made a gesture to zip his lips. He hiked the bow onto his back and returned to observing as Kim took the lead.

Gently sliding the gun out of Nick’s grasp, Kim looked it over and disengaged it before returning it back to its owner. This confused Jacob, who graciously accepted the weapon, before tucking it back into the holster at his side.

Kim walked back to her husband. She seemed a lot calmer than anyone else here, especially considering Nick had just been in a fight with one of their enemies. “We back down, we allow them to go on this… suicide mission, and maybe the three of us can get outta here before shit hits the fan.”

Jacob ran his hand through his beard, adjusting his jaw for a second before chuckling. “All due respect, Mrs. Rye, it’s too late for that.”

“And you?” Her head snapped in the direction of Jacob when she heard him. She pointed a finger and poked Jacob square in the chest. “You take my name outta your mouth Jake Seed.”

“Kim,” Diana shook her head, throwing the wrench out to the side, and far from anyone’s reach.

 “No, I mean it. I’m not about to ignore what your brother did to Nick, and even though I’m not much for holding a grudge, for all I care he can rot in hell for threatening this place.” Kim shook her head, “But… if it means the safety of our daughter and the unfortunate child who had no choice but to be born to that name…

Diana gulped, and heard Jacob’s exasperation as he folded his arms behind her.

“You and I might be friends from a time ago, Hope. Call this grace or mercy, fine. But that will never extend to your family. Do you understand me?” Kim’s dark eyebrows raised as she pointed at Diana now, as if she were waiting for her to speak contrarily.

Diana nodded.

“You too, Eli. I’ve seen some really messed up things the last couple of years, but you rolling in here with Jacob Seed?” Kim scoffed and shrugged, almost unsure if her eyes were playing tricks on her. “I know it wasn’t an easy call, and if you’re here for clout, to prove that we shouldn’t keep fighting against each other well… just because the Whitetails are free of Pratt, it doesn’t make for comfortable living anywhere in this County. In fact, it’s gonna make things worse if she finds out you’re here.”

“Li’l Missus has a point,” Hurk chimed in, finally saying the right thing at the right time, though without the right tact to appease Kim. But she was right and they all knew it, a similar point spoken by Hurk himself just moments ago. They were all sitting ducks here at the aviation center, and the longer they made Hudson wait, the longer John and Ana were imprisoned, something worse was bound to happen.

Eli nodded. “I know.”

“Damn right I am.” Standing proud, Kim nodded at everyone, and gave them all a very maternal glare to emphasize her next commands to her given company. “Hurk, go grab the ice pack and towels in the kitchen for Jacob—”

“I’m fine, Mrs…” Jacob trailed off, seeming to catch himself before contradicting her earlier request.

Kim smirked as he trailed off. “I insist. Nick, get inside and clean up. I’ll be right in.”

“Yes ma’am…” Nick groaned, readjusting his jaw from the one shot Jacob had managed to land when he clocked him with his elbow.

Diana gently squeezed her Jacob’s arm. He shot her a look that looked reluctant to join the others, and rightfully so, since he and the host of the house had just thrown blows. For Diana, she knew it was because they’d been torn apart, returned and then separated again more in the last few days than any other time that she could recall, and she wanted to stay right there with him and keep him in her sights. However, this small olive branch Kim was granting them was going to go without resistance, or argument.

“You okay?” Jacob asked quietly. He brought up his blade to cut through the knot around her wrists, freeing her hands at once.

“Are you?” She looked up into his eyes, searching his face and wincing when she saw the bruising and cuts. Once her hands were free, she gently placed her forefinger and thumb at his chin and tilted his head carefully to examine the damage. Her heart fluttered when he slightly grinned at her worry and he let out a soft laugh. Diana wiped away the blood that had dripped from his mouth into his beard, cleaning her hands of the excess on her pants.

“Ehhh… I’ve had worse.” Jacob stated, proudly. “I think you hit harder than that guy.”

Nick hobbled alongside Hurk into their house, and when they turned to watch, they didn’t miss him flipping them the bird. Of course, he quickly retracted it when Kim clicked her tongue at his juvenile antics.

“That was a stupid stunt you pulled back there,” Jacob raised an eyebrow at her, and she knew he’d meant the jump.

“Yeah, yeah…” She grumbled, pressing her face into his chest. Diana felt his arms wrap around her, pulling a sigh of relief from her. “Fucked up my leg, but thanks to Kim, it’s healing. I’m good.”

“That’s my girl,” Jacob chuckled, the rumble of his voice sending a tingle from the top of her head and down her spine.

“Diana… your stuffs in the pickup. Come on.” Kim knew she’d interrupted them but was more worried about escorting them from the premises in a timely manner than witnessing their exchange of affection. She jerked her head toward the house when she looked at Jacob, insisting once more he go inside to get cleaned up.

“I won’t be long.” Jacob kissed the top of Diana’s head before following the boys into the house.

Diana watched him off for a second, thinking to herself that this weird instance just got weirder. In a place that repeated its nature day in and day out, relentless fighting with pieces in this game shifting in the balance, this peaceful turn of events made Diana uneasy but also relieved.

She turned and walked in the direction of the pickup that was parked at the end of the driveway, already facing the direction of the exit, with Eli and Kim the only two remaining with her outside.

“If what I’ve caught on the wire is right, Hudson isn’t at the Fortress. Chances are she’ll head this way, so you better get moving.” Kim stated firmly, with an urgency in her tone.

“Wasn’t really part of the plan, but… I plan on it anyway.” Diana replied, joining the two of them at the bed of the old pickup.

Pulling a blanket aside, Kim revealed a small crate that contained Diana’s belongings that had been confiscated by Nick when he captured her. “For many, many reasons, I didn’t want to keep any of this in the house, so it’s all here… your weapons, jewelry, even your old clothes that I’m sure you’ll wanna just toss…”

“Probably.” Diana nodded. “Thank you, Kim.”

Kim nodded back, giving one long hard look at her before saying, “I’m gonna be honest here, if it wasn’t for Eli, you wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on.”

Eli’s lips were in a thin smile as he nodded, understanding her point. He held a prominent position in Hope County, before the fall even, and the fact that he’d come here with Jacob was a clear sign to Kim that things were not as they used to be.

“Nick was pretty set on sending you up there, and I couldn’t change his mind if I tried. And I did, believe me.”

“I know,”

“But if I can give you a head start…”

Humbled by this break in the storm, Diana graciously nodded at the two of them. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry…”

Kim looked at Eli, and then over at Diana. “Don’t apologize for things you didn’t do.”

Diana sighed, finding difficulty in hearing their acceptance. “Not outright, maybe… but I was there, from what I can remember, for some things I should’ve done something. I could’ve stopped it… I could’ve…”

Placing his hand on hers, Eli stopped her. There was kindness in his eyes, always had been, for as long as she’d known him. He stacked his other hand on top of hers and nodded to emphasize what he was about to say. “Could’ve done a lot of things… all of us could’ve. We didn’t think things would turn out like they did but… the only thing we can do now to resolve it is to work together. Even if it put us next to our old enemies.”

Kim nodded to concur with Eli’s statement.

They were exhausted, the two of them, and Diana could clearly see that. All the time spent quarreling and choosing sides had worn on everyone in the county, but it wasn’t until this quiet meeting with two of her long-time friends, that she realized the rest of the citizens may have shared the same sentiment. Either that, or they were handling the current climate of Hope County in their own way.

Scratching softly at his beard, Eli shrugged. “Listen, Diana, I know I said a lot of things back at the Wolves’ Den that weren’t sympathetic or seemed like I never cared about what you were fighting for. I brought up Oliver… your parents… I know that wasn’t right.”

“It’s alright,” Diana shrugged. Her family had been used as leverage against her more times than she could count. It was a hard pill to swallow, being the only one left in her family, but she couldn’t compare her own losses to the massive amounts suffered by the County as a whole.

“It’s not, and we all know that. I got an earful from everyone, especially Tammy, about what happened at the Den, but I made my choice.”

“I know, I’m sorry about that,” Diana groaned, knowing that getting an earful from Tammy was an understatement. That woman never liked her, for whatever reason, and if Eli’s shift started back there, she couldn’t imagine what he’d gone through with his own people to take a stand.

“Nah. It happens.” Eli chuckled, waving it off. “In hindsight we could have handled things differently, sure. But we’re all in on this now, if you keep to your word…”

Kim looked up as Eli said that, searching for the confirmation with Diana, who nodded in agreement.

“Of course.”

This was the penultimate moment she’d hoped for. Things might not have shaken out the way she wanted, but if there was any hope to get back on track, this was her chance; this was the light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how long it took to get to the Fortress, or how things would end, this her one shot to prove to them she was never here to hurt anyone, not just here, but everyone in her hometown.

Nick having brought up the parties downtown and the other gatherings they’d done to celebrate as a community had left it’s mark on Diana’s mindset. Now that things had become more peaceful than her initial welcome here, she envisioned a time that she and her old friends could come together when this was all over. She thought that they might be able to recreate memories, if they could just share a drink and laugh together again. At least with Eli, Kim, Sharky, Hurk, and Nick (if he could find it in his heart to move past this), it was a distant dream she could look forward to, if Jacob would let her return for a visit.

Life, however, always had surprises in store; Everything that goes up, must come down.

In the blink of an eye, she witnessed Eli’s lightning fast reflexes as he shifted the way he’d been standing. His skin had paled, he sucked in a breath, and as his eyes darted from Diana to Kim. He moved fast. He was taller than her, and a lot stronger than he looked, but it took little effort to shove the unexpecting women away from danger.

Diana had no time to look behind her, to see what exactly had caught his eye that would cause such alarm. Was Nick coming back to finish the fight? Did Jacob get hurt inside the house? Was a wild animal loose in the yard?

“Get back!” Eli shouted.

Then, a gunshot exploded into the night air.

A sniper rifle, she assumed, resounded as loud as a thunderclap.

When she hit the dirt, Diana felt the gravel scrape her palms when she reached down to brace herself from the fall. She barely had any time to process what was happening, when she looked up and noticed a small red dot finding the center point of Kim’s chest.

“Watch out!” She shrieked, ambling to her feet and tugging Kim down before a second shot rang out.

Latching onto Diana’s arms, Kim moved with her guidance. The two women fell to the hard earth, the adrenaline acting as a numbing agent to take Diana’s mind away from pain. Diana grunted, turning her head instinctively to peek at the door where the three men were pouring out of the house.

“Stay back!” She shouted, holding her hands up in a panic.

Scooting her and Kim to cover behind the truck, Diana saw a flash of movement as Jacob pulled the red rifle from the porch. He took aim behind a crate near the entrance to the garage. Moving fast, he pulled back the bolt and loaded the chamber, lining up his shot before firing one off at a target no one could see without his scope and dead eye.

“Shit!” Nick exclaimed.

Jacob fired another round and heard someone scream in the distance; he’d landed his shot, and the Forsaken soldier who’d come around to pick them off, tumbled down the hillside.

“Diana!” Kim tugged at the bottom of her pantleg, and she ducked back down.

“What is it—are you okay—are you—”

Kim pointed beyond her from where she lay prone in the dirt, forcing Diana to check out what she’d seen.

NO!

 “Eli—” She scrambled around the truck, keeping as low as possible, and knelt at Eli’s side. He was already struggling to breathe, his dark eyes fixed on the sky. Struck down by the initial shot, the eye of the gaping bullet hole stared back at Diana, as the blood drained out of him. Acting fast, she tore a piece of the sleeve from her borrowed garment and tried to apply pressure to his wound, feeling the thick, slimy substance of Eli’s blood seep through it. “No no no!”

“Clear!” Jacob signaled them, as Hurk and Nick rushed to aid the girls.

“Kim—are you alright?” Nick swept his wife into his arms.

Kim nodded, “I’m fine, she… saved me.”

