The worst day of Robin Baird’s life leads directly into the worst month plus of her life.
Because of course it does, why wouldn’t it?
From the moment she wakes up zip-tied to a bed frame in Dutch’s bunker she knows what she’s going to do; and is it ever a relief when the beautiful old bastard cuts her loose to do it.
She’s going to stop the Project at Eden’s Gate. She’s going to save people. And she’s going to fix things.
And she really, really wishes there was a way to do all that that didn’t involve mountains of corpses or a river of blood dripping off her hands even after she knows that she’s washed them, but the further down the Se… the Peggies fucked up rabbit hole she goes the less possible that seems.
So she cuts a bloody swath through Hope County’s cult population. Starts off in Holland Valley, gets herself a dog, blows the shit out of some drug silos and clears cultists out of Sunrise Farm. Then she doubles back, ducks across the river to Henbane, starts exploding shrines and drug boats because fuck that Bliss stuff in the ear. Then Dutch gives her some intel that sends her back to Holland Valley, and suddenly she’s got a pilot on her side and no small sense of juvenile glee at wrecking shit all over the pretty, pretty Seed Ranch (and see, she can say the word, she’s not scared). After that she ghosts through the Whitetail Mountains – blows more shit up, frees more people, makes some interesting new friends. And then she… keeps going. Makes her way through Hope County like a particularly erratic wildfire – jumping from region to region as randomly as she can, trying to stay unpredictable and undetected and ahead of the various capture parties she’s head such horror stories about. The plan is to just do her job and stay off the radar.
She accomplishes one of those things.
The people of Hope County stare when she passes, their shoulders lifting and mouths smiling and eyes brightening with something that scares her. When she talks they listen and when she doesn’t talk – much more common, to be honest – they watch and whisper and wait. They call her The Deputy, The Rook, the one who walks into hell and pulls them from the Devil’s grasp. She tries very, very hard not to think about how much they can sound like Peggies, singing praises to their Father and Heralds. She wants to stop them, tell them not to put their trust and hopes in her, that she’s just the rookie, just the one idiot that was too lucky or too stupid to get caught. But she thinks that if she does that, if she snatches that frail little ray of hope from these poor bastards, then she might just as well start carving lies into their skins and tossing them into cages. So she lets them watch, and talk, and hope and tries not to feel like the world’s biggest con artist.
The Peggies keep a watch out for her too, but in their case it’s much less to receive marching orders and hope and much more to deliver judgment and bullets. Weirdly, that’s a little easier to deal with, at least some days. They call her The Deputy and The Rook too, but they say it differently – packing entire worlds of hate and disgust (and a steadily growing sense of fear) into the words. They call her other things too – Heretic and Sinner and Whore (and, ok, arguments could be made for the first two, but she’s got to object strenuously to that last one. Seriously, even if she weren’t a virgin there hasn’t exactly been time for any action since all these cult shenanigans started). Somewhere around liberating Fall’s End the names start getting more… more. Now they call her The Deceiver, The Destroyer, The Harbinger. They call her The Devil’s Herald, a comparison to their own hierarchy that she’s not particularly ok with. They call her Wrath. They call her The Angel of Death. … That one’s actually pretty damn badass, and Robin doesn’t mind in the least when her people pick it up and run with it.
Of course Joh… other people pick up on her growing stable of monikers, and have taken to sneering and taunting her with them over the radio. She tries to ignore those calls – ignore the fire and the electricity that runs under her skin and in her veins when they come – as best she can, closes her eyes and bites her tongue and tries to think of anything else, wanting but not daring to break her radio into tiny pieces.
So she fights, and she kills, and she saves, and she destroys, and – eventually – it becomes a new kind of normal.
All in all her life’s gotten pretty well fucked.
At least, Robin thinks – watching a couple resistance fighters role some Peggy corpses onto a bonfire (“normal,” haha, fuck everything) – she’s not alone on her derailed rollercoaster ride into hell. She’s got people who started as allies or assets or something, who up and leapfrogged the friend stage and decided to become family. She’s got Dutch, and she’s got Kim and Mary May and Pastor Jerome and even Eli Palmer, and she tore her way through Faith’s zombie army – no, seriously, fuck the Bliss so hard – and got Sheriff Whitehorse back. And she’s got a dog. And a cougar. And a bear, which means that at least one of her childhood dreams hasn’t died screaming and on fire.
