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The Gospel According to Rook

Chapter Text

 

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Preface

                The figure turned its head when it heard singing in the nearby shed. It slinked through the undergrowth, curious, tilting a head shrouded by a hood and covered with a mask. It stood, peering into a crack in the old shed’s wall and watched the fit middle-aged woman rummaging through old junk. With a soft hiss of breath, the figure pushed an errant branch out of the way so she could watch from behind her wooden mask. The voice that poured out of the red-headed woman was soft, but strong, perfectly in key and confident. It was beautiful. And it was singing one of the Judge’s, no, the deputy’s favorite songs. The Judge felt an odd tug in her belly, felt emotions she had not felt in years.

                “…learn to fly. All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise,” the woman crooned softly, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these sunken eyes and learn to see; all your life you were only waiting for this moment to be free…”

                “SHE IS YOUR SHEPHERD,” the Voice whispered into the Judge’s ear. She shuddered a bit, blinking away tears at the nostalgia the song had brought, at the awe hearing the Voice speak again had poured into her. The woman in the shed stood to her full height, reaching for her sidearm.

                “Who’s out there? Who said that?”

                She could hear the Voice, the Judge realized with a shock. A small smile, the first to cross her face in months, crept over the Judge’s face, growing into a full grin. Her cheeks burned with it. After searching her surroundings, the red-headed woman, the shepherd, seemed satisfied that she was just hearing things and went back to singing and sorting through the shed.

                “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise, you were only waiting for this moment to arise…”

                Cautious, the Judge crouched down and slipped away through the undergrowth, a whisper in the grass, nothing more than a gentle breeze on a summer day.

 

Chapter 1 - In the Beginning

                Captain Corbin Monaghan ran, stringing together a litany of curses. If she knew curses in other languages, she would have used those too, but her spoken language knowledge was limited to English and a bit of Spanish, so she ran through all the curses she knew in English, then the ones in Spanish, and then repeated them, and then blended them together, hoofing it through burning train cars, grabbing ammo and weapons as she could.

                “Keep up,” she snapped at Barnes, who was panting and panicking behind her. She had been forced to listen to him whining and praying for the past half hour of their daring escape and she was sick of it. Fucking guy had never seen combat, and it showed. “Barnes, shut the fuck up and keep moving. If there’s a god listening, he’s got other shit on his mind. Move it! Hijo de puta!

                “Easy, Captain,” Rush admonished, jamming bullets into his pistol’s clip.

                “I don’t think we’re getting out of this one, Rush. This is bad. This is really bad,” she murmured, wiping sweat from her forehead with an absent flick of her hand. He nodded, puffing out a breath.

                “We’ll do the best we can. We need Hope county. We promised the people we’d get them up and running again.”

                “Yeah, and look at how that turned out. The kid that came looking for our help is probably dead and we’re going nowhere now,” Monaghan said, gesturing at the destroyed wreckage of what was once a train all around them.

                “No where fast, any way. Keep moving.”

                The Twins, Mickey and Lou, were not what the California Company was expecting. They were vicious and had amassed a surprising number of followers, guns and sadistic supporters both in and out of this county.  After a mad dash through train wreckage and past the carnage of their now-dead group, Rush, Monaghan and Barnes were cornered, trapped at the edge of a cliff. The Twins approached, their entourage close behind them, jeering. Monaghan couldn’t keep her lip from curling when one of the brightly dressed “Highwaymen” touched her, pushed her to the ground. The California Company had known the Highwaymen group were a threat, but these two psychotic women had raised that threat to a new level.

                They had to be stopped.

                In an instant, with the wrong choice of words, Barnes was dead, face smashed in with a helmet. Monaghan did not get a chance to get angry, did not have a chance to rip her enemies limb-from-limb as she wanted to.

                “Save yourself,” Rush had urged, pushing her hard off the cliff they were cornered on, shoving her far out over the river below. As she fell, her arms and legs pedaled desperately for purchase, and she gasped, pulse rushing. Before she could right herself, her back slammed into the water and the world went black.

                Monaghan took a gasping breath, spluttering and choking up water. The kid – Carmina – had shaken her awake. They were the only two who made it out of the train wreck and away from the Highwaymen. The Twins had Rush and maybe others, if anyone else from the train had survived. More furious than sad, Monaghan fashioned a makeshift weapon in an abandoned warehouse they found before they fought their way through a small Highwayman encampment and down a half collapsed tunnel into Hope County, Montana.

                “Wow,” Monaghan exclaimed as she pushed vines aside, struck by the beauty of the valley below her, understanding now why Rush thought it was a good place to establish a permanent base of operations for the California Company. In the seventeen years since the bombs went off, life and species had shifted, some destroyed, others irreparably changed. The valley was comparatively lush and colorful. Bright pink and yellow flowers smattered the hillsides below. Tall green grass, sedges and brush filled the landscape.

                “We’re almost home,” Carmina told her, almost reverently. They made their way down the hill to an oxbow in the Henbane River. They forded it, having to swim most of the way across. Monaghan shivered as the late afternoon air flickered across her flack jacket and soaked jeans. The chaffing of her wet clothing was infuriating and by the time they reached Prosperity, Monaghan was in one of the worst moods she had ever been in. They reached and entered the gates of Prosperity, and Monaghan had to admit, she was impressed with the wall surrounding it and the facilities inside of it. Introduced to an overwhelming number of people, she tried to remember all their names, tried not to snap at them when they asked her too many questions. She tried to ignore that her friends had been killed or taken and she had just been dropped into a nest of baby birds, mouths open and gaping for help when all she wanted to do was curl up and cry, or maybe punch something.

                Even after Carmina pulled her away and let her change clothes, she was bombarded by new people, new questions. None of them seem to understand that she just lost all of her friends, that she was overwhelmed and just needed a night to recuperate. She finally ran a hand over her face, exhausted, and interrupted her newest visitor.

                “Look, Roger, is it? I’m really thrilled you’re willing to help with operations, and it’s phenomenal that you have access to a helicopter, but I’ve gotta get some rest. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’ve gotta go to the bathroom. Please just…”

                “Pas de souci, Capitan. I will find you later.”

                “Thanks, Roger,” Monaghan said with visible relief.

                Inside, she found Kim Rye, a tiny, but formidable Asian woman, and Carmina’s mother. She was the one who had greeted them when they arrived in Prosperity from across the river, and it was clear that she was the one in charge here.

                “I know you’re tired. You need rest. You’ve got circles under your eyes the color of eggplant. But there’s a lot to do. We need to get started as soon as possible.” Her voice was insistent, but not nagging. She put a gentle hand on Monaghan’s shoulder and squeezed. “There’s a cot in the great room with your name on it. Get some rest, then we can discuss what we need to do from here.” Monaghan nodded, stripping off her flak jacket and hanging it on the coat hanger next to the main doors of the lodge. She pulled the band off the end of the orangey-red braid that reached to the middle of her back and brushed long, freckled fingers through it until it fell like a curtain around her face and settled over her tightly muscled shoulders, which were so dusted with freckles they looked stained with brown ink.

                With a mighty yawn, the captain stretched and then strode to the indicated cot. It was only about six feet long, but that was plenty of space for her petite form to fit without her head or feet spilling over the ends.

                Monaghan laid back on the thin cot, folding her hands over her stomach and closing cornflower blue eyes ringed with steel gray. She was asleep almost as soon as she had tangled her fingers together. She dreamt of Rush, and of falling.

 

Chapter Text

                “Let’s go, kid, let’s go!” Monaghan had wasted enough time already. She had recovered Grace Armstrong, some kid named Bean, helped her new friend Hurk save his girlfriend Gina from a nightmare derby race that had nearly gotten them all killed. If she was being totally honest with herself, she had saved these people, not just for the sake of their rescue, but to capture Highwaymen. Monaghan took Highwaymen prisoners as she rescued Hope county residents. Once she had a Highwayman in her custody, she restrained them, asked them what they knew, then gave them a quick death if they cooperated, a slow one if they did not. She left behind a trail of corpses and tried not to think about what that made her in comparison to her enemies. She never allowed Carmina or any of her other guns for hire to be present when she interrogated her prisoners.

                She did not need to be judged.

                Finally, after capturing and questioning several Highwaymen, she got the information she needed. She was not an unreasonable person, but it was her best friend they were trying to save; the Highwaymen meant nothing to her. They chose the wrong side. Monaghan now knew where Rush was, and had the resources to extract him. It was time to go. She repeated her demand, pulling herself out of her reverie about how she got the information.

                “I said let’s go, kid, thirty seconds and you’re getting left behind! Let’s move!”

                “Coming, Jesus,” Carmina griped.

                “I prefer ‘Cap’ or ‘Monaghan,’ but if you insist.”

                “Ugh,” Carmina rolled her eyes at the joke and started the shitty coup from the garage.

                The teenager drove them madly toward the coal mines where Rush was being held.

                “I’m surprised this old thing is still running,” Carmina observed by way of conversation, clearly on edge, knowing how important their mission was. She hit a sand pit, the car flailing wildly but some how making it out without losing traction. Monaghan grabbed the handle above the glove compartment door and felt her teeth clatter together.

                “So am I the way you drive it! Take it easy kid, we wanna get there soon, not never.” Monaghan made her stop a fourth mile away and they hoofed it, feet sinking into the sandy soil. Carmina chattered, nervous until Monaghan gave her a look that silenced her instantly. The kid was well-trained, handy with a gun and was level-headed when the actual danger started, but could be a chatterbox outside of combat. Monaghan had asked her about her experience with guns on the train and realized that she probably had a kindred spirit in Grace Armstrong, who had taught Carmina the same thing Monaghan herself had been trained regarding trigger safety – “Keep your booger hook off the kill switch until you’re ready to bring the heat.” Having seen her abilities practicing in Prosperity, and helping her rescue captured “Scavengers” as the people of Prosperity call themselves, Monaghan was confident the kid could handle herself. Bringing herself back to the moment, she pointed, handing Carmina a smoke bomb.

                “You take out those five. I’m going down to the main office building. It’s as good a place as any to start looking for Rush. Meet me on the conveyer belt in twenty. If I don’t come back in thirty minutes, you leave without me, understand? Carmina?” The girl’s eyes snapped to hers. “Do you understand?”

                “Yeah,” Carmina breathed. “I got it.” Monaghan made her way down, sinking silenced rifle rounds into Highwaymen as she went. She found a door, jimmied it, strangled a Highwayman just inside. Sliding down a ladder into the mine proper, she cleared enemies silently, ruthlessly.

                “You’re supposed to be smart. That’s why you’re still alive. So get this fucking mine up and running, I know you know how,” Monaghan heard an angry voice grind out.

                “Get fucked,” came the voice of her best friend, and she breathed a sigh of relief, checked her gun and snuck closer.

                “Maybe losing a kneecap will change your mind.” Monaghan clenched her teeth, speeding up her crouched pace, moving as quickly as she could without being detected. She heard Rush scream in agony and felt red-lined anger flare through her. “Do what we want and you can keep your other knee,” the voice of the Highwayman snarled.

                “Motherfucker! Aaah!” Rush cried out again in pain and Monaghan nearly sprinted up the ladder that lead her to where she could hear the voices. As she pulled herself up, she could see a figure beating another to death with a crowbar. The figure whirled, stumbling slightly. It was Rush. “Oh my God…Jesus, I thought you were dead. I should had known you’d come through. You came back for me. You crazy son-of-a-bitch, you came back for me!”

                “Well, of course I did, you fucking idiot. Someone had to be the knight in shining armor rescuing her damsel in distress.”

                “Keep it up, Corbin,” Rush growled and she chuckled as she cut the zip ties off his arms. The sound of vehicles and loud music filtered in through the walls. “We need to go. Now,” Rush urged. He rushed to a tri-wheeled motorcycle with a turret trailer attached. “Let’s get going. Man the turret and I’ll get us out of here.” The motorcycle roared to life and Monaghan checked the bullet box. She radioed Carmina to sneak out of there and her and Rush blasted out of the mine’s makeshift garage, shooting wildly at approaching Highwaymen. Rush jumped the bike over a boulder and they landed, bones rattling. Monaghan heard him cry out, winced, but kept shooting at their pursuers.

                “You never did learn to drive, huh, Rush?” she hollered over the din as the trailer fishtailed.

                “Shut up and shoot, Cap. On our left!” Monaghan focused, put a bullet through the eye socket of a Highwayman bearing down on them in a pink and purple spray-painted Jeep. She never would understand the Highwaymen’s love of painting everything they took over obnoxious fluorescent colors. “We gotta lose ‘em. I’m taking us off road,” Rush warned as they judder down onto a dirt path and then sprayed water out from their wheels, hydroplaning a bit as he forded a small creek. Once they lost the Highwaymen tails, Rush moaned in pain, pulling over abruptly, Monaghan slammed into the frame of the gun turret. “My leg’s too fucked up to drive anymore. You know where we’re going. You’ll have to drive us the rest of the way.” They trade spaces, Rush standing in the gun turret on one leg and Monaghan took it easy, trying as best she could to avoid potholes and debris, but she could still hear Rush hissing air in through his teeth with every bump on the road.

                “Hang in there, Tom! We’re almost to Prosperity. Maybe another fifteen minutes if we’re lucky and we don’t encounter any more Highwaymen.”

                “Just drive,” he gasped. After a few moments, he spoke again, voice not quite as strained. “Didn’t think I’d get out of there alive. Thanks for risking your neck for me, Cap.”

                “You did the same thing for me overseas. It was only fair. Besides, I’m too lazy to want to lead the operations here. That’s your cup of tea. I just get pointed in the right direction and start shooting, you know that.”

                “You’re not going to believe what I saw. One night the mine was attacked by people who looked like they were out of the stone age. They were fighting against shotguns using only bows and arrows. They took shots and kept on coming. Listen, I don’t believe in wizards, or magic, but I know what I saw. Those people had something, something that I can’t explain. If we can find out what their secret was, maybe we’d have a chance against the Twins.”

                “Getting superstitious in your old age, Rush?”

                “You’re only three years younger than me, Cor,” he reminded her with a little annoyed huff. “But seriously, you didn’t see these people. One of them was wearing this mask, scared the shit out of me. They almost got to me, almost got me out of there, but there were still too many Highwaymen for these two. It’s why those fuckers locked me down in that building, though, probably scared of another attack. This masked maniac took a shot to the leg and shook it off like a mosquito bite, hissed like a wildcat when they got hit, though. It was fucking crazy.” Monaghan heard him gasp in pain again as she hit a small divot in the sandy road. At last, the walls of Prosperity appeared and Monaghan slid the bike to a stop. Rush hissed in pain again. “I’m fuckin’ exhausted, I gotta catch my breath,” he told her as he started to climb off.

                “I’ve got you. Hang on.” Monaghan helped him down off the turret, carrying the brunt of his weight. He banged his knee hard against the railing and she could see tears of pain gather in his eyes before he collected himself. “Well, goddamn, Tom, you cried more when we got our tattoos together.”

                “Ugh,” he groaned with pain and leaned against her appreciatively, “You got yours on your back and shoulder. Come talk to me when you get one across your neck,” he hissed, clearly in agonizing pain, however much he was trying to act tough.

                “Open the gates!” Monaghan called and someone inside complied. Whimpering a little, Tom set himself against her, grateful for her help. She had his arm across her shoulders, her arm around his waist, and the other in front of his belly, steadying him as they limped into Prosperity. He groaned with every jolt of movement, his leg hanging numbly, both the knee and pelvic joints made awful crunching and crackling noises as his leg swung. She noticed blood dripping from the bottom of his pantleg to the sandy ground and looked over at him in concern. He shook his head and half shrugged.

                “Mom!” Carmina called, having just barely beat them back to Prosperity, she saw them limping in. “Oh, slow down, slow down,” she urged them when Tom let out a rasping cry of pain that struck right through Monaghan’s heart. “Jesus, Rush. They really did a number on you.”

                “It’s nothing,” Rush insisted with a tight smile. “Day or two and I’ll be fine,” he assured her but Monaghan could smell the bullshit coming off his words.

                “Did I hear right?” Kim asked, stepping out of the lodge’s front door. “You Thomas Rush?” she asked, face looking awed. Monaghan rolled her eyes. She had not gotten looks of awe upon her initial arrival. Typical Tom.

                “You must be Mrs. Rye. Carmina’s told me a lot about you. Your daughter’s as tough as they come,” he told her.

                “Preachin’ to the choir,” Kim assured him, darting Carmina a small, proud glance. Tom half-collapsed at the knees, his face pallid and sweating. Monaghan grabbed him, kept him from falling, as did Kim. “Carmina, get the alcohol.”

                “Got it,” Carmina said, and she was off immediately, trotting into the Lodge at her mother’s order.

                “Let’s have a look at that wound,” Kim said, helping Monaghan move Tom to where he could sit. “Careful,” she warned him as they propped him up on the planter outside the lodge’s big front doors.

                “You’re gonna have to jig this socket,” Tom said, hissing air through his teeth as the leg bumped the ground a bit.

                “You all that’s left?” Kim asked with a glance at both Tom and Monaghan.

                “Yeah,” Tom said, meeting Monaghan’s eye for a moment. Monaghan clenched her jaw hard. She hadn’t known for sure. Now she did.

                “I’m sorry,” Kim responded softly. “I can’t imagine how you feel.” Carmina stepped out, holding a nearly full bottle of whiskey and offering it to Kim, who took it from her.

                “Responsible,” Tom answered, glancing again at Monaghan, his face serious and etched with grief. Kim handed him the whiskey bottle and he took it gratefully without pause.

                “The Twins have a way of making you feel hopeless. You can see why we need your help.” He took three solid swallows of whiskey, sucking in air and coughing lightly.

                “Don’t know how much use I’ll be to you anymore,” he answered, sounding defeated. Monaghan reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He briefly covered it with his own before putting his hand back on his thigh, hissing again in pain.

                “We can still do this, Rush,” Carmina insisted, her tone hopeful. “Build this place up and make it strong, just like we talked about.”

                “It’s not that easy,” he objected. “We had specialists, experts.”

                “But you must have started small,” Kim suggested, handing the whiskey bottle to Monaghan after using some to gently clean the deep cut visible through the hole in his pants. It looked like it needed stitches. “This is no different. You’ve done it before. Show us how.” He looked solemnly at Kim, and then Carmina before looking resolutely at Monaghan, who nodded.

                “We’re gonna need more people, and they gotta be willing to learn. Learn fast.”

                “We will,” Kim insisted. “Okay. Now. That socket…you ready?” she asked, glancing at Monaghan, who knew she would have to help.

                “Yeah,” Tom said, clenching his jaw. Monaghan handed him the whiskey again. Carmina grabbed his shoulders, Kim pressed her fingers into his hip and Monaghan grabbed his leg, feeling nausea at hurting her best friend rising. He took a couple of deep, steadying breaths, puffing them out hard. Monaghan could feel his pulse in his thigh where she was holding his leg. He took another long draw at the whiskey, slamming the bottle down and meeting Monaghan’s gaze with a little nod. “Go!” Monaghan lifted his leg up, to the side and yanked down, bile rising at the crunching and popping noises of joints snapping back into place painfully. Tom screamed, honest-to-God screamed in pain and it was like taking an arrow to the heart listening to it. He stood abruptly when they finished, limping away with his fists clenched hard at his sides. All three of them dashed after him, concerned. He experimentally lifted and lowered his leg, bent his knee and then forced himself to again put his weight on the leg. Stubborn bastard, Monaghan thought. He turned to her, his face red with effort. “Alright then,” he ground out. “Let’s get started.” He turned dramatically, limping away, this time with purpose.

                “Woah, woah, stop. Hey, how about some rest first?” Carmina insisted before Monaghan could.

                “Hmm, good idea,” he admitted, looking a little faint as he turned back to them, his cheeks mottled red and white.

                 Monaghan fends off the curious crowd that gathered around Rush much as they had when she had arrived with Carmina just two weeks before. The room Rush’s bed was in had been set aside for the two of them. Tucked into the small upstairs room was a bed and a cot, the same cot Monaghan had been sleeping on in the main room. Apparently now that Rush was here, she was important enough to get some privacy along with him, she thought with another eye roll.

                “They appear to be pinched for space,” she joked as they walked into the room, Rush dropping onto the bed with a grateful sigh.

                “It’s not a bad place they have set up here,” Tom admitted, “but it’s gonna be a lot of work. You’re going to have to be my field man. I was trying to put on a brave front out there, but my leg is fucked.” He stood suddenly and dropped his trousers. Monaghan raised her eyebrows and smirked.

                “Thought you said you didn’t want to ruin our friendship,” Monaghan teased him lightly, but she stepped forward to see the massive cuts along Tom’s inner thigh, the other above his knee, another along the outside of his calf. Blood oozed around each wound, and the skin next to them was red and hot to the touch.

                “Thought we agreed not to joke about that, Cor,” he said softly, taking her hand where it was resting on his bare thigh. She looked up to him, swallowing.

                “I was never joking about what I wanted to do with you, Tom. You’re the one who’s looking for more than I can give you.” He said nothing and Monaghan pulled away, tugging her first aid kit out of her pack, taking a steadying breath. There was tense silence for a moment before Monaghan broke it. “Here, I grabbed this. I figured you’d need it.” She handed him a pilfered bottle of whiskey and he accepted it, his fingers lingering over hers. She met his eyes and then looked away again. After readying a sanitized needle with thread, Monaghan held it carefully with a small pair of hemostats. Tom sat on the edge of the bed and shifted his leg to the side so that she could access the cuts. His broad hand rested on her shoulder as she worked, digging in painfully as she threw the stitches, pulling flesh together after washing it. He was breathing heavily, grunting with every poke of the needle.

                “Thought I was gonna cry when you all helped me get my leg back in its socket,” he admitted finally, and she could hear his teeth gritting together. “This is almost worse.”

                “Eh, you cried more when you hit that raccoon driving down the Dallas-California Interstate going through Deschutes four months ago,” she teased him, focusing on her work, not looking up at him. His hand on her shoulder softened, running down her arm and she heard the bottle, considerably lighter, hit the nightstand next to where he’s sitting on the mattress. She finished the last stitch on the last cut, covered it with gauze as she had done with the others before she looked up. His eyes were focused, sober, regardless of the whiskey he had drunk. He always could hold his own in drinking games, she thought.

                “I didn’t think we were gonna get out of that mess with the train, Cor,” he admitted softly, sounding haunted.

                “Neither did I.” They stared at each other for a moment and he pulled her up, pulled her closer to his face. She was cautious, but did not resist him. She has been down this road, was gently, but firmly rejected, him using some excuse or another, usually that he was not over his wife, or that he wanted a relationship, not a one-night stand. He leaned forward, kissed her gently. “Your wife–” Monaghan objected.

                “Has been dead for ten years now,” he cut her off. “When I thought I had lost you, when I thought one or both of us was dead…Corbin, you’re my best friend. I know you were only ever looking for a warm body, a night of fun, and I know I said ‘no’ more than once, but, I really need you now. I’m scared, Cor, more scared than I’ve ever been in my life. I need you.” His soft, gravelly voice was intense, serious.

                “Tom, you know I only ever wanted a roll in the hay,” Monaghan told him carefully, her brows drawing together. “I’m not gonna fall in love with you.”

                “I don’t want you to,” he told her a little too forcefully. “I just want you here. With me. One night, and I swear I’ll never ask again,” he whispered, dragging the back of his knuckles down her cheek gently, over the stark white scar that left a stuttered gap in her right eyebrow and continued to just above the bridge of her nose, cutting a bright swath through tanned skin. Monaghan surveyed him for a long, tense moment, biting her bottom lip as she decided.

                “One night,” she agreed, and pulled her tank top over her head before starting to unwrap the cloth that she wrapped around her chest in lieu of a bra. His eyes ran over her muscular body, covered in just the right amount of flesh to make her curvy. At forty, she was still firm and lithe. She brushed a strand of orangey-red hair behind her ear and stepped forward, sliding her tac pants off as she did so. She took the whiskey bottle and polished off the remnants with a hiss and a sigh as it burnt its way down her throat. She climbed onto the bed, climbed onto Rush and she met his eyes, felt a little flutter in her stomach at the admiration she saw there. She knew she could never give him what he wanted, simply didn’t feel that way about him. But…he said he needed her. She could provide him comfort, at least. Familiarity. Rush stripped off his jacket and shirt, reaching out a hand to pull her to the bed once he had done so.

                “Rush…Tom…are you sure?” In answer, he threaded his hand behind her head, bringing her face close so he could kiss her, pressing their lips together and teasing with his tongue. Monaghan stopped resisting, stopped thinking of all the reasons they had both avoided doing this and let herself exist in this moment of pleasure. Rush pulled her onto his lap and she wrapped her legs around his waist, putting a hand on his cheek, tangling her other in his short hair and tugging a bit as she pressed him backwards, made him lie on his back. He grabbed her thighs and pulled her up until she was perched over his face. He kissed the sensitive skin where her leg met her torso and she shuddered as he pulled her down to meet his lips.

                Moaning, she ground her hips over him, gasping as he touched the delicate, sensitive parts of her until she trembled and then tightened, pleasure flooding her in waves. Enthusiastic, she dropped down, met his hips with a little gasp as he filled her. He shifted his hips carefully, wincing a bit as his leg moved. She ran her hand down his chest, twirling the light dusting of hair there gently as she smiled down at him.

                “Don’t worry. I’ll do the work,” she purred as she started a lazy up and down tilt of her hips. Rush relaxed beneath her, putting a hand on each side of her hips and dipping his fingers into the soft flesh there. They moved together, two best friends seeking comfort and validation of life in one another’s arms. He moved beneath her with a groan, palming his hands over her chest, stroking her slowly as she rocked atop him, sighing his name as she clenched around him.

                They spend the night tangled in the sheets, sharing mixed ecstasy, and warmth, and laughter and touch into the late hours until finally they fell asleep, Tom’s arm lying comfortably over her back, his fingers just touching her backside.

                Monaghan woke up first in the morning, dressed, took her pack and left, wanting to let Tom sleep as long as possible…and not wanting him to awaken with her still lying next to him. It would have made things too complicated.