“Di, we gotta go…” Fixing his eyes on the stretch of open field between Nick’s airfield and the trees, Jacob carefully moved toward them. He extended his arm to help her up but froze when he drew his attention to Eli.

All that conversation, the panic between the Rye’s, and even the soft whimper she’d heard from Hurk, and Jacob standing above her, was lost. Diana was dumbstruck at the sight she beheld, the fallen man on the ground before her. She settled her eyes on her ally, who moved her away from the line of fire and took the bullet that was meant for her.

Diana looked up at Kim, “Is the clinic far—we gotta get help, we—”

Nick shook his head. “Lines have been cut, no way someone will make it here in time.”

“We can’t just leave him like this, we can’t—”

“H… Hope…” A tremulous hand reached up to take hers. Eli’s face was losing color fast, the blue settling in the lines of his lips.

“Eli, why did you do that—why—”

“I alw-ways b-believed in… you…” Eli forced a smile, and through heavy eyelids he looked directly into Diana’s eyes. He used all the energy he had left to close his hand around hers, and his breath became shorter as he struggled to choke out the words in the brief moments he had left. “F…Finish this…”

“Eli? ELI!” She shrieked, shaking him softly.

The darkness of the night paired with a rumble and subsequent thunderclap as the clouds began to rush overhead. Diana ignored everything around her as she crumpled into his chest. His hand relaxed but remained stiff around her palm. A scream tore through her, shouted from the top of her lungs when she was sure Eli had breathed out his last.

There was no sound, save the soft whoosh of the stormy breeze, and the congregation of her closest friends were speechless. She sat there for a while, in complete shock. The man who’d just come to terms with their alliance, who didn’t hesitate for one second to save her, was really gone.

“Oh man…” Hurk spoke up, sounding just as broken up as the others who mourned their sudden loss.

“D-Diana, I’m… Oh my God…” Nick muttered, wrapping his arms around Kim who’d begun weeping beside him.

“Sweetheart—” Jacob quietly addressed her, tilting his head a bit to watch for her reaction. He started to reach for her again, but she swatted his hand away.

Disturbing the moment of grief, the radio in the truck beeped, and the voice they least expected to hear, came through. “I’ve been waiting for you. Kinda figured when there was a delay I should come see myself… but I honestly didn’t think it’d be this easy.”

Goosebumps rippled over Diana’s skin at the sound of Hudson’s voice. She leapt to her feet and snatched the radio from the cab of the truck. Diana gritted her teeth as she growled into the radio. “You bitch! Come out and face me!”

Hudson cackled. “You want me? Come and get me.”

Chapter Text

Holland Valley West
Moments later…

 

“Hold on!” Hurk shouted to get her attention, and she felt the vehicle jut forward when he stomped on the gas.

In any normal situation she might not have entrusted Hurk Drubman Jr. to take the wheel, but if anyone could navigate an off-road course in an old pickup through Hope County, it was him. Not that she’d take away driving expertise from Jacob, but they needed to get away and fast, so they all climbed in and tore away from the aviation center.

Diana squeezed the rail on the roof of the pickup in a fierce, white-knuckled grip to keep steady when they drove away. The final words of Eli Palmer haunted her still, a fresh wound cutting her deep, losing him emblazoned in her mind. Rushing away from the Rye’s home forced her to leave Eli’s body behind. However, she had assurance from Nick that they’d take care of things, she knew she had to keep moving forward. Eli would have wanted that… he told her as such, before he passed.

Clearing the gate just seconds ago, they sped away from the Rye’s homestead to the north and took a hard left onto the main road. Passing the body of the shooter, she felt her body run hot at the eagle-eyed view Hudson must’ve had from her vantage point. She was sure they were on the path to John’s old bunker, the compound Hudson claimed as her own. The Iron Fortress.

“There, up ahead!” Hurk announced. The engine revved when he stepped on the gas, intent to get them closer.

Immediately, Diana locked onto the truck in front of them. By her count, there were three onboard, the driver and one soldier posted in the truck bed. The vacant spot in the bed meant they’d left one behind, the man shot by Jacob for taking out Eli. There was a figure in the front seat, their only features spotted at this distance was a head of dark hair, and the cuff of a green sleeve holding onto the car door outside of the window…

That’s gotta be her…

No matter how much Hurk was gunning it, following the twisted path carved out by the fleeing truck, they were still too far. Diana couldn’t get a clear shot on it if she tried. She needed to mind her ammo, but more importantly needed to get closer. Diana pounded her palm on the roof to spur them on. They even veered onto a dirt road and shot through some of the trees to try for a shortcut.

They were close to their target for a time, almost running parallel from Hudson’s getaway. Once they maneuvered back onto the main road, Diana pulled her gun and took aim, firing two shots. A little off-target, one sank into the side of the truck, while the other busted the driver’s side window.

She grunted at the miss, watching as the enemy convoy darted up ahead.

“Hold on!”

Hurk did his best to avoid rockier stretches that would cause more turbulent riding, but most importantly he was good at steering through the thick of it all, as not to crash directly into the trees. He swerved away from the hillsides, which might have thrown Diana from the truck bed if she wasn’t holding on for dear life. Everything clenched tight, she ducked her head slightly when the front rail of the truck blasted through the barricade at the security gate. Wood and metal pieces flew in every direction, exploding outward and away and they kept on driving.

“Get DOWN!” Jacob shouted, tucking into the truck from the passenger window.

Diana had a split-second to react, ducking down in the truck bed, when suddenly a loud BOOM thundered to their right.

“Fuck me! MORTARS?!” Diana hollered, keeping her head down.

“Woooo! Good morning, Hope County!”

“Not funny, Hurk!” Diana frowned at the reference, as another mortar crashed beside them.

Her heart caught somewhere in her throat when he made it to a wide left turn, with no barriers between them and the edge of the path that would’ve meant certain death down the hills and into the nearby lake if he lost control. Luckily for her, Hurk kept them moving, following the trail of dust left by their enemy as they darted ahead. The road opened up again, widening out to make up for the twisted narrow paths from moments ago.

Diana breathed through the sleeve of her shirt, covering her face from the inbound dust and debris. Their vehicle bounced over the rickety bridge that crossed a narrow cavern, holding her breath as they crossed. She squinted to keep track of Hudson’s truck, and sure enough, they were still gaining distance in their escape.

One, two, three—the alarming thumps of three bullets hitting their truck made her duck down again.

“Almost there, but I’m sure as shit gonna need a new pair’a pants!” She heard Hurk from the driver’s seat, quipping as he did with humor to balance out the panic of the chase. The brakes squealed when Hurk decided to cut through the trees gaining a few seconds they’d lost before.

Smoke and flame rose above the trees. The Fortress was in sight, only a few meters ahead.

What they didn’t anticipate on this final stretch of road before the entrance, was the man in the back of their truck pulling the weapon he’d kept concealed until now. He launched an RPG, and it was heading straight for them.

“OH SHIT!” Hurk shrieked, gripping the wheel tight with both hands and turning sharply.

Bang!  BOOM!

Crunch!  Crash !

The world began to spin, and when the brakes were hit, the truck turned off the road. She hugged the strap to her rifle at her shoulder and grabbed onto the rail as they spun out, the racket of rocks flying into the wheel well was the accompaniment to the screech of brakes before Diana blacked out on impact.

Well… That’s not good. She thought to herself.

If this was her end, their defeat, she would succumb to it as a valiant attempt to pursue Eli’s killer and John and Ana’s captor… and a shame, since they were so close to their destination. It wasn’t the way she wanted to go, it wasn’t how anything was supposed to go, but she had no choice but to roll with the overturned vehicle until it stopped.

The world was upside down. The night sky looked like smoke and glitter and it smelled like smoke and pine. Everything was muffled when she tried to focus, and her body took a moment to reawaken. Shrugging her shoulders, moving her fingers and toes, she was relieved that she was still in one piece. Diana was startled by the crunch of boots on the earth as they skittered toward her.

“Ahh… it’s good to see you got my invitation.” Diana’s radio beeped. “I knew there was still something left of you. I knew that keeping John and his precious devil seed meant it wouldn’t be long before you noticed. I just wanted to pay a visit… in case you needed an extra push.”

Diana had been talked to by many people in this state, where she was helpless to respond or get away. This time it wasn’t Joseph… or Faith… or even Jacob. It was Joey Hudson, taunting her from afar.

“Come on in, Evans. We’ve been expecting you… and the iron is waiting.”

Gradually slipping her eyelids open, Diana watched two pairs of boots dashing toward her, and the cloud of fire in the distance. The ringing in her ears faded and the wall of color and movement finally cleared up to give her a better idea of who was coming for her.

Jacob handed off his gun to Hurk, without much time to decide otherwise, and he leaned down to retrieve her. Firm hands grasped her forearm and shoulder. “Come on!”

With a pained cry, she followed the movement, urged to evacuate as quickly as possible. Diana felt Jacob’s shoulder flex when she sprung up to stand. She braced herself against his body as he dragged her away from the wreck. Stumbling at his side, her ankles ached, but it wasn’t as bad as the night before thanks to Kim. Since she was carried by her husband, she felt like she was walking on air.

Peering over his shoulder, she saw the wreckage; The front end of their truck was crushed like an accordion and the glass shattered to bits. It fully ignited once they were a safe distance away, making her grateful Jacob had been there to pull her away in time.

“Aw shit, I think we’re too late!” Hurk shouted.

At the entrance, the truck Hudson had been transported in sat there. All of its doors were wide open, and her entourage vanished with her. It led Diana to believe that wherever she’d made that radio call was deep inside of the Iron Fortress.

Diana’s hearing was back in full now, the discordance of shouting and chaos blaring out toward them and into the valley below. Weapons in hand, she took off in a sprint—as fast as her legs would take her. She arced right to weave out of the direct line of fire from the snipers perched on the second level of the Fortress. The people scurrying away, mostly women and children, left only the soldiers of Hudson’s ranks to finish the fight. She let them pass, even guided them away from the fight. Her beef wasn’t with them; she had no targets on anyone unless they took up arms against her. It might have been a mistake to let some of them run free, but they expressed panic and distress, and appeared to be unarmed.

“Sound the alarm!” She heard one of them announce from inside the walls. “They’re coming in hot!”

Red lights around the gate flashed and a siren was blaring, an alarum of the opposition invading the compound.

Placed back on solid ground, Diana sensed she should keep an eye on their flank—when she spotted one of the Fortress scouts trying to sneak around. Without hesitating, Diana pulled the throwing knife from her bandolier and gave it a precise toss. The blade whirred past Hurk and Jacob, then sank into the chest of their attacker. At that exact moment, Jacob took a defensive stance beside her, firing two double-taps into oncoming gunners. They breathed out together in this split-second reprieve.

Jacob swelled with pride at her instincts, Diana smiled back at him in admiration; the two of them were obviously in their element. Though this was not the time to appreciate the heat of the battle getting to them, the intensity of the fight lit a fire in their blood.

Hurk seemed to be visibly stunned by what he’d witnessed. There were stars in his eyes as he admired them for possibly reenacting a scene from his favorite action movie. He pulled the grenade launcher up to his side, ready to fire away, and they all continued their trek up toward the gates.

Another gunshot was fired, sinking a bullet into the tree beside her. Diana kept running, snaking through to throw off any clear line of sight on her. Jacob raised his gun and pulled the trigger, watching his target fall out of his perch in the trees. Hurk followed suit with a quick grenade toss into the compound balcony, scattering the sentries in cover before blowing a chunk out of the landing.

Diana ignored the pace of her thumping heart that was racing out of control, the pace of fear and insecurity. She needed confidence, and with these two with her, there was little doubt in her mind that they would get through this.

“Go, I’ll cover you!” Jacob prompted.