And so Robin straps on her bow, gathers up her ragtag crew of misfits, and takes the fight to Eden’s Gate. So she fights and she kills and she bleeds and she doesn’t stop. She lets the people of Hope County call her by titles, whisper stories about her, look to her like she’s some kind of leader, some kind of hero, some kind of savior, and she swallows her screams of fear and denial. She tears herself to pieces, beats herself bloody, and throws herself into the fire to take back their homes, friends, families, hopes and dreams. And when someone speaks up, tells her to rest, tells her it isn’t her responsibility to fix everything, save everyone, then she smiles and nods and charges back into the war.
She doesn’t tell them that it is her responsibility to fix what the Seeds have broken.
They wouldn’t understand.
8-Bit Pizza might be Robin’s favorite place on Earth.
It has everything going for it: mostly intact, surrounded by a buffer of mostly Peggy-free territory, and – most importantly – pizza. Mass produced, dubiously edible, frozen pizza, yes, but again. Pizza.
Also the whole feel of it is just kind of nice, and lends itself to pretending like the world outside isn’t a cult-ruled nightmare.
All in all, it probably isn’t a huge surprise that Robin’s people – and somehow, amidst all the monikering going on in Hope County, they don’t have a cool group name (though Hurk, Nick, and weirdly enough Jess have been trying to get The Super-Glorious Bastards to take off which, ok point for the Tarantino reference, Robin doubts will get off the ground) – had taken one look at the place and collectively said “dibs.”
Ok, only a couple of them had actually said dibs, but the others had clearly been thinking it.
But still. Their place. Their little whittled out pocket of sanctuary in the middle of hell; warmed by camaraderie and buoyed by frozen cheese-covered cardboard and cheap beer. They take shifts getting drunk, pull out decks of cards, make up random games and contests, more and more frequently dissolve into karaoke jam sessions of varying degrees of skill, and just… act like human beings. Just for a little bit, before the metaphorical midnight comes and they turn back into murder pumpkins (and, actually, that’s a group moniker Robin could be onboard with, though she’s not sure anyone else’d go for it).
Robin’s actually thinking about pumpkins – actual edible ones, not murderous ones – when it finally happens.
She’s lying in a cocoon of quasi-domesticated animal – Hope County facts: bears make the best backrests, a purring cougar blanket over your feet is nirvana, and there is nothing better in the world than cuddling up with a Good Boy. Dog. Good Boy Dog – letting her mind drift lazily from subject to cult-and-murder-free subject, when a burst of bright, beautiful, human laughter pulls her mind back into the land of the living.
The current center of attention is Nick, standing up and in full storytelling mode. He’s paused whatever he’s saying while the others laugh and shake their heads, Grace’s got a hand over her face and is moaning “No, you didn’t,” while Addie titters and drawls back “Boy in love? Of course he did,” and Jess yells at everyone to shut up and “What happened next?”
Nick, laughing through a flush of tipsiness and fond embarrassment, shrugs. “I mean, obviously I took off down the mountain.” Whatever he says next gets swallowed by a burst of laughter and, blushing more, he has to say it again. “And I kind of realize that she’s yelling something at me, but the car and the wind are really loud and I might be screaming and anyway I’m already half-way down the track – so I don’t hear her – and then that’s when the deer appears –” Another wave of laughter drowns him out, and he ends up false-starting three times before he can swallow his own cackles, “And I’m… I… I don’t want to hit the stupid thing, cause, I mean, I’d die, and anyway it’s not my car, so I swerve. Only now I’m in the middle of the forest, so I’m pretty sure I’m still going to die, so I slam on the breaks and –” and here Nick mistimes a quick chug on his beer and breaks off coughing.
The others laugh harder, except Hurk, who stares up at Nick with huge eyes. “Did you die?”