                Tom made his way downstairs an hour or so later, limping painfully, using the banister heavily for assistance. He met her eyes for a moment, then looked away. She had suspected before, but did not know for sure until last night when he had mouthed “I love you” and thought she had not seen it. She knew now. She reddened and muttered, “fuck,” under her breath. Pushing away the thought that her best friend was in love with her and that she had now escalated the situation, she watched him move into the kitchen where Kim handed him a plate full of eggs and potatoes. He clearly felt better this morning, and he greeted his new people as they trickled in for breakfast themselves.

                Monaghan stuck to the background, arms crossed over her chest, smiling mildly as she watched him shaking hands and patting shoulders. This was him in his element – making friends, forming connections; it was something Rush had always excelled at. He was handsome, charismatic and knowledgeable and he knew it. Monaghan watched with amusement as he fist bumped Bean, shook Grace Armstrong’s hand, cupping her shoulder and looking her in the eyes, a thing most people did not do, finding her whitened, mostly blind eyes unsettling. He was no-nonsense with Kim, vowing to her that they would get her husband back for her. Once the excitement over Rush had settled out, it was late in the afternoon. Monaghan approached, handing him a beer.

                “How’re you holding up, chief?” she asked, eyeing him up and down appreciatively for a moment. He gave her a brief, stern look, but then shrugged, taking a swig of his drink.

                “I’ve been better, Cap.”

                “Seriously, you okay?” He smiled at her a little wistfully, scratching at the back of his head.

                “I will be.” Rush’s face went through a series of expression changes. He looked like he was about to say something else, but then he settled for telling her, “With the right people and the right plan, we could have something special here. Whenever I built up settlements back west, I always made sure to bring the right people together to do the job. Because it’s specialists that will take all of this to the next level. Without them, we can’t move forward. I’m counting on you to help me with this. I need you out there fighting the good fight, Cap.”

Chapter Text

                It was hard work, there was absolutely no question. Monaghan explored throughout Hope county, pushing a wider and wider radius of safety nearby Prosperity as she did so. She stationed guards and scouts on Rush’s advice. With her newly acquired friends and guns for hire, she destroyed and killed Highwaymen property and people. She added to Prosperity’s defenses, helping build up the weapon and explosives labs with help from various Scavengers. Things were going well. Too well.

                Rush was all business with Monaghan after their night together, true to his word. They shared beers together in the evening and strategized during the day. She made arrangements to have him moved to a downstairs room so he did not have to trudge up and down stairs with his leg injured. She moved her cot to a corner nook whenever she was in Prosperity for the night, otherwise she camped, an activity she had always loved as a child. It was not quite so hazardous when she did it when she was younger, but the thrill of danger almost made it more appealing. Occasionally she saw the mysterious “New Eden” cult members scurrying around at night, harrying Highwaymen and picking them off from the shadows.

                The captain nearly stumbled over one of them one night while going to take a leak. The figure hissed, and vanished into the night, leaving Monaghan feeling thoroughly creeped out. Rush was right, there was something different about these people, but she was not sure yet if it was good-different or bad-different. Regardless, she appreciated any assistance dealing with Highwaymen.

                A week or so later, Monaghan encountered the figure again, and started to suspect that they were following her, felt an eerie judgmental gaze coming from behind the bleached wood mask they wear. It happened when she was sitting at her fire for the evening, drinking a beer. Carmina was sitting across from her, reading a tattered old paperback novel. The kid enjoyed coming out with Monaghan, and since she was pretty good with a gun, Monaghan let her tag along. They were not far from Prosperity, but Monaghan had wanted a break from the noise, had wanted to rough it, enjoying the outdoors, the sounds, the scents of wild country that had been reclaimed by nature in man’s absence.

                A poorwill sang nearby. The trill of a screech owl answered from somewhere behind them. They were camped just off the road, about a fourth of a mile from Prosperity’s wall. Wind flicked through the trees where insects and frogs were singing and Monaghan was just starting to get drowsy when a hush fell over the forest near them, replaced by footfalls.

                They heard a harsh, guttural hiss and both sat up, reaching for weapons.

                “No, please, god no!” There was a whiz and a thunk and then a body collapsing nearby. Gun shots.

                “Shit,” Monaghan muttered, knife in her hand. “Stay quiet, kid. Get ready.” Monaghan heard heavy boot steps tearing through the forest, heard panicked breathing. A different voice than the one they had heard screaming before sounds out close by.

                “I’m gonna find you, thudfuck. I’ll kill you when I get my hands on you, you fucking ghost. Oh god, oh Christ. Martin! Martin, where the fuck are you? Shit.” More running, and it was getting closer. The Highwayman tore out of the forest into their clearing, his ski mask cracked, blood running down his neck from one ear. He looked terrified. Monaghan raised her knife to end him, but before she could, the tip of an arrow sprouted out of his cheek like a flower growing abruptly from soft pink soil. He flopped forward on his face with a final grunt. Monaghan tensed, ready to kill the next person to step into the clearing.

                That bleached wood mask appeared out of the darkness like a beacon. The figure was breathing hard, and it was the first time Monaghan had an opportunity to really look at them. They were about her height, maybe a little shorter. Wearing handmade cloth pants and jacket, completed with a short bearskin cloak, their hood obscured any part of their face that was not covered by the mask. Beneath the chin of the mask, Monaghan could see they were wearing a soft balaclava to cover their skin. In one gloved hand, they were holding a wooden bow, the same weapon Monaghan had seen in other New Eden scouting party’s hands, simple, but effective. The figure was breathing roughly, one hand on a tree trunk to steady themselves. Their breathing was really, really loud, Monaghan thought, a grinding hiss like someone with asthma.

                “You okay there?” Monaghan asked the anonymous cult member cautiously. The figure did not answer, but stepped forward. Monaghan adjusted her knife in her hand, prepared for an attack. The mask turned eerily toward her when she did so and she heard what sounded like a scoff from behind it. The cultist reached for their arrow, drug it backwards through the Highwayman’s skull with a graphic crunching sound, turned, and vanished back into the forest.

                “They weren’t here to hurt us,” Carmina muttered, picking her book back up after Monaghan dragged the body away from their camp so they do not have to smell it. “My parents say the cult was bad, really bad before the bombs, but, the ones who are still alive have only ever tried to help.”

                “I don’t know,” Monaghan countered, “Your mom has told me some tales about them that made my blood run cold. I’m just glad they seem to be more or less on our side now. Evidently that wasn’t the case seventeen years ago.” Carmina nodded, and closed her book, looking chagrined.

                “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’m going to go home.” Monaghan smirked.

                “Got a little creeped out?”

                “No,” Carmina said, but her tone said otherwise. “Just…would rather sleep on a cot than the ground.” Monaghan chuckled.

                “Be careful, kid. Radio me when you’re inside the gates.” Carmina grabbed her things, bade Monaghan good night, and was gone.

                Monaghan looked back in the direction the masked figure went and felt a shiver run down her spine and again, cannot tell if it was good or bad.

--

                Driving a stolen tank of ethanol was not an enjoyable task, but Prosperity needed the fuel to use anything with an engine. Monaghan cursed when she heard her pursuers, terrified that one of them was going to hit the tank in the right spot and blow it and her, and probably them too, to kingdom come. At least, she reasoned, none of this would be her problem anymore if that happened. She backtracked up a small road heading away from Prosperity, firing wildly at her chasers. The last thing she needed was them following her to the gates and blowing the thing up at Prosperity’s wall. She squeezed off a few more shots from her handgun, aiming as well as she could while keeping the tanker steady on the road. One of the Highwaymen fell from the four-wheeler and the other grabbed the handles, trying desperately to get control of the careening vehicle before it crashed.

                “Enjoy!” Monaghan hollered, tossing a Molotov behind her and praying to a god she didn’t believe in that it would not catch any of the ethanol leaking from the tank as it flipped end over end toward the Highwayman. It alighted the four-wheeler and its rider and she sighed in relief, turning onto a small backroad that would take her toward Prosperity. She was careful driving back with her pilfered tanker truck, avoiding bumps in the road as much as possible, nervous at every pothole and every tree limb that leaned out across the road, skittering against the side of the tank with a shrill squeal. When she finally pulled up to the gates, she handed the keys to Greg, the man Rush had put in charge of fuel storage. Stepping inside the fortressed area, she dried sweat off her brow and accepted the cup of water Carmina handed her gratefully. Kim was dragging a wooden table out into the center of the grass in front of the lodge with some assistance from another Scavenger Monaghan did not know. Children were playing rambunctiously in the courtyard.

                “Go outside to play, you’re going to knock something over,” an adult snapped, and the kids tore away toward the gates, yelling and squealing with delight, one of them nearly bowling Monaghan over. She chuckled, ruffling the hair of one of them as he scurried past. Monaghan’s stomach rumbled when she smelled whatever food was cooking. Kim called to Monaghan, friendly and genuinely glad to see her.

                “Hey! Come on over, we’re just getting started,” she told her. Monaghan followed her over to a grill where Rush was cooking. “Get it while it’s hot. Stuff that smells this good won’t last long.” She was not wrong, already there was a line of people with plates waiting eagerly to grab food.

                “I will take that as a compliment,” Rush said, all his weight on his good leg. He glanced at Monaghan and smiled warmly.

                “Mom thought it’d be a good idea to have a little dinner for everyone. Boost the morale,” Carmina explained. “I’d say it’s working,” she said with a wide smile. Monaghan’s chest warmed. Carmina’s a good kid. Terrible driver. Good kid.

                “We all need a little down time,” Kim explained, piling up a plate for Monaghan.

                “Except for her,” Tom said proudly, “She’s got no quit.”

                “Don’t expect that to change,” Kim laughed, handing Monaghan the plate complete with grilled trout, carrots and peas. “I can’t remember the last time I hosted this many people,” Kim said, eyes going distant. “Might’ve been when I told the whole town I was pregnant with you,” she mused, turning back to her daughter, who blushed.

                “Mooom,” she complained, but she was smiling brightly, embarrassment aside.

                “They were all so happy for your dad and I,” Kim said, voice saddening as she thought of her missing husband.

                “It’s not perfect and there’s still work to do,” Rush interrupted timefully to prevent Kim from dwelling too much on her sadness, “but it sure is nice to have something to be happy about again,” he reminded them, looking around at the recently strengthened fortress that was Prosperity.

                “I’ll drink to that,” Kim answered, smiling again. “Wouldn’t have any of this if it were not for you,” she told Monaghan. She saw Rush behind Kim looking at her with pride and affection. “Come on, go grab a drink,” Kim insisted. “It’s long overdue.” Monaghan appreciatively reached for a bottle of homebrew beer, cracking it open and taking a deep gulp just in time to hear fireworks go off.

                “What the hell?” Rush snapped, rushing forward to stand next to Monaghan who watched the fireworks pop into pink and blue streaks of fiery light. “Shit. It’s them,” he said, turning to her. She nodded and set the beer down regretfully.

                “We need to get the kids inside,” Kim warned.

                “C’mon,” Carmina said, rushing to the gates. Monaghan followed her, slinging her rifle from her shoulder into her hands, just in case. Once outside, Monaghan saw a group of Highwaymen in their colorful bandanas and knee pads, black and white football padding as makeshift armor. They were shooting fireworks over and over, making constant popping and whistling noises. Her stomach dropped when she saw the Twins, Mickey and Lou. It dropped even further when she saw their guards surrounding a little flock of frightened-looking children.

                “Oh no,” Carmina whispered. She and Monaghan raised their guns at the Highwaymen preventing the children from leaving.

                “Better put those down,” said Lou, tossing a grenade up and down from where she sat on a chair bolted in the bed of a pickup truck. Mickey stood up and scuffed her bright pink motorcycle boots on the tailgate of the truck they’re sitting on.

                “You don’t want to scare the kids,” she reasoned, hopping down from the back of the truck.

                “Carmina,” one of the kids cried, trying to step forward, prevented by both Mickey and her goons.

                “Everything’s going to be okay,” Carmina assured them, but her voice was trembling. Mickey chuckled and backhanded her. Furious, Monaghan stepped forward, but a gun aimed at her head by one of the nearby goons stopped her.

                “I’m sorry,” Mickey said meeting Monaghan’s eyes aggressively. “I just don’t like it when people lie to little kids.” She turned to stare down Carmina now and Monaghan surveyed the situation, heart pounding, pulse rushing wildly.

                “Why are you doing this?” Carmina asked, leaning forward, getting in Mickey’s face and Monaghan’s heart skipped a beat.

                “Because of your hero here,” Mickey informed her, scoffing at Monaghan, who felt her lip curling in hatred and disgust for this despicable woman. “Until you showed up everything was running smoothly. But you?” She pointed at Monaghan with both gloved hands, “You’ve become a fucking problem. Taking from us, throwing everything out of balance.” Lou hopped down from the truck behind her sister, still playing with that grenade.

                “I think we should just kill ‘em,” Lou snapped, yanking the pin from her grenade.

                “No,” Mickey objected casually, turning to her sister. “Hold on. We don’t want any martyrs here.” She turned back to Monaghan, frowning. “What we want is to made sure everyone understands that your help is a curse. Every person you help, every child you inspire?” she chuckled, jerking a thumb at the frightened group of kids. “Every settlement you build, we will take from you,” she informed the gathered group of Scavengers who were watching from atop Prosperity’s wall, jabbing her index finger into Carmina’s chest as though to physically drive her point home. “And when you’ve got nothin’…” She jerked her head to Monaghan, “we’ll come for you.” Lou grabbed a child’s hand, forces it around the grenade and its safety lever. With a chill and a spear of anger, Monaghan recognized him as the child who had bumped into her on his way to go play. Seeing his terrified eyes, she knew his innocence was lost that day.

                “Don’t drop it,” Lou advised as the child whimpered with fear, clutching the grenade tight to his chest and Monaghan felt rage flare through her, felt the desire to grab them both by their greasy bleached-blonde braids and bash their heads together, but she was outmanned and outgunned and she knew it, instinctively, feeling like a lion walled in by a pack of hyenas.

                “The only currency in this world is power,” Mickey concluded, grinning at her sister and taking the grenade pin from her. “You – you made us look weak. That ends now!” she screamed, getting so close to Monaghan’s face she could smell and feel her hot breath. “We are going to take everything that you hold dear. Starting with your home.”

                “And if we can’t take it, we’ll break it,” Lou interrupted her sister, who rolled her eyes before regaining her composure and nodding.

                “Don’t be here when we come back,” Mickey recommended, her voice low. She tossed Monaghan the grenade pin. The captain snatched it in her palm so tight she felt the metal slice into her skin, felt sticky blood there as she watched them all pile into their vehicles to leave.

                “Come here, come here,” Carmina ordered and the children rush to her like a little flock. The one holding the grenade, a frightened boy with chocolate brown eyes was shaking in place, tears running down his little face in rivulets. “Oh my god, oh my god,” Carmina muttered, reaching for him. Monaghan stopped her, grabbed the child’s hands gently in her own, and slid the pin back into place, taking it from him carefully. He retreated to Carmina’s arms and she lead them inside the gates like a mother hen. Monaghan stared after the Highwaymen, heart beating so hard she could hear it in her ears, feel it in her temples. She tightened her jaw so hard her teeth ache. After a long, long moment of forcing herself to calm, she pocketed the grenade and walked inside. Carmina was explaining to her mother and to Rush what just happened. Rush said something to her, but Monaghan was locked somewhere between numbness and furious rage.

                “What?” she asked dumbly. Tom put a hand gently on her shoulder.

                “Are you okay?” Her face was pale, her hands shaking.

                “I’m fine,” she intoned flatly.

                “The Highwaymen could come back any second,” he said, urgent. “Carmina filled me in. There’s no goddamn way we’re letting the Highwaymen take what we’ve built. Now they’re going to come back with everything they got. Good. We’re going to made them regret it. We don’t have a lot of time to get into a position where we can fight back, so we’ll need to know exactly when those bastards are coming. I’ve sent a scout up ahead. They see any trouble, they’ll send a warning. That’ll give us enough time to prepare. I’d feel better if you went to check on him, Captain. Made sure they’re ready, because there’s no room for error. These walls fall, we fuckin’ fall.” Monaghan nodded, collected herself, and made her way outside of Prosperity.

--

                Monaghan barely reached the scout before loud music and gunfire were heard. The scout, Larry, swore, meeting Monaghan’s eyes.

                “Go,” he urged her, “I’ll be right behind you.” She nodded, sprinting to her four-wheeler. Unnecessary, Rush’s voice came over her headset, demanding she return.

                “I’m on my way,” she called, revving the four-wheeler, her teeth rattling when she hit a large rock with one tire. She screeched up to the front gate as the Highwaymen arrive and scrambled inside, firing her weapon wildly behind her to prevent any of them from following her in.

--

                Smoke. Flames. The coppery scent of blood. Monaghan groaned, her back in something wet and sticky.

                “You okay, Cap?” Grace asked, pulling her to her feet.

                “Getting kinda tired of people having to asked me that,” Monaghan rasped, body aching. She remembered bullets flying, remembered a Scavenger falling beside her, a bullet through his eye. She remembered rushing from gate to gate, remembered jumping over Prosperity’s wall to fend off trucks loaded with ramps. Remembered failing to stop one. Remembered the scramble to get back over the walls before the Highwaymen could destroy Prosperity from the inside. It was like being overseas again. Only a few years her senior, Grace stood over Monaghan with those milky eyes that could barely see anymore, a side effect of radiation and exposure to chemicals before the Collapse. Monaghan saw herself in those eyes, recognized the confidence and bravado of a fellow soldier checking on her brethren before assessing herself. She patted Grace’s hand, shaking herself. “I’m good, soldier. Get yourself some first aid,” she advised, seeing a wound oozing blood on Grace’s forearm.

                Monaghan waited until Grace had walked away, and then she staggered in place, groaning in pain. She tried to remember how she had ended up on the ground, tried to remember why everything hurt so badly. She looked down at the sticky puddle of blood and was relieved to see it was seeping out of a Highwayman and not a Scavenger. She took a deep, hard breath, felt the back of her head with her hand. Her palm had blood on it, but whether it was hers or the Highwaymen’s is not clear. She shook her head again, feeling nauseated. A concussion, she realized, wobbly on her feet. She looked around, tried to see who was still alive through the smoke and haze of the evening.

                “Anybody!” Monaghan heard Kim Rye cry, sounding urgent.

                “Mom!” screamed Carmina, running to her frantically. “Mom. Mom. Hey, hey. Look at me. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Kim abandoned the useless task of performing CPR on a dead person.

                “No, I’m fine,” Kim whispered, taking her daughter’s hand. “You okay?”

                “I’m fine,” Carmina answered in return, squeezing her mother’s hand gently.

                “I don’t know, just do what you can,” said Rush to one of the Scavengers as he walked up, panting, bloody and bruised.

                “How bad is it?” Kim asked, breathing hard herself now that she had stopped CPR and her adrenalin was waning.

                “We’re in big trouble. We lost a lot of people, the wounded are in bad shape. Twins come back, we can’t stop ‘em,” he blurted to Monaghan, voice worried.

                “There’s nobody left,” Kim snapped, scared, desperate.

                “What about that group in the North? ‘New Eden,’” Rush suggested, wiping blood and sweat from the tip of his nose.

                “Wait, is that a joke?” Kim demanded, rising to her feet angrily, eyes narrowing. Monaghan had heard a lot about this cult, was inclined to agree with Kim, but will go where Rush told her to. She remembered that masked figure, their efficiency. They scared the shit out of her, but their abilities…they could use that.

                “I’ve seen them in action,” Rush said. “They hit the camp I was being held at one night, just two of them. Took more bullets than was humanly possible and vanished into the forest. The Highwaymen call ‘em ghosts, but I know what I saw. Those people were doped to the fucking gills. We need what they have,” he insisted, his tone brooking no argument, but Kim offered one anyway, furious.

                “You realize you’re talking about going to Joseph Seed? A man who terrorized and brutalized our family for years.” She had told Monaghan about it. Sins carved into flesh. Flesh peeled from the body to represent the cleansing of sin. Drugs used to force people into submission. Conditioning used to turn friends into murderers. Monaghan shuddered, but kept her eyes locked on Rush’s face, waiting for orders.

                “But that was before…he’s left us in peace, Mom. Whatever happened in the past is the past,” Carmina tried to persuade. Kim’s face was drawn tight, angry.

                “Stay out of this,” she ordered, voice shaking. Rush stepped toward Monaghan, who waited, patient. She nodded, indicating her willingness to obey, to take orders as she has always done. They must do something, or they would be destroyed.

                “We need help,” Carmina maintained, stubborn in the face of her mother’s fury. “If we don’t get it, we’re all dead.” Rush walked toward a nearby fire, limping still. Kim looked up, clenched her jaw, snapped her gaze to Monaghan.

                “A deal with New Eden is a deal with the devil,” she cautioned firmly, finality in her tone. Rush whirled around and Monaghan could tell he has decided, regardless of what Kim might think.

                “It’s the only one on the table,” he snapped, his voice tight and dangerous. “Whatever they have,” he said slowly, as though to a child, “Whatever their secrets, we need it.” Kim stared at him for a long, tense moment, and then storms off wordlessly. Carmina went after her, holding up a hand to Monaghan to stop her from following. Rush stepped forward, put a hand on her shoulder, dropping his voice to just above a whisper. “Our backs are against the wall. Find out what this Joseph has. I’ll patch things up here.”

Chapter Text

                To say that Monaghan did not feel like dealing with a cult was the understatement of the century. The Highwaymen in and of themselves were a cult, though their god was violence, not any bearded, rule-making imaginary man in the sky. There were enough crazies to deal with without adding any more. But Rush seemed insistent that they had some kind of special abilities or ninja training and he wanted them found. So, Monaghan made her way north in search of the cult’s base, leaving Prosperity behind with warnings from nearly everyone not to trust them, not to work with them, advising to only contact them as a last resort.

                Well, with Rush injured and support thin, that’s exactly what help from a cult was – a last resort. She carried only a pack and her rifle and avoided Highwaymen, sneaking silently through brush and tall grass. She found a wooden cabin and rested, eating a can of beans over a firepit that was already present. Someone lived here recently. She felt a shiver run down her spine as she finished eating and found blots of blood on the dirt floor, only a week or two old. A bloody bullet was on a carved wooden tray with a pair of beaten-up forceps.

                “Hello?” she asked, uncertainty flooding her. She needed to rest, but had no desire to made an enemy by sleeping in someone’s bed. Feeling a little like a post-apocalyptic Goldilocks, she circled the cabin, looking at tracks. None were fresher than a week or so. Opting not to sleep in the makeshift bed in the cabin, Monaghan instead unrolled her bedding and slept on the ground. She awakened the next morning, drinking from the nearby spring and continued her journey. She found the remains of an old county road and followed it, panting beneath the scorching sun. Soon she encountered a break in the road where it plunged into water. Relieved, she splashed water on her face and shoulders and then sloshed through the cool water to where the road continues. A hundred yards ahead were twenty-foot tall sharpened poles forming a fence that spanned at least fifty feet in either direction and then curved gently back, clearly enclosing a large encampment. Based on the lack of pink, purple or yellow spray pant on everything, Monaghan guessed this was not a Highwayman outpost. It must be the cult. Slinging her rifle over her shoulder to appear peaceful, she closed her fist and knocked hard at the gates. A hatch in one of the huge doors opened and a masked figure surveyed her, shook its head, and slammed the hatch door in her face. She had smiled when she saw the familiar mask, but the smile dropped from her lips and morphed into an angry grimace when the hatch banged shut. A too-sweet floral scent of something akin to gardenia and vanilla wafts through her nostrils unpleasantly.

                “Well, fuck y’all too,” Monaghan muttered, annoyed. She sneezed at the lingering scent and put her hands on her hips. She was about to turn when she heard an eerie, disembodied voice behind her. She turned, and found that the voice did have a body, albeit a wavering, fog-riddled one lit from within with magenta light. “What the fuck?” Monaghan muttered.

                “Can you hear my voice?” said the voice, and with surprise, Monaghan found it did not come from the figure of a shirtless, tattooed man, but inside her head. She shook her head, feeling suddenly dulled, woozy, the edges of her vision going red and green. The figure pointed eerily and by the time she reached it, it disintegrated into pale pink light and appeared a hundred yards away in the direction it had been pointing.

                “Fuck this superstitious nonsense,” Monaghan growled. “What the fuck do you want?” she demanded. The figure did not speak, just pointed. Annoyed, she stumbled toward it and it vanished again, the voice whispering in her mind.

                “Go to where it all ended, and where it all began,” the male voice ordered softly. She followed the pointing, vanishing figure back the way she had come, panting as she jogged, and then swam as it crosses water. This time, she had to veer to the west, following the figure. As she set foot on the island the figure had brought her to, her vision blurred and she staggered. When she stumbled forward, daylight had turned to darkness, eerie magenta light emanated from the trees and Monaghan felt buzzed, drugged. Taking a gasping breath, she kept stumbling forward and the voice spoke again. “My name is Joseph Seed. I’m known to some as ‘the Father.’ Years ago, I heard the voice of God. He told me about a difficult Path ahead.” Monaghan trotted toward a beam of pink light, sidearm drawn defensively. “I followed it all the way to an ending. And a beginning.” She dashed forward, pink torches burning dimly along the path she was following.

                “Piece together the past,” Joseph Seed ordered. In a seemingly drug-induced stupor, Monaghan found the remains of a glowing doubled cross. “The sins of the world were cleansed with God’s righteous fire, and New Eden rose from the ashes.” Joseph Seed whispered and she shuddered. “To walk the Path, burn away what is unnecessary. Cleanse our symbol, as the world was cleansed.” Monaghan tossed a Molotov cocktail from her bag, not feeling fully in control of her actions. It scared her. Flames rose, revealing the remnants of the cross, making it whole again. It glowed uncannily with that pinkish light. “Look to the cross. The Flame of Eden burns away any sin that may take root again.”

                The figure again appeared, pointing her to another beam of light, and then another and each time she destroyed what was necessary to reveal the cross. “The world was not ready for the Collapse, and people fought against us. They tried to break our family. They smashed everything to pieces, but we endured. Only we were strong enough to live in the new world God has given us. You will reveal the truth and be welcomed into our New Eden. The winds of change have come. Our only choice is to turn away from the past. Witness how the past and present align with the circle of time. Every single piece must be where it is meant to be. Nothing can be missing. Civilization turned and turned in chaos until only we were left standing. The old ways led us to ruin, the only way forward is to live without sin.” The figure drew a bow and arrow and Monaghan raised her sidearm, prepared to defend herself from this apparition. She felt foolish, especially when it aimed and shot the arrow to guide her to a new point of light.