With a nod to him, they fanned out. Hurk had strafed right and Jacob stayed at the rear. Taking point, Diana was on the lookout ahead as she aimed for the large door of the bunker. She heard the rhythmic pops of the gun in Jacob’s hands be matched with the booming explosives Hurk was letting off to clear the way. Diana took off in a sprint, heading for cover, leaving them behind to pick off the guards.

Crossing the yard and into the doorway of the bunker was like stepping through time. Diana hadn’t been here since the last time John marked her; that was the night Jacob retrieved her from the cell and took her up to the Veteran’s center. An eerie chill ran down her back as she remembered that night. Returning here with a clearer head, with the veil of Bliss pulled away from her mind made everything rush back.

 

*

 

John’s Gate
The Night of Diana’s Baptism
About two years ago…

 

“It wasn’t her fault, she was just—”

“You know the rules, brother. They’re Joseph’s, not mine.” John said, and then laughed. “If I had things my way, I’d say go for it! Strip her, bed her, throw her around. Shit, go and streak through the mountains and do whatever you damn well please. But this is the will of the Father.”

There were voices outside the door, talking loud enough for her to hear pieces of their conversation. She knew John’s voice well, having heard him speak to her, coo her, warn her if she didn’t say YES, there would be dire consequences.

The other voice? The grizzly, gravely timbre of an older man was speaking to him, opposing him, and it didn’t take long to piece together that it was his elder brother, Jacob.

 They weren’t her focus, however, as she shivered in the dark corner of her cell. Diana hugged her legs to her chest, rocking gently to keep warm. She was still drenched, having been shoved mercilessly into the chilly waters of Silver Lake and bathed in the solution of Bliss. John was undoubtedly zealous with his dunks, holding her under for a lot longer than the other recruits. The longer she thought of it, the shallow her breath became, panting as she clawed at her arms. Her grasp wasn’t tight, the hot, throbbing parts of her torn flesh was a painful reminder of the rawness from her marking.

Still, the bickering between the Seed brothers continued…

Jacob grumbled, “Cut out the Baptist bullshit, John, I mean it.”

“Oh-ho, did I strike a nerve or something? Correct me if I’m wrong, but am I catching a hint of Lust, Jacob? From you?” John chuckled. There was a long beat, a lull in the heated conversation before the sound of John’s tattoo gun thudded on the metal table. “Of all people, I gotta say, I didn’t expect that from you.

The older brother sighed. “If you plan on adding that to the list you got on me, forget it. You don’t know me.”

“You’re right. I don’t. I didn’t have you growing up—and as I see it neither did Joe.” John went for the low blow, calling out his older brother for abandoning them years ago.

Jacob clicked his tongue, huffing in irritation as he caught on to what John was laying out on the table. “Hnh… Okay, you want to do this now?”

“Never a good time for a decades-old argument, is there?”

“What’s there to argue? I didn’t want to run, but what choice did I have?”

“There are always choices…” John replied, flatly. “Family. You choose them. Any sane person might think that initially, but you? Had to be different. Had to cut loose. Had to take off—without so much as a goodbye—and a big ol’ FUCK YOU to the two of us.”

The conversation broke for a moment.

“How is bringing up the past going to get us anywhere?” Jacob sighed. He responded in a way that was more reserved than what John might’ve deserved. “I said I was sorry, didn’t I?”

John practically snorted.

“And it ain’t funny!”

“It is… Holy shit is it ever HILARIOUS.” John clapped, sounding refreshed to address the long-running resentment he’d held for years. “Growing up without you guys… could’ve been worse. Then again, it could’ve been a lot better too. I had to claw my way out of the nightmare my foster parents put me through—all the while dealing with the fact that our own didn’t want me—and that my own blood, my own brothers were gone. I figured you were both dead, thought maybe that would make it easier to just think you never existed.”

The rustling of Jacob scratching at his beard stopped when he sighed again. He was trying different angles against his brother, and when he didn’t respond to bluntness or compassion, he decided to shift again. “Oh, is it sharing time? Should I pull out the couch and charge by the hour, because I’m sure you can afford it with—”

“When Joe found me and told me all about the Voice…” John interrupted his brother, knowing that he would likely carry on. “He told me of his plans, about Eden’s Gate, he insisted we find you. He said he needed you and I asked him why. He painted the pitch with all these flowery words of bringing us back together, mending things that had been undone by misfortune and time and karma blah-blah-blah… Do you know what we did to track you down? The Vets in Rome only knew you because you’d pop in and out of their counseling and then disappear. You didn’t much care to make friends did you? No one knew your name but they sure as hell knew your face. Your scars. Oh, the looks on their face when I reminded them what you looked like. You sure left a good impression, didn’t you? Honestly, I almost gave up, but lucky for you I didn’t.”

“Lucky,” Jacob was audibly exasperated with his brother’s hubris.

“You’re damn right,” John replied, “fortunate as fuck.”

“I didn’t ask you to find me!” Jacob snarled, impatience in his tone since John was pulling at the wrong strings. Though this may have been one of the only times they’d been open about their past, he didn’t want to waste his breath on the arrogant lawyer boy who had a response for everything he had to say. “Maybe if you left me out there, we wouldn’t be in this fucking mess. We wouldn’t have the issue of locking down a God damn cop in our ranks, or following Joseph’s whacked out ideals about talking to God and that nonsense.”

“True. But hey… What’s done is done, hm? We’re knee deep in this now. The authorities are onto us and even if it isn’t the goon squad of this Podunk valley coming back—there may be others. As I see it, this one is… unlike the others. She’s been chosen, blessed, marked. She’s proven to be of value to us. I’ve shown her what it means to be a part of the flock, to listen to the good word and follow our lead… lest she be culled by you or your army.”

There was a pause before Jacob’s boots shuffled. His footsteps were distinctly different than John’s, given his size and attire. “Alright. You got your big boy pants on, put yourself on a pedestal. Like you’ve never made a mistake in your life. Heh. Believe me, if the time ever comes that you end up needing our help, and you want us to understand the mistakes you’ve made… just don’t forget this.”

“What’s that? A warning? Wake up, Jacob. The Collapse is coming, and we won’t have time for shit like that. I’m sure the Sheriff is gonna be back any moment to get her—and then what are you gonna do if you’re so… attached?” John was asking the tough questions now, so much so that it left Jacob speechless. “It wasn’t easy giving anything up, the life I led, drop everything and go just because my brother said so. I was doing just fine in Atlanta before—”

“What, you had to put down your fancy silverware and bulked up bank account with dirty money to slum it out here, to play God’s righteous hand? Boo fucking hoo.” Jacob mocked him in return, “I’m done here and so is she. Just remember what I said.”

John shrugged, hardly moved by what Jacob said. “Fine. Go ahead and take the little doll and do with her what you wish. I’ll say you put up a fight for her—which you did—but I’ll let the fact that you’re not thinking right, slide this time… and let Joseph judge you himself.”

Jacob turned back and chuckled, “Jesus, Johnny, you’re really into this, aren’t you? Get your rocks off on cutting people, enslaving them, turning them into torn up meat sacks—”

“Oh, come on—how is the music box working for you, huh? The cages? Your… pets? How about that fun little playground you got setup at the Grandview? I always wondered why you picked that song… so many others that might have the right touch to weasel into their minds like some parasite. But it works, doesn’t it? You’re welcome, by the way. Not to mention your service record’s got more red on it than anything I’d done in Atlanta—and that is saying something!” John pressed, which must have caught Jacob off-guard, “Oh yeah, surprise! I actually took the time to read through that.”

Jacob was not impressed. “Congratu-fucking-lations you can read. Revisit that again if you wanna keep trying me…”

“You’ve gone through some pretty wild shit, big bro, from anything I caught that wasn’t redacted or tied up in some red tape… Pfft, even the allegations about what really happened to your buddy Miller would make a judge’s head spin. But, as I said… what’s done is done. Joseph’s forgiven you, hasn’t he? That’s why Joseph wanted you here, why Joseph thought you would be perfect for the task, why Joseph thought you might be steeled to be the Herald of the Mountains.” John kept on like he was back in the courtroom, in a passionate presentation to arraign his brother. Each time he spoke Joseph’s name it was articulated clearly as if to emphasize whose idea it was all along to get their older brother in place. “Feared, revered, right? Horseman of War. The boogeyman that comes and takes you while you’re sleeping?”

Tch…” Jacob scoffed.

“And yet you’re here to rescue the damsel in distress.” John tapped lightly on the steel door with his knuckles. “How exactly did she manage to ensnare you, after several women in the congregation practically threw themselves, naked, at your feet on a daily basis—but you sent them away because you ‘liked being alone’?”

Jacob didn’t answer.

“What is it about this woman that you’re so enamored by her—enough to defy the Father’s law?” John paused briefly, and then said, “Perhaps you’ve gotten a little soft.”

“Back off.”

Alas, John didn’t. It was apparent he’d incensed Jacob by calling him out for the past, bringing up the service and the issue with abandonment suffered with Joseph when he enlisted—but more importantly he incessantly heckled his older brother, a bitter yet well-deserved scrutiny for his unusual behavior and interest in this particular girl. “And how do you think that will win her over? That one of the big-bads in town wants to lock her away in his mountain tower, hm? You think she’ll follow you, when she’s been passed from Joseph to Faith and now to me, set and reset over some time because at a time she’s strayed from the path?”

Again, there was silence.

“And what about the attack—the reason why she stayed at your place—why she was punished in the first place, the root cause of it all? I mean damn, that is one big secret to keep, isn’t it? If I’ve learned anything here it’s that no matter how much we bare ourselves of our past—a feeble attempt at absolving ourselves, to be at peace, it all comes roaring back.” John’s steps were slow and precise until he came to a halt in front of his big brother. “How long, you think, before she figures it out?”

The latch on the door clicked, but John’s last query made Jacob stop dead in his tracks.

“You think because you’re older and ‘wiser’ and you have it all figured out?” John continued, and he scoffed. “Keep an eye on your men, Jacob. Enemies close. Friends… close too I guess, if you have them. Whatever becomes of Little Miss Green-Eyes over here, well… there’s nothing that the Bliss can’t sort out for us.”

“You cocky son of a—”

“Whoa, that’s our mother you’re talking about.”

Pounding his fist on the door to exert his rage and impatience with his baby brother’s taunting, Jacob hollered, “This is all a game to you!”

John laughed. “You’re right about that, big bro. It’s all a game and we’re running it. Now you’re getting it!”

“Fucking hell,” Jacob growled under his breath; he knew that John wouldn’t take anything seriously.

“Personally, I don’t mind seeing how this all plays out. She was already a little,” John gave a cuckoo whistle, “when Faith brought her here. She said the girl had spent some time up at the Sanctuary… paying the price for putting those fancy silver bracelets on Joseph. I know she didn’t mean it—which is why he never made it off the island, but… she even walked the path. Climbed the pilgrimage—you know I wasn’t much for that whole spirit-journey shit. Nuh-uh, nope, I enjoy the raw, intimate, close encounters, you know?”

The sound of a struggle ended with a loud thud on the door.

“If you touched her, I swear, I’ll—”

“You’ll what? Don’t worry, I didn’t do anything… untoward. She’s been a good little soldier so that might work out perfectly for you. Avery’s been shadowing her when she isn’t forced to a sermon… but she’s at least alert now. Responsive. As much as she can be, really.” John explained, “Now would you set me down? I just had this shirt pressed.”

With his feet on the ground again, John cracked his neck and the slight thwip sound sounded like he’d readjusted his shirt and coat.

“We’re done here.”

John chuckled, “Oh what, no goodbye? No thank you? Figures. Good luck, big bro.”

Jacob was through arguing.

That was when the door opened…

 

*

 

The Iron Fortress
Holland Valley North
Present Day

 

If there was anything she could take away from the conversation exchanged by the Seed brothers on that fateful night, it was the threat Jacob left with John.