“Did I – ?!” Nick stares at him, red faced and incredulous, coughing violently. “No, Hurk, I didn’t die.” He coughs again, then flushes even more as he admits, “I… did end up with the car on its side though. And wedged between two trees.”
Everyone dies a little, laughing.
Now fully red faced, Nick barely waits for them to start quieting down, just raising his voice over their hysteria. “So then I’m trying to get out of the car, but the seatbelt’s stuck and, again, I’m sideways, and all the sudden the crazy pretty girl that I was trying to impress in the first place is staring at me through the window, and she’s crying and slapping at me, and I’m going all ‘what the hell, quit it,’ and then –“ Nick’s smile could light up the whole county as he abruptly tugs off his shirt, rolling his right shoulder forward and turning so everyone can see the spidery black Words that sprawl over and around his shoulder blade in a panicky slash.
Robin’s heart stops.
She watches the others through a fog. Watches Sharky read “You thundering dumbass! What is wrong with you?!” off Nick’s skin. Watches everyone laugh and cheer and slap Nick on the back and over the head. Watches Jess slap the table, bark out “That’s nothing,” and prop her leg up on a chair, tugging up her pants’ leg to show off the block of Asian calligraphy that wraps around her calf in a wave of ashy gray. Watches the others cheer again. Watches Jess throw her head back and laugh, looking so genuinely happy for once, crow “No moron, South Korean,” and “got it translated once: Truly, a bow in the hands of a master is beautiful beyond words!” Watches the others applaud, pretend to swoon, clap Jess on the shoulders. Watches her team – her friends, her family – revel and celebrate and she –
Grace’s voice cuts through the fog, cuts through the laughter, and suddenly she blinks and everyone’s staring at her like… like…
“Robby? Wha-” Nick’s smile is gone as he takes a stuttered half step towards her. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
She stares at her family, dizzily, and even though she knows they’re within feet of her her mind keeps telling her they’re miles away, fading into distance and fog. She thinks she’s about to be sick and… and…
She has to tell them.
The thought hits her like a bullet – a sharp shock of cold that spreads into confused numbness before tearing through her in a sudden rush of heat and pain.
She has to tell them, because if she doesn’t then – sooner or later – they’re going to find out by themselves. Hell, it’s a miracle no one’s found out yet. Between the bullets and the arrows and the explosions and the damn drugged out wild animals, between running for their lives and trying to patch themselves up after, sooner or later someone’s going to see. Hell, it was just a few days ago that she and Jess had nearly gotten eaten by a pack or whatever of wolverines, and escaping had left Robin without her damn pants. All that’s needed is for her bandages to get too wet, to get snagged on something, and unravel off her left hand and wrist. All that’s needed is for a Peggy to get a lucky shot, catch her in the chest or shoulder, leaving one of the others to tear off her shirt to stop her bleeding out. All that’s needed is for her jacket, rather than her pants, to be the casualty next time, leaving a bare expanse of neck between her shirt and her plaited hair. All that’s needed is for one thing to go wrong, and they’ll all know.
Robin blinks up at her family, then – fighting for breath – staggers to her feet, reaching for the bandages on her left wrist.
She can see the confusion on most of their faces, but Addie’s gone suddenly pale and Grace raises a hand quickly.
“Robin, stop.” The older woman’s eyes are gentle the way she makes them after a bad fight, when everyone’s gotten too turned around and she’s guiding them back to reason. “You don’t have to.” She sounds so understanding as she waves a hand toward the offending wrist. “It’s none of our business.”
Robin’s heart stops again, a wave of numb despair flooding through, and some of it must show because when she meets Grace’s eyes the soldier’s next words cut off and she flinches.
Robin holds her gaze for a moment, then heaves a shuddery little breath. “Yeah…” she’s barely whispering, but her voice echoes through the room, “it kind of is.”
It’s cruel how easily the bandage tugs free.
She unwinds it, stepping slowly closer to the others, then lets it fall to the floor before shrugging off her jacket and tugging off her shirt, and suddenly she’s fifteen again, standing in the campgrounds on Kershaw’s Peak in front of her friends in nothing but her boots, pants, and bra – soulmarks on display.