                Monaghan’s frustration, her skepticism railed against further investigation, and yet she was drawn forward, booted feet scuffing the earth.

                “Do you understand?” Seed’s soft, insidious voice asked her. Her lip curled, but still she ran, drawn to the light like a bipedal moth. “God has cleansed the world of sin, and yet it remains. Sin is in our blood. Our flesh. Our souls. God told me of the Collapse. I gathered my family to prepare for it…” Monaghan stumbled, fell as the vision of the bomb going off shook the ground beneath her, the brilliant light of the explosion and resulting mushroom cloud of smoke shivering over the mountaintops in the distance before the vision dissipated and she drug herself back to her feet.

                “But Hell had followed the White Horse,” Joseph murmured, and Monaghan got a flicker of a face, a badge. Saw the shine of handcuffs, the glint of glasses and shadow of a hat. The image of a name tag, “Whitehorse.” Saw a green shirt with a patch. “Rook.”

                “The one that could not walk away,” Joseph’s voice purred in explanation, furious, but calm.  Shaking herself, her vision normalized, the visions expunged by violent blinks. She resisted the urge to rub at her eyes. Monaghan stepped forward, an open hatch sunk into granite before her. Like a puppet on strings, she approached, stepping down into the muted glow inside. “And my path ended here, in these very walls,” Joseph explained as she walked through the bunker. “I thought I had fulfilled my obligation to God. But he had one more thing to say to me.”

                Monaghan stepped into a cramped room filled with a bed, a shelf and tattered papers lining the walls. There were blood stains, and other, worse markings on the floor and she shivered again, wondering what she had gotten herself into. She read some of the deranged writings on the wall, written by a person who had descended fully into madness. The writings start out hateful, words of violence promised, revenge and retribution sworn. But then they softened. They begged for food. Begged for water. Begged for forgiveness. Begged for anonymity, revealing shame and self-hatred so deep that Monaghan’s eyes pricked for this unknown person. “Give me a mask,” one of the notes begged and she frowned, piecing it together.

                Monaghan counted scratch marks on the walls, but some were under the scribbled word “WEEKS,” while others were just unlabeled scratches to mark unknown amounts of time. There was a broken fingernail and blood in at least one of the scratch marks. She turned, and saw a stained and faded white book with a golden doubled-cross on it was cover. She flipped through it. They were the writings of a madman, of someone convinced he knew God’s will. It had generally been Monaghan’s experience that God’s will aligned a little too closely with the will of whoever was claiming to know it. She remembered the words of David Koresh and frowned. “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ.”

                Monaghan was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and none of this had convinced her to be otherwise. She rolled her eyes at the scrawled writings, shaking her head at the nonsense.

                “God told me you would be worthy of this,” Joseph’s voice whispered, almost taunting.

                “Yeah, well, your imaginary friend’s been wrong before,” Monaghan muttered, tucking the book into her pack.

--

                This time, when Monaghan knocked on the gate, the hatch opened and the masked figure from before saw the book in her hand. It took a scratchy breath and closed the hatch. Before Monaghan could curse at the rejection, the gate swung open. The familiar figure, clad in leather, linen and a heavy bearskin cloak across its shoulders was breathing raggedly. It gestured for her to come in with an open, leather-gloved hand. Monaghan complied, eyeing the figure with caution. It stepped in front of her and she followed, hearing the muttering of people who stared at her in wonder, or fear, or anger. They were all clothed in leather and rough cloth, all had bows or knives. No guns or electronics of any kind were visible anywhere. Goats and sheep meandered through the place, bleating.

                “Jesus,” Monaghan stammered as a collared cougar slinked past her after its apparent owner, who murmured something about her being a sinner, muttering something about someone named Ethan as an afterthought. She sped up to get a little closer to the imagined protection of the masked person in front of her. They were not a friend, exactly, but they at least had a certain amount of familiarity in comparison to the rest of the cultists. They approached a simple wooden building larger than most of the rest and the masked figure indicated that Monaghan should enter through the leather sheet that served as a door. Giving the masked, wheezing person one last, long look, Monaghan stepped inside. Tacked to the far wall was a painting of a familiar face. Joseph Seed.

                Monaghan approached the tall cut stump that clearly served as a pulpit, her boots scuffing on the rough log-wood floor. She whirled when she heard someone step behind her. A thin man with shoulder-length black hair and at least a week of beard turned to her, jaw working.

                “You are not what I was expecting,” he said, his voice soft, but critical. He turned to her, walking toward her gracelessly, everything the figure of Joseph was not. “Maybe the same thing could be said for me…if you came here looking for the old man, well…” he trailed off, gesturing at the canvas and looking away from Monaghan. They were both silent. This was an old tactic of Monaghan’s, one of her favorites. Let your enemy talk first, force them to show their hand. “Do you have the book?” The young man finally asked, apparently not trusting the judgment of the masked person who had let her in. Monaghan pulled it back out of her pack, held it up, still silent. Recognition and surprise filled his features. “Do you know what that is? The Word of Joseph. His teachings,” he took a step forward, “his guidance,” another step, he reached forward, “his wisdom,” another step, and he met her eyes, taking the book, “…and his madness.” The man showed her a wide smile that looked somehow too full of teeth, predatory and sallow. “I have searched everywhere for this book. Joseph said the one who found it would be ‘ordained by God to be the true ruler of Eden…’”

                He flipped through the book and then turned to her, his look vicious, dangerous, like a starving wolf. Monaghan stood her ground, keeping her features deliberately neutral. “And you are the one who returns it to us.” He bared his teeth again and slammed the book shut. “It should have been me. I’m the one they turned to when he disappeared into the North. I’m the one who has held this family together.”

                He paced frantically back and forth, his voice raising with every syllable. “I’m the one they chose to lead. I have protected them from the locusts and the snakes. I have kept us all alive and safe within these walls – not the old man, ME!” he screamed, toppling the pulpit with a violent shove. He whirled, pointing at the canvas painting, breathing hard. “My father wanted to build a paradise, but when it got too hard, he ran away.” The young man stilled, tapping the cover of the weathered book. “You came here looking for his help, but Joseph is dead. No one wants to acknowledge this, but it’s the truth,” he said plainly, staring into Monaghan’s eyes. “Our family still believes in him and they’ll never stop believing in him until they understand that he is not a messiah. He was just a man.”

                He looked down at the book in his hands, then up to Monaghan, gaze intense. “Help me show them. Bring back proof of his death and I’ll help your people.” He stopped, considering for a moment, his eyes going distant and he paced away. “But New Eden will not allow you to travel North until you prove yourself worthy by lighting the flame of Eden.” He picked up a knife and Monaghan’s hand wandered closer to her sidearm cautiously. Ignoring this, he cut into his palm, wincing. “The people know this mark. They will lead you to the flame.” He wiped the tips of two bloodied fingers down her forehead and she had to force herself not to flinch away. He indicated the door, and she turned away from him, feeling his blood drying on her forehead. She approached a young New Edener woman who was gesturing to her.

                “I recognize his mark upon you. Ethan has marked you as one who wishes to rekindle the Flame of New Eden. The bandits who have taken our land have extinguished it.” The woman gave Monaghan instructions on where to find the fire, beneath an old statue, and where the Chosen were waiting to assist her. She made her way there; it took her nearly a day, much of it spent climbing up the mountain toward a destroyed statue. Monaghan took the offered bow and arrows and helped the New Edeners clear the Highwaymen off their holy mountain. When she stepped into the base of the statue, she was struck with the same feeling of dazed contentment she had experienced when Joseph had somehow spoken to her, smelled the same sickly sweet aroma of gardenia and vanilla. She lit the flame, and the New Edeners rejoiced.

                Monaghan was tired, groggy, wanted this charade to come to an end. She came here for help, not for religion. Frustrated, she shoved her way back into New Eden’s gates, this time not greeted by the masked person, but just a New Edener who stumbled in surprise as she pushed her way past.

                Monaghan made her way through the village, ignoring the muttering people. Ethan was yelling, his wolf-like face angry, stirring up his crowd.

                “A non-believer is a sinner! A non-believer does not know our ways!” he cried, pointing accusingly at Monaghan, who jammed her way through the gathered crowd. “A non-believer–”

                “Has lit our most sacred flame,” a woman cut him off and there were murmurs of assent. “We need Joseph. He cleanses our sins.”

                “The Father will absolve the sinner,” a man said, voice fervent in a way only religious zealots could be.

                “Send the sinner to the North,” the woman insisted, shoving Monaghan forward. She resisted the urge to snarl “get your hands off me,” and allowed herself to be propelled forward toward a manic Ethan, the masked figure standing behind him calmly, like a boulder in a windstorm.

                “Family of New Eden! You have searched your hearts and truly believe that this sinner should seek our Father?” Ethan asked, gesturing at Monaghan as though disgusted.

                “Yes!” One of them cried.

                “It is certain,” said another. Ethan lowered his hand, looking as though he was considering and Monaghan could tell it was all an act, all a sick game of manipulation. He shrugged and surveyed his people, his eyes meeting Monaghan’s briefly, a sly look crossing his features for just a moment. “The Father shows mercy to sinners. After all, we are all his children,” he reasoned, striding down toward Monaghan. He met her gaze again, the friendly look dropping away easily, more a mask than the wooden one his body guard was wearing.

                “Prepare the sacrament!”

                “Yes, bring the sacrament!”

                “The sacrament,” another agreed. Monaghan suddenly felt like a lamb led to slaughter and she shifted uneasily as Ethan gripped her shoulder, a smile sliding across his face like a toxic oil slick across water.

                “The Father guides us in this moment,” he agreed, gesturing with his free hand toward the masked person who stepped forward like a prowling cat. “The sinner is granted pilgrimage North. They will bring back the Father!” Ethan promised his audience as the masked one steps forward carrying a metal cup. Ethan turned his back to the crowd, faced Monaghan who had walked up to join the masked figure. He met her eyes, aggressive, pleased with himself. Snatching the cup out of the figure’s hand, Ethan ignored an irritated hiss. “This will allow you to cross the threshold and live.” He shoved Monaghan to her knees and leaned down, dropping his voice to a low murmur so that not even the masked figure nearby can hear what he said to her. “Bring back proof of his death. They will at last understand I am their prophet. And I’ll give you the help you need. We both get what we want.” He forced the noxious substance from the cup down her throat and she coughed and swallowed, the world going hazy.

Chapter Text

                Joseph was not what Monaghan had been expecting. He was older than the painting she had seen of him. Tired. He did not seem dangerous, but rather mildly unhinged. She ate the fruit, and that was not what she was expecting either. She was not sure what she had been expecting, but the sudden and frightening ability to obtain firewood by punching a tree in half was not it. It explained the phenomena Rush had seen. And, regardless of its superstitious roots, it would be useful, of that Monaghan was certain. She followed Joseph back to the village and tried not to smirk at the look of horror on Ethan’s face when he saw his father alive. Monaghan was also not expecting Joseph to allow the masked figure she had encountered before, “the Judge,” to follow and assist her. The mask…the judge. Monaghan eyed the figure carefully, and agreed to their assistance.

                They followed her wordlessly and she quickly realized that it was not because they do not want to talk, it was because they cannot. Their breath rattled in their throat and they occasionally hissed or spluttered or growled as the two worked their way through the landscape.

                “I just want to make one thing clear,” Monaghan said, taking cover as she heard the blaring radio of a Highwayman vehicle. “I don’t believe in any of your horseshit. I’m here to help the people of this county, not to spread the Good News of Joseph Christ or some shit. If you have a problem with that, then fuck off.” Monaghan heard the Judge still breathing behind her, still otherwise silent, but showing no signed of anger, or of leaving. “Well, alright then. Let’s go. I’ve got distress calls coming out the wazoo. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

                That evening, the leather-clad figure vanished, returning with two rabbits that they spitted expertly and turned over the fire. Monaghan cleaned her gun and eyed the handmade bow the Judge carried.

                “You carry any other weapons?” she asked, trying to be casual. The Judge looked up and reached to their chest, pulling a blade out of the strap of their quiver. Monaghan nodded. “Good. Don’t want to have to cover your ass when you run out of arrows.” The Judge snorted and tilted a hand to the side as if in agreement. They ate in silence, or rather, Monaghan did, because the Judge took their rabbit into the woods just out of the firelight, presumably to take the mask off to eat. Monaghan was curious, but not curious enough to ask a question of someone who cannot speak. She thought back to the past few weeks, of rescuing children and specialists and resources. Thought of the conversations she has had. She was relieved for the quiet, she found.

                The Judge returned from eating, wiping their gloves on their pants and stretching languorously. Monaghan heard a scratchy yawn from under the mask, and she had to agree. She spread out her bedroll close to the fire and laid down, shivering in the cold of night. The Judge spread their own bedding, curling into it. Monaghan was unnerved when she heard them whimpering at some point in the night. She realized they were shivering violently and she moved closer, pulled an extra jacket out of her pack, laid it over them. They awakened with a start, and Monaghan could tell from the light of the stars the Judge was looking at her intently from behind their mask.

                “You were shivering. Go back to sleep. It’s all good.” Monaghan wanted to lie down next to the Judge, wanted to share body heat with them, and maybe a blanket. It was a common enough practice with her other guns for hire, though Hurk tended to cuddle way too aggressively for the captain’s taste. Nights here were cold, so if you did not have access to central heating, or at least some walls, sleeping right next to your companions was normal. Monaghan considered offering her blanket to the Judge and convincing them to join her, but she imagined she would have better luck picking up a turd by its clean end considering how averse the Judge seemed to direct interactions with other human beings.

                When Monaghan awakened in the morning, her jacket was folded neatly and sitting on her bag. The Judge was nowhere to be found. Monaghan cupped her hands to her mouth.

                “Judge! Judge!” She waited for a moment, wondering if, after all, the masked figure had decided it had a problem with her and returned to New Eden.

                “There’s something over there!” a voice cried and bullets peppered the clearing.

                Monaghan hit the deck muttering an annoyed “Ah fuck” under her breath. She scurried away from her camp as she heard footsteps and more voices approaching. Then, she heard a gurgling cry.

                “What the fuck is that? Oh Jesus, oh fuck!” Another gurgle. With a heavy thump the Judge dropped down out of a tree, turning its blank mask to Monaghan and holding a finger over where their lips should be. The Judge turned back toward the voices, notching three arrows and taking a steadying, but raspy breath. They loosed the arrows and a muffled grunt sounded from nearby, followed by the sound of a body slumping into grass. Footsteps, slow and cautious approached and the Judge flattened themselves down like a lion in the savannah awaiting an approaching gazelle.

                The Judge’s prey stepped next to them, unaware of their huddled existence until the unfortunate Highwayman got an arrow rammed into their eye. Standing, the Judge limped slightly, staggering a bit. There was a bloody hole in the material at their calf.

                “You alright?” Monaghan asked, ignoring a burning in her arm that was suddenly present now that the moment of adrenalin had passed. The Judge staggered again, sat heavily on a log and unwrapped the leather from around the top of their boot, tugged the thick brown cloth of their pantleg up. The leg underneath was pale with occasional freckles, and there was a hole in the calf, black-red with oozing blood. “Let me see,” Monaghan said and the Judge hissed and pulled away, holding up a hand. The figure pulled off a glove and the hand from within it was as pale as the leg, the fingers strong and nimble and feminine. The nails were rounded and clean. Scars were a starker white along the knuckles and blue-green veins showed delicately through pale skin.

                The Judge pulled a small knife from their boot, and with a hiss of pain, they sliced the bullet hole a little wider. Sinking the blade into the hole, they pried the bullet up and out of their calf muscle with a grunt, discarding the metal piece in the sand. To Monaghan’s astonishment, she actually saw the wound start to change once the bullet was removed. The redness lessened. The hole tightened slightly, and stopped oozing blood. The Judge, apparently satisfied, covered the wound in a paste from a little pot in their bag and pulled their pant leg down, reaffixing their leg wraps after pulling on their soft leather boots.

                “How the fuck did you do that?” Monaghan asked, astonished. She felt a tickle of something crawling on her arm and shook it, ignoring the burning pain that flicked through it. The Judge looked at her and instead of answering, took her arm in a gentle grip and turned it slightly to reveal the wound and the trickling line of blood flowing from it. “Oh shit.” Monaghan had been shot before and it had sucked. It had burned in a radiating pulse of pain and hot metal, an impossible-to-ignore sensation. This felt like a burn, painful and annoying, but unlike any gunshot she had experienced. Without asking and before she could object, the Judge wiped their knife clean and used its tip to fish out Monaghan’s bullet. It dropped out with a plop onto the ground and Monaghan winced when the Judge patted some of that paste into it. It immediately felt better. “Rush was not kidding,” she murmured, touching the spot before bandaging it. The Judge surveyed her. “Did the fruit…?” The Judge nodded. “I’ll be goddamned,” Monaghan muttered and the Judge hissed disapprovingly at the words.

                While the change to her physiology did allow the bullet wound to heal substantially faster, it did not prevent bruising or residual pain. Monaghan also guessed that no amount of special magic fruit powers would save her from a gun shot to the head or heart. An instantly fatal wound was an instantly fatal wound, she reasoned, but she was grateful for the increased healing ability. Hope County was a dangerous place to live. Once bandaged and being used again, Monaghan was well-aware that there had been a bullet in her arm. The area around it was bruised and achy, and the Judge still limped slightly as well as they made their way through Hope County. There was still much work to do, but, looking at the Judge, Monaghan was certain she had hired the right person to do it with.

Chapter Text

                Radio broadcasts, like prayers, plagued Monaghan’s shortwave radio. She found and rescued Selene, a quirky, not-quite-right-in-the-head and maybe-not-really-a-doctor and nearly drowned getting her medical research and supplies for her out of an old nuclear silo. Another, Pastor Jerome, requested help rescuing prisoners from Highwaymen and was taken prisoner himself. Monaghan recovered him and helped him rescue other hostages. The Judge followed and assisted Monaghan wordlessly through all of this, pulling Monaghan back to her feet when she gets hit and knocked down, and Monaghan returned the favor. They camped together, sleeping close to one another and to their fire to keep warm, though the Judge never would cuddle close, preferring instead to shiver nearby, to Monaghan’s annoyance as she shivered too.

                The Judge slept fitfully, often having bad dreams beneath the eerie wooden mask that was never removed. Monaghan did the same, nightmares plaguing her relentlessly. The two each wordlessly awakened the other when the dreams seemed too much, when small twitches turned to desperate grasps at something that was not there, when cries turn to screams. Like two unlikely peas in a pod, they existed in harmony, a sniper and an archer, silent and deadly and both clearly suffering from unresolved trauma. There were many questions Monaghan wanted to ask the silent figure, though she was generally not a chatty person. Curiosity burned through her looking at that blank mask, watching those lithe, professional movements. Watching as the Judge moved through thick undergrowth silently was like watching a work of art. Every movement was deliberate, every step planned. It almost made Monaghan jealous, but she was nearly as silent, her military training an invaluable asset.

                Once, Monaghan got badly embarrassed when she missed her shot, the bullet taking off the intended target’s ear instead of exploding through their skull. The Judge turned to her for a moment, aimed without looking, sighted once to check, and loosed the arrow effortlessly. It sunk deep between the victim’s eyes.

                “Show off,” Monaghan muttered, reddening. So much for her reputation as an Army sniper. She reloaded and looked at the Judge watching her, hands on their hips. Monaghan took a moment to flip them off, then fired, vaporizing a Highwayman’s head with a high-caliber hollow point. The Judge had their moments of subtle sarcasm, of communication using anything but their voice, though they occasionally rasped out noises that could be interpreted as words.

                Once, unaware that a cougar had silently skulked behind her, the Judge aimed an arrow and coughed out a grating sound that could be interpreted as the word “Down!”

                Hearing it, Monaghan flung herself down and to the side. The Judge’s arrow sunk with a wobbling vibration like a spring door stop, embedded deep in the top of the big cat’s skull.

                “Thanks,” Monaghan muttered, leaning down to skin the animal. No sense in wasting perfectly good materials. The Judge was a singularly good companion, mute, reticent and the best shot with a bow Monaghan had ever seen. She had offered guns and grenades for the reserved figure to use, but they refused them all, absolutely disinterested in any weapon that required more than the power of one’s hands to work. They carried their bow, at least two knifes and a slingshot, and that was all they needed to be a faceless, voiceless harbinger of death. Monaghan tried hard not to play favorites, but with Tom out of commission, the Judge was far and away Monaghan’s preferred field companion. It helped that the silent figure reminded her a little of herself, all quiet angst and anger. She did not know just how much angst and anger until they made their way to an old hot springs system in response to a radio call Monaghan had gotten a week earlier. Monaghan led the way, climbing up an old rusty platform and encountering a blonde, bearded man. He was holding a squirming baby that’s playing with what Monaghan really hoped was a dud grenade. Seeing Monaghan approach, the man climbed into a tower and returned without the baby, greeting her with a cautious smile.

                “Charlemagne Victor Boshaw is the name, but that’s a mouthful, so most people just call me Sharky. Welcome to Chateau Boshaw. The loudest, smelliest place in all of Hope County. And the only spot where my little shit kicker likes to sleep when he’s cranky. He’s up there in the bro’s nest now. We call him Blade. Yeah, he’s my cousin Hurk’s baby, but we’re raisin’ him together. I tell you what though, he’s a real chip off the old block. Loves farts and the sound of gunfire. It was like swaddling to him. Well, technically this shithole belongs to the Highwaymen, but…but me and Hurk had been holed up here while the kiddo was teething. It breaks my heart when I see that poor little dude cry. Anyways, the fuckin’ dipshit Highwaymen, they’ve been trying to take this place back every night since. So well, we’ve held ‘em off so far, but I’m a little overwhelmed at the moment, tee bee ayche. Well uh, so could you do me a solid and be a dear and help an overworked mommy out? I mean, I rigged a bunch of traps with all these high pressure pipes, but they still need to be armed. Little Blade’s got me run off my feet and I just need five minutes to myself. Maybe had a shit and shave my pits. You know, I’ll supervise from up here.”

                It was at that moment that the Judge, puffing with effort in the hot afternoon sun, pulled themselves up the ladder to where Monaghan and Sharky were standing. The Judge and Sharky give each other one look and the friendly expression on the man’s face melted to one of fury.

                “You can get the fuck out of here, you traitor,” he snapped. The Judge, breathing hard, looked to him, looked to Monaghan, and started to take off. Monaghan snatched their arm, and they jerked wildly, trying to leave.

                “Hey, wait! Hey! What the fuck?!” the captain whirled on the man, annoyed. “What the fuck?

                “Do you know who that is?” Boshaw demanded. The Judge stopped struggling in Monaghan’s grip and turned back to face them both slowly. Monaghan looked them up and down, surveys the thick clothing and mask that leave gender and identity unknown had she not read the notes in the bunker. She clenched her jaw and turned to Sharky, tipping her chin up stubbornly.

                “I’ve got some idea,” she answered neutrally, not knowing the significance of the deputy to Sharky or to anyone else for that matter.

                “That’s a fuckin’ traitor right there. Used to work against the cult and now they’re the goddamn mascot,” Sharky snapped. The Judge lunged forward in anger, growling, hands clenched into tight fists that made the leather of their gloves groan. “Yeah, I said it, you asshole. You used to be my friend; now…now you’re just a monster.” The Judge froze again, and the breath they take was deep and shuddering. “Why don’t you asked me how I know who this is?” Sharky demanded of Monaghan. A bullet whizzed off a metal panel next to them and they all jump.

                “I don’t think now is the time for this discussion,” Monaghan said, scanning the edges of the clearing for whoever fired the shot. The Judge hissed, drawing an arrow. “Later,” Monaghan said, looking at them both once before pulling her rifle off her back. “Judge, you guard the west, I’ll go east. Sharky, let us know what direction they’re concentrating.” Sharky and the Judge were still staring at each other, fidgeting.

                “Stow your shit, both of you,” Monaghan ordered. “We’ve got work to do.”

                As if on her cue, Highwaymen streamed out of the surrounding woods and Monaghan was soaked with sweat by the time they were obliterated, bodies littering the ground around the facility. During a break in the raid, she assisted Sharky with arming and repairing pressure traps to defend against the Highwaymen. The attack tapered off and then finally stopped, remaining Highwaymen dragging injured companions back with them and promising to return. Monaghan took a deep breath, wiping down her rifle and taking a drink of water.

                “Alright, man, thanks for fixing up those traps for me and helping me pick off those Highwaymen. They shouldn’t come again until nightfall. Come with me, you helped me out bigtime, you deserve a reward.” He ignored the Judge’s presence, a trait Monaghan will come to learn was a very Sharky-esque reaction to things he did not like or things that made him uncomfortable. “Here, try this,” Sharky said, handing Monaghan a hand-carved wooden shot glass. “Me and Hurk’s very own homemade party liquor,” he said, and he stared at the Judge for a moment. The masked figure hissed and stormed out of the room. “This is the good private shit, man. We only share with the closest of friends.” Monaghan smelled it and then could smell nothing else, her nose hairs singed away. She knocked it back, feeling a raging burn down her throat like a localized wildfire. “Heh, I shoulda warned ya, the party liquor’s just ethanol for car engines,” he chuckled as Monaghan swayed wildly, stumbling and losing her balance, the world spinning madly as she gripped the ground, trying to convince herself once more which way was up.

                When Monaghan awakened, head pounding, it was dark and the Judge was sitting cross legged next to her. They cocked their head in evident concern when she groaned and sat up, offering her the water canteen. She accepted it gratefully, taking a swig and swishing it in her mouth before spitting it out and then taking a deep, cold drink on a nauseous, empty stomach that roiled with displeasure. She swallowed hard to keep from vomiting up bile.

                “Thanks,” Monaghan growled roughly.

                “Hey, you okay?” Sharky hollered from up on his metal tower. “Sorry about that, that’s my bad. I forgot not everyone goes hard in the paint like me and Hurk do.” The Judge snorted, an unexpected sound that made Monaghan laugh, and then grip her head for the trouble. “But, uh, we got beaucoup helmet heads on the inbound. I’m up here in the bro’s nest with Blade on the barrel launcher, but there are too many for me to handle. Take those fuckers out, man, any way you can, and do not let ‘em fuck with the traps, the traps are supposed to fuck with them.” Monaghan staggered to her feet, checked her gun and nodded to the Judge, whose whole stance was one of irritation and discomfort.