“…if the time ever comes that you end up needing our help, and you want us to understand the mistakes you’ve made… just don’t forget this…” Jacob said.

God’s divine intervention, Karma, Coincidence, Joseph’s words… no matter what they believed in, none of them knew they’d end up here. Joseph’s intent to quietly and patiently gather the flock to prepare them for the collapse had capsized—all because of Whitehorse fueling this war within County lines. What was thought as a simple plan for salvation evolved into a complicated web of deceit, and those who were drawn to each other were caught in the crossfire. John Seed and Ana Morgan were not exempt from danger, and now she and Jacob were here with unexpected allies to save them from this turmoil.

Down…

Down…

Down…

Into the bowels of the old bunker she never wanted to see again… Diana descended the staircase, intent to reach its heart.

The cells were there, she knew, secured rooms behind vault doors that she remembered were a bitch to get open. If Hudson had it locked down by the main panel, it was going to be another task to reach the controls to open up each door. That was where she was headed now.

Graffiti littered the golden hallways, lit by old incandescent bulbs, some of which flickered and swayed as the explosions rumbled overhead. This was by no means a safe space from the fighting, since she needed to keep her eyes and guard up as not to be attacked or caught unawares.

The sins were spray-painted along the walls, haphazardly covered in white by the virtues Joey Hudson had taken up of her own accord for her reputation and brand. Some were in the traditional Latin, others in English, and she even noted the insignia of Eden’s Gate defaced in red with flames and other vulgar words over it.

Paintings of the Seeds, which John kept here to decorate his not-so-humble bunker, were torn. Their eyes had been gouged out, shreds and cuts along precious canvas. Some of them were half-burned by torch or iron. At closer observation, they must have been used for target practice too—as she saw the spread of bullets in various paintings hung on the walls.

Their propaganda or photos never really bothered her, but there was something eerie about the display she beheld when she came to the main room of praise. They were all depicted here as angels of old… wings on their backs, colors that matched their usual attire, soft strokes that detailed their likenesses to a tee. They were standing in the clouds over Hope County. It was textured, Diana noticed, a custom, hand-painted mural of the family. Unfortunately, it had been destroyed, splatters of paint and new addendums to the portrait changed the way it looked before. Staring beyond the smears that intended to tarnish the original artist’s vision, she could make out what it might have looked like before.

There were five of them, she noted, since she was included in this portrait. It must have been drawn up recently. Unlike the other portraitures, Joseph wasn’t standing in the middle. She was at the heart of the family. Jacob to her left, Joseph to her right, with John and Faith standing on the ends respectively, and each of them held their own relic that signified their designated their contribution to the project.

Faith’s dainty fingers clutched a bouquet of Bliss flowers and its petals danced in the air around her. Smoke enveloped her white dress, from her chest to the tips of her bare toes. John, who appeared to have more detail in his face and clothing than the others, presented the scales of justice. That was a given, she knew, as it fit his role of the Baptist and denoted his past quite well. Donning his camo, Jacob stood proudly, wielding a Zweihander—which was fitting, yet humorous, since he preferred firepower than medieval blades. But as the armorer and Herald of their soldiers, it was proper for this depiction. Joseph, of course, was captured as he usually was, standing firm and courageous in his neatly pressed white shirt and black slacks, his prayer beads dangling from his hand. He held fast to his book, opened to the Prophecy, resembling his old statue from the Henbane.

At the center, the new addition to their family, Diana, was their shield. It looked accurate to the theme, its edged steel worn in battle, and the cross of Eden’s Gate branded on its wooden face. Her dark hair fell in waves to frame her face, her bold green eyes a noticeable contrast to the blues within the other members of her family. She looked forward, unlike the others, a piercing stare into the heart of whomever stood here to bask in its majesty.

Of all the photos shared into the County, it was rare that she was seen among them in this capacity. She was the worst-kept secret in the county, having wed into the family and effectively their projects after the known attempt to break them apart. She wondered how she’d never seen this one before, that is, before it was tagged over by Hudson and her men with black wings and insults tagged over the backdrop. The landscape, once painted in heavenly white and gold, and its landmarks in lush greens and blues, was smeared over with yellow and orange paint to set this artist’s piece, and perhaps the family, on fire.

Diana snapped out of it. She had to keep moving, the moment stolen to stop and admire the art meant vital time ripped away from her search.

Strangely enough, it was nearly empty underground. Aside from the words of affirmation she had playing on a loop overhead, Hudson must have sent the rest of her army topside to fight off the invasion. Diana’s guard was high, anticipating an interruption of her descent. But there was no one, not even an inept guard to patrol the hallways. There was no one here. It was too quiet for her tastes, so she did her best to stretch her senses to every corner of the rooms around her, in case she missed a lurker in the shadows.

When she reached the floor with the cells, she raced through the hallways. She peeked through every window on the blast doors, but her target was not in one of them. Finally, stopping at the door on the end, Diana found it inhabited by a pair of prisoners. A bearded man sat on the floor beside a girl who looked to be the right frame to fit Ana’s build (from what she could remember). He hovered over her, slumped shoulders covered in cerulean sleeves, tattooed arms curled around his companion. This was the cell she was looking for.

“John? John!!” Diana pounded on the door to get his attention. He must not have heard her at first, but she persisted, thumping rampantly against the thick metal barrier between them.

It took a minute (what felt like forever)—for him to notice, and his head slowly turned toward the door.

“John! It’s me—Get up, tell me how to get this open!”

John merely shook his head.

“John… I can’t—” Diana gripped the metal valve and heaved, but it was quick to resist its secure lock. “I can’t get in—you have to help me!”

But he didn’t.

John had been so fixated on the woman in his arms he didn’t bother to move, other than look at her. She couldn’t blame him; the worry was shared among their family over the two of them, and their child. Seeing Ana in person, incapacitated, her skin an almost yellow-green pallor, and swollen belly, made Diana’s stomach turn.

What had Hudson done?

The lights above the door flashed.

Fuck.

Diana realized she needed to find the control panel, and it meant she had a longer stretch explore in order to find it. Swallowing hard, she looked over her shoulders in case anyone had come through, and then back to the window.

“I’ll be right back, John… Just hold on, okay?” Diana didn’t wait for a response, she simply patted the door before taking off again, making her way toward the nearby stairwell.

It was a race now, more than ever, having seen John and Ana there in the cells. She wished she was of sound mind when she was here before—since she Bliss and other methods of repressing her time with John in the bunker had forced her to forget the layout. Diana wished Jacob was with her, since he might know this place a lot better than she would—and he’d know exactly what halls to turn, which doors to take, to lead her to the main controls.

“H-Hello? Can you hear me?” Static cut through her radio, and a broken-up voice came through.

“What’s the situation—” she hadn’t even finished her call out on her radio, when it beeped back at her again.

“Di? Are you h-hearing me? It’s Nick. I got a clear view from up here and we’re lighting them up but the storm’s coming in fast and…” He cut out, “—any sign of… of John? Over.”

Diana breathed out, not expecting to hear Nick Rye coming through as a friendly on her com. As much as she wanted to ask about the safety of Kim and Carmina, or why he had a change of heart, she instead answered: “Not yet—I’m heading downstairs and—”

Unfortunately, her response was cutoff when she felt a presence behind her, and it was too late to turn around. Diana lurched forward, a forceful shove from two gloved hands sent her tumbling down the last few steps. She yelped, failing to catch herself from falling and the sharp edges of the metal stairs scraped and bumped against her bones. Her gun disappeared, having slipped between the grating of the steps. Once she hit the landing, Diana found herself sprawled out in the open of this dimly-lit dungeon.

“How nice of you to drop by.”

“Oof!” Diana grunted at the kick to her side.

“And you didn’t keep me waiting.”

GET UP! She told herself. The kick wasn’t going to be the one thing that brought her down and out. Sure, the shove was a cheap shot—but it was too early to give up.

However, no matter how much she urged herself to stand, the great heft of her unseen opponent’s boot had caused more pain than she thought. It was a feeble attempt to get away, but Diana began to crawl, sliding her body along the filthy floor.

“I expected more out of you.”

She chuckled. “Everyone says that. Like I’m supposed to give a shit?”

Once more, she was caught by another kick, the steel-toed boot of her attacker crunching against her ribs. Diana coughed for air and turned her head just in time to see another kick heading right for her face. She pushed away from concrete and rolled away in time.

Using the workbench nearby to stand up, Diana clutched her stomach and raised her eyes to the person of interest she’d been seeking out since she arrived. Joey stood opposite her in this space, wide enough to keep a safe space between them for now. She wore her tattered Deputy uniform, her black hair in a loose braid over her shoulder. Though she still had a lovely face Diana would never forget, that flawlessness had been obviously worn by the months of hatred and violence. Dark shadow under her big eyes, a cut that had left a nasty scar over her lip and cheek. The menacing grin she wore told Diana there was no peaceful way to resolve this rivalry.

“Whitehorse liked you so much…”

“Enough to send me out to die.”

“That wasn’t the op, and you know it. Or do you even remember your briefing—after all that Bliss filled your head and fucked you over? When will you realize you were fighting the wrong side… you belonged with us.”

“Spare me, Jo,” Diana snapped. “You and I know you wanted to take point on this.”

A grin spread over Hudson’s full lips. She tilted her head slightly, a condescending glare twinkled in her dark eyes. “I’m sure if I was on point, none of this would have gone down this way.”

Diana scoffed, wincing in pain as the blunt hit at her ribs bloomed out into her chest and back. “You sound so sure of that.”

“Oh yeah. I’d never make the mistake of falling for into their trap like you did. Disgusting. It would have been right. The family would have been ripped out of Hope County and this nightmare would never have happened and you and your little fairytale would never come to pass.”

The intense heat between them stirred. They circled one another, stepping to the side to match each other’s movement. The women kept their eyes fixed on the opponent in front of them.

Unlike her drop-in on Burke which ended with the Bliss, and foray with Pratt who found his demise among the Judges, the fight between her and Joey Hudson was going to be close. After all, this long-standing vendetta between the two of them was incredibly personal. Diana was accustomed to close-quarters, but it was something she hadn’t done in a while since the County was fond of their freedom to use firearms. Hand-to-hand with her old colleague was a far cry from sparring with Jacob and their men back at the Veteran’s Center, since they had the proper equipment and often knew when to stop, reset, and try again. Hudson wouldn’t dare give her that option. No way would they pull punches, there were no time-outs, no chance they would both get out alive.

Hudson traced her gloved finger over the edge of the workbench, and with each step she took, Diana made sure to counter to maintain the space between them.

“All this time I thought you were better than them… but it turns out were a perfect fit.”

“You killed Eli!” Diana balled her fists at her side to balance the pain as she stood upright and kept moving when Hudson advanced. To her dismay, she felt the flat surface of the concrete wall at her back. She was stuck.

“Shame. He was a nice guy. Kinda cute, kinda savage—his whole militia grit gave him some appeal… but, well… collateral damage, girl. You know how it works. Besides, that bullet was meant for you. Color me surprised to see you still have friends out there.” Hudson smirked and shrugged, “Well… not anymore.”

Hudson took two steps and swung but Diana ducked, going for an uppercut which unfortunately met nothing but air. She grunted when a knee knocked the wind out of her, targeting that same sore spot in her abdomen Hudson had kicked earlier. Trying to move away, Diana stumbled to the side and bumped a nearby crate. In clear pursuit of her, Hudson kept on with her attack. She attempted a backhand, sweeping her fist backward with enough momentum in her pivot to really slam against Diana’s face if it connected. Luckily for her, Diana still had her faculties about her and she raised her forearm to block, swiping Hudson’s arm aside to open her up for a shot to the face. She took the opportunity, landing a quick jab on Hudson’s nose. Her knuckles crunched against the cartilage, before kicking out to her midsection to push her away again. This would give her time to analyze her next hit.