Only this time nobody reads them. Nobody tracks the Words that circle around her hand and wrist, nobody even moves to look at the one she indicates on the back of her neck. This time they’re already gasping, staring, turning sickly pale the second she pulls off her shirt and bares the ‘mark on her chest.
John Seed’s handwriting is already on display all over Hope County, after all.
Robin can feel the Words crawling under her skin, burning and tearing and poisoning with new life now that they’re exposed again. She feels like she’s about to throw up, or shake apart, or crumble into ash on the spot. “I…” her voice is smaller, weaker, more hollow than it’s ever been, “I –”
Even she may never know what she was going to say, because suddenly Grace is moving, closing the distance between them, and Robin just closes her eyes and waits –
Grace’s arms close around her, pull her in, press her face into Grace’s shoulder as her voice – thundering with emotion, heartbreak and agony and righteous fury and adoration fighting desperately to come across – floods through and over and into her. “It’s not your fault. It is not your fault. You hear me?!” She pulls back just enough to guide Robin’s head up, to stare into her eyes, tears streaming down the older woman’s usually stoic face. “None of this is your fault.” And then she’s pulled Robin back again, curled around her like a suit of armor, whispering into her hair over and over and over, like she’s trying to force the Words off Robin’s skin and replace them with her own.
And it all happens in a second, and in the next Addie’s moaning out “Oh… oh sweetie…” like her heart’s breaking, and she’s crossed over and is wrapping her arms around Robin too, and across the room Jess is screaming, “Motherfuckers! Those sick motherfuckers!” and throwing a chair against the wall, stomping the pieces to splinters.
And then Nick’s curled himself into the gap between Grace and Addie, trembling and dripping tears down her shoulder as he mutters, “It’s going to be ok. I-it’s going to be ok, we’ll… we’ll fix this, we’ll…” like he’s trying to convince himself as well as her, but then Sharky’s got a death grip on both of her hands and he sounds so damn serious when he says “Of course we are. We’re going to kill those sick fuckers, and then you’re not going to have to worry about it Boss, not any of it, not ever again,” and Hurk doesn’t say a word but sort of snakes a hand through the tangle of bodies and starts stroking her hair, a little awkwardly but impossibly gentle.
They’re clustered around her, like they’re trying to physically hold her together, and when her legs finally buckle they sink down to the floor with her, like the world’s strangest pile of puppies.
Something slams into the knot of bodies, rocks them, then forces its way between Grace and Nick and suddenly Robin’s got a dog in her face, Boomer licking her and whimpering and trying to make her better. And that’s barely happened before Jess has taken advantage of the break he made, is shoving her own way in and wrapping her arms around Robin’s waist and holding on like she’s scared the deputy will disappear. And there’s a split-second where it looks like they’re all about to be bowled over, but then Cheeseburger just gives a soft, snuffly, sad bear noise and settles down to rest his giant head against her outstretched leg, and Peaches is sitting a ways out and purring furiously, like she’s daring them all to not be comforted.
Robin doesn’t cry in public. Not ever. Not when she was small, not when she’s tired and scared and hurt, not when she’s bleeding out in some Peggy-defiled hell. And Robin doesn’t cry now.
There, on the floor of some crappy pizza bar, skin bare and soul raw, surrounded by the people who have become her family, Robin breaks.
She’s sobbing, gasping, practically convulsing on the floor. She’s trembling so violently it hurts, as she cries and cries and cries like a lost, scared little girl.
And the others just hold her through it all. Whisper and snarl and weep their promises of protection and absolution and vengeance.
And something inside Robin – some little knot in her soul of raw pain and fear and disgust and guilt – finally bursts, like someone’s cut into the flesh of a festering wound, releasing a flood of rot and poison that’s been eating her alive since she was six years old.
Robin Baird is twenty-two years old, trapped in hell with no end in sight, branded with the worst soulmarks and bound to the worst soulmates she can imagine.
But she’s not alone.