                “Look,” Monaghan said softly, “whatever you two have going on, we’ll deal with it. But I need your help. I need you here. Please.” The Judge nodded once, slowly, and prepared their bow. Highwaymen swarm in and Monaghan happily filled them with holes. The Judge hopped down from the metal frame of Sharky’s fortress and before Monaghan could object, raced toward oncoming Highwaymen, holding an arrow in each hand, spinning, ducking, whirling through helmeted enemies that hit the ground as corpses. Next, the Judge leapt up onto a nearby watch tower gracefully after the two arrows they were using as melee weapons had snapped. They swung their bow around, notching three arrows into it and loosed them into a heavily armored Highwayman, who dropped, gurgling, into the hot mineral water that surrounded Sharky’s home.

                A Highwayman managed to made it up the watch tower behind the Judge and Monaghan placed a bullet between their eyes. The Judge looked across the space to where Monaghan was lying prone staring through her scope and nodded appreciatively. With a gurgling growl, the nimble figure pulled a different kind of arrow from their quiver and Monaghan stopped aiming at Highwaymen for a moment to watch. Carefully, the Judge flicked the blunt head of the arrow along the side of their bow. Sparks flew and then the arrowhead alighted, streaming orange-red flame that clearly originated from a flare. The Judge turned coolly and aimed for a barrel of oil that had been flung from Sharky’s barrel launcher. With a calm that cemented an already growing respect in Monaghan, the Judge aimed, despite bullets flying around them, took a deep, steadying breath, and loosed the arrow. It flew in a bright streak like a falling star and sank with a hiss and a thud into the side of the barrel. For a half-second, nothing happened, but then the barrel ruptured explosively, burning oil splattering a dozen Highwaymen, who shrieked in agony as they were burned alive. Monaghan did not shoot them to end their suffering. Bullets were a precious commodity in a Post-Apocalyptic wasteland.

                “You know,” Sharky said, climbing down from his tower once they had again cleared the area of Highwaymen, “now that I think about it, this…this is a terrible place for a baby.” Monaghan could hear the delighted yelps and cries of the baby and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, just terrible. All this sharp rusted metal and sulfur fumes. I don’t really know what I was thinking.” His voice went soft and regretful for a moment and Monaghan did not interrupt. “Prosperity is probably the place for us now. I’mma set up shop there. You hit me up and I’ll make you some toys that go ‘boom,’ okay?” Monaghan opened her mouth to ask about him and the Judge, but he turned and walked away, and when Monaghan turned to address the Judge, they were gone as well.

Chapter Text

                The Judge reappeared from the forest several hours later after Monaghan had left Sharky’s haunt and had begun working her way toward another distress call. The Judge was both unwilling and unable to answer questions regarding Sharky. Monaghan left the subject alone, deciding instead to address it directly with Sharky when next she was in Prosperity. The two did not speak, do not really even react to one another’s presence, but Monaghan did offer the Judge a granola bar, which was accepted and eaten just out of Monaghan’s sight. No further pleasantries were exchanged. The Judge was evidently indifferent to Monaghan’s presence, ignoring her when she brushed a comb through her tangled red hair, turning away when she stripped down partially to wipe blood and sweat off with a rag and water from a cool, fast-flowing creek they passed.

                Adequately refreshed, her neck feeling cooler now that she has retied her hair back into a braid, Monaghan wiped a wet cloth across her shoulders and caught fresh water from the stream in her canteen, and she was glad she did. While hiking up a particularly challenging section of hill, the Judge suddenly stopped, coughing and gagging, evidently having swallowed wrong. Monaghan handed them the shared water canteen, which they take gratefully, turning away to drink. When they turned back and handed her the canteen, she asked,

                “You alright?” Monaghan was surprised when they responded with a sign she recognized. A hand curled into an “O” and then a “K.” “You know sign language?” The Judge did not respond, just kept walking, ignoring her question. “I know you’ve got this whole, ‘I’m mysterious and no one, except for some reason Sharky knows who I am’ thing going on, but communication is a valuable tool.” The Judge turned back to her with that blank mask and let out one short, bitter sound that was clearly a humorless laugh. Monaghan realized she had essentially said, “Do you need a hand?” to an arm amputee and reddened. “I just mean, if you do know ASL…I know it too,” she said, signing the last phrase to demonstrate. The Judge stared at her for a moment, as though considering, but then just turned away again. Monaghan stopped trying to communicate and instead enjoyed the relative silence of the forest.

                A Northern Cardinal sang peer peer peer with its metallic voice. Monaghan remembered their range map from one of her mom’s bird guides, realized the birds were not usually found here, but is not surprised. No doubt bombs will radically change an animal’s behaviors. She still had not gotten used to the pink antlered white-tailed deer. Some of the latent mutations that had been brought to the forefront by nuclear influence were unsettling to say the least. Tilting her head, she heard a titmouse scolding, its little hissing noises alerting other birds to danger. Monaghan spotted the danger, a sleeping Great Horned Owl with a streak of unnaturally black feathers down its middle. She pointed at it and looked at the Judge, who nodded. If one thing good could be said for global apocalypse, it was the sudden return of the natural world, changed though it might be. That said, Monaghan thought, swatting a particularly large mosquito away from her face, some species she could do without. Having gone several hours without a break, Monaghan paused, taking a drink and stretching. The Judge stretched as well, their back popping. Monaghan heard a satisfied sigh beneath the mask before the Judge flopped down onto a fallen tree with a huff of scratchy breath.

                “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you where we were headed before we got to Sharky’s place. I didn’t realize anyone outside of New Eden would know who you are…were.” The Judge hissed, loud and aggressive. They clearly do not want to talk about this. “I’m not asking any questions,” Monaghan said defensively. “I’m just saying, if I had known you had bad history with these people, I wouldn’t have taken you with me. Not that you could have explained it, but…” Monaghan trailed off, reddening again. She was trying to apologize for something that was not her fault, but she genuinely felt bad for this person’s suffering. The Judge looked away from her, evidently staring at something in the distance. “You know what, I’ll just stop talking now.” It was impossible to tell what the Judge was thinking, and they do not respond at all, they just looked back at Monaghan for a moment and plucked a flower from the dirt at their feet, dissecting it slowly. Monaghan is not sure if the action was a threat, or just a nervous habit.

                During the day, the Judge wore a thin black balaclava beneath their mask, making it nearly impossible to see their eyes. Once night had fallen, however, they gingerly pulled it down around their neck. It was rare, and generally only by the light of their camp fires that Monaghan could see a bright glimpse of eye, but she had learned to tell what direction the Judge was looking based on the tilt of their mask. Right now they’re staring at their feet.

                “Thank you for helping me anyway,” Monaghan muttered. “Or, thanks for helping Sharky.” A muffled huff of laughter. Monaghan had a sudden realization at the bitter, sad sound: the Judge would have helped Sharky regardless of his feelings about them. They cared about Sharky, for some reason. Their  shoulders were slumped in defeat and they glanced at her for a moment, a soft shivering growl filtering out behind their mask. Their facial expression was hidden, their feelings fathomless, but Monaghan thought she could read grief in the set of those shoulders, in the forward and down tilt of head, in the slack despondency of those gloved hands.

                Monaghan said nothing more, did not want to see the Judge sink even further into whatever depressed shell they lived their life in. Instead, she gave them a hand getting up, and they set off again. She brushed away all her unanswered questions and curiosity, and the Judge sets their shoulders, checking their bow before leading the way, a compass briefly held in one hand before it was tucked back into their pack. Neither paid any more attention to the other, they were back to being all business, again focused on work, headed toward the camp where Kim Rye’s husband Nick was being held prisoner. He had apparently been there for months, actually nearly a year at this point. The very thought of it burned Monaghan and she adjusted her grip on her rifle angrily, resettling the strap across her shoulder.

                The camp was extremely well-guarded, especially by Highwaymen standards, which were usually pretty lax. Guards paced back and forth and Monaghan laid flat on her belly, the Judge beside her mimicking the stance, still and silent but for their breathing. This was the Highwaymen’s most prolific mechanic station, no doubt due to Nick’s talents, and they would not want to lose it or him anytime soon. This was going to be dangerous. Her sniper training took over and she slowly pans the camp, pointing out more dangerous or more competent-looking Highwaymen to the Judge with almost silent whispers. They slinked back down the hill, sliding down gravel and working their way back up to another side. Again Monaghan laid belly first, gazing through her scope. She did this four times until she was confident she had seen all the men and women inside the camp at the top of the hill. She knew there were more in the woods around them, knew that too much noise will spell disaster.

                “Ready?” she asked the Judge. They shrugged and pulled their bow from their back, crouching. “Let’s do it.” Together, they worked their way around the base of the hill, picking off the outermost Highwaymen quickly. Her old sniper instructor’s voice flowed through her head as she aimed. One shot, one kill! This is not wiping your ass after they serve chili at mess, you get just one wipe, maggots! The Judge, to their credit, was also quite skilled at the one shot, one kill ability, sinking arrows either through the head or through the throat so their victims do not get a chance to cry for help or alert others to their presence. They worked their way upward and inward, slaughtering mercilessly, Monaghan switching to the knife Rush had given her when she gets close enough that using a sniper rifle was impractical and dangerous.

                Monaghan saw the bloodshot eyes of one of her victims water through their hockey mask as she sank her blade into their armpit, severing an artery. She could smell the acrid reek of urine as bodies released their waste in fear or in death or both. Ferocious, she rammed her blade through a mask and into an eye, feeling her hand scraped by the broken acrylic, feeling someone else’s blood flow like hot water over her wrist. She flicked the blood off, breathing hard, lungs burning with effort and adrenalin. She saw the Judge yank an arrow out of an eye socket, their jacket splattered with dark blood stains. The only person left standing was a man wearing a trucker’s hat with a flannel shirt tied around his waist, his back to Monaghan. He was surveying the corpses around him and, instinct taking over, Monaghan snatched him roughly, putting the point of her knife to his neck. The Judge rushed to her with a growled cry of dismay and grabbed her arm, hissing loudly. The man turned, wide-eyed and rubbing his neck where the knife point pricked him. Monaghan forced herself to take a breath, to calm, recognizing the friendly face from a photo she had seen.

                “Holy shit, that was unbelievable! Whoever you are, you just saved my life. Thank you. Thank you so damn much. You don’t understand, I’ve been trapped here for months. The Highwaymen dragged me out to this camp, and they had me working on stuff for the Twins. I need to get back home! I got a getaway ride all ready to go. C’mon, let’s get movin’ before more of those sonsabitches show up. Name’s Nick, by the way.”

                “I’m Captain Monaghan,” she said, relaxing now that she knew he was not another Highwayman, but, in fact, the damsel in distress she had come to save. She recalled seeing a picture of a young man leaning against a plane holding a baby. Nick is older, greyer and scruffier now, but still unmistakably the man from the photo. “This is the Judge,” Monaghan said, jutting a thumb toward them.

                “Are – are you okay in there?” Nick asked, frowning. “Nod for ‘yes,’ shake for ‘no.’ Didn’t think you went in for helpin’ anybody who wasn’t part of Joseph’s cult,” he commented, looking uneasily at the Judge. Monaghan frowned. Shit. Did Nick know this person too? The Judge breathed heavily and Monaghan looked at them, holding a hand out to calm them, but they stepped back before she could touch their arm.

                “They’re here to help,” Monaghan said, still looking at the Judge with what she hoped was an encouraging, friendly expression before she turned back to Nick Rye. He considered this for a long moment, eyes flicking over the Judge’s mask and outfit, frowning for a moment at the quiver poking over their shoulder as if he recognized it too.

                “Nice to meet you, Cap. Alright, follow me, I got an idea. I got my plane holed up in a boat shed just down that hill over there. I was taking her for a test drive when these assholes showed up and caught me with my pants down…not literally, of course.” He lead the way and they used a zipline the Highwaymen had installed to get to the bottom of the hill, near the river. “They dragged the two of us all the way out here and had me workin’ on the thing so they could give it to the Twins. Not only that, they had me working on a replica so they could both have one. Anyway, I knew that if I was ever gonna get outta here, she’d be my ticket. So I just kept fixin’ her up. Now, she ain’t finished, but she works, and we’re gonna use her to bust on outta here, friend.” They trekked down to an old, vine-covered boat shed and Nick’s voice filled with pride as he declared, “There she is. Like I said, not finished, mostly the flying part. But ain’t she a beauty?”

                The yellow pontoon plane was missing its wings and was small, but clearly well-built and well-cared for. The Judge touched it almost tenderly with a briefly extended hand, as though it was an old friend, before they turned away. Nick did not seem to notice. Instead, he said to Monaghan, “Go on, grab the wheel. I’ll keep a look out for any trouble.” Nick fired up the engine before he turned away and they all jump, Monaghan cursing, when the plane let out an enormous, deafening backfire. So much for stealth and not having to deal with more Highwaymen. Nick turned to the Judge, who was still surveying the plane, plainly reaching a conclusion about it with a shuddering hiss. Nick Rye looked guilty, and torn. “It only seats two, partner, you know that,” Monaghan heard him say, before she heard voices from outside. “I didn’t think any more of them would be coming. Of all the times for you to backfire, Carmina, goddammit.” His voice sounded panicked and he looked from the Judge to Monaghan frantically.

                “We gotta go,” Monaghan tells them simply, mind searching for a way for all three of them to escape with a two-person vehicle. From the sound of Highwaymen swarming outside like angry wasps, they did not have long to brainstorm a solution. Without the Highwaymen present, one of them could have followed on foot, or maybe ridden the pontoons, but not now with a small army descending on them.

                “Call for backup, the mechanic’s gone!” They heard a flare, a blaring alarm and more footsteps approaching.

                “Ride the pontoons, Judge, I’m not leaving anyone behind.” Monaghan knew that extra weight on the plane will affect their speed, might throw off the course in a way she cannot correct for, not to mention the person riding might fall and drown anyway. No options were good.

                “That ain’t gonna work, she’ll list bad if someone’s on the pontoons,” Nick argued, face going red as he surveyed the Judge, who was watching the door nervously. There were footsteps and wild gunshots just outside. They all glanced to the door, then at one another.

                The Judge stared at Monaghan for a moment, head tilting slightly at the raucous sound of Highwaymen arriving outside. Before Monaghan could come to a decision, before she could offer another solution, the Judge made the choice for her. They waved their arm at Monaghan tersely, pulling an arrow from their quiver, notching it expertly and shooting a Highwayman that darted into the boat shed.

                “I am not leaving you,” Monaghan yelled from the cockpit, voice rough with horror and desperation. The Judge let out a snarl that Monaghan could hear even over the roar of the engine. “Look at me! Look at me, goddammit, I am not leaving you! Judge!” Monaghan screamed desperately, holding out a hand as though the Judge could take it and be saved. Monaghan tilted her head, swallowing, her face a mask of agony as she stared at her. The Judge nodded with finality.

                The Judge saluted Monaghan and then pointed with both hands with an air of finality. Monaghan’s stomach sank. She recognized the sign the Judge had formed, recognized what they had said – “go.” They nodded one more before they turned, dashing out of the dock with a snarl, lifting their bow as they ran. This situation had escalated very fucking quickly. Monaghan heard gunfire again and stared for a long moment at the doorway before Nick reminded her softly,

                “Cap, if we don’t get the hell outta here, that sacrifice will be for nothing.”

                “Yeah,” Monaghan breathed, feeling numb. “Let’s go.” She heard hissing through one of the plane’s missing windows as she steered it out of the shed. She cursed and turned the plane to face the cluster of Highwaymen attacking the Judge. Monaghan tried to take aim with the plane’s minigun, tried to help, but firing on the Highwaymen will hit the Judge too. She risked a warning barrage of bullets just shy of the group’s location and the Highwaymen jumped, giving the Judge an opportunity to run. They do, but the Highwaymen were hot on their tail. A couple of Highwaymen now aimed their shots at the plane, riddling the fuselage with holes.

                “She can’t take much more of this, Cap. We gotta go!” Gritting her teeth, Monaghan turned in her seat and craned her head to watch the Judge run, saw them take a shot to the chest, stumble, fall. They staggered to their feet, pulling their long knife out and slashing wildly at their enemies, a cornered, injured animal. Monaghan felt sick, but turned the plane away, heading to Prosperity as quickly as the engine will allow.

--

                The Rye family reunion was bittersweet for Monaghan. On the one hand, she was obviously pleased to have brought the family back together after Nick had spent months in captivity, plus Prosperity needed their mechanic back. But on the other hand, she had lost a valued ally. The thought of one of her own becoming a prisoner of war, or slowly bleeding out choking on their own blood was unacceptable.

                “Please, stay,” Kim requested as she saw Monaghan urgently packing to leave, stuffing bullets and first aid supplies into her backpack as quickly as her hands could move.

                “I’ve gotta try to save someone else, Kim. Someone got left behind back there.”

                “What?” she whispered, soft voice aghast, eyes widened. “Who?”

                “The Judge.” Kim’s face shifted to surprise.

                “The deputy,” she corrected gently. “She used to be a deputy sheriff in Hope county, once upon a time. Go. If she helped you rescue my husband, then she’s earned back my trust, cult member or not. Save her, Captain.”

--

                Monaghan sneaked up the hill, tight and low to the ground. She had parked the old plane at the river’s edge and worked her way back to the campsite. It was mere hours after she had returned to Prosperity with Nick. No one had tried to stop her from leaving, though she knew the plane badly needed a tune up. Saving the Judge was more important than an oil change. The thought of an ally bleeding out or facing torture, having their limbs dislocated like the Highwaymen had done to Rush prodded Monaghan to immediate action. Not even Rush could have convinced her not to go back immediately, and he had not tried, had just handed her a box of shells and patted her on the shoulder for encouragement. He, more than anyone, knew the pain of losing soldiers, and he certainly knew the pain of torture at their enemy’s hands.

                Using Nick’s plane was a faster option than trying to race back on foot and safer than trying to get into the mountainous region in a land vehicle. Roger and his chopper were out of the county picking up supplies, so that had not been an option either. She had burned through an absurd amount of fuel fighting the river current to make it back to the encampment so quickly, but if there was a chance the Judge was still alive, it was worth it. Monaghan checked the seal on her silencer and aimed at a Highwayman, took a breath, squeezed the trigger. He dropped. She did this to several more in quick succession, distracting some first with thrown rocks, yanking others into the grass and slitting their throats when the terrain allowed. It was almost too easy, but no one ever claimed the Highwaymen were smart. They were generally too high on paint fumes or drunk on ethanol, or both, to be particularly dangerous in small camps at night, and to be fair, there was nothing left worth guarding here except a bit of equipment with Nick gone. She searched through the camp, ears pricked for the sound of hard breathing, or hissing or groans of pain.

                Monaghan heard nothing.

                There was a trail of blood near the boat shed and Monaghan cursed. It was dark and only barely tacky to the touch. Hours old.

                Wiping a hand over her face and feeling deeply guilty, she slung her rifle back over her shoulder and sat for a moment, frustrated. She was tired of this constant loss. The Judge was only an acquaintance, but they had seemed like a good person, or at least a helpful person, willing to fight the Highwaymen and extraordinarily competent at doing so. No. No, the Judge was not dead. All nearby Highwaymen dead or dying, Monaghan cupped her hands to her face in a last-ditch effort to locate her hired gun.

                “Judge!” she called. “Judge!” A faint, whimpering hiss of air. Monaghan trudged through the tall grass near the edge of the river. “Judge.” Another whimper, a groan. There. Slight movement and a brown lump. With only a sliver of moon to light the night, Monaghan cannot tell how badly the Judge was hurt, but knew it must be bad for them – her apparently, to still be here. “Hey, hey,” Monaghan whispered, holding the hooded head up and the Judge grasped at the front of Monaghan’s shirt desperately, gasping for breath. “Let me get this mask off so you can breathe easier.” The Judge floundered, struggling, shaking, groaning and breathing harder, panicked, hands now trying to shove the captain away weakly, little growling moans tearing the air as they fought Monaghan. Monaghan thought she could see a wide, pale flash of widened, panicked eye through the hole in the mask and she could tell that removing it will cause more harm than good.

                Monaghan felt fresh, warm blood flow across her hand and she pressed on the Judge’s pelvis to force them to still. “Alright, alright, I won’t take it off. Calm down. Please. Please be calm. It’s alright. I’ve got you.” The Judge settled, taking deep, gulping breaths and stilling. Monaghan rammed the needle of one of Selene’s medkit syringes into the Judge’s thigh and applied pressure to the bleeding hole, ignoring the sucking, wheezing pull of air as the Judge struggled even harder than usual to breathe through the pain. “I’ve gotta get you back to Prosperity.” The Judge thrashed again and Monaghan grabbed her shoulder with a desperate hand as the other tried to keep the Judge’s blood inside her body. “Well, then where the fuck am I supposed to take you? What the fuck am I supposed to do?! You’re dying,” she informed them shrilly, still feeling hot blood sticky on her fingers.

                The Judge’s left hand was still sunk in Monaghan’s shirt urgently, but her right moved over and over in the same two symbols. The first, her thumb tucked within a clenched fist with its tip exposed between middle and ring finger. The second, a partially closed fist with the thumb folded across the palm. Relief flooding through the captain at the sudden urgent communication. She recognized what the Judge was signing over and over, recognized its intent.

                “N.E.,” the Judge signed again and again. “N.E., N.E, N.E.”

                “New Eden. New Eden, I got it.” Monaghan blew out a relieved breath, gently taking the Judge’s upper arm to assure her. “Stay with me, Judge.” It was still along the river, just a different direction, toward the lake, Monaghan thought quickly. “Alright. Alright, first I gotta get this bleeding stopped. I gotta risk a fire.” With trembling hands, she lit a small fire and looked at the Judge’s injuries. There were many. There’s dark blood oozing from a wound in her chest and it was the source of most of the blood. “I’m sorry. This is going to hurt,” Monaghan intoned, opening the Judge’s jacket to access the worst wound. Monaghan tried to ignore the pale flesh there, the feminine swell of breast, the briefest glimpse of pink nipple. She tore the thin undershirt the Judge was wearing and jammed a rolled up piece of cloth into the gaping bullet hole.

                The Judge let out an eerie, breathy shriek of pain that was quiet but still loud enough that Monaghan searched their surroundings, listened for approaching footsteps. Monaghan lifted the Judge to her feet and they staggered as Monaghan adjusted, slinging the Judge’s arm across her shoulders. She half-dragged, half-carried them to the plane, panting with the effort. They were small, but stout, all muscle and bone, heavy. They laid back, breathing hard, a sucking sound emanating from the chest wound. The Judge was pressing on the makeshift bandage, masked head tilted down in exhaustion and pain. Monaghan started the engine and booked it toward New Eden. The plane did not need wings to make it fly fast and loud through the river. Massive rooster tails of water flared up and away from the pontoons like watery wings. “Hang in there, Judge,” Monaghan yelled over the sound of the engine, but when she looked back, the Judge’s head was lolled to the side, unconscious. Or dead.

                Feeling relief flood her at the sight of New Eden’s wooden palisade, Monaghan pulled into the sluice gates that fed part of the lake through the village, seeing disapproving looks at the plane from all the cultists as she did so.

                “Help me. I need help.” They stared at her. “It’s the Judge!” As though a fire had been lit under their asses, cult members jumped to action, running to the plane.

                “It’s the Judge. Get the travois!” one of the New Edeners yelled over their shoulder. A wood-framed leather stretcher was brought out and the Judge was gently pulled from the plane, senseless, head lolling on a limp neck. Monaghan followed as they carried the figure into a wooden cabin. Trained hands went to work, stripping off leather and linen clothing.

                “The Judge values their privacy,” Gabrielle, the village medicine woman, said to Monaghan. “They do not know you well. It is not your place to gaze upon their sin.” Monaghan nodded, though every instinct wanted to fight to stay in the room with the Judge.

                “Help her. Please.” The woman frowned at the use of the pronoun, but ducked back into the cabin without another word.

                Monaghan slept fitfully that night, tossing and turning on the uncomfortable cot in the communal sleeping area. Her dreams were plagued by memories of the IED she had once missed in reconnaissance, of the broken, tattered pieces of human beings that used to be her friends and co-workers. The dream fogged with a sheen of desert sand kicked up by the explosion. It is hot, too hot and the sun is unbearable above her. She shields her eyes with a hand and shifts her rifle on her shoulder and it dissolves in her hands, warm, and sticky and red. In her dream there are faces, little whimpering sounds and a rasping hiss. She startled awake with a cry, trembling and sweaty.

                The Judge was standing, barely, leaning against the doorway. She stumbled forward, half-dragging a leg with a tight wrapping around the knee to prevent it from bending. Her breathing was hard and she grasped at bed frames as she staggered toward Monaghan in an odd rendition of Frankenstein’s monster. Monaghan sat up and started to stand, but the Judge held up a hand where she had paused to catch her breath. When they finally made it to Monaghan’s cot, they sat heavily.

                “Thank you,” the Judge signed wearily, chin tipping down tiredly. Monaghan’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at the Judge’s sudden willingness to sign to her.

                “It was only fair I came back for you. I’m the one who put you there in the first place, after all. You okay?” The Judge tilted her head, and then nodded slowly. “Do you want to stay here for a while to finish healing? In New Eden, I mean?” The Judge considered her question, looking out the open wall of the bunkhouse to where Joseph was standing, interacting with his followers magnanimously. The man turned, saw the Judge and raised a hand slowly, in greeting, hawkish face predatory even with a friendly expression upon it. The Judge’s breathing accelerated and she looked away, looked at her gloved hands in her lap, raised one to her mask hesitantly, half-caressing the weathered wood.

                At last, the Judge turned to Monaghan and shook her head emphatically.

Chapter Text

                Wind whipped wildly around her, whistling, bringing stinging sand with it. Monaghan pulled out her sunglasses, scratched, ancient aviators, and sat them on her nose. Coughing, she wrapped her face with a bandana-like cloth she kept in her pack for storms just like this one. Lightning flickered across the sky in purple-blue jolts. Monaghan felt her hair flaring around her face, static rolling through it like invisible fingers. Ozone hung thick in the air, roiling with that after-rain scent amid the haze of sand. Like most of the sand storms post-bombs, this one was wild and sudden, with next to no warning. Monaghan had been hunting by herself, a leisurely task intended to help her find intel, and to make contact with the New Edener and Scavenger groups fighting the Highwaymen when storm clouds suddenly gathered and sucked up loose sand from all over the county, flinging it in a deadly whirlwind that Monaghan was now, unfortunately, in the middle of.