“Staci said you hit hard for a chick,” Hudson taunted. She wiped the blood from her face before spitting off to the side.

Diana smirked, “Sad he’s not here to confirm that.”

It was only a few seconds before Hudson charged again. Diana ducked under one of her swings, then again when she threw another punch. Unfortunately, Hudson relented, reaching up to grapple. She had a lock around Diana’s neck, her fingers laced tight, before kneeing her in the face.

Diana let out a cry at the hit, but instead of crumpling, she lowered herself to the ground, kicked out her leg and swept at Hudson’s knees. Hudson folded at the unexpected lower hit and she fell flat on the floor.

Instead of screaming, Joey began to laugh maniacally at the fact that Diana had somehow gotten the upper hand. “There you are… It’s just like you to keep getting up when we want to put you down.”

“Is that supposed to flatter me?” Diana was short of breath, backing away again to retreat for a brief break in their tussle.

In a flash, Hudson dashed toward her, the spine-chilling shhhing of her blade scraping along the workbench set off a red alert in Diana’s head. Hudson’s blade was raised, only seen by the gleam of the light that hung high above them. Diana gasped, and her left forearm instinctively blocked the wrist holding inbound weapon. She yipped when the edge of the blade cut her bare flesh. In a move of desperation, she then grabbed Hudson’s wrists with both hands. Diana forced Hudson to the side, the two of them running at the nearby wall. With the heel of her free hand she used it to smash at Hudson’s wristbones.

One, two, three hits before she let go of the blade.

Diana used this time to scurry away, not realizing she was headed toward the staircase.

Hudson growled in frustration and snatched up her knife again. She pivoted, throwing whatever she had nearby to create an obstruction in Diana’s path, but was foiled again when she anticipated the throw and moved away from that too. 

Diana knew there was no way she would make it up the stairwell on her injury, but she tried anyway—still not fast enough to escape the clutches of Hudson who grabbed the back of her shirt and threw her back down into the dungeon.

She skidded along the floor on her knees and leapt to her feet. Whipping back around, Diana jabbed at Hudson, going for her nose again. She grunted in frustration as her swing whiffed the air. When Hudson leaned forward, she followed with a right hook, hoping to minimize the amount of movement of another dodge. There was enough force behind the blow to do some real damage to her jaw, but Hudson turned slightly, and the crack of her cheekbone crushed hard against her knuckles.

Hudson snarled as she advanced again, almost unfazed by the hit that should have taken her down for a moment. Once more they were locked into a hold as Diana fought hard to overtake her again. The knife, now pointed downward, was aimed at Diana’s skull, but she pushed back with enough force to eventually shove her away.

“How… How can you fight for the family that has caused nothing but suffering?” Hudson asked, wincing as she readjusted her jaw.

“Look at yourself, Jo… Look around you! Joseph was done fighting, our numbers dropped because you killed them, along with Burke and Pratt. We didn’t want this…” Diana tried to catch her breath and searched in her peripheral vision to find a weapon that might be a match for the knife in Joey’s hands. She was distracted by the sound of a roaring flame behind her. The furnace was on, she realized, with the handle of Hudson’s iron protruding from its mouth.

Hudson snickered, “Listen to yourself, Evans—‘We’! We wanted this, We didn’t do that… this op sure fucked you in the head didn’t it? You’re not a peggy—you weren’t supposed to compromise yourself but look how far you’ve come!”

Diana huffed. She was tired of hearing the disappointment everyone had in her own decisions. Despite them not being of her own volition, she made her choice to stay with Jacob and the family based on what she knew and loved about him. There was no denying that. “Do you think following Whitehorse was any better?!”

“Whitehorse is the law, and so am I.” Hudson wiped the blade on her pants to clean the blood from the minor cut she’d traced on Diana’s forearm.

When Hudson attacked Diana moved, thinking fast to grab the branding iron out of the flame. It didn’t take much to notice how exhaustion was taking over. Her ankle was still causing her issue, but she pushed through the pain if she had any hopes to survive this fight. She couldn’t give up now, she knew, with far more on her agenda than simply winning this fight. John and Ana’s lives were dependent upon her victory, with many others waiting for her to resurface.

The fight that carried on from here was a blur of movement and fury; Hudson was running at her with full force. The metal iron clanged and clashed against the long blade, sparks and smoke exploding from the impact of each collision. There was a window of opportunity for Diana when Hudson left herself unguarded and she thrust the iron at her. She used the length of the weapon on hand to her advantage and heard the sizzle of the hot metal on Hudson’s arm as it seared through her uniform and into her skin.

She was rewarded with a guttural, rage-filled roar. It was the shoulder of her dominant hand, the same one holding the blade, but at this sudden turn, it forced Hudson to drop it to the floor. Her body trembled as she tensed from the brand, her breath was heavy when she realized she’d been burned. Hudson’s chest heaved for breath when she stopped, adrenaline coursing through her to stave off the pain.

Where there was ample time for another exchange of bitter dialogue, not one word came.

Hudson clutched her arm but launched herself at Diana. When the iron was held horizontally to block, she fearlessly gripped each end with her gloved hands and delivered a crunching headbutt to Diana’s forehead.

That was it, Diana realized, as she stumbled backward, crashing into anything nearby. This was the blow before the end. She’d been knocked back, dizzied by the force of Hudson’s strike, among the debris of broken wood and fallen tools. Her legs were still functioning, and in this haze of slow-moving time, she tried to scoot away. Hudson followed her, at a hunter’s pace, that predatory lurk before the pounce, before the kill. She heard her assailant laughing at her, a mocking cackle.

“Make no mistake about it… I wouldn’t have fucked up as royally as you did, Hope.” Hudson taunted. “You let them in, didn’t you? More ways than one, I’m told… and now you don’t even know why we went after you. Why you were the prize with everyone’s eyes on you. The Seed’s might’ve created a regent of you… a Herald in fucking training… but to us, you were much more than that.”

Hudson had stopped, but Diana kept pushing herself away, hoping her vision would clear and she’d be able to rise up again. Diana heard the blade scrape along the concrete. The iron had fallen back where she’d started to move back and was too far out of her reach. The one holstered at her hip, that had tumbled out of its sheath on her original trip down the stairs, was close by. She could see it, or so she thought, just a few feet away.

A siren went off in the bunker, for what, Diana wasn’t sure. She wasn’t privy to the ins and outs of John’s gate, since she despised this place and everything it stood for, even if it was paramount to Joseph’s project. It didn’t seem to bother Joey, but it must have raised a higher alert topside, as the voices were shouting in the distance.

“Maybe I won’t kill you,” Hudson grinned, ignoring the alert. “Old man wants you alive, your death was the only parameter today.”

Diana grunted and forced herself to stand, her legs nearly buckling when she planted them. She was closer to Hudson than desired, but she stood as still as possible to observe her opponent for the next move. It might certainly be Hudson’s killshot, so turning her back to scamper away was not ideal. In this instance, the closer she was, the better.

“But he didn’t say anything about a little cut—”

It happened so fast.

They were so in tune with one another that they didn’t notice the third person enter the room. As if her hearing were delayed, shuffling, stomping footsteps trickled down the steps and stepped in front of her. Before Diana could grab onto the interloper and get them away from the incoming strike, she heard the squelch and squish of the knife as it plunged into their back.

“No!” Hudson screamed.

Diana felt cold, callused hands at her elbows, and she tensed to become a crutch for this mysterious victim.

The woman in her arms gasped, her breath caught in her throat at the stab. She slowly looked down, in awe to see the knife tip that protruded from her chest. Large, emerald eyes stared back at her, the black veins around her eyes spidered up to her forehead. It took a little longer than necessary to realize that Diana knew this woman. The gaunt of this malnourished figure, a vision of Bliss and death, a familiar face in this realm of disorder… it wasn’t only someone she knew, but someone close.

Diana’s face mirrored that of the woman’s in more than one way; this older woman’s resemblance to her was uncanny. Almost frozen in time, they observed each other in the same gutted expression… the dark hair that framed her face, her high, full cheekbones, even the same silver necklace with the pendant of a crescent moon. What was noticeably shared between them was their eyes… though not as brilliant and stunning as the lively look of Diana’s, the shimmer of evergreen hadn’t been tamed by the touch of the Bliss.

Cassandra?!”

“No… No… NO!” Hudson screamed.

Her sister, who hadn’t spoken for some time, simply smiled at her. Even now, she said nothing, only stared at her with glossy-green eyes before giving in to her fate. Weak and fading, Cassandra went limp, and Diana caught her in time to gently set her on the floor.

It finally clicked.

The noise of the alarm meant that someone made it down to her intended destination and opened the cells… and with the sudden intervention by her sister, it put another piece of the puzzle into place. Hudson had her here, in captivity, and she’d become a monster of the Bliss. The ruckus rumbling above them didn’t shake her out of this misery. The sister she’d been searching for, the only blood-relative left in her family, was gone.

“No… No…” Joey Hudson surrendered to her madness, riding the rails of grief from her mistake. She’d been wailing somewhere behind Diana for a while, having shifted to hysterics from the once-haughty air she gave off in her reprimands. She was weeping. The woman she’d just killed, another missed shot intended for Diana, was her darkest secret now laid bare to the one woman she’d shielded her from for years.

“Aaahhhh!!” Without warning, Diana scrambled for the knife she remembered was just a foot or so away from where she set her sister onto the floor. She ambled toward Hudson and before this one could get away, or on a slim chance she’d try to reason with her to do otherwise. Diana turned the tip of her ruby-handled knife toward Hudson and plunged it into her chest.

Not once, not twice. Three times the knife found its victim, thirsting for the bloodlust to balance the life she’d taken away before her eyes.

The sound she made when the blade penetrated her flesh would not soon leave Diana’s mind, nor would the frightened look in Joey’s terrified face. Wailing in a fit of wrath and rage and vengeance, Diana held tight to the knife in Hudson’s heart and thrust her at the opposite wall. Like a fragile doll, Hudson collapsed, coughing for air that only came in a struggling gurgle to fill her lungs with the breaths she had left.

Diana remained on her feet, radiating a certain fury that was a high inexplicable to anyone who had not felt it. She knew it took a while to come down from, if at all. She’d exerted every bit of energy into that final strike, projected her ire to end the life whose wickedness had created conflict for so many others. She was feeling it now too, every nerve that had been pinched, sliced, punched, slammed—the physical turmoil interspersed with the mental break that was threatening to take her down now. With her hands covered in the blood of her enemy Diana let out another feral scream, that she hoped would soften the blow of the bitter consequences to come.

After a moment, she fell to her knees, placed between Hudson and the husk of Hudson’s victim. Cassandra Evans, her elder sister, had been put to rest because of the feud of egos—between Joseph Seed and Earl Whitehorse.

The painting was accurate.

This was why she was here.

She was the heart of both families, torn apart in this battle.

Too weak to stand again, she crawled over to Hudson’s body. The former Deputy was clutching to the blade in her chest but made no moves to remove it from her body. Her lashes were feather light as she blinked, staring in awe at the rafters in the ceiling of the dungeon. Little did she know that when she woke on this day, that it would end like this.

When the silence broke between them, the wave of denouement to their fight, it was Hudson to make the first move.

“I guess… all that’s left to say is… I’m so… sorry.”

Abhorrence filled Diana’s face when she looked at her adversary, but she noticed that Hudson’s face had changed. Her voice had too. Hudson retched and in full delirium, began laughing. “I shouldn’t have told you w-we had openings. I shouldn’t have let Staci guilt you into coming home.”

Instead of killing her, as it would be too merciful to cut her off now, Diana sat back beside her. She kicked away the iron that was nearby and threw her head back to rest it against the wall. “County never really lets you leave. I would have been back sooner or later.”