                Monaghan had left the injured Judge in a small outpost with a group of their people a month ago. They were certainly the worse for wear, but those absurd healing abilities that Monaghan had experienced herself were sure to make their recovery swift. Monaghan and the others living in Prosperity had been busy gathering supplies to fortify their home, building weapons, making bullets. Much of her time was spent stealing resources from the Highwaymen, harrying them like an angry crow harries a bird of prey at their nest. She had considered contacting the Judge, asking them to follow her, help her. They were an ideal hired gun, with nearly supernatural healing abilities and exceptional stealth training, but on top of that, they had an almost miraculous gift with animals. When the Judge roamed with her, animals ignored them, even hungry, aggressive ones skirted around them, leaving them be. But Monaghan wanted to give them – give her, she corrected herself, time to heal.

                So, it was with great surprise that Monaghan stumbled into the Judge, literally, while seeking shelter from the sand. The Judge was coughing, panting, wheezing, as usual, her destroyed voice emanating as a deep growl as she struggled in the wind, holding a gloved hand up to attempt to protect their eyes from where sand could be blown into the holes of their mask. Monaghan wanted to ask what they were doing out here, but knew that not only would she not receive an answer, but that there was no way anyone would willingly open their mouth to speak in a sandstorm. She grabbed the Judge by the shoulder and they stared at her for a moment, or tried to through the flurries of sand.

                Wordless, the Judge grabbed Monaghan’s hand and they staggered forward together, seeking a building, a shack, a slab of tin, a car, anything in this wilderness to save them from being sandblasted to death. Through the brown-tan haze of sand whipping across her vision, Monaghan saw a large rock. With no better shelter apparent, she drug the Judge toward it by her hand. The two stumbled toward the sparse shelter, tripping at least four times and finding themselves separated in a whoosh of sand. Each time this happened, Monaghan grasped around, grabbed a shoulder or a leg or, awkwardly, an ass until she found a hand to pull the Judge back to her feet.

                Staggering, finding it hard to breathe through a mouthful of sand that made its way past her bandana, Monaghan slapped a hand on the rock, looking for a leeward side, but such a thing did not appear to exist. With a sudden tearing growl that could barely be heard over the wind, the Judge fell, dragging Monaghan with her.

                Monaghan felt sand fall around her, felt it sliding nastily beneath her collar and down her back. She shuddered, crawling achily to her feet and shaking herself, staggering away from the hole. The Judge was lying on her side on the ground, grasping her chest and breathing hard. Monaghan drug her away from the hole where sand was piling rapidly. Coughing wildly, the Judge looked around her and panicked, scrabbling at the walls like a wild animal before trying to scratch and pull her way out of the cave they had landed in, piling even more sand in with them.

                “Stop! Stop! Judge, stop. We’re safe. It’s fine. We just have to wait for the storm to pass.” They were in what was once clearly an underground bunker. The walls were still intact, but cracks were torn into it, the ladder to its entrance was gone. The door of the bunker was bent down into the shaft, clearly destroyed by an explosion at some point. The back half of the bunker was collapsed, entirely inaccessible. All over the floor were pieces of metal shelving and old, empty steel cans and destroyed MREs. From the sleeping bag and a few scattered clothes Monaghan found in one corner, it appeared someone was using it as a camp recently.

                The Judge was still panting, shoulders heaving wildly like a trapped animal, rasping gasps that Monaghan thought might have been high-pitched whimpers if their voice was intact emanating from her. “If you don’t sit down, I’m gonna knock you down,” Monaghan finally snapped after several minutes of this, but she put a gentle hand on the figure’s shoulder after she reined in her temper. With a guttural snarl, the Judge knocked her hand away, still stubbornly staring up at the hole they had fallen through, shielding their eyes from falling sand with a hand. Accepting that the Judge suffered from some form of extreme claustrophobia, which was unsurprising given their apparent history, Monaghan sat down, watching as the Judge paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, breathing hard like a big cat in a too-small zoo enclosure. This behavior continued and Monaghan leaned back, wishing there was something she could do, but understanding that a phobia was not an easy thing to overcome.

                Hoping to provide calm in some simple way, Monaghan began to softly sing Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.” The Judge paused in their pacing, cocking their head at her mildly. They took a deep, shuddering breath and sat across the bunker from her, listening to the wind whistle across the opening, listening to Monaghan sing. She finished the song, and they sat, quiet. For a long while, while the wind howled and spat dirt into their space, the two just looked at each other, surveying the other silently, the Judge still breathing quickly, reminding Monaghan of a frightened bird that had flown inside a house. After a couple of hours, Monaghan asked,

                “Are you alright?” A moment’s hesitation and then a little nod. “Your wounds healed?” A hand wobbled indicating “so-so.” Monaghan nodded. “Are you willing to speak to me using ASL now?” No answer, just a staring bleached wood mask. Monaghan sighed and clenched her jaw in frustration. “It must be hard. Not being able to talk.” The Judge looked at her mildly, twining their fingers together. “It must have been hard being stuck in a bunker for so long with Joseph. Really it would be hard to be stuck in a bunker for that long with anyone. I only had to stay in a bunker for about three years, but still, it was awful.” There was a small, guttural hiss that Monaghan could not interpret, so she stumbled on. “I just want you to know, I won’t ask you to go into any small spaces like this with me if you decide you want to keep helping me. I understand not wanting to experience…” Monaghan searched for a word, found it, “captivity again.” Another hiss, but this one sounded less aggressive. Monaghan nodded, having said her piece and did not pester the Judge any further.

                The storm lasted long into the night, still kicking swirling gusts of sand into the bunker entrance. Monaghan stayed where she was, sheltered from the brunt of the sand and tucked between collapsed shelving and other waste, but the Judge refused to sit any farther away from the opening, staring up at the entrance often, as though reassuring herself that it was still there and still open. Late in the night, the Judge finally went slack against the wall they were leaned against, asleep, breathing loudly, a few low snores breaking from them, to Monaghan’s amusement.

                Almost every breath the Judge took was a hiss, a low rasp through their throat. The sound, like a snake or a predatory animal growling sent goosebumps up and down Monaghan’s spine and she wondered yet again what had happened to this human being, this mysterious bundle of linen and leather in a mask that they refused to remove. Their breath continued, low and steady until finally, overcome by exhaustion, Monaghan drifted off to sleep herself, but only after overcoming multiple times the sudden racing-heart feeling of being half-awakened by a hiss of breath, expecting an attack from a hungry animal, or a bite from a snake, and realizing it was just her cave mate’s breathing.

                The rasping, wheezing breaths of the Judge were fucking unsettling, Monaghan decided after a louder than usual breath startled her from sleep again. Annoyed, she tucked her jacket over her head to muffle the sound.

                Monaghan awakened the next morning, sand caked uncomfortably around her eyes, dried into crusty eye goop that she roughly wiped away with her shirt tail. She looked up, squinting her eyes against the ray of sun that was beating down through the bunker’s hatch. Glancing around, she found that the Judge was gone, no longer in the cave with her. Undecided on whether to be angry or concerned about the abandonment, Monaghan stretched and picked up her pack, knocked more sand off of it and herself. She heard a rattling hiss and froze, reminded herself it was not a snake or other predator, and looked up. There was a proffered hand above her reaching down. She took it, accepted the help, hauled herself up with the Judge’s assistance. Silent, the Judge handed her a fresh water canteen and a handful of jerky. Monaghan accepted it, nodding thanks.

                “So. Want to help me out for a bit?” the captain asked, an invitation. The Judge cocked their head, considered, then nodded. “Alright then. Let’s go.” But Monaghan did not move yet, just gazed at the Judge. Amid everything else, she found curiosity awakening in her, a welcome distraction from the constant stress of trying to save this valley from the villainous Highwaymen. Kim and Nick and the others had told her a few stories about the deputy, a tragic hero ultimately undone by her worst enemy. With a stark jab of empathy, Monaghan realized what similarities they shared, two failed heroes struggling to make things right again. She patted the gruff figure on the shoulder and smiled. “You and me? We’re gonna be friends,” Monaghan promised. The Judge stood stock still, staring at Monaghan and hissed quietly. “Good talk. Alright, off we go.”

Chapter Text

                The captain handed the Judge a carved reed. "I'm tired of hearing you coughing after you drink," she said gruffly, trying and failing to be nonchalant, trying to make it seem like it didn’t hurt her soul when the Judge had a desperate coughing fit…trying to make it seem like the Judge hadn’t become her favorite person over the past couple of months. The Judge took the reed straw, their stance and their mannerisms somehow making them seem surprised. They tipped their face forward, and then turned away, as always, wordless. Monaghan, if she was being honest, had formed an odd attachment to the Judge, regardless of their mannerisms and eerie hissing noises that they made. She figured, listening to them struggling to drink, hearing the hacking coughs, that whatever had happened to their voice was bad, that they must have taken damage to their throat. So, almost unaware of why she was doing so, she had collected a stout wooden reed and punched out the center of it into a straw for her gun for hire.

                “What happened to you?” she asked softly, almost a whisper, her curiosity like a low flame, ready to be stoked with the fuel of any information she could get. The Judge stared at her indifferently, tucking the reed into their jacket.

                “Heh?” they asked, unable to communicate, to speak, to explain their situation.

                “Nothing,” Monaghan murmured, and looked away.

--

                Monaghan checked her clip – plenty of rounds still left, good – and glanced over to the reticent leather and linen-clad figure. The wooden mask obscured the Judge’s face, but even before Monaghan had gotten an unsolicited glance at an injured breast, she had guessed that the Judge was female. Ignoring the deep, fucked up noises that emanated from the Judge, it was obvious from the way she carried herself, from her graceful steps and feminine fingers. When Monaghan had been told the story of the famous Deputy, they had said “her.” Was there any of the deputy they all spoke so highly of left in this broken, silent person?

                There was no way to know, no way to hear an opinion from the horse’s mouth since said horse never spoke. Which was fine, really. Monaghan was never really much of a conversationalist, was only talkative when the occasion arose but did not generally seek out camaraderie with anyone other than very close friends. She wasn’t much for company either outside of combat situations, but having a companion was handy when she got knocked down in the field and one never knew when Highwaymen would show up. Better safe than sorry. Pastor Jerome and young Carmina Rye were nice, and both were excellent shots, though Jerome’s propensity for lighting everything on fire was mildly terrifying. But they just…talked too much. Hurk had wanted to stay with Gina after they had pulled her out of the prison derby, and again, Monaghan was glad. Hurk, at least, could have a one-sided conversation without the irritating need to point out how little Monaghan wanted to talk. The others cajoled and pestered her about her silence. She just didn’t feel the need for small talk anymore. Not in this world anyway, not since shit had hit the fan. Silence meant more time for listening, listening meant a better chance of survival; it had been engrained in her in the Army and emphasized by the tragedy after the bombs dropped. Her ability to be silent when needed was at least part of why Rush liked her so much as a soldier, she supposed. Silence was a valuable commodity in a world gone to shit.

                But the Judge? Her silence was deeply disturbing, punctuated as it was with sandpaper breaths through reverberating wood. They had been travelling together a little more than a month after the Judge had nearly bled out in Monaghan’s hands, a little more than a week after the sand storm and the captain still was not used to that hissing silence, those growling chuffs that were maybe words, or maybe just coughs. Monaghan found herself staring, wondering about the sanity of this person leaning against a tree as she waited for Monaghan to finish cleaning her guns. The Judge turned her gaze, judgmental even without facial features to form an expression, and coolly met Monaghan’s stare with the eye holes of her mask, adjusting her bow. She grunted, a question.

                “Sorry, didn’t mean to stare. I was just wondering how you can stand to wear that mask all the time. It’s hot as balls out here,” the captain said, embarrassed. The Judge shrugged and thumbed at her bowstring, ensuring its tautness. “It’s nearly nightfall, thank god. I was thinking we could make camp up there before it gets colder than a polar bear’s nutsack,” she said, gesturing to a clearing in the trees. Hot days and cold nights made camping interesting to say the least. The Judge grunted a sound of agreement and the two gathered firewood in not-exactly-companionable, but still blessedly quiet, silence. The evening grew cool as the sun sank down beneath the mountains, its pinkish orange light flowing away from the tree tops as stars began to appear.

                Swearing, Monaghan tried to light a fire and was surprised by a light but strong hand on her shoulder. The Judge usually went out of her away not to touch or be touched. The Judge murmured a growl, nudging the captain aside gently, but firmly. Deft hands flicked sparks off the flint and a sudden, merry little flame leapt up, grazing the tinder like a hungry deer. The Judge coughed, shoulders jumping with the punctuated gasps for breath as smoke flared up, greedily fogging the air. Wordlessly, Monaghan handed the Judge the water canteen and finished preparing the fire, adjusting the logs. Awkwardly, the Judge poured water into her hand and lifted the very bottom of the mask up, tugging her balaclava down, turning her shoulder to try to hide the sudden view of skin from Monaghan.

                Monaghan stared openly, trying to see a glimpse of the face beneath that mask and hood. She had expected to see garish whorled, burnt skin, mottled brown, pink and fleshy scars and a gash that was once a mouth, was expecting some obvious injury to explain the lack of voice.

                What Monaghan actually saw was smooth, pale skin, though creased with age, and soft pink lips. She knew Joseph had starved this person, brainwashed her into believing in some nut job religion. Monaghan was glad for the cult’s help, sure, but it was all just a load of shit. She knew that after dealing with the Highwaymen, the cult might be a whole other steaming pile of trouble to deal with. After seeing how this person dealt with enemies, she did not want to be on the wrong side of the Judge.

                Swallowing, Monaghan remembered the horrifying notes she had found in the bunker Joseph’s specter had led her to, the scrawled cuts into the wall to count the days locked in the bunker, awaiting fresh air and daylight. Had Joseph used the deputy as his own personal radiation guinea pig? Was that how he’d transformed her, forced her to believe? Was that what had happened to her voice? Or was it something else? Something worse? Monaghan allowed herself a moment of heartache, of empathy for this rasping animal before her that had once been the hero of the county. How had the deputy been reduced to this?

                How would people react if the Judge ever came through Prosperity’s gates? To this point, she had refused to enter Prosperity adamantly, absolutely unwilling to walk through the gates and instead melting into the forest when Monaghan stepped toward the gates. Was she concerned the citizens of Prosperity would know her? The captain knew that Sharky was aware of the Judge and who she was, as was Hurk and a few others, but Monaghan was unsure how they know. Hearing the stories people tell about the deputy the Judge used to be, and seeing who she was now, Monaghan began to understand the “why” behind the mask. The Judge growled at the captain, clearly irritated at her staring and the leather-clad warrior put a hand on the grip of her knife in warning. Monaghan held her hands up in surrender.

                “Sorry, sorry. You can’t blame me for being curious. You’re kind of a legend, you know.” The Judge tipped her head to one side, a gurgle in her throat. Without further ado, the Judge stood, brushed off her buckskin pants and walked away without a word or a breath. Monaghan did not hear her raspy breath for several hours, the fire having died down to a dull glow. When she finally returned, she dropped lightly from a tree overhead and Monaghan had to keep herself from jumping or shouting.

                The Judge popped her back and began fiddling with her quiver, reorganizing her arrows. “I worry about you when you go off like that. It’s dangerous,” Monaghan told her. The Judge ignored this, just kept fiddling with her quiver, and then her pack, and then absently retied a leather thread along the edge of her jacket. Monaghan let out a huff of frustration. “Contrary to what it might seem, I do care what happens to you. I don’t just have you tagging along because you’re a good shot. If that was the only qualification needed, I’d bring Nana along. Though, she is a little bit slower than you,” Monaghan mused, looking at the Judge out of the corner of her eye, seeing what response teasing got from her.

                That last phrase gets the Judge’s attention and the smooth wooden mask turned toward her, the Judge growling a noise that sounds inquisitive. Monaghan counted the reaction as a victory and continued with a smirk. “Yeah, a bit slower. Not by much though. Guess I could just get her to tag along. She talks less, that’s for sure. I think one of these days your chattering might take my ear off.” The joke fell flat and there was an uncomfortable silence as the Judge surveyed her before shaking her head slightly and sitting back on a log, warming her gloved hands over the fire. “Here,” Monaghan said, handing the Judge a radio similar to ones she’d given her other hired guns. “Use band 2, frequency alpha.”

                The Judge took the radio, but even through the mask Monaghan could tell she was being looked at as though she was an idiot.

                “I know you don’t – or can’t talk, but it would give me peace of mind if you’d carry that with you. You ever get in trouble, you squawk it three times fast, three times slow, three times fast.” The Judge huffed, but clipped the radio to her belt. “It’s got a kind of GPS enabled within a small range. You find yourself in trouble, I should be able to find you with that. And, do me a favor? You go off into the night to do whatever it is you do when I piss you off, not returning for days, squawk it once in the evening, around sunset, just so I know you’re alive, yeah?” The Judge surveyed her silently aside from her ragged breaths and finally nodded.

                Reaching down to pick up a handful of dirt, the Judge filtered it slowly from her fingers, staring behind her mask at where the sand fell. Monaghan absently whistled “Call Me Maybe” until the Judge gave her a pointed look and she stopped, blushing.

                The next day, they clear out another Highwaymen camp and Monaghan was amused at the force with which the Judge had dispatched the boombox that had been blaring their music of choice, loud and vulgar. Monaghan despised the music the Highwaymen played, but the Judge hated it more than Monaghan for some reason. Maybe she was more a Zeppelin fan?

                Once, they had encountered an old-timey record player in the basement of a long-abandoned house they were looting. Monaghan, curious, had wound up the arm of the record player and set the needle down. Warbling, warped notes tinned out of the player softly and the Judge had frozen, nearly dropping her bow.

“Only you can make all this world seem right, Only you can make the darkness bright, Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do, And fill my heart with love for only you…”

                The Judge was shaking, low growls hissing out from their throat, their shoulders were heaving with gasping breaths. Their hands trembled violently and Monaghan was about to ask what was wrong when the Judge with swift, furious action picked up a sledgehammer that was leaning against the basement wall. Monaghan ducked, yelping at the sudden near-hit. The Judge, growling, gasping, had slammed the sledgehammer into the record player, distorting the last audible notes of the song. She kept hitting it, over and over, breaking it until it was irredeemably unfixable and still she kept hitting it. Her shoulders were heaving, her breath more ragged, more rough than it usually was even when she was at a dead run. Careful, cautious, Monaghan put a hand on the Judge’s shoulder. She spun, brandishing the hammer at Monaghan, who backed away, holding her hands up non-threateningly. The Judge bore down on her and Monaghan’s heart thundered in her chest.

                “Hey, Judge, it’s me. The captain. I’m not your enemy. Judge, stop!” Monaghan yelled as she stumbled backwards over debris and landed on her ass, the Judge towering over her with the sledgehammer prepped to turn Monaghan’s brains to jelly on the wall. A last-ditch effort, Monaghan rearranged her face into a hard glare, hoping against hope that being a cop was anything like being in the military. “Drop your weapon, officer! That’s an order!” There was a long, pregnant pause and the Judge’s head tipped to the side, a gurgling growl bubbling up deep within her chest. With a massive heave of her shoulders, the Judge flung the hammer away and clambered up the ladder to the main floor as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened, refusing to respond when Monaghan asked what had happened.

                “Jesus Christ, I didn’t know anyone hated The Platters that much,” Monaghan muttered under her breath, hands and voice both shaking from the shock of nearly being killed.

                They dined on a swiftly prepared elk chili that evening. The Judge had found some chili pequin growing in a field they’d walked through and had seasoned the meal, seemingly enjoying herself as she added a dash of this and a dash of that, slipping her carved wooden spoon under her mask to taste and nodding or growling periodically in response. Tasting the hearty meal, Monaghan had had to down a canteen full of water, nose running and the Judge had let out a raspy, grating noise that was clearly her sad, damaged version of a laugh.

                “Yeah, laugh it up, Fuzzball,” Monaghan said, referencing an old favorite movie of hers. The nickname was fitting given the furry half-cloak the woman always insisted on wearing. Her leather outfit obscured her figure, making it hard to tell what was muscle and what was thick padding. Monaghan wondered idly what she looked like under all that, wondered if she was somehow horribly disfigured somewhere on her body. Shaking herself, she opened her mouth to speak. “You know,” Monaghan said, picking at a chunk of ground elk in the chili, “At some point you’re going to have to talk to me about what happened in there, with that song.” The Judge stood and Monaghan cursed under her breath. “Please don’t leave me.” The Judge stared at her and she reddened at her own choice of wording. “It’s not safe. For either of us. Come on, sit down. I didn’t say ‘now,’ I just said ‘at some point.’ It’s only fair. You’re my friend, after all.”

                “Hngruh?” asked the Judge.

                “I didn’t catch that.” Monaghan had the grace to say it apologetically. Commenting on the Judge’s lack of ability to speak was always awkward and Monaghan generally avoided it.

                The Judge made a motion with her hands interlocking her index fingers twice and followed the motion with a repeatedly crooked index finger. From somewhere in the depths of her brain, Monaghan searched for the meaning of the signs.

                The crooked finger meant a question.

                The interlocked index fingers…she groaned, frustrated. The Judge fingerspells the word instead, patient. Realization dawned and Monaghan raised her eyebrows. “You’re asking if I consider you my friend?” The Judge nodded emphatically. “You’ve picked me up out there in the field, patched me up, kept me from dying. I’ve done the same for you. Is that not what a friend does? Plus, we’ve shared meals and a couple of beers. If that doesn’t make us friends, I don’t know what will. And I did tell you we were going to be friends. I don’t make a habit of breaking promises,” Monaghan teased gently.

                The Judge brought the inside of her right hand to her masked chin and moved it forward, held up a closed fist and nodded it, then repeated the interlocking index finger motion.

                “Thank you. Yes. Friend,” the motions said.

                “Well, alright then,” Monaghan agreed gruffly. “Sit your ass down.” The Judge chuffed, a little affronted, but obeyed. Monaghan was surprised, but happy, that the Judge had finally decided to communicate with her outside of hisses and grunts. She hid a smile behind her hand and stared into the fire.

                “They speak only one language – that of violence,” Joseph Seed had said.

                It would not be the last time he was wrong.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan awakened early in the morning a few weeks after the Judge had finally started using signs to talk to her. Yawning, the captain flipped through an ASL dictionary they had lifted from the dilapidated Hope County Library as she sipped a cup of tea, determined to become fluent again so she could talk to her new friend. The Judge was still asleep, snoring softly beneath her mask and Monaghan smiled, enjoying seeing the usually tense figure relaxed and at least temporarily at peace.

                As they worked their way through the landscape, Monaghan and the Judge developed their own version of sign language, taking what they both knew of ASL and bastardizing it for their own use, coming up with shorthand symbols for communication in addition to military hand signals they both knew from their careers before the bombs went off.

                It was nice to sign to one another, no words being spoken aloud even from Monaghan on quiet nights when the cicadas and frogs were signing. At night, as they ate quick dinners, usually a spitted rabbit or grilled fish, their silent conversations kept them from detection by enemies and allowed the sounds of night to reign even as they communicated.

                Mind starting to feel full, Monaghan set the dictionary down and made her way to the river, casting her line into the unnaturally blue water, leaving the Judge to sleep in. A white, pink-antlered deer scuttled past with a snort, dashing off to safety and the captain chuckled, reeling in her line slowly. A fish snatched the bait and she reeled with more force now, opposing the movement of the fish, letting the line back out, pulling it back in until the fish was exhausted and came to the shoreline with its operculum gaping, trying to pull water over deep red gills. Monaghan pulled it out of the water, a rainbow trout, unsurprising, but she was sick of trout. Gotta find some salmon, she thought. Sighing, she dispatched the fish quickly and cleaned it, adding it to her pack. She cast her line again and this time heard ragged breaths approaching.

                “You woke up early,” the Judge signed.

                “Someone had to get us breakfast or we’d starve.” The mask almost managed to look insulted the way she levelled it at Monaghan and she shuffled off. A whiz of an arrow and a screeching gobble sounded from a few hundred feet away and in a few moments, the hooded figure dropped a turkey at Monaghan’s feet.

                “No stuffing,” the gruff figure said with her hands, shrugging and Monaghan realized with surprise that it was a joke.

                “Jesus, there’s no way we can eat all of that. We’ll have to salt it and trade it.” The Judge shrugged again and started plucking feathers out, tearing the legs off with crunching pops and handing them to Monaghan to cook for breakfast.

                Returning to the fire and cooking the turkey legs with salt and pepper, the pair ate in silence and without signing, simply enjoying the fresh meat and the cool morning air. “I’m planning on trading what we’re carrying in Prosperity tomorrow,” Monaghan commented. The Judge did not react, but instead shoved another piece of turkey under her mask. Monaghan levelled a gaze at her. “You’ve gotta face them sometime,” she said softly. To her surprise, masked woman flung her mostly-eaten turkey leg into the fire.

                “Fuck you,” she signed with an unmistakably erect finger. Monaghan leaned back, actually surprised at this reaction. The captain’s usually the one with the quick temper.

                “Jesus. Touchy.”

                “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” the Judge signed harshly, movements stiff and angry. Monaghan was glad she was fingerspelling most of the words because her hands were flying angrily and she cannot imagine how livid the Judge would be if she had to ask her to repeat herself. “You have no idea what we went through. You have no idea what the Edeners did to them. Did to me. Is doing to me. No idea.” Her hands stuttered for a moment. “You have no idea how bad seeing them hurts. You have no idea. You don’t know.

                The Judge emphasized this last word, her flattened hand tapping at the side of her head crisply like a salute as she shook her head. She disappeared and Monaghan packed the truck she’d relieved the Highwaymen of after finishing her turkey leg. Sighing, she hotwired the truck and sat, waiting for the tell tale purr of breath, or the flattening of grass from the Judge sneaking back. Neither happened. Turning the music up, the captain drove away, checking her rearview for someone she knew she would not see.

                Monaghan drove to Prosperity and honked, waiting as the gate was opened. She dropped off her load of hunting goods, fuel and other items, happily trading for ammunition and weapon parts.

                “How goes it, Cor?” Rush asked casually.

                “It goes,” she answered, shoving another pack of gauze in her first aid kit and zipping the pocket shut.

                “You’ve been doing a good job here, Cap. I’m proud of you.” Monaghan smiled a bit, appreciating the encouragement. The Judge’s impromptu abandonment of her had been disheartening.

                “Thanks, Rush. How’s the leg?”

                “Still fucked, but getting better by the day. Kim took my stitches out for me since you’ve been gone so long.”

                “Did she now?” Monaghan teased with a lascivious tone.

                “She is a married woman, Monaghan,” Rush growled, taking the joke more seriously than Monaghan had intended it. An odd expression flickered across Rush’s face as he looked at her. “And…”

                “‘And’ what?” Monaghan asked softly, meeting his eyes and not liking what she saw there, not liking that vulnerability and pain that she had unintentionally caused him.

                “And nothing,” he finished lamely with a little shake of his head. “Just…be safe out there.” Monaghan stocked up her food supply and water pouches and waved a goodbye to Hurk, who was holding a squirming baby Blade. She saw him pass the wriggling infant off to Gina and chuckled with amusement at that unlikely situation. Carmina hopped in the passenger seat while Monaghan was distracted.

                “Where to this time, Captain?” she asked cheerily, adjusting her beanie using the rearview mirror.

                “Out you go, kid. I’ve already got hired help,” Monaghan objected. She did not like taking the kid out in the field. She could not bear to look at her parents if something were to happen to her. They had lost enough already.

                “I don’t see her anywhere,” Carmina argued, stubborn. Carmina had a point. Monaghan’s chest ached. Who knew if the Judge was even coming back anytime soon. Clenching her jaw, she turned to the kid.

                “How do you know the Judge is a her?” Monaghan challenged, raising an eyebrow. Jesus, did everyone know who the poor shmuck was?

                “Because Mom told me she was the deputy. The deputy was my godmother, did you know that? She saved my parents from the Cult, kept my mom safe when she went into labor.” Carmina met the captain’s eyes steadily. “How is she?” Monaghan looked away, swallowing. “That bad, huh?” Carmina patted her arm once and stepped out of the truck. “Take care of her. Be patient. She has a lot to work through.” Monaghan chuckled. The kid was wiser than her years.

                “You’re a good kid, Carmina. Take care of yourself.”

                “I always do,” Carmina assured her, hopping up onto the stairs of the lodge and twirling a strand of hair around her finger distractedly.

                “Don’t bring her back here, Cap,” a gruff voice said at Monaghan’s driver side window. She turned and saw the scruffy, wrinkled face of Sharky. He handed her a sack of explosives that she gingerly put in the backseat.

                “What happened to her, Sharky? What did Joseph do to her?” He glanced away, his usually cheery demeanor diminished.

                “We don’t know exactly,” he said, avoiding her gaze. “But, the last time she saw me, she tried to kill me. I can still feel her hands on my neck. She was my best friend. My…well…we shared somethin’ special me and her. Used to talk to her about our shared love of eatin’ pussy,” he sidetracked, remembering.

                “Ugh, oookay, Sharky,” Monaghan interrupted, rolling her eyes at him. “She’s different with me, not as uptight now, I think. Maybe Joseph’s different too, I don’t know, I wasn’t here when the cult was trying to take over. Everyone described him to me as dangerous. Seems to me now he’s just crazy.”

                “He’s a shitload of both,” Sharky growled. “Dangerous and batshit insane. You didn’t know him, didn’t see him. What he did to people. You don’t know what we had to deal with here.” His tirade sounded an awful lot like the Judge’s right about now.

                “Gotta tell you I’ve about had my fill of people tellin’ me what I do and don’t know, Boshaw.” Sharky sneered, an ugly expression on his usually friendly face.

                “Listen to me, dammit. Whatever he did to her, I don’t know if there’s any comin’ back from it. Just be careful, Captain.”

                “If you could have her back, wouldn’t you want her back?” Monaghan asked softly. Sharky stared at his toes for a second, clenching his jaw before meeting her eyes again, crossing his arms defensively over his chest.

                “She ain’t ever comin’ back, Cap. The Dep I knew is gone.”

                “We’ll see,” Monaghan whispered. “Take care.” She put the truck in reverse and backed out of the gates, turning the truck around to face the open road.

                Monaghan pulled up a mile away from what the Highwaymen had deemed “The Chop Shop,” a monstrosity of stacked cargo boxes that used to be the city of Fall’s End before the bombs went off. Monaghan stepped out of the truck, loaded her pack and pulled a camouflage tarp over her stuff, weighing the edges with rocks. She crouched, screwing a silencer onto the end of her rifle. A sharp breath sounded near her and she looked over to see the Judge making her way over to her. “Judge,” Monaghan acknowledges blandly and the brown-clad figure gave her a salute of hello in ASL. They strode toward the outpost together, motioning to one another as they spot Highwaymen. One of the armored idiots spotted them but the Judge dropped them with an arrow to the throat before they can alert the rest of the camp. Monaghan gave a thumbs up and crouched behind an old interchangeable sign that was adorned with yellowed, sun-bleached letters that read “UCK JSEPH,” and Monaghan chuckled.

                The Judge hissed sharply and Monaghan popped up, a sharp blat, blat, blat, belching from her gun as she sunk bullets into the radio tower controls near her.

                “What the fuck was that?!” Monaghan heard.

                “Hit the alarm, something’s up.”

                “Fuck, it’s broken. Oh shit!” the Highwayman said, her last words as the Judge grabbed an arrow like a dagger and sank it with a grunt into the junction of neck and shoulder, dropping the slack body and ripping the arrow back out, notching it and sinking it deep into a sniper that was aiming for Monaghan.

                “Glad you’re on my side, Judge,” Monaghan hollered, peppering three more Highwaymen with her submachine gun, slinging the rifle back over her shoulder out of the way. The captain sucked in a gasp as a scrawny Highwayman jumped out a rusted hole in one of the cargo boxes right behind the Judge, a shank in his hand. “Judge!” Monaghan yelled in warning and the figure turned, saw the Highwayman, planted a boot directly between the man’s legs and rammed an arrow down his throat and back out. The man was still alive, but probably will not be for long. Monaghan cackled. “I hope he’s not allergic to nuts ‘cause you just kicked his into his throat!” She heard a grinding hiss that almost sounded like a laugh as the Judge ran over to her. They fanned out to either side of the camp, meeting back in the middle with a trail of squirming, exsanguinating bodies behind them.

                The Judge hissed as Monaghan rounded the corner of the building they’re infiltrating now, the last building in the encampment that had not been cleared. Monaghan froze and turned to her.

                “What do you see?” she asked, a soft whisper. The Judge held up two fingers, pointed around the corner. Monaghan nodded. “I’ll go this way. You go that way. Take the one closest to you. I’ll meet you on the roof.” Another hiss and the Judge was gone with a rustle of leather and creak of bow.

                Monaghan dispatched her guy and climbed up onto the roof in time to meet the Judge. She held up a hand for a high-five, but the Judge looked at her blankly.

                “Oh, come on. Don’t leave me hanging, man.” A huff and the Judge hesitantly held out one hand, low and awkward. Monaghan dropped her high-five to a low-five and exclaimed when the Judge grabbed her hand hard and yanked her forward and down. She crouched over Monaghan with a hiss, raising her bow again. A third, previously unseen Highwayman died, the shot intended for Monaghan’s back firing wildly into the air. “Jeez. Thanks.” The Judge pulled her to her feet without comment (or hiss) and hopped gracefully down from the roof. Monaghan radioed Kim and lead the way into the woods, keeping a steady jog away from the encampment they had cleared. She heard coughing and wheezing behind her and turned, concerned.            

                “You alright?” The Judge growled a hiss and held a hand to her throat, hacking. “Here,” Monaghan said, tossing her the canteen. The Judge surveyed her, chuffing out another series of coughs. “It’s alright. I won’t look,” Monaghan promised, turning away. It was not the first time the Judge had had a coughing fit, and Monaghan was only a little ashamed to say she usually took the opportunity to try to get a glimpse of her face. Now that the Judge considered her a friend, though, she tried harder to respect their privacy, contrary to her curiosity’s desire. She heard greedy slurping and the wiping of a leather sleeve across a face before a shuffle of material and clicking of buckles. “You know you don’t have to wear that thing,” she said, testing the water. “Joseph is not here.” The Judge growled and slapped the canteen back into Monaghan’s hands as she stalked past her in irritation. She hissed again, a sound that clearly said,

                “I’m going. Keep up.”

                “Have it your way, then,” Monaghan muttered, discouraged.

                Later that afternoon Monaghan paused for a break, stretching and putting her pack down. The Judge reached down and picked up a handful of dirt, stood, filtered it out through her fingers, scattering it. Monaghan watched in fascination. She had seen the Judge do this weird shit several times. It was unnerving, made her seem unhinged and otherworldly.

                “What the fuck are you doing?” she finally asked. The Judge turned to her, hissing a bit. She tilted her head, looked awkward.

                “Nothing,” she signed fiercely. Monaghan surveyed her for a moment, nodded. “It is a habit, I guess. I’m bored,” the Judge snarked with her hands, clearly defensive about her idiosyncrasies.

                “Well, sorry, your Majesty. Come on, let’s go find more people for you to murderstab,” Monaghan laughed, patting the Judge on the shoulder. This time, for the first time ever, the Judge did not cringe away from Monaghan’s touch.

Chapter Text

                The Judge’s demeanor changed by the day, Monaghan found, sometimes by the hour, depending. Sometimes the Judge was cold, composed entirely of efficiency. She killed Highwaymen and ignored the panicked screams of wayward citizens. It was at times terrifying to watch the Judge step over injured citizens, uncaring, blank. But then, the same afternoon, they encountered an old, dilapidated building that was once a pizza bar and the Judge ran a hand over a faded Whistling Beaver Brewery poster and Monaghan heard a little sucked in, stuttering breath that sounded like crying. The next firefight they’re in, the Judge offered a gentle hand to pick up a frightened person, brushing them off and giving them water, patting them on the shoulder to reassure them.

                This flip-flopping, sometimes beaten dog, sometimes conquering hero behavior was more unsettling than the Judge’s breathing. Monaghan wanted to ask, wanted to know what was going on in that silent mind. They had worked closely together for almost two months and yet somehow she still did not know the Judge at all. She only knew what she had heard of the deputy, and that person may not even exist anymore.

                Monaghan took a deep drag from a bottle of whiskey she’d pilfered from the pizza bar as they sit at their nightly fire.

                “I got into this line of work to help people too,” Monaghan commented, remembering one of Kim’s stories about the deputy. The Judge was silent, did not respond. “Wanted to make a difference. Wanted to clean up shit even before the bombs dropped. And then they dropped and none of the work I’d done so far mattered. Nothing I’d said or done or changed before made any difference on those bombs being dropped.” She shrugged, took another pull of whiskey. “But if I could go back, do all those things again, try to help people again, even knowing everything would be undone, I’d still do it. Good was worth fighting for, even if it didn’t win out in the end. It’s why I’m still doing this, still fighting the bad and trying to help the good. The people of Hope county appreciate your help. They appreciated it before, and they appreciate it now. Don’t let whatever shit happened with the cult make you forget who you were.”

                The Judge just stared at her, breath a hiss like an angry snake. Monaghan ignored the warning, ignored how dangerously close she was getting to the subject matter that made the Judge disappear for days at a time. Maybe it was the whiskey. Maybe she was just an asshole, but she was tired of this cult shit, tired of looking at this broken being who somehow let her enemy get the better of her. Anger at the injustice of the Judge’s situation flared through Monaghan and she found herself wanting to pick a fight, wanting to push this person into an emotional response, wanted to force them to remember who they were. “You know I really need something to call you other than ‘the Judge.’ I don’t want to call you what Joseph Seed calls you. I don’t supposed you’d tell me your name.” The Judge hissed, fingering their knife as though considering starting a physical altercation with Monaghan. They stared at each other, both angry, both defensive. “It’s a simple question,” Monaghan said. It was not a simple question and they both know it, both know that Monaghan was intentionally treading into dangerous subject matter.

                “Fine. You used to work for the county. Law enforcement.” A deep, coarse growl emanated from the Judge’s throat, the sound a dog made before attacking. Monaghan took a sip of whiskey and looked at her companion coolly. She remembered the note she found in one of the abandoned buildings, remembered seeing the scrawled request for help, remembered seeing the name, remembered hearing it slip out of Hurk’s mouth one night while telling a story. Remembered Sharky storming off in response, remembered Sharky saying it himself when he confronted her earlier, in frustration. It was clearly a touchy subject, and Monaghan’s all about kicking the lid off anything that bothers someone, especially when she was in the kind of mood she was in right now. “Ever had any nicknames from that career choice?” she tested. The Judge was silent. “Hhmm? ‘Dep,’ maybe?”

                The guttural shriek that was punched out of the Judge’s chest was not human. The creature, gasping for breath, stumbled to her feet, pointed eerily at Monaghan and trying desperately to scream something at her, but was caught by a storm of coughing and clutched both hands at her throat, gasping and spluttering until she collapsed to her knees. Monaghan was frozen in place, watching, unsure what to do. She did not know what response she had been expecting, but this was not it.

                When the rasping, gasping drags of breath finally stopped, the Judge’s shoulders were still trembling, still shaking rhythmically. She was weeping, gloved hands covering her mask. She turned away from the fire, away from Monaghan, and unclipped a buckle at her face. The captain could see silhouetted from the firelight that the Judge was holding the mask and wiping at her face roughly, sniffling. Monaghan stood and walked to her, puts a hand on her shoulder. The Judge pulled away ferociously, a tearing snarl punctuating the motion.

                “Hey,” the captain said, gently. “It’s alright. I’m sorry,” and she genuinely was, knew she pushed too far, knew that hearing that nickname must hurt. The Judge kept looking resolutely away and finally wheezed out, strained, barely understandable, barely audible,

                “Nooooo….” It was the sound of wind through dead leaves, an eerie whoosh of wind from the Judge’s mouth. She clipped the mask back in place and turned to Monaghan, her motions stiff, embarrassed.

                “I know you are…were a deputy. The deputy,” Monaghan prodded a few minutes later after the Judge had collected herself. The mask turned toward her, blank, malevolent and Monaghan wonders for a moment if she is about to get herself stabbed to death. She would probably have it coming, she figured. “I was pretty damn sure and then Kim and Sharky confirmed it. Those notes in the bunker... I don’t know what Joseph did to you, but it was not right. No one deserves…” Monaghan gestured toward the Judge helplessly. The sound of wind through dry grass emanates from the Judge and Monaghan realized after a moment that she was laughing with contempt, no humor in the dry sound. “You know your friends know who you were, know what you’ve become. Is that why you won’t come into Prosperity when I drop off supplies?” The Judge was still for a moment, then nodded, silent. Brooding, Monaghan thought. “I’d still like to be able to call you something other than ‘the Judge.’ I wouldn’t want you walking around calling me ‘the Shepherd.’ That seems like the kind of thing that would get Joseph’s dick hard.”

                The Judge grabbed a branch from the fire and Monaghan tensed, prepared for an attack. Instead, the Judge stuck it into the sand where it sizzled for a moment. Fiddling with it, the Judge tilted her head back and forth before tossing the whole thing in the fire.

                “‘Dep’ is fine,” she signed finally. Monaghan reached out a hand timidly and put it on the Judge’s knee, nodding. “Just…don’t call me that in front of others. Please.”

                “Alright, Dep. I’d be willing to bet, you keep helping me help these people, they’ll forgive you for whatever it was happened to you and whatever you did because of it.” Dep shuffled awkwardly, scratching the back of her neck with a gloved hand. “Well. I’m going to sleep. Look, I – I know I ask you every night, but it gets cold, Dep. Don’t feel bad about cuddling. I’d appreciate the extra warmth,” Monaghan invited again. Dep never accepted the invitation, always slept alone in her own bedding, but Monaghan wanted to give her the option, especially after making her vulnerable and emotional. Dep gave another sound of wind through fall leaves, another laugh, this one actually amused, not a bitter rasp like the previous laugh.

                Monaghan took off her hat and laid down, cuddling into her sleeping bag and folding an arm underneath her head. As the last of the day’s warmth drained away she was surprised, but relieved, when Dep laid down right next to her, pulling her into the front of her soft leather outfit. She smelled like tanning chemicals, blood and dust, but also something warm and homey, like cinnamon. The last thing Monaghan remembered before drifting off to sleep was the soft, gentle sound of breath close to her ear, steady and safe.

--

                The two travel together amicably and now that some kind of mutual friendship had been reached, Monaghan began to appreciate the growling breaths Dep had to take, was amused instead of worried by the woman’s many idiosyncrasies. She still wondered what happened to her voice, listening to little hisses of breath and growls that made it seem a bit like she had a zombie for a companion. She felt a little disrespectful thinking this about her friend after hearing tales of the Deputy’s exploits, almost single-handedly taking out all of the Eden’s Gate cult except Joseph. She was a hero from a different time, a tragedy poorly hidden beneath leather and a wooden mask. The aching sadness that seemed to ooze from Dep hurt Monaghan’s heart as she saw herself reflected in Dep’s desperate want to save people. Each time Monaghan watched the woman dive into battle, furiously reigning hellfire and destruction on her enemies, she was glad for the company, for a companion. Monaghan realized with a shock as she trotted alongside the Judge that she was glad for someone else to be lonely with.

                With the world gone to shit, Monaghan had had very little time to think about relationships. Her friendship with Rush was special. He had started out her commander, ended up her best friend, and she worried that his feelings toward her might fuck that up. She cared about him, just not like that. Plus, she did not want kids. His kid deserved a mom who wanted her. Feeling uncomfortable on this line of thought, she shifted her mind back to the Judge – the deputy. The glimpses of face she’d seen had seemed intact, not scarred or burnt, she mused, speculating what the rest of that face looked like. Feeling singularly lonely even though she was not alone, Monaghan’s mind wandered down meandering paths of curiosity as they made their way toward a Highwaymen outpost.

                Monaghan walked behind the former deputy, finding her thoughts working their way from vanilla curiosity about what the person underneath all that cloth and padding looked like and heading resolutely toward the gutter as she stared at the leather-clad ass tucked beneath the bottom of the thick jacket and wondered if its skin was just as smooth and unscarred as Dep’s face. Dep felt predatory eyes on her, often tilted her masked face at Monaghan questioningly before turning back to whatever task was at hand, ignoring Monaghan’s attention. A little hero worship had always gone a long way toward getting Monaghan to actual affection, and the next thing she knew, she felt something a little too bright in her chest when Dep would pull her close at night for warmth, would feel want and need rush through her. It was because of years of loneliness, she knew, but still. She admired this being.

                Dep’s real name, as it turned out, was Charity, a fact finally admitted over a shared meal next to a small fire huddled in the middle of nowhere in Highwayman territory. Just Charity, she insisted, not giving a last name. Yeah, like Prince, or Madonna, Dep had joked when Monaghan had questioned it and the captain had laughed uproariously at the joke before Dep put a finger to her lips. To her lips, Monaghan realized with shock, feeling the soft leather against them. A wolf howled nearby, explaining Dep’s caution, but she pulled away gently, body language open and friendly.

                “My name’s Corbin,” the Captain whispered quietly, breath catching. “Prefer ‘Monaghan,’ though. Old military habit, I guess. Rush insists on calling me Corbin because he knows it throws me off. He has the good sense to call me ‘Cap’ in front of strangers though. Knows I’d kick his ass if he didn’t,” she laughed. Through gestured and spelled words, Monaghan learned that Dep was born and raised in the southern part of Hope County, had always wanted to go into law enforcement. She started out working as an animal control officer with plans of becoming a game warden one day. She had wanted to serve and protect, like her father had as a county deputy, and maintain the natural splendor she so loved about her state. But then her father had died in the line of duty, killed by some punk ass meth head with a vendetta and the kind of arsenal people in remote parts of America could come by and she had decided to follow directly in his steps.

                Owing to Monaghan’s big mouth, the whole night went to shit when she tried to lighten the mood by teasing Dep about being named “Charity” in “Hope” county and she cursed herself when the taut figure stood stiffly and walked away into the darkness. Joseph’s sister, Monaghan remembered with a palm pressed to her face, had been named “Faith.”

                Dep had returned that night, laid down away from Monaghan, curled up into herself and cried softly, gasping in little desperate, miserable breaths. Monaghan got up quietly and laid down next to her but Dep recoiled from her touch, huddled into herself and muttering something, coughing and gasping for breath around shuddering sobs.

                “Hey, hey, it’s okay. It’s alright, Dep. I’ve gotcha.” Monaghan wraps an arm around Dep’s waist, pulling her close, heart squeezing at her friend’s pain. Desperate, starving for some lifeline, Dep weaves her fingers into Monaghan’s. “It’s alright,” Monaghan crooned. It’s stupid, and it’s presumptuous, but Monaghan nuzzled her face gently to the pale skin just in front of soft golden-brown hair and just behind the gentle curve of an ear where Dep’s balaclava had fallen down. Dep froze, and then let out a stuttering breath. She signed awkwardly,

                “What are you doing?”

                “Sorry,” Monaghan muttered. There was an awkward pause, but then Dep took her hand again and pulled her closer, a purr rumbling through her chest before she drifted off to sleep.

                They don’t sign at all the next day. Or the next. Or the next. Something had shifted, but Monaghan was not sure what, was not sure if her moment of weakness had been welcome or not. They clear out a camp of Highwaymen and Monaghan was knocked unconscious. She was pulled to her feet by Dep’s firm grip on her arm. Dep grunted and patted her on the shoulder before turning back to their enemies, cutting two down with one arrow with a perfectly aligned shot. They cleared the bodies, looting ammo and materials and Monaghan tossed it all into the back of her recently acquired pickup truck, a Kimberlite TCZ painted black-checked silver with a turquoise eagle head on each side.

                Monaghan turned on the radio, an old phone that served as nothing more than a music player plugged into the aux cord. A pleasant tune started playing and out of the corner of her eye, Monaghan could see Dep staring at her, could see her move an almost affectionate hand over the dashboard. She turned to look so she could see Dep’s hands as she signed something.

                “Where did you get this truck?” she asked.

                “Found it inside a garage near the Chop Shop. Took a little work to get it running,” Monaghan said aloud, both hands preoccupied with steering. “But I like the paint job.”

                “I did too,” Dep signed huffing a windy laugh. Monaghan snorted out a chuckle as well.

                “This was your truck?” Dep nodded solemnly, running a hand reverently along the side panels. “You’ve got good taste,” Monaghan acknowledged with a smile, glad that Dep was signing to her again.

                For dinner, the two had found some not-too-long expired seasoning packets to put on some trout. Dep pulled her mask up to allow access to her mouth and Monaghan looked anywhere but her face. They’ve been working together three months now, tracking down Highwaymen, stealing supplies. Dep had not yet followed Monaghan inside Prosperity, though she would go with her to the gates every time, body language sad and nervous and she knew damn-well why.

--

                “What happened to the deputy, Sharky?” Monaghan asked again, pointblank, having cornered Sharky in his explosives lab.

                “I think you mean the ‘Judge,’ amigo,” he countered bluntly, not looking way from where he’s assembling a proximity bomb.

                “You know damn well who I mean,” Monaghan snapped. “I’m tired of this song and dance. Tired of that judgmental fucking look on your face every time I pull up and she’s in my passenger seat.”

                “I don’t like your tone, Captain,” Sharky growled, still not looking at her.

                “I don’t give a fuck what you like, cabrón. I care about my friend. I care about helping her, and that’s just about the opposite of what you’re doing. The way I figure it, you’re a primary part of the reason she won’t come in here.” Sharky threw down a component suddenly and violently and Monaghan nearly jumped out of her skin. She would not put it past the man to blow them both to kingdom come accidentally while arguing. He was ordinarily friendly, and funny, and charming, but the deputy was a sore subject for him. Perhaps now was not the best time to be bothering him about it. He sighed, shoulders slumping.

                “I thought I lost my best friend the day those bombs went off, Cap.” His voice was quiet and much softer than she was ever heard from him before. “I had no idea what happened with her and that crazy asshole Joseph until me and Hurk ran into her years later. We’d run out of food and out of options and decided to fuckin’ made a go of it, man, just fuckin’ Mad Max in this mother. We were blowin’ shit up left and right, fightin’ people for food, killin’ all these crazy ass animals. She damn-near hopped on my back out of a goddamn tree when I went outside to take a piss and I thought I was done for until Hurk kicked her in the head, knocked her mask off.” Sharky set down his soldering iron and turned to Monaghan, folding his arms across his chest defensively. “I was so fuckin’ happy to see her, man, you don’t even know. She was my best fuckin’ friend. Hell, every body thought we were fuckin’, but she don’t play for that team, if you get my drift. No other way a woman coulda resisted this, let’s be honest.” Monaghan rolled her eyes.

                “Get to the point, Sharky,” she said wearily. His blue eyes flashed with anger.

                “The point, you condescending motherfucker –”

                “I didn’t know you knew words that big, Sharky,” she drawled, as always, unable to not be an asshole. He clenched his fists and she could tell he’s fighting the urge to punch her. Let him. A good fist fight might make her feel better.

                “The point is, Captain,” Sharky continued through clenched teeth, “That I loved that woman like she was my own goddamn sister. We fought together every day. It used to be me in that passenger seat, her in the driver’s.” His voice broke and he stopped, taking a deep breath. He sat down tiredly, looking truly exhausted, and truly, deeply sad. Right now he was miles away from his playful, silly self. “We damn near ran that fuckin’ cult out of town. I personally helped her kill off Joseph’s family, helped her save the people who lived in this county who were mindin’ their own fuckin’ business before that monster came here and took over. She was against that cult and everything it stood for. She was against him. And now?”