Hudson smiled, and even tried to laugh again but only shallow breaths puffed through her dried and bloodied lips.

“Whatever y-you’re fighting f-for… I hope it’s worth i-it…”

Diana stared at the opposite wall and puffed out a breath at that. She questioned herself many times, even before this started. The ongoing search for purpose and value was one she shared with her husband. She once thought being a cop was the answer and after that Eden’s Gate was her rightful place, but if the powers that be kept throwing her into conflict, she was back to uncertainty. Now, having extinguished the obstacles of her former colleagues, she still asked herself where she would go from here.

“I really did… l-love her, you know.”

“I know.”

“In a way, I loved you too.”

She never thought there would be a day when Hudson would willingly admit that. Their past was rocky at best—and due to their ongoing status of being frenemies dating back to their childhood leading them to the present, it was like a burden lifted from her shoulders when Joey spoke those words. She felt a hand reach for hers, which had been set at her side to keep her up. As much as her first instinct was to shove it away, she didn’t, and let the tranquility settle in this macabre scene.

Diana peered at her colleague after it fell quiet. Her chest was no longer rising and falling, nor was she moving. Her were fixated on the antlers still dangling on the ceiling. John’s taste for décor always struck her as a morbid yet rustic form of art—and now she couldn’t ask Joey why she kept some things intact.

She was gone.

Just seconds later, she heard at least three newcomers enter the dungeon from the stairs. One she barely recognized as Jacob, dashing toward her. Joey’s fingers slipped from Diana as Jacob moved her. He dropped to a knee, gently turning her head, and took quick inventory of her to make sure she wasn’t hurt.

“Honey—it’s me—we gotta go.”

Diana could hardly reply. The words were there, but she only moaned in response.

The overload of emotional wreckage and physical pain had her in its clutches, and she could hardly stay awake. She wanted to convey the importance of retrieving the body of her sister from the floor—and before she could confirm this with Jacob, she was taken by the darkness.

Chapter Text

WHITEHORSE

 

[The lights are out at Hope County Jail, but one above the solitary man sitting in his stronghold. In the main hall, the camera focuses him. A backdrop of the County map is now covered in red markings, tangled yarn stretching from one place to another, exed out photos of the fallen, scratches and scrawl only He can decipher.

As if he sits upon a throne, Earl Whitehorse lets the tape roll a moment before looking directly into the camera. His eyes are piercing, full of mourning and distress, as if to reach the heart of its intended viewer. He looks tired, downtrodden, weary, the lines of wear and age defined clearly in the high-definition of the camera taking this footage.]

A grey moustache twitches, the old man deep in thought. When he laces his fingers together, he gears up to speak, a prominent frown settles on his worn face.

“What are we doing here? So long now, huh? Months of going at it—this unexpected War… the fields are barren, and the Famine has taken us. And the Pestilence… run down by the Bliss, a poison that has tormented us for so long…” (He sighs.)

“All the roads lead here. Death. I should have known. I tried to be patient, I really did. I thought with every wave, every siege to completely reclaim the County from Joseph and the Seeds would cleanse us. Be rid of the evil that fell upon us.”

Setting down the headshot of the Marshal, Sheriff Whitehorse shakes his head.

“Cameron Burke… was a liability. The Deputies in my ranks always said he was and I would never deny it. Such a stubborn son of a bitch.” (He chuckles softly). “I told him that he was too, all the way over to the Island that night, and the nights that followed. A “Necessary Evil”, I’d always said, when the other two argued to get him the hell out of here, like we had any choice. If we did everything in our power to get you back and wipe them out in the process.” (He laughs). “And he died falling into the poison they brought here. Hm.”

The Sherriff pauses as his eyes move to the empty seat at his left. His thick brows furrow for a moment before he slides another photo in front of him.

“Staci Pratt… the prodigal son. Or so, he called himself. He earned his regards and condolences.” (Holding his hands up, Whitehorse shrugs.) “I know that’s not the popular opinion. A Madman, they called him. Whether or not that madness existed prior to his conditioning, I’ll leave that to interpretation. No, he might not have been the kindest or humble, but he was one of mine. He was like a son to me. So eager. So determined. So willing to step up to the plate to finish the job when you thought it would be best to side with our enemies—only to be devoured by the beasts you let loose in the mountains.” 

Whitehorse stops before trailing his gaze over the table to his right. He waits there for a long while before letting out a deep sigh. He shakes his head again, as if in disbelief of the absence of this Deputy.

“Hudson.” (His voice wavers slightly, and he brushes a hand over his face). “My sweet, sweet, Josephine Hudson. I told her there was no place in the fight for someone like her. You remember, right? She was such a lovely soul who loved too much until one day, the clutches of the Baptist changed her. Oh, she loved that iron, didn’t she? And when the waters would not cleanse her, revive her, rejuvenate her to what she was before… she was cleansed by the flame that devoured the Fortress. Baptism…by fire. She deserved far better than that. (A slight pause.) “She deserved…”

His voice trails off, an obvious despair there as he tries to keep his composure. Whitehorse’s hands separate, balled into fists as he pounds them hard against the table’s surface.

“I’ve made my share of mistakes, turned a blind eye to what my Deputies have done, but I can’t stand by and let this county carry on this way any longer.”  

There’s a long pause.

“Promise of change came with sacrifices we were all so ready to face until it all became real. When we knew you were lost—when you took up arms against us. Eden’s Gate and this fairy tale he twisted of some impending doom we’re gonna face? Was this something He told you? We’re all still here, still breathing, still standing, still waiting for this supposed prophecy to come to pass. We instilled a trust in you, Deputy, and now ALL OF MY BEST ARE GONE. KILLED BY YOUR HANDS!”

Picking up the table, Whitehorse casts it to the side, toppling everything over that once rest atop it. The items clatter to the floor, and the old man now stops to catch his breath as he walks toward the camera and faces it again. It’s obvious in his labored breathing it pains him to speak, let alone catch himself from overwhelming his body.

“I will be the one to extinguish you myself, since you have taken everything that I have put forth so much to take you out of this hell, wasted resources and energy, and things we will never EVER get back!”

Fixing his glasses to his nose, his tongue flicks to his lips before he speaks again.

“And now only one remains. I’m a patient man, the darkness on the other side of the darkest tunnel.” (He warns, and leans in close.) “You can only hide for so long from the coming storm. I’ll be right here waiting for you, Deputy.”

 

[End Video]

Chapter Text

DIANA

 

The Wolf’s Den

Whitetail Mountains

That Morning…

 

It was surreal, this setting. The once-thriving forestry, lush with green trees and the chirps and cries of the lingering wildlife was full of love and hope. Now, in the faint light of inbound sunrise, amidst the dying trees and dingy color of dirt and rock, the Whitetail Militia and the resistance supporters were gathered here, to bid farewell to Eli Palmer. Candles were in nearly every hand of the attendees present on the mountaintop. The inhabitants of the Wolf’s Den gathered around a humble funeral pyre. Eli was placed upon a pile of wood and stone, his remains wrapped in a dark cloth.

“Each of us found the Whitetail in our own ways…” Tammy began, with a torch in hand, “but what brought us here was loss. Families. Friends. Eli gave us back a little piece of that…”

Though she couldn’t see his face, it pained Diana—just as it hurt the others—to see their fearless leader put to rest. A little dizzy from the meds she took after their departure from the Fortress, she clung to the arm of her beloved Jacob. They stood in the back of the crowd, as not to disturb the eulogy. It was hard to disguise someone like Jacob, who towered above most of them. However, with Kim and Nick there to keep anyone from dismissing them from the service, all she could do was keep low and quiet, to let the memorial carry on.

“…He showed us the only thing we can rely on is each other. He was my friend, just as he was yours. But he was also our family… and I know that he will be missed.”

Everyone reverently bowed their heads in a stretch of silence to honor him.

From there, Wheaty took over. He was granted the torch from Tammy, who had concluded her speech and waited for her to step away before his speech. “You know I thought Eden’s Gate would just go away—that this was just some fucked up dream.”

Diana frowned, feeling her husband shift slightly beside her. She could feel the eyes burning into them, drawing her own gaze to the ground.

“But it was real… we were at war… and the fight between Joseph Seed and Sheriff Whitehorse was endless. At what cost?” The men and women convened in this space wept, as the now-confident Wheaty continued. “Eli stood proud and courageously, not for us to give up now. We will put an end to this. We have to charge on. For Eli…”

“For Eli!” They said, in unison.

What should have fortified the appreciation for Eli, only made matters worse. Diana felt like she couldn’t breathe. Everything Wheaty said felt like a knife stabbing further into her heart. The blame around their loss pressed down on her, until it was too much to bear.

A few others took their turns, cheering and laughing through some of the recollection of better days spent when Eli was still alive and well. It was what he would have wanted, they knew, to share their memories of happier times than to linger in sorrow.

But Diana couldn’t stay. Because of her guilt and paranoia, she didn’t have the wherewithal to bear the resentment these people must have held for her. They didn’t have to say it aloud—she could feel it.

“Di, wait—” Jacob whispered, losing his grasp on her when she took off into the shadows.

Kim and Nick both turned around at the sound of retreating footsteps.

When Kim started to follow her, Nick stopped her. She looked at her husband, who was gently bouncing the sleeping baby in his arms. Kim’s face flushed with surprise and worry, which only deepened when he shook his head.

“Just… give her some space.” Nick whispered to her. He exchanged a quick glance with Jacob who’d nodded in agreement.

Diana needed an escape, somewhere private, to mourn. It was suffocating, being there. Though they were familiar faces, only a few of them were welcoming, and rightfully so. She understood the discomfort of her and Jacob being there, and it was a matter of walking on eggshells to keep the peace in this time of grief. There was as quiet enclosure of trees around the corner from the Den—one Diana knew of quite well. She’d hoped to center herself again, away from the crowd, away from the anguish and shame. So, she sought out that solitude to calm herself.

Her shaking hands fished out a cigarette from her pocket, and it took a few flicks of the lighter to get it started. Diana leaned on a nearby tree to keep her balance and pulled a long drag from the cigarette before breathing out.

Oh, how she hated funerals. No one liked attending these things—no one sane, anyway—and after the fresh sting on her heart from visiting her late brother’s grave, here she was, just days later, to mourn again. The hard-to-swallow pill was the fact that Eli wasn’t the only one she’d be burying today. But those feelings would have to wait. Diana wanted this safe space, to commune with the elements here in the mountains for the sake of her fallen friend.

“Hope.” A woman’s voice cut through the silence.

Dammit.

Her shoulders sank, as she knew at that instant, who had come to find her. “Tammy.”

Here we go, Diana groaned softly, when she turned to face her visitor.

Part of her wished it was Jacob or one of the Rye’s, but with her luck, it was not someone she’d been expecting. She couldn’t help but roll her eyes, clearly exasperated to realize Tammy didn’t come alone. The hooded woman she’d quickly identified as another adversary, Jess Black, had interrupted any means of peace. It was useless, she knew, the desire to be alone in a place like this.

“Listen, I know you don’t want me here. But I came to pay my respects to Eli, that’s it. If you’re here to yell at me, or threaten to kill me again, then—”

“It’s not your fault, and Eli knew that.” Tammy said, standing clear of the cigarette smoke Diana blew out.

Diana’s eyes went wide, before her brows knitted together. She was skeptical of this. Tammy wasn’t known for her kindness, at least, not toward Diana, and especially not for the Seeds. While trauma and heartbreak usually caused its victims to make amends, this was the last thing she expected to hear from Tammy Barnes.

Tammy pondered her response for a moment before saying, “We got off on the wrong foot. Not just with the Peggies, and the militia, and the war. Before all of that… All that time wasted on grudge matches and shit, you know… in the end, it wasn’t worth it.”

“I know.” Diana agreed.

“So… I just wanted to thank you…”

“For what?”

“For returning him to us.”

Hm.” Diana grunted in response. It was only right, she knew, to have Eli’s body placed with his people. Even though she was there with him when he died, talking about it made his death real.

There was little else to say to the woman who’d time and time again expressed her disgust of her. It irked her to feel such contention on what should be a moment to respect the passing of their mutual friend, but she couldn’t help it. There was no escaping the discomfort of standing behind their old enemy lines.

“The Rye’s, they told us what happened back at the Aviation center. We know it was Hudson, not you.” Tammy shook her head.

Diana steeled herself for what she thought would come next; she waited for Tammy to further antagonize her for what she interpreted in the events that transpired at the Rye’s place.

“That bitch got what was coming to her, they said that too—and that whole mess you guys went through at the Fortress, I’m…”

“If the next word out of your mouth is sorry, just save it, Tammy.” Diana groaned. She tossed her cigarette to the ground and smashed it under her boot.

“When an olive branch is being thrown down here, why won’t you take it, Hope?” Jess stepped out of the shadows, and finally broke her silence in Tammy’s defense.

“Jess,” Tammy uttered, holding her hand out to stop Jess from proceeding, “it’s fine.”

“The fuck it’s fine.” Jess snapped, stiffly folding her arms. “A friend of ours died today, and just like Tammy just said, this fighting is fucking pointless.”

Shifting a scowl toward the huntress, Diana said, “The last time the three of us were in the same room you wanted to kill me and what’s left of my family.”

“Things change. People can change. Wasn’t that your crusade this whole time?”

Diana bristled. She hated being called out like that, much less a subtle yet pointed jab at her constant need to hold such a grudge. Eli always told her doing so didn’t get her anywhere, it only made her harbor unnecessary guilt for the sins of the past. Tammy did, however, have a point. Diana worked so hard to stand between the Seeds and the Forsaken—standing amidst the armies fighting against each other to no end. She wanted peace that would never come, preaching on her own about how the shift in the balance caused a change for the better, or worse, in these people. It was frustrating to hear her own words used against her.

“Look,” Tammy sighed, “we don’t have to be friends. You were right, I didn’t like you. I didn’t care for your family and even now I can’t remember when it started or why,”

Diana sharply sighed.

“—But for everything Eli stood for—that stubborn man—everything he did to stand by you, he did it because he believed you, and believed in you. Whatever happened before, I just want to be done with it.”

“Feeling’s mutual.” The words came out a little harsher than Diana intended, but there was no retracting them. She let the silence sit between them while she thought about Tammy’s proposed offering and after one hard glance at her, she finally extended her hand. If the light wasn’t playing tricks on her eyes, there was a hint of a smile on Tammy’s face when she reached out to take it. She might’ve hugged her if things weren’t so rocky between them, so a handshake would suffice. This was a little slice of the peace she’d sought after, Diana realized, something she wished didn’t take the death of their friend to happen.

Once they parted, Tammy retrieved something from her pocket. Extending her closed fist toward Diana, Tammy offered a bundled cloth to her. “He left you these,”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. I just found it in Eli’s quarters. He said to me once that it belonged to your grandfather… and wanted you to have them.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

That was it. Nothing need be said here, except goodbye. Diana wasn’t sure if she needed to add anything else, except to nod in thanks for the trinket she retrieved from Eli. She would open it later anyhow, as not to get sentimental over someone she never knew when there was still a race against time. Stepping aside, Diana pat Tammy’s shoulder and started to head back to the funeral to find her husband.

“Where will you go now?”

“I don’t know,” Diana said, pausing in her steps. “South. Somewhere. Not sure. Away from here.”

Jess let her hands fall to her sides, “You’re gonna go after the old man, aren’t you?”

“I don’t really have a choice.”

It was the truth. He was the loose end, and the glue that held this operation together. Whitehorse was bound to go after her, knowing that Hudson was gone, so she was going to prepare herself for the endgame.

“What about John and his… wife? Were you able to get them from the Fortress?” Tammy asked, unaware of the full result from her showdown with Hudson.

Diana somberly shook her head. “They were gone before Jake, Nick and the other’s touched down. At least… that’s what I was told.”

“Shit,” Jess muttered.

With her hands on her hips, Tammy shook her head. “If the Militia finds them, you have my word I’ll give them safe passage to you.”

It was a natural reaction to be taken by doubt when Tammy said that. “Your word…”

“It’s as good as Eli’s.”

Diana struggled to hold back a snicker at that. Her only ally, who didn’t need much convincing to stand with her in the battle, was gone. The ruling law of the Whitetails was now bestowed on this mere housewife, who’d apparently seen enough bloodshed to give her a change of heart. While she still didn’t fully trust the intentions of Tammy Barnes, Diana had no choice but to accept.

“Thank you, Tammy.”

Those words alone lifted most of the burden on her shoulders. No, they weren’t walking away the best of friends, but at least she knew where she stood with the new Whitetails.

“Diana?”

That was her cue. It was Jacob, she’d heard, summoning her from a safe enough distance from the other two women. She could tell Jess and Tammy were still uncomfortable with him around, but she wouldn’t stick around now to find out if their condolences or sentiment extended to him.

“I have to go.”

“Give them hell,” Tammy said. “Put an end to this.”

Diana turned to walk away. “You know I will.”

 

*

JOSEPH

Sacred Skies Lake
Henbane River

It was a quiet place.

A safe place.

Sacred Skies lake was tranquil, softly flowing against the cool breeze. There was a shrine built here, one that had the least amount of visitation than the rest scattered about Hope County, given that Angel Peak was just a short hike north. The lakeside hadn’t seen much human passage in some time, even with the residence of his congregation here, as he noted that it had been tempered by the seasons to be a quiet sanctuary.

Joseph had taken a perch near the waterline, and its soothing call was more than enough to somewhat settle his mind from suffering a terrible morning. It had worn on his patience to be amidst the heated debates between Jacob and John, and with Faith nearly out of commission because she’d spent too much time at the Bliss factory over the weekend—it was an Atlantean burden to be the word of reason. Of course, he knew it was his duty to do so, but the last few days had been taxing.

So, he stole away.

Joseph knew it might not be long until someone would take notice of his absence at the compound and try to track him down, so he took this time away from the distractions to center himself and find a cool head. It wasn’t out of character for the Father to vanish from time to time, to take a breath of fresher air that was otherwise stuffy thanks to his sibling’s moods constant bickering.

He was near an outcropping of rocks and sand, kneeling by the shore. The sun, which was glowing high above him graced him with its warm light, from his bare shoulders to his toes. It was a refreshing getaway, necessary to rejuvenate his mind and free him from the burdens weighing him down. Birds sang a delightful song as they flew overhead, and the pitter-patter of the peaceful wildlife set the tone for relaxation, and the buzz of insects were as melodious and entrancing to the exhausted man.

Minutes went by and he thoroughly enjoyed the silence. Joseph took a deep breath. He enjoyed this trancelike state, where he could commune with the elements, in solitude.

It was then that a fragrance of lavender and vanilla filled his nose. With his eyes shut, Joseph’s lips twitched, before blooming into a full smile.

“I knew you’d be here,” said his visitor.

Slowly, Joseph opened his eyes. He was still beaming. “Did you, now?”

Light steps trailed around before Diana took a seat in the open space beside him. She tucked the fabric of her dress beneath her, and crossed her ankles, using her hands to prop her up. “I had a hunch.”

“Of course.” Joseph uttered, quietly.

“I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything important…”

“No, not at all.”

They sat there for a moment, quietly basking in the gorgeous scene that stretched out in front of them. It was no secret she rather enjoyed the countryside, and Joseph was smitten by it as well. The gentle waves rolling to shore serenaded them, until the simultaneously turned to speak.

“I was just—”       “What do you—”

Their eyes widened when they caught themselves speaking over each other.

“I’m sorry, you—”       “No, go ahead—”

Laughter ensued between the two of them, which eventually trickled off. Still, it didn’t change the reddened faces of pure sheepishness of such a folly. They were like teenagers, nerves on overdrive when they were around each other. Joseph found it strange, and yet amusing at the same time.

“What troubles you?”

Joseph shrugged, considering his options here. He could tell her to stand down, to butt out of the family affairs. They did their best to keep any in-fighting under wraps, that is, unless John wanted to make a public scene out of his filial torment from him or Jacob. It hadn’t been as bad as the tantrums early on, but he despised the way his baby brother tended to deal with his anger—to lash out instead of keeping private matters, well, private.

“My brothers,” he sighed.

“It’s been a grueling few days, hasn’t it?” Diana leaned forward to hug her knees to her chest. She tilted her head to look at him, studying Joseph’s face with a sweet admiration.

Joseph chuckled with a nod. “To say the least, but it will pass.”

“It might. But then, it might not.”

“What makes you say that?”

“There’s always a chance that things may not go as we expect.”

“That is true.”

“But the Voice… would tell you, right?”

That’s not how it works, he wanted to say. There were a million and one things he wanted to add to that too, explain his divine calling in full—despite the numerous sermons where she’d learned that before, or even the book she’d read through a couple of times now—but this private meeting would be spoiled by the downtrodden thoughts of this weary man if he let that loose now.

Instead, he asked, “Is there something you needed of me, Diana?”

“No.” She responded quietly, “I don’t mean to impose. I just wanted to explore…”

“Again, you are not imposing.” Joseph said.

“Perhaps I was overcome with the desire to be right here, if that’s alright.” Her voice was quiet, but he’d heard what she said, loud and clear.

“Yes, it’s more than alright.” He smiled again.

Breathing in the fresh air, he sat back, leaning back some and letting his hands out to prop himself up. Joseph raised his face to the sky, wishing to feel the sun on his skin a for a little longer before heading back. He was thoroughly enjoying this visit, even if the conversation was more small-talk, but his company was more than welcome to be at his side. He just wished he could tell her how much it meant to him, her being there.

“You’ve been away before, haven’t you? Out of county, out of state…” Joseph brought forth a question that had been sitting in his mind for some time.

“California…” Diana nodded. “But I wasn’t one of those starry-eyed, must-see Hollywood girls, you know? I loved the scenic stuff, places similar to here but maybe a little less green and lush, but still beautiful… north of the bay.”

“I see.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been there, and I don’t remember much since I was in school, but… it was wonderful there.”

“I’m sure it was,” Joseph replied, and when a coy grin took over his features again, he added, “Perhaps one day we may see that place… together.”

It might have been a throwaway comment, one planted with other intentions than visiting outside County lines. Eden’s Gate was here after all, a final resting place before the Collapse—so there as a chance they may not have a getaway. Joseph had never been that far west before, but he had the same desire she held for that wonderous place and the landmarks he’d only seen in photographs. Still, he meant what he said. Together, he’d emphasized, the intent to whisk her away as his own.

With his heart thudding in his chest, he chanced a move he hadn’t ever thought to try before… at least, not with Diana. Brushing the curl of black locks from her eyes, his fingers continued to trail over her bare shoulder, down the soft supple skin of her arm until his hand touched hers. He didn’t miss the way her breath hitched, and though he briefly stopped to give her space to move away, she remained still, and welcomed his soothing caress.

“She’s beautiful,”

Unfortunately, the smile fueled by an elation of his shared company had faded. Joseph peered down to see what had caught Diana’s attention. The marks on his body were worn with pride, but when she became engrossed on the tattoo on his forearm, he couldn’t help but feel the shame wash over him. Guilt brought on by lust…

Sitting up again, Joseph turned his arm away from her slightly. It was difficult and painful to hold back the grimace that was taking over his features thanks to that simple comment, but the burn in his words was apparent. “She was, yes. So much so… that I had this done to carry her with me forever.”

He hoped that was the end of it, her curiosity about his past. He hoped to move beyond any questions about the woman’s portrait on his arm and return to that serenity he’d felt before.