                Sharky closed his eyes and wiped a wrinkled hand down his face and into his beard. “She climbed off me after Hurk kicked her mask off and I hugged her. I hugged her so fuckin’ tight. Told her to come with us. I realized pretty quick she couldn’t talk anymore. Joseph did somethin’ to her voice, I don’t know what, so don’t asked me,” he snapped, knuckles going white where he’s now gripping the edges of his workbench. “She pushed me away and I saw it on her wrist – that goddamn cross tattoo. One of the Peggies – that’s what we called the cult members – was with her,” he explained to Monaghan’s confused look. “That sack of shit told me Joseph had sent the Judge to stop me and Hurk from makin’ liquor, said it went against God’s will whatever the fuck that means, man, I don’t know. Alcohol makes me feel closer to God, man, for real.

                “We had set up one hell of a distillery, let me tell you, man, made some incredible shit. I told the Peggy to fuck off and I begged Dep – the Judge – to come with us, told her we’d get her some help. She knocked me back into the wall with one punch. Damn-near killed me; she had some kind of super-human strength. It scared the shit out of me. Hurk threatened them with his rocket launcher and they took off. We got a party together, caught her a few days later, tied her up, took off that goddamn mask again. She acted like a wild animal, biting and kicking both of us. I still had a fuckin’ scar from it, look,” he said rolling his sleeve up above his flame tattoo to show a white set of half-crescent scars. “Best I could tell, he brainwashed her somehow. Tortured her or something. Would ’t be the first time he did some fucked up shit like that. This new cult ‘New Eden’ it may not be as violent as the first one, but Joseph’s still a snake, Cap. That man is no fuckin’ good. Nothin’ that comes from him is good. Look, I ain’t sayin’ I think it’s possible, but if you can pull her out of that shit, well, Cap, I will buy you a goddamn keg let alone a drink.”

                “Whatever happened to the distillery?” Monaghan asked, curious. Sharky smirked, crossing his arms across his chest.

                “Oh, I’ve got another one in the works, don’t you worry your pretty head, Cap. But that first one? Fuckin’ Highwaymen took it.”

                “Hmm. Maybe I’ll take it back,” she mused. “Do you know anything else about what happened to her?” Monaghan asked, a return to the subject at hand.

                “I honestly don’t know, Cap. But Hurk and I did a lot of explorin’ and that bunker Joseph had her in…”

                “Yeah, I saw it,” Monaghan acknowledges grimly, lip curling at the memory of the Judge’s notes, of being starved and offered nothing but the Word of Joseph until she finally submitted, finally believed his lies.

                “Then you saw how long she was holed up in there, man. All those scratch marks. I found fingernails in some of them. Nothin’ good happens to anybody locked in a room with Joseph that long, Cap.” Monaghan nodded. Sharky stared at nothing for a moment, his eyes sad and unfocused. “I miss her. I miss my best friend.” He looked at her askance. “Don’t tell Hurk I said Dep was my best friend. He will not let me hear the fuckin’ end of it if you do.” Monaghan chuckled.

                “Thanks, Sharky.” Monaghan turned to walk away.

                “Hey, Cap?”

                “Yeah?”

                “Be careful out there. Here.” He handed her a leather bag full of grenades. “Go blow some shit up. It’s therapeutic.” Monaghan sniggered. “I’m serious, really. You blow something to shit and see if it doesn’t made you feel better.”

                Monaghan pulled out of Prosperity and was surprised to see Dep standing near Nana, who was standing guard at the gates. Monaghan put the truck in neutral and pulled the parking brake, hopping out and was about to greet Nana when she heard Dep sobbing quietly under her mask, shoulders slumped in grief.

                “Oh, oh Honey, you alright there?” Nana asked, concerned. “World’s fresh out of therapists but I’m an ear if you need it.” Dep stood there sobbing and it was awkward and heartbreaking to watch. “Boy Georgie,” Nana exclaimed. “Um, Kiddo?” She dropped her voice to a conspiratory whisper and addressed Monaghan, “When things cool off maybe let’s get this one some help? Like, the talking kind of help. Think they’ve got some splinters in their gray matter that need tweezin’,” she declared.

                “De– Judge,” she corrected herself quickly, “hey. Come on,” Monaghan said softly, putting an arm around the broken figure’s shoulders and leading her to the truck so that she did not become any more of a spectacle. A few people were staring from atop Prosperity’s wall. Dep sat dejectedly in the passenger’s seat of Monaghan’s truck. Thunder crackles across the sky and Dep flinched, still crying.

                “Jesus,” Monaghan whispered under her breath, heart squeezing. The deputy had one hand on her mask as though it were her face, and her other was slumped loosely in her lap as she cried. Monaghan put her own hand atop Dep’s limp hand, squeezing it lightly, and drove away from Prosperity as her friend wept beside her.

Chapter Text

                “I’ll tell you a story you want to hear, but you’ll have to buy me a drink first,” Jerome said in his deep baritone, walking up to where Monaghan was cleaning her gun at the workbench. “I know you want to know more about the deputy.” Monaghan shrugged, trying to be nonchalant. Her curiosity could often be a curse, but Sharky had refused to say anything further, had barely spoken to her the last several times she had come to Prosperity since she’d asked. The two, frankly, were so stubborn and similar that they locked horns more often than they got along. If she wanted to learn more about Dep, it would not be from Sharky. “Can’t tell you what happened to the deputy in the bunker with Joseph, but I can tell you about our attempt to rescue her.”

                “Thought you were hanging out at Roughneck’s Crag nowadays,” Monaghan commented, focused on her task, trying not to give into the temptation of interrogating Jerome, trying to play it cool though she desperately wanted to asked hundreds of questions.

                “I figured a walk would be good for these old bones. Keep trying to get the deputy to come up to the crag. We’ve got a nice setup there. Grace did real good. If you can find an excuse…” he let his voice trail off and Monaghan chuckled a little bitterly.

                “I can’t make that woman do anything she doesn’t want to already, Jerome.” Jerome laughed.

                “Sounds like the deputy I know,” he admitted. “So how about that drink?” She turned to him with a smirk, clicking the pieces of her rifle back together smoothly.

                “How about that story?”

--

                “Calm her down, calm her down, goddammit, shit get that knife out of her hand, watch out Hurk!” The Judge struggled frantically in the net that had fallen heavy and entangling over her as she patrolled. She growled, slashed at the ropes, slashed at the people approaching her. A tall, stout man with a beer belly and American flag bandana approached with his hands out like he’s trying to tame a scared animal, which, technically, he was. She cut a deep gash in his belly with her knife, growling ferociously.

                “Oh, fuck! Goddamn, she’s really tryin’ to hurt me, Preacher, shit, she got me good, ow, ow ow!”

                “Let me see. You’re fine, hang on, now.”

                “Where are the others?” Clint asked, worried.

                “Dead,” Nick said grimly. “One of the Peggies shot ‘em before we could get the hell out of there with her in this net.”

                “Grab her legs, don’t let her get away,” Jerome advised. “Those deaths can’t be for nothing,” he said, but it comes out more prayer than command. Sharky grabbed one thin ankle wrapped in leather and yanked hard. The Judge slammed to the ground again, mask banging into the ground and falling off. She cried out with a hiss of pain and scrabbled at the dirt, growling ferociously like a wild beast. Jerome kicked the mask away, grabbing her knife out of her hand after stamping a boot down on her wrist and she screamed a silent scream that unnerved them all. Scrambling for purchase on the dusty ground, she crawled on her belly toward the mask, snatching it up and snapping it back in place, gasping hard for breath. Sharky snatched her by the shoulder and she slammed her re-masked face into his. He groaned, grabbing at his bloody nose and she darted away frantically.

                “You are not going anywhere, Dep, we’re getting you out of here,” Clint ordered, her old gun for hire from years ago flinging his lasso expertly, teeth clenched. It flew over her head and arms and he tugged, yanking her again to the ground. She gets a hand free, grabbed an arrow out of her quiver, brandishing it like a dagger as they tried to get close to her.

                “Dep, stop, we’re trying to save you. We’re trying to get you away from them, goddammit,” Jerome pled in his deep voice. “Just calm down, now, it’ll all be okay.”

                “What do we do?” Hurk asked. “She’s actin’ all fucked up.”

                “What, you thought she wouldn’t be after so long with that monster Joseph?” Nick snapped, well out of the way of the Judge’s arrow, which she was stabbing out like a snake striking any time one of them got close. “I don’t know if we could save her, fellas.”

                “Shut the fuck up, Nick,” Clint barked angrily.

                “Sharky?” Jerome asked, looking at him. He had bags under his eyes and he looked exhausted, like he had not slept in a month as he looked down at what was once his best friend. His blue eyes misted a little and he sniffled before he clenched his jaw, grinding the heel of his hand angrily into his eye socket to force away the tears gathered there. “It’s your call. This is your rodeo. Do you really think we can save her?”

                “We gotta try, Preacher,” Sharky slammed out, voice tight and shaking. With a sudden rush of energy, Sharky darted at her. The arrow hit his collarbone, skittered uncomfortably over his shoulder, gouging flesh but she was not putting real effort into stabbing him, seemed to be racked with sobs. “Stop. Stop it,” he demanded quietly next to her hood-covered ear, trying to yank the arrow from her hand, and when he cannot, he snapped the end off and tossed it over his shoulder, cupping one hand gently behind her head. “Dep, come on. I need ya. Please. Come back to me.” That eerie mask stared at him for a long, long time.

                “You need to tie her up, Shark,” Clint urged. “She’s gonna hurt somebody.”

                “I ain’t tyin’ her up,” Sharky snapped. He puts a hand on the deputy’s shoulder, reached a hand up gently to that mask, went to unbuckle it again to see her face. The deputy’s familiar face was revealed, but it’s wild, more pale than he remembered. There was a scar across one cheek and on her chin. He tossed the mask away and it’s like he flipped a switch. The Judge snarled, an ugly, tearing sound, and rammed the broken end of the wooden arrow into Sharky’s upper arm. He screamed in pain, but hung onto her, grabbing her by the waist. She struggled in his grip, rasps that should had been shrieks tearing out of her mouth. “Stop, Dep, you don’t need it. You don’t need them.” With a guttural hiss, she clamped sharp white teeth down on his arm, hard, tearing skin and muscle violently, worrying the flesh with her teeth. Screaming in agony, Sharky let go, grabbed his bloody arm with a whimper. “She bit me! She fucking bit me!” he yelled, astonished.

                The Judge grabbed the mask, put it back in place over a face that was stained red around the mouth and chin with Sharky’s blood. She grabbed Sharky by the neck, squeezing hard, his blue eyes going bloodshot as he gasped for breath where she was pinned him to the ground, sitting on his chest. Clint yanked on his lasso where it was still looped around her torso and he tightened it violently. The Judge dragged Sharky along with her by the neck, hissing.

“Get off him!” Hurk yelled, bludgeoning the back of her head with the butt of his gun. She released Sharky, standing as though she was going to run and Clint yanked the rope again, wrenching it hard enough to slam her back to the ground. She landed hard with a huff, coughing and spluttering angrily.

                “Tie her up,” Sharky said roughly, voice defeated, as he stood, wobbling like a newborn calf and rubbing his bruised neck. After suffering many swift, painful kicks, they piled on the Judge, Jerome riding her legs like they were an animal themselves, his lip bloody from one of her angry kicks.

                “Goddamn, Dep, you kick like a fuckin’ mule,” Nick griped as he took a booted foot to the shin, but they managed to get her under control, binding her arms so tight behind her back they worry about her circulation. Hurk took her gloves off to made sure her fingers are not turning blue. Jerome saw that they were and loosened the bonds, ignoring the uneasy clenching of Clint’s jaw when he did so. They tie her at the ankles just tightly enough to prevent her kicking. They all wordlessly agree to leave her mask on.

                “Kim will kill me if we bring one of ‘em into Prosperity,” Nick said as they bundle the silent, furious figure in the bed of a pickup truck.

                “She ain’t ‘one of them,’” Sharky insisted, but his voice was an octave higher than it usually was under the scratchiness of his injured throat, and his eyes were widened involuntarily, showing much more white than usual. He was clearly fighting off both panic and tears and doing both poorly.

                “Sharky,” Jerome said, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder and handing him a cloth to bind his injured arm. “It may be wise to keep some things secret until we know for sure.” Jerome nodded to Nick, who slipped a cloth sack over the Judge’s head.

                The Judge sat, listening silently, flattening herself so that none of them could see her above the edges of the truck’s bed. She flexed her fingers, which had started to get the staticky pins-and-needles sensation of lost circulation. She listened, tilting her head up and down to get a better sense of who was nearby. They were arguing, trying to decide what to do next, and she used the loud bickering to her advantage. She tested her bonds, moving her wrists, tugging, yanking. The bonds were loose, much more loose than Jerome would have tied any other prisoner. Their compassion for her was yet another thing she used to her advantage. Wriggling bodily, she got first one hand out, then the other. She tugged the stuffy bag off her head with a gasping hiss. The mask was bad enough in that regard, and with her effort to get free, it had been hard to breathe.

                The Judge untied her ankles, pulled a foot wrap off, the soft leather wrapped now around each of her hands, with just enough length between them for a neck to fit. She sat up abruptly when she heard footsteps near the truck and slipped her leather garrote up and over a head, tugging back hard. She growled loudly in his ear and he whimpered.

                “Oh, please don’t hurt me, Dep, please, please, please, I don’t wanna die!” Hurk bleated loudly, gathering the attention of everyone else. They all turned, various looked of horror on their faces.

                “You don’t have to do this, Dep,” Jerome said, hand out in a calming motion. She hissed angrily like a cat, tugging back harder on Hurk’s neck.

                “Let him go, Dep, he’s your friend,” Nick pleads, sounding hurt, his face a mask of grief as he watched her yank roughly on Hurk’s neck, vicious and unfeeling.

                “I’d recommend you let the Judge go, sinners,” came a voice. They raised guns to where the voice was standing. It’s an older, lean woman all clad in leather and linen.

                “Nancy?” Jerome asked, recognizing her from before the Collapse. She met his eyes, aimed at his chest with the arrow. Several more cultists followed her out, all aiming at one of the unsuccessful rescuers.

                “Let the Judge go, sinners,” she repeated.

                “Let her go,” Sharky said, voice barely above a whisper. “Just let her go.” The Judge looked over at him with a soft intake of breath and released Hurk, shoving him forward and away. She and Nancy’s people melt into the forest, gone in an instant.

Chapter Text

                Peering through her binoculars into the Highwaymen camp, Monaghan smirked at the sound of Dep’s approach. She always returned after the captain left Prosperity, seemingly drawn to Monaghan.

                “You’re getting sloppy in your old age. Grace said you used to be like a ghost in the field. Heard you coming a mile away.” Dep did not respond, just crouched next to her and drew her bow. “Sharky misses you,” the captain mumbled, regretting it almost immediately. Dep growled, low and deep, a sound Monaghan now recognized as a word of caution, a warning that she did not approve of what’s being said, or did not want the topic addressed. “Jerome told me about how they tried to save you. About how you chose to go back,” she prodded. In for a dime, in for a dollar, she thought. A full, roiling growl of anger. Monaghan turned to her and saw Dep sign something sloppily, but she did not understand it, has not been reviewing the ASL dictionary they had found nearly as much as Dep recently. “I don’t know what that means, Dep.” The figure hissed and growled, furious.

                “Know this sign?” Dep asked with her hands, ending the string of motions with an erect middle finger before stalking off.

                “Smooth, Monaghan, smooth,” the captain muttered to herself. The Judge, all cool motions and professionalism, loops back moments later having collected herself and apparently reigned in her temper.

                “Seven over there,” she motioned, “Five more down the ridge. Two in each watchtower. I’ll silence alarms.” And then she was gone again, a blur of brown. Monaghan watched as Dep made her way to the top of one of the encampment buildings, shredding Highwaymen with ease. She jumped down and Monaghan’s eyes go a little wide. It’s a jump that she was sure either of them could had dealt with in their twenties, but in their forties? Not so much. Dep landed, hissed, and rolled in the most clumsy movement Monaghan had ever seen her make. She must not know that Monaghan was watching, because when she got back to her feet, she stooped, holding a hand to her back and making a small hissing noise of pain when she tried to straighten. Wordless, Monaghan took out the last of the Highwaymen, leaving Dep to recover. Once done, Monaghan radioed Kim to send people to populate the area and tear out the useful stuff. She trotted back over to Dep, who was bent down and breathing heavily. Monaghan thought of their conversation just before the brief fight with the Highwaymen, taking a deep breath.

                “Sorry,” Monaghan signed. “I pushed you too far. It’s not fair.” Dep just stared at her. “I know you’re still in there somewhere, Dep. All of you, not just the little pieces you let show. You think maybe one of those pieces would like a drink I recently learned you’re not supposed to have?” A huff of laughter and a small nod and then a very subtle wince of shoulders. Monaghan’s chest felt warm and she smiled. “Come on. Let’s go.”

--

                The deputy had a nightmare that night. She thrashed and sobbed. Her screams were a horrifying sound, simultaneously shrill and hissing over fucked-up vocal cords. Monaghan thought she could understand a few words but it’s hard to tell with the mask obscuring Dep’s face. She heard what sounded like “no” and “please” and “stop” and tried not to think about the subject of the dream.

                “Hey, hey, Dep, you’re alright, it’s alright,” she hummed, shaking Dep’s shoulder gently. The woman woke up panting and crying, coughs peppering her sobs. “Jesus, what did he do to you,” Monaghan whispered, pulling the struggling deputy tight to her chest. She’d read somewhere that deep touch and pressure could help after nightmares, so she gripped the woman tightly and squeezed her arms firmly. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you. You’re safe now. I’ve got you.” Jesus, Nana was right. It had been heartbreaking listening to Nana try to comfort the deputy. Monaghan did not know why being near Nana had made Dep start crying, but figured the old sniper probably reminded her of someone from the past. Monaghan wondered idly if Nana was right about the extinction of therapists, wondered if there were any still left in the world. For now she had to do the best she could to help Dep out of this hole Joseph Seed had put her in.

                Monaghan held the deputy until her crying stopped, until she was still and recalcitrant in her grip, then she let go. Settling back down to sleep, Monaghan held the bear skin blanket up, but the deputy stood, stretched her joints. Monaghan heard a cacophony of popping and cracking and felt her heart squeeze. How much of Dep’s life had been spent in that bunker? How long had she been locked in there with a madman? Though from Monaghan’s experience, Joseph had mellowed considerably, she still believed the people of Prosperity when they recounted their experiences at his hands. The man was a monster. She would deal with him once she’d handled the Twins, Monaghan decided.

                Joseph needed to pay for what he’d done.

                The deputy let out a little pained grunt as they clutched at their back, staggering a little when it popped. The bundled figure tried stretching, but it was clear she was in pain and nothing she did helped. Sitting back up, Monaghan patted the space in front of her.

                “I saw you jump off that building earlier today. Had to have been hell on your back. Neither of us are as young as we used to be. I didn’t think I’d be running around in the field again like a rookie at this age.” Dep hissed quietly and Monaghan frowned at the response. “At forty I’m way too fuckin’ old for this shit. I’m definitely too old to be jumping off buildings very often. Come here. Let me rub your back.” The deputy stiffened, affronted, fundamentally against any touch that was not absolutely necessary. “Oh, come on, I’m not gonna cop a feel. I’ve been watching you favor your back all day, popping it and rubbing it. Come on, sit down, you old fucker. Neither of us are getting back to sleep at this point anyway,” she remarked resignedly, seeing the first lightening of the sky in the east as the magnetic rainbow bands flickered wildly, extensions of the aurora borealis pushed south due to the bombs. The night burgeoning into morning was quiet and lovely.

                The former deputy stared at her for a long moment, but then finally, with a shift of shoulders, sat down in front of Monaghan, tipping her head downward. Pleased, Monaghan grabbed Dep’s shoulders with each hand and kneaded the taut muscles there. Involuntarily, Dep let out a little rasped hiss of pleasure. Monaghan gently worked her hands down Dep’s back, spending extra time on the area she’d seen her friend rubbing at earlier. Massaging tightened muscle and sinew was challenging through the layers of leather, but she heard another appreciative sigh and smiled slightly. Standing a few minutes later, the deputy turned to her and signed,

                “Thank you.”

                “Yeah, well, don’t go expecting any special treatment,” Monaghan said gruffly, feeling embarrassment at the tight, hot feeling in her chest after touching Dep so intimately. “You fuck your back up and I’m bringing Nana with me instead of you,” It’s her go-to threat to tease her friend. A snort emanated from behind the mask sounding halfway to insulted. “Hey, Dep?” Monaghan stopped herself from saying what she wanted to, from saying that the only person she really wanted at her side was the deputy. Instead she grinned, pushed her feelings back and said, “What’s for breakfast?”

--

                “Fuck.”

                “What’s up?” Dep signed, walking up quietly as Monaghan fidgeted with the parts.

                “I’m out of springs. Gotta find more. I think there’s a crate of them at Roughneck’s Crag if I remember correctly. Hurk was working on something using them and abandoned the project.”

                “There is,” Dep confirmed helpfully, gingerly popping her back after she did so, her posture slipping to one of nervousness. Monaghan heard a scratchy yawn under the mask before Dep leaned down, fiddling with the dirt and flowers in front of her idly.

                “Well, then I guess we’re going for a ride.” Monaghan packed their things and hopped on a four-wheeler she took the liberty of “borrowing” from a Highwayman after she took the liberty of placing a bullet inside his skull very quickly and loudly, and with a gun. Dep jumped on behind the captain, arms going to Monaghan’s waist and hanging on for dear life, hissing when she took a hill too fast and they go airborne before the wheels slam hard to the ground in a motion that made both their teeth chatter. “Chill. If we die today, at least we die having fun, right?” She could hear Dep growl and hiss and sputter behind her and grinned, only to take a grasshopper to the front teeth. Monaghan choked and stops, spitting and coughing and Dep chortled breathily before hopping into the driver’s position, looking at Monaghan mildly. “Ugh, fine.” Dep took the rocky and sandy area they were in slowly and carefully. Monaghan commented, “See, this was why senior citizens should not be allowed to drive.” Dep accelerated abruptly and tipped the four-wheeler’s front end up off the ground, knocking Monaghan off ungracefully. Dusting off her ass, she mumbled expletives under her breath and climbed back on, ignoring the snake-like chortle under a certain wooden mask she wanted to smack.

                They reached Roughneck’s Crag by mid-afternoon. Dep shifted from foot to booted foot uneasily as Monaghan greeted her friends. The masked archer had apparently not realized that so many of Monaghan’s friends – formerly her friends – had started hanging out at the makeshift bar since Grace and Jerome had renovated it. She skirted the edge of the area shyly, hissing and growling under her breath until Monaghan gestured her over and she hesitantly complied.

                “Hello everyone,” Monaghan greeted. “Jerome, Carmina, Nana, Gina. What’s up?”

                “Oh, just making some ribs,” Jerome responded with his soothing bass voice, flipping the massive rack of pork ribs over after opening a smoker that had once been a car trunk. Their pet hog Horatio grunted in a way that made Monaghan suspect he was offended by the choice of food. She saw Dep out of the corner of her eye grabbing a box of springs and affixing them to the back of the four-wheeler in a cargo box. She signaled to Monaghan that she wanted to leave, standing pigeon-toed, a nervous habit of hers that Monaghan tried very hard not to find absolutely adorable. “Let’s stay a while, Dep,” Monaghan called. The captain saw Hurk shift uneasily as Dep approached, standing a little behind and next to Monaghan. Hurk knocked back most of the beer he’s holding and glanced around at the others, clearly uncomfortable, his eyes wider than normal as he surveyed Dep.

                “Oh man, Dep, hey look at you! Yeah! Wow, so much has changed since, uh, since we last saw each other.” He’s trying entirely too hard to be casual and it showed. “Yeah, well I’m a daddy now. Yeah, got a little boy named Blade. And what about you man, you uh, what were you some sorta death monster now or…? … S-sorry,” he stuttered. “I-I’m real nervous around you,” he admitted. Dep said nothing and Monaghan was about to interrupt, but Hurk continued putting his foot in his mouth. “Still the silent type eh, hey? Yeah, yeah, okay, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool…alright homie. Oh, um, a little favor, man, if you ever see me out partying by the lake just don’t cut me up, okay? That’s, just, please?”

                Dep murmured a soft, “Heh,” that sounded heartbreakingly sad to Monaghan.

                “Any beer left?” Monaghan interrupted pointedly, feeling an aggressive protectiveness for Dep flood through her, unbidden.

                “In the fridge inside,” Jerome said, brushing honey on the ribs meticulously. It smelled amazing and Monaghan felt her stomach rumble. Dep walked into the bar, grabbed two beers and brought them out, already open, sipping on one with her reed straw, which surprised Monaghan. She did not drink often, but that had not stopped Monaghan from offering her alcohol even after several rejections. She figured whatever shit Dep had been through entitled her to a drink anytime she felt like having one, Cult rules be damned. She saw Dep’s hand trembling on the bottle slightly. Jesus, she was really bothered about being close to her friends again. Monaghan patted her gently on the shoulder as she walked past, but the Judge moved away, avoiding further touch.

                “Bitch didn’t bring anyone else a beer,” Gina groused, getting up and shoulder-checking Dep maliciously as she stalked to the fridge. Dep signed a sentence quickly using small movements with her back turned so the others cannot see that she was communicating. Monaghan nearly snorted beer out her nose.

                “What?” Hurk asked.

                “Nothing…just thought of something funny,” Monaghan said, trying to be nonchalant as Dep stalked off with her beer in hand.

                “Just because you have one doesn’t mean you have to act like one, cunt,” Dep had signed.

                Gina returned with beers for the others, tilting her head up, her nose in the air arrogantly. She was not Monaghan’s favorite person, but she tolerated her because she was damn good with a gun and she knew Highwayman tactics. Plus, Hurk seemed to like her – Blade was solid evidence that he’d had sex once in his life, at least.

                Monaghan’s general dislike of Gina grew, however when she stalked over to where Dep was fiddling with a handful of sand and Monaghan turned an ear to their conversation, but stayed at the table where the others were sitting and chatting.

                “What’s your deal? You don’t say jackshit,” The Judge purred a dangerous, low growl and Monaghan prepared to step in if needed. She has seen the Judge pull a long knife out of her quiver strap and eviscerate Highwayman in the past, viper-fast and brutal. “What’s that about? You have some kinda fuckin’ life changing trauma or somethin’? Some intense ‘everything I know is wrong’ type moment? Somethin’ like that screwed you up?” Monaghan expected violence, but instead she heard a choking noise that sounded like the Judge was emotional, upset, maybe about to cry again? Blushing from second-hand embarrassment, Monaghan stood, hand resting casually on her sidearm just in case the situation escalated too quickly for a fist to deal with.