“Do you miss her?” Diana asked.

Joseph’s face remained as neutral as his striking features would allow. The saving grace was that Diana didn’t sound hurt or even jealous, unlike some of the other priestesses he’d encountered before, but it didn’t make the subject matter any easier to bear. “Every day.” Joseph breathed out slowly, a noticeable tremor in the shallow exhale. “She… was my light. My life. Stolen away from existence well before her time.”

“I’m sorry.”

When Diana shifted her eyes to the water, he heard an audible gulp.

The apology caught him off-guard, though it confirmed his assumption that she wasn’t trying to hurt him with her innocent and profound curiosity.

“Don’t be,” Joseph said quietly, against his better instinct to tell her to stop. He had to remind himself that she wasn’t doing so to hurt him, as others had when they’d brought her up.

The more his thoughts lingered on his departed beloved, the darker his thoughts became, the more his shoulders and muscles became tense. Everything rushed anxiously through his thoughts—the news of the crash, the sterile stench of the hospital corridors, the sound of the monitor flatlining… the reverberation of the shrill and haunting cry of his first-born child…

Luckily, Joseph caught himself before things got out of control, before he relieved the moment everything went wrong. Years had passed since that fateful day but mentally returning to that point in time was something he’d vowed to keep locked away since he hated the way it made him feel. When he opened his eyes again, he took in the landscape to keep grounded.

What should have been an enjoyable visit had turned sour, but he wouldn’t let that slip-up ruin their moment. He didn’t want to chase her off. The old Joseph might have done so, vying for solitude rather than companionship. Instead, he wanted to turn it around.

Rising to his feet, Joseph dusted off his pants. He was careful not to soil her dress in doing so, and when he turned, he reached out his hand to her. Diana’s eyes were brilliant in the sun, a shimmering verdant gaze glistening when she looked up. Joseph’s face didn’t change when she quirked an eyebrow at him, that innocence exuding from her even now. Slowly, he nodded to assure her that it would be okay.

Anxiety, tension, it all melted away when she took his hand.

All he could think of was how soft her skin was, and he gently pulled her from the ground. Twirling her in place drew a faint giggle from her. It was delightful, her laugh, and the swirl of sheer fabric of her priestess gown and her dark tresses gave off that enticing scent in the air around her.

Joseph curled his fingers around her dainty palm and led her to the edge of the water. He wouldn’t soon forget the way she gasped when the water hit her toes, though it didn’t stop him from proceeding into the cool waters.

Step by step, the pair moved deeper into the lake. Joseph felt her fingers squeeze his palm. The refreshing melody of her laughter made him grin brighter, and it made the unease he’d felt earlier in his body fade away. Despite touching on a sensitive topic, Diana always seemed to bring a smile to his face, and this unexpected meeting with her was turning out to be a lot better than he wanted to admit.

Just before it dropped off into deeper water, Joseph stopped. It was almost symbolic, this scene, the two of them wrapped in the elements; the light of high noon shining down in this open space, their feet sinking into the soft earth as they became submerged in the fresh water. The air was sweet and perfect, the autumnal breeze lightly swirling around them.

Joseph tugged her closer, feeling only the wet fabric between their bodies when they came together. He was enthralled by the sensation of her skin on his when she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Joseph…” she whispered.

 

* *

 

Joseph Seed’s Sanctuary
Hope County Central
Present Day

 

The burner phone on his desk rang and his hand flashed to grasp it.

Normally, he would have taken a while to come out of his meditative state. It wasn’t even a memory he’d reached for, but a fantasy, an amalgamation of stolen moments with Diana from before. It was only because he’d been anticipating this call since his departure from the Grandview, that he was quick to answer.

“Joseph?”

The Father exhaled deeply, his shoulders relaxing from the stiff tension he’d held at the sound of her voice. Diana’s sweet voice was on the other end, groggy and a little muddy with static, but Joseph knew it was her. He relaxed in his chair, closing his eyes to prepare himself for the news to come.

“Are you alright? Did you find them—John and Ana?” He knew their time might be cut short, so he added: “The path east should be clear. Come home, Diana—”

“They’re not with us—but we have to—we’ll see—you—going to—”

“Diana?” Joseph gulped. “Diana—you’re cutting out, I…”

Beep, beep, beep, beep…

“Diana? Diana!”

When the call ended, Joseph squeezed the phone and sighed. He’d attempted another call to reconnect, but the line beeped as if it were busy. He wanted to throw it across the room, shatter it to bits. It would have satisfied him, sure, as he loathed the need for such material things around. However, he couldn’t fully trust radio communications and it was his only way to get a hold of Diana or Jacob, so he resolved to keep it in one piece, should she try to call again.

“Jo-Joseph?” This time, it was another woman calling for him, someone in the room next door.

What?” He snapped, crushing the small plastic device in his fist. He cleared his throat. “What is it?”

His priestess did not answer.

Joseph rose from his seat, sighing when he started for the door. It was a pet peeve, not answering when called, so he was going to see what they wanted. That way, he could get back to his quiet meditation. He carefully stepped into the hall, moving toward the living room. Everyone, including Leah, Faith, Daniel, Joshua and several others, all on their knees, with their hands tied behind their backs.

What the…

He couldn’t focus on anything other than the barrel of the 9mm pistol aimed at him (along with several others that were raised) when he walked into the room. Fixing his eyes on the woman at the helm of this stealthy infiltration, Joseph’s shoulders shrank down.

“So… this is where you’ve been hiding. Nice place.” The woman said. Black mane peeked out from beneath a blue hood, almost covering one of her dark, piercing eyes. She glared at Joseph with a look of disgust, fueled by retribution, though she remained somewhat composed at his entrance. He had, after all, unknowingly completed her first objective of wrangling the inhabitants into the room.

Joseph breathed out. His empty hands gradually raised to his sides, and with a shaky voice answered: “I’m unarmed.”

The woman smirked. “Yeah? Well, so were we.”

“F-Father—” Leah whimpered.

“You, shut up!” The woman turned and struck Leah. Her hand hit her cheek with a loud smack, and the girl fell to the floor.

An uproar of pleas to spare the girl any further punishment caused panic in the room. His people were shoved, thrown and pulled back into place by the respective soldiers guarding them, at their backs. Their leader grabbed a handful of the priestess’ flaxen hair, dragging her a few feet before throwing her back to the floor.

 Joseph found it difficult to stand still as Leah’s sobs pulled at his heart. It was infuriating that he was helpless to aid her. “Tracey… right?” He addressed their leader.

“That’s me.” Proudly, Tracey stepped into better lighting, so he could see her face a bit clearer. There was a noticeable scar tracing over her eye, which shifted when she smirked.

Joseph’s brow twitched. He’d only seen an image of Tracey Lader in passing, intel gathered by Jacob’s soldiers early in the war. She was the leader of the Cougar Task Force, ranked just below the Deputy Elite.

It was a clear lapse in judgment; he hadn’t anticipated her to come out of the woodwork, let alone storm his home. Joseph was defenseless on the island Sanctuary, with the armory racks having been depleted. Each excursion against the Forsaken chipped away at his resources, little by little, until completely diminishing his supplies. With so much energy poured into awaiting the safe return of his family, his flaw was that he’d overlooked the need to protect the homestead. “So… Sheriff Whitehorse, he’s—”

“On his way. With the bullshitstorm in the Whitetails and everyone getting a little distracted by the fireworks in the valley, I figured security was light. And I figured right,” Tracey chuckled.

“We are preparing to leave. We want to go in peace. Just ask Eli, we made a deal.”

Tracey laughed, but when Joseph’s face didn’t change, her eyebrows raised. “Oh… You’re serious?”

“Serious about what?” Joseph stared at her in confusion.

Huh,” Hesitating for just a moment, Tracey’s tongue flicked to her lips. It seemed to annoy her that Joseph hadn’t caught onto this news sooner. “Allow me to be the bearer of bad news then, Father. Eli Palmer is dead.”

“What?” Joseph breathed out.

Tracey shrugged. “We intercepted a call from Kim Rye to the militia, I guess they’re having his funeral in the mountains.”

This wasn’t part of the plan, he sighed. Of course, death wasn’t a desirable outcome, but Eli’s death threw his confidence they would make it through, off-course.

“I always thought it was funny how people didn’t think we would tap into the radio waves—but until recently we didn’t have to worry about people rallying to the side of you psychopaths.” Tracey gritted her teeth, leaning on those words in her pained tone. “They said Eli had been killed on her property—which is the same place we spotted your brother and Deputy Evans leaving just minutes later.”

No… Joseph’s heart sank. While he was glad to hear of his brother’s survival, he took issue with the fact that they’d been tracked—quite possibly through their mission to retrieve John.

“She didn’t do this.” Joseph insisted, “Eli was her friend, we had nothing to do—”

The men at Tracey’s sides raised their guns when Joseph took a step forward, so he stopped.

“I don’t think I asked for you to speculate!” Tracey hollered, waiting a beat before signaling her men to stand down.

Joseph tried to keep his racing heart at bay, his breathing as even a possible, but the concern he expressed now wasn’t only about how the hell he was going to get the Island back. Now, he was afraid to even think about what was in store for Diana.

“Just because you’re the all-knowing… the all-seeing… the great and powerful Father of Eden’s Gate. Let me tell you to your smug face… that doesn’t mean shit to me. You took my friends, you took our families, and you poisoned their minds. This one here,” she pointed to Faith, “You tricked her into becoming one of your Heralds. Changed her into someone I don’t even know anymore—then you brought our Deputy into your family. Filled her head with all that salvation bullshit to get under her skin—to get her to work for you too… and even marry that piece of human garbage you call a brother.”

Joseph grimaced. He didn’t know why, since he was no stranger to verbal abuse about his family.

“—Not to mention all the blood you shed, innocent lives taken when you had no right to come here and destroy our County.”

Before Joseph could defend himself, Tracey wound back and struck him down with her fist. Joseph took the brunt of the hit and fell to his knees, joining the others, as they began stirring in protest. Immediately, he raised his hands to stop them from turning their invader’s brutish attentions to them.

Tracey holstered her weapon. She bounded toward Joseph and took a handful of his tousled hair into her fist and pulled. She raised him to his feet once more. Deep brown eyes ignited with vengeance stared long and hard into the Father’s eyes, and through her gritted teeth she spat, “I bet you thought that after murdering Burke, or Pratt, or Hudson—we wouldn’t have a chance to take over, but I was sent here to give you a nice little wakeup call. The island is ours now. Father.”

Delivering a solid punch to his gut, Tracey used the force that drove him downward to uppercut him with her elbow, and he fell to the floor. This prompted a fearful chorus of screams and whimpers from the onlookers, who tried to scamper away from the men Tracey commanded to round them up.

“Please…”

“Don’t kill us—”

“Please let us go!”

The church members, his loyal followers who were present, began to beg for mercy, a futile outcry to be set free from their unexpected imprisonment.

“The Sheriff will pass his judgment when he arrives. Until then, no one is going to be allowed on or off this island unless they pass through me. Is that understood?”

Joseph pulled himself back to his knees, and with blood dripping from his mouth he offered his favored priestess Leah a weak smile. It might have seemed more menacing than comforting, with the red and purple bruises settling on his skin, but to keep them from losing hope, he needed to remain confident their family would return soon.

Tracey paced around him with her hands shoved deep into her pockets until stopping just behind him. She took in the pathetic sight of the Father as he struggled just to sit up. Joseph's head ached, throbbed at a warping pulse that caused his vision to obscure. Colors blurred together, light and shadow danced, so he closed his eyes to focus again.

“It’s… it’s g-gonna be alright…” He said, a feeling the cool streak of blood dripping down from his lips.

Tracey stared daggers into the back of his head until finally, she laughed. “Yeah… You keep telling yourself that.”