                “That’s enough, Gina,” Monaghan ordered, stepping toward them. Gina turned to her, narrowed her eyes.

                “Who the fuck do you think you are, bossin’ me around? Huh? You ain’t even from here and you act like you own the county. You spend your time runnin’ around with this freak, what, you get your rocks off hangin’ out with Hannibal Lecter here?” Gina demanded, shoving Dep hard enough to knock her over. She hissed, pulling herself back to her feet and dusting her backside off, lunging aggressively at Gina, but Monaghan held up a hand, prepared to deal with the situation herself.

                “Enough,” Monaghan growled, voice dangerous, its tone brooking no argument. Gina stepped into her face and Jerome approached.

                “Okay, ladies, let’s all just take a step back and–”

                “Stay out of this, preacher, I don’t wanna have to kick your ass too,” Monaghan stated flatly and Jerome raised his hands and his eyebrows in surrender.

                “You wanna go, bitch?” Gina snapped, getting right in Monaghan’s face. The captain stood coolly, waiting for the moment, waiting for the first strike. She would not start this fight, but she’d sure as hell end it.

                “Why are you picking this fight, Gina?” she asked lowly, playing the voice-of-reason card, knowing it will get a rise out of her, knowing it will stoke the flame of her bad temper. She had dealt with plenty of hotheads like Gina in the Army, was one herself.

                “If you wanna fight, fight, throw a punch, cunt, I’ll fuckin’ lay you out!” Gina bit out in response, shifting and kicking in the dirt in front of Monaghan like an angry rooster.

                “Gina, baby, please,” Hurk begged, approaching in the way a zookeeper might approach an escaped wolf.

                “You fuckin’ fuck right off, Hurk,” Gina snapped, pointing at him viciously. “This is between me and the Captain. She wants to protect her little retard friend, that’s up to her.” A flare of fury shot through Monaghan at the use of that epithet.

                “I’m sorry, I don’t think you said that quite loud enough, Gina,” Monaghan snarled, savage rage flowing through her in a way it had not in years and it was exhilarating. “What the fuck did you just call my friend?”

                “I said,” Gina enunciated very clearly, like Monaghan was stupid, “Your buddy’s a fuckin’ re-tard.”

                “You know, I think I’m gonna write a song about this fight,” Monaghan mused, looking up and putting her index finger on her chin as though she was thinking of lyrics. “Please tell me your full name rhymes with ‘knocked on her fat ass with a broken jaw.’” Gina let out an angry scoff and Monaghan met her gaze, eyes narrowing.

                “You need me,” Gina said, changing her tactics and Monaghan could tell she was too chickenshit to actually throw the first punch yet, knew Gina was probably smart enough to see that even though Monaghan was shorter and smaller than she was, she could lay her on her ass in a fair fight. Thing was, the captain was not entirely sure she would fight fair. “You need my help fightin’ off the Highwaymen. You cannot afford to lose me, so I can say whatever I want about your friend and you can’t do jackshit about it,” Gina reasoned, looking smug.

                “Gina, let me make somethin’ perfectly clear,” Monaghan drawled as condescendingly as possible, her Texas accent warping her words with an amusing twang. “I need you about as badly as I need an asshole on my elbow. We all know you’ll stay around regardless because Hurk gives you a good dicking when you need it.” And there it is. Monaghan saw it in the change of expression, in the sudden flashpoint look of fury in Gina’s eyes.

                “You motherfucker,” Gina snarled and Monaghan had time to half-hear Hurk say something in a worried, warning tone before a fist slammed into the side of her head. She staggered back, but shook her head and regained her footing, wiping blood from her lip and smiling broadly at Dep over Gina’s shoulder, blank mask staring, clearly dumbfounded, at Monaghan standing up for her honor. Dep unfolded her arms from across her chest and took a half step forward, but stopped when Monaghan shook her head slightly. With a grunt, Monaghan threw herself at Gina’s waist, knocking them both to the dirt and they tumbled, each trying to get the upper hand, Monaghan punching ribs, tits, shoulder, wherever she could hit and Gina gave as good as she got. She got even angrier when she realized Monaghan was laughing. This was the captain’s idea of good fun.

                Through the buzz of adrenaline, Monaghan could hear people shouting for them to stop, but then Nana whistled shrilly and informed the others that they needed to fight it out. Tugging on Jerome’s shoulder Nana told him to leave the wildlife alone, asked if he had never seen a National Geographic special and told him to sit down. Monaghan laughed with wild abandon at Nana’s comments, letting out a huff of breath when Gina slammed her fist into her ribcage.

                Rolling in the dirt, Monaghan pinned Gina, tasting blood but having a great time punching her in the jaw until finally, face red with blood and one tooth chipped, the obnoxious woman tapped out. Monaghan got up and offered a hand to pull her opponent up.

                The motions that happened next were fast and violent and Monaghan was not quite sure how Dep knew to move when she did.

                Without warning, Gina grabbed an empty beer bottle from the ground with the hand that was not pretending to take Monaghan’s. She broke it against a rock, creating a sharp weapon that she arced upwards, aiming for Monaghan’s throat.

                Monaghan lunged back and suddenly Gina was being roughly yanked to her feet, the broken bottle smashed out of her fist and an arrow tip held tight enough to her neck to draw blood. Dep hissed ferociously, breathing deep and violent, arm pressed across Gina’s chest to hold her in place. Gina, to her credit, did not look afraid.

                “Alright, alright, we’re done here, that’s enough!” Jerome yelled, looking angry enough to rain hellfire on anyone who objected. Monaghan met Gina’s eyes.

                “You're an unbeatable argument for a little chlorine in the gene pool, Gina, but you’re a damn-good fighter, I’ll give you that.” Monaghan took a deep breath, wincing at the pain in her ribs. She chuckled. “Dep, let her go. Gina, you call my friend a retard again and I will end you,” Monaghan threatened, arm outstretched, pointing at Gina’s face and meeting her eyes forcefully. “And remember that that ‘retard’ didn’t put an arrow through your jugular only because I asked her nice not to.” Dep released Gina obediently, shoving her forward so that she had to put an arm out to keep from falling forward. Gina wiped her bloody nose and stared at Monaghan for a long, calculating moment, a range of emotions flickering over her pretty, but badly bruised features. Then she started laughing. Monaghan started laughing. Almost everyone except Dep started laughing uncomfortably because it seemed like the thing to do. Gina extended her hand and Monaghan took it, shaking it firmly with a smirk.

                “You’re alright, Captain,” Gina admitted. She kicked another empty beer bottle and everyone except Monaghan and Dep flinched. “You want another?”

                “Do bears shit in the woods?”

                “Are they friends now?” Carmina asked Jerome uncertainly. He shrugged tightly and walked off to check the ribs.

                The ribs were done late in the evening, and they piled their plates high, talking and laughing and drinking and doing dumb shit like fiddling with rocket launcher prototypes while buzzed. Since the fight, Dep had stayed stolidly to the outside of the group, sitting cross-legged and sullen while pushing little pieces of rib meat under her mask and thoughtfully chewing. Monaghan tried not to stare, tried not to act overprotective and overbearing. Tried, in a phrase, to play it cool.

                Jerome quietly walked over to where Dep had leaned herself against the side of the building after they had all finished dinner and Monaghan eavesdropped, curious.

                “I’m not sure what to say to you, my friend. You’ve changed.” The Judge growled softly, letting out a rumbled little “heh,” which Monaghan had learned was her way of letting the person know she was listening. “We all walk different paths in life. But yours…my goodness.” Jerome trailed off, starting to reach a hand out to touch the Judge, but she flinched back mildly and stepped away from him. “I pray you’ll find some peace, deputy,” he said softly, and then rejoined the group.

                Bored and feeling the show-off in her come alive, Monaghan pulled out Jerome’s guitar from where he had stashed it and they all circled around the open fire Nana had built as the night became chilly. Monaghan sat, adjusted the tuning, strumming with her ear close to the guitar’s soundhole, wincing at her sore fingers bruised from the fight, but playing through the pain. She started playing a song she had learned a long time ago, one that works better with a bass guitar accompaniment, but she had to make do solo. It’s not a particularly popular song, but it’s one of her favorites, so she had long ago re-written the bass and piano notes for acoustic guitar. She strummed, smiling at her audience, including Dep, who had approached like a moth to a flame but was carefully avoiding coming anywhere near Gina. The thin archer leaned comfortably against a tree, arms over her chest protectively, head tilted in curiosity, leaving Monaghan wishing for the thousandth time she could see the expression under that mask. The intro played, Monaghan took a deep breath and sang,

“How I wish you could see the potential – the potential of you and me. It’s like a book elegantly bound but in a language that you can’t read just yet. You gotta spend some time, love, you gotta spend some time with me, and I know that you'll find love I will possess your heart…”

                Monaghan looked up, saw Dep staring and smiled at her gently, glad to see she was hanging out with the group.

“There are days when outside your window I see my reflection as I slowly pass, and I long for this mirrored perspective when we'll be lovers, lovers at last. You gotta spend some time, love, you gotta spend some time with me, and I know that you'll find love, I will possess your heart.”

                Monaghan met those fathomless eyeholes in Dep’s mask, winking at her in a motion she hoped came across as playful and not predatory. Dep looked away abruptly, vanishing into the darkness away from the fire and Monaghan faltered for a second before singing the last line.

“I will possess your heart.”

                “Play ‘Freebird’!” Hurk slurred and Gina punched him in the arm. Hurked grabbed his arm and cried out, feelings hurt. Gina glared at him for a second before he planted a wet kiss on her and Monaghan chuckled, obligingly strumming the first notes of the song to ribald applause.

                Monaghan played late into the night until finally she yawned in the middle of John Denver’s “Wild Montana Skies,” pausing her playing, feeling her jaw creaking and her eye swelling from the earlier fight.

                “I agree,” Pastor Jerome intoned, stretching and walking away from the fire to where a figure stood in the shadows. “Judge…we set up a cot for all of the captain’s hired guns…including you. It’s yours if you want it.” Monaghan turned to Dep, saw her there, frozen in place. A bed of her own, among friends, safe and not in New Eden or on her island. It was a gesture of trust, of inclusion. Monaghan hoped she took it. Before the moment could be drawn out any longer, Jerome turned away from Dep and addressed Monaghan. “Captain, there are a couple of cots up on the roof if you want to sleep up there; doesn’t look like it’s gonna rain tonight. It’s there or the floor. Sorry, we, uh, we didn’t realize you’d be staying here. We’ll get you a bed made for next time,” Jerome told her apologetically, looking a little sheepish about it.

                “Sounds good to me, I’ll take the roof,” Monaghan assured him. She handed Jerome his guitar and wished the others goodnight. She returned to the four-wheeler, grabbing her bed roll and an extra bear skin blanket before trudging back up the stars of the bar. She heard Nana and the Judge inside the big second-story room where everyone’s beds were and she peeked in the door, curious and concerned, as usual.

                “If I hear you sigh one more time without telling me what’s wrong, I’ll snatch that mask off your face so fast it’ll made your head spin!” Nana threatened, poking Dep in the center of her chest with her index finger. “Then, after I know who you are, I’m going to find your mother and tell her she raised a whiner.” Monaghan put a hand on her mouth to keep from laughing. Nana knew full-well who the Judge was, but also seemed to understand that she did not want this pointed out by everyone, wanted to front that her mask was still protecting her. “We’re all carryin’ a burden out here. We all got trauma, we all got it rough. You can either talk it out or swallow it, but none of this vague, maudlin nonsense down the middle.” So quiet, and so garbled that Monaghan cannot possibly made it out, the Judge muttered something to Nana. “That’s what I thought,” she said wisely as though she understood the scratchy noises that had been vocalized, patting the Judge’s arm affectionately. “You get some rest, dear. You’ll feel better in the morning. Everyone should feel great in the morning, means they survived the night! Sweet dreams.”

                Monaghan made eye contact with Nana. The old woman tottered out, glaring at the captain as she straightened her glasses and said, matter-of-factly,

                “You need to get that one talking. Got too much pain bottled up in there.” Monaghan agreed with a look of chagrin.

                “Thanks, Nana. I’m sure that probably helped Dep – the Judge – too.” Nana nodded, bade her goodnight and disappeared down the stairs, presumably not ready to retire for the night, despite the late hour. “Hey,” Monaghan greeted Dep, who stared at her from inside the room. “Okay?”

                “Fine,” Dep signed. Monaghan stepped into the room, ignoring a snoring Hurk. The deputy touched a comfortable-looking bed with a wood frame, complete with quilts made of old t-shirts. At the head, someone had carved in rough letters “Judge,” and someone else had amended with scratch marks “Deputy.” While Monaghan appreciated the sentiment, she wanted to punch whoever did this when she saw Dep’s fingers trembling as she raised a hand and touched them to the roughly carved letters. Dep sat on the mattress, rested her hand in her lap awkwardly.

                “Good night, Dep,” Monaghan said, stepping away. She started when a strong hand grabbed hers, preventing her from leaving. She turned to look at Dep, who released her hand.

                “Stay. Please,” she signed. Monaghan glanced at the bed, considering. It was just barely wide enough to accommodate two people, but it belonged to Dep. She needed to understand she was welcome here, wanted here. More importantly, the implication of the two of them sleeping in one bed in front of everyone else was a thing Monaghan was not sure she wanted to address. She did not know what Dep felt, did not know what Dep thought about her occasional gentle touches, her wistful looks. She did not want to push her friend into something she did not want, knew the feeling all too well from the other side, remembered the sad looks Rush gave her when he thought she was not looking. Being unable to give her friend something she knew he wanted was painful. She did not want to inflict that same pain on Dep. Monaghan forced herself to smile brightly and patted Dep on the shoulder with a casual motion.

                “Come on, Dep, you’ve got a nice warm bed all to yourself. It’s yours. They want you here. You’ll be fine.” Dep gave a short, terse nod.

                “Good night,” she signed, suddenly dismissive. Monaghan nodded, unsure now of her decision, but walked away, climbing the ladder to the half-walled roof of the building. There were four narrow cots, none of which were large enough for one person to actually be comfortable on them. Sighing, resigned to being uncomfortable for the night and annoyed that no one had thought to make her a bed, Monaghan pulled her bedroll over the cot and laid down, arranging her blankets like a cocoon against the cold night air. Another flicker of irritation rolled through her at the fact that no one had thought to made their boss a bed while they were making all the others. She shuddered, cold air seeping in as wind fluttered across the flat roof. Monaghan had accepted freezing to death as a method of getting sleep, but a few minutes later she startled, hearing a stuttering scraping and feeling something bump her cot. Turning, she saw Dep butting another cot against her own, laying her bedroll on it. “You’re cold,” Dep signed with her fists.

                “Yes, I’m freezing,” Monaghan admitted with a little frown. “But you don’t have to. You have your own bed, indoors, dummy.” Ignoring her, Dep laid down on the joint cots, adding a blanket to help Monaghan get warm. They tucked their bedrolls over the crack where the cots meet and Dep tugged Monaghan closer, pulling a bear skin blanket over them both. In the moonlight, Monaghan could still see Dep quite plainly. Her face was turned toward her, but still covered by the mask. It had to be incredibly uncomfortable to sleep in, but Monaghan did not feel like fighting with her tonight, so she did not mention it, did not mention that there’s no reason for the deputy to be in this bed with her, just accepted it, pushing away the part of her that was incredibly happy about it. Dep pulled her hands out from under the blanket so she could sign.

                “I didn’t know you play guitar,” Dep signed, surprising Monaghan. She had figured that Dep was about to berate her for fighting Gina earlier, or maybe explain why she was here instead of enjoying a warm bed to herself.

                “You don’t know a lot about me,” the captain decided to say, tone easy. “I don’t know a lot about you. Welcome to the club,” Monaghan joked mildly.

                “You have to spend some time with me,” Dep replied with her hands and Monaghan smirked at the reference, felt her face go a little red. “I never did thank you for singing to me in the bunker during that storm. It helped.” It was so long ago the captain had nearly forgotten, and she finds it warms her to know that it was memorable. Dep’s hands paused for a moment and her mask tipped up as she stared at the stars before she gestured, “I used to enjoy singing too.” Well, that’s fucking tragic, Monaghan thought.

                “I’m sorry,” she said for lack of anything better to respond with. She changed the subject. “Sounds like Nana really gave you what-for earlier.” There was a dry chuckle.

                “She means well. Her ex-husband was a good friend. I miss him,” Dep replied, signing slowly in the dim light. Monaghan opened her mouth to asked who Nana’s ex-husband was, but Dep cut her off with a hand motion. “I’m tired,” she signed wearily. Monaghan swallowed, nodded, accepting the rejection of questions.

                “Me too. Goodnight, Dep.” They curled into one another to avoid the cold and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

                “How goes it, Corbin?” Rush greeted, patting her on the back and handing her a beer.

                “Oh, not too bad. Lost my hired gun for a few days. She’s a shy one,” Monaghan explained, knocking the cap of the beer bottle off on a nearby nail. After the inexplicable night spent in Monaghan’s cot instead of her own, the Judge had given excuses, all business, and vanished again into the woods.

                “She the one that gave you that shiner?” Rush asked, chuckling.

                “Ugh, no, got into it with Gina.”

                “Oof, yeah, I met that one the other day. Can’t say I’m surprised. So who’s your hired gun? That quiet one in leather?” Monaghan smiled fondly and Rush gave her an appraising look that she does not miss. Her eyes flickered in annoyance.

                “She’s just my friend, Tom. And yeah, she came from the cult.”

                “Never took you as a religious one, Cor. We were all praying that night coming off the train and all I heard you do was mutter ‘fuck, fuck, fuckity, fucking fuck,’ the whole way down,” Tom laughed. Monaghan smiled around her lip’s seal on the beer bottle. She swallowed and wiped her mouth.

                “You know I don’t tolerate any Westboro bullshit, but as bad as the cult used to be, it’s fairly tame now from what I understand. Before the bombs went off apparently the crazy fuckers were trying to round up people to go underground and shooting anyone who wouldn’t cooperate. Seems kind of counterintuitive if you’re trying to save people.”

                “No one ever said religion was logical,” Rush reasoned, taking a swig of his own beer and propping his injured leg up on the stairs at the front of the Lodge. “But I was raised Catholic, and I literally don’t have a leg to stand on,” he chortled. “Still, you running around with one of them, Cor... I don’t know. It makes me nervous.” Monaghan stared at him quizzically and he met her eye, a twinkle in his own. “You might corrupt that nice little church mouse.” Monaghan guffawed.

                “Sure, a church mouse that can murder ten men in under ten seconds. Her field tactics are terrifying. Just the other day I saw her snatch a Highwayman by the jaw, slam her mask into his nose and ram an arrow into his eye socket with her bare hand.” Monaghan realized belatedly she sounded a little too proud of her friend’s violent tendencies and she smirked, a little shamefaced. Rush’s eyebrows raised and he let out a surprised huff of laughter.

                “God damn.”

                “Something like that,” Monaghan agreed with a laugh of her own. Rush took another swig of beer and they sat for a moment in companionable silence. Monaghan stared at the inside of the gates, wondering where Dep went, wondering if she was safe.

                “You’re somewhere in outer space, Cor,” Rush observed.

                “Just worried about Dep…the Judge,” Monaghan admitted. Rush smiled softly, but it did not hide that his eyes were sad. He glanced away and then back, looking chagrined.

                “You get a real warm fuzzy look on your face when you talk about her. Anything I need to know?” Monaghan rolled her eyes at him. Tom shook his head at her denial, holding up a pointed finger. “You tell her I want you home by eleven. Seriously, though, I’m glad you found another…friend. And a capable one too. I’m down for the count for a while,” Rush said, bending his injured leg with a wince.

                “How is the leg, ‘IHOP’?” Monaghan mocked gently. Rush feigned at throwing a punch and Monaghan laughed, hopping back.

                “It’s getting there. I don’t think it’s ever going to be back to a hundred percent. Goddamn Highwaymen fucked up my knee pretty bad. Gonna be months before I can get out and about on foot for any length of time. Thinking about going out on a four-wheeler, though.”

                “You should do some local reconnaissance. Do some work for a change,” Monaghan teased him. “Just be careful. These Highwaymen are a sadistic bunch. Those Twins are something else.” Rush nodded and they both got solemn. “I can’t stop thinking about what they did to Barnes. I mean, it was just so fucking brutal. I didn’t like the guy, but that sure as shit is not how I wanted him to go.” Rush took a deep, steadying breath.

                “I should have handled it differently. Should have gone along with them and worked our way out from there.”

                “No,” Monaghan said, cutting off any further guilt. “Don’t do that. We all have plenty of shit to regret, don’t pile on. It’s not your fault those two girls are psychopaths. If it hadn’t happened then, it would had happened eventually. They’re dangerous, Rush. Real dangerous. They’re not like the guys we dealt with overseas. Those men and women had a mission, a goal. They had reasons for killing and bombing and even if I didn’t agree with them, and you know I sure as shit didn’t, there was some familiarity there, some predictability. Those two? They kill for the fun of killing and destroy because they’re bored. You’d think in a post-apocalyptic world people would try harder to pull together, but instead it just fucking concentrated the asshole factor in everybody.”

                “I don’t know, the people here do pretty well. They’re a community, these Scavengers.” They watched Carmina playing with a few of the kids, the resident babysitter while parents went out to collect supplies. Monaghan remembered with a shudder the Twins holding the children hostage, threatening the innocent with death. She remembered the look of terror in the child’s eyes as his tiny hands clamped fearfully around the grenade Lou had handed him. His name was Jeffrey, she remembered as she watched him throw a ball to another kid. Shortly after the siege Monaghan had found him an ancient, faded G.I. Joe to help lessen the trauma, to help him forget the terror of being handed a live grenade by a couple of psychopaths. He kept the doll with him constantly, a safety blanket that broke her heart every time she saw it dangling out of his pocket. She clenched her fist hard around her beer bottle as Jeffrey trotted past, forcing herself to smile and wave when he spotted her and grinned. “I’m going to made sure they’re safe, Rush. I’m going to made sure they’re all safe.”

Chapter Text

                Monaghan hiked back to Roughneck Crag to find Nana, figuring if anyone might know which direction Dep had gone, it would be her. Dep had recently taken to hanging around her, letting the older woman chatter to her and just listening, hissing or sighing occasionally in response, helping her garden and putter around the bar. When Monaghan approached on an ATV, she saw that Dep was on the second story of Roughneck Crag, tediously adding wood siding to the outside of the building. Monaghan yelled a greeting and Dep turned, waving a hand in response, setting her hammer down and stretching.

                “I was thinking to do some scavenging today,” Monaghan said as she climbed the stairs up to where Dep was working. “Rush is staying in Prosperity, Hurk and Gina are busy with Blade and I’m tired of Jerome trying to convert me to Catholicism, but I still need someone to watch my back. You available?” Dep growled softly in her throat, a deep purr of amusement, knowing full-well that Monaghan patrolled Hope county with her or with no one. Dep nodded, unbuckling the toolbelt she had set around her thin hips.

                “I’ll grab my pack,” she signed.

                “Sweet. I’m gonna grab some water and some food, then I’m headed south toward the old church. Finish up here and come grab me when you’re ready to go.” Monaghan ate a sandwich, two thick pieces of bread smeared with honey and acorn paste. God, Monaghan missed peanut butter, she thought, grimacing at the bitter acorn flavor. Rinsing her mouth with water, she said hello to Nana. “How’s the Judge been?” Monaghan asked voice low.

                “Oh, honey, she’s been just fine without you. She’s a big girl. You know, you ought to be a big girl and just come out and tell her how you feel,” Nana told her levelly. Monaghan felt her face go hot and cold in quick succession, but Nana dropped the subject as soon as she brought it up. Timber trotted up, licking Nana’s hand. “Whew. Between you and me, he could use a bath,” Nana said, pinching her nose. “Your dog is starting to smell like the southern end of a northbound moose.” Monaghan chuckled nervously, still a little shocked by Nana’s surprisingly astute observation. Dep approached, shrugging her pack over her shoulder.

                “I’ll bathe him when I get back,” Monaghan promised, praying that Nana would not say anything else. She turned to Dep. “You ready? Cool, let’s go.” They trotted at a slow jog toward the church, Monaghan carrying an empty duffel. There was a damaged tunnel opening behind a small graveyard and Monaghan dropped into it, letting Dep hand the duffel down to her. “Coming?” she asked. Dep shuffled her feet side to side, body language indicating that she was clearly unnerved. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll go down first, make sure there’s no parts of the tunnel that look like they’re going to collapse. I’ll see if there’s anything useful and if there is and I need your help, I’ll come get you, okay?” Monaghan was concerned for a moment that she was being patronizing, knew that Dep was an extremely capable warrior, hang ups aside, but Dep nodded at the suggestion and Monaghan turned away.

                Dep still got really squirrelly about going underground but Monaghan figured being forcefully locked in a bunker with your archenemy for years would do that to a person. Her chest constricted and she turned to look at Dep one last time, perched cross-legged at the tunnel opening, fiddling with a bougainvillea vine growing there. Exploring the tunnel, Monaghan scrounged pieces of metal and unlocked a door with a bit of persuasion from her hand torch. Inside was evidence that someone had sheltered here. She tucked several cans of food from a shelf into her bag and loaded the bag with some titanium pipes and several rolls of duct tape. She grabbed the sleeping bag too, for good measure. The place was obviously once a mausoleum, and there was a large grave at its center. An old headstone was leaned against the mausoleum stone and, curious, Monaghan shifted the stone to read the inscription. Too heavy for her to control safely, Monaghan jumped back as the thing toppled with a resounding crack that made dust shiver from the walls, and in a moment, Dep had darted in, trembling. Monaghan, surprised, turned to her.

                “I thought something happened to you,” Dep signed swiftly, her stance making it clear she’d rather be anywhere but underground. She froze. Actually froze as though she was in a movie and someone hit “pause.” Her masked face was staring at the mausoleum stone. Monaghan turned and looked. In bold black paint and all capital letters was the name “BOOMER.” Shaking herself and stepping forward, Dep stretched out a hand, touched the stone like a caress. She bumped the forehead of her mask against it and Monaghan could hear her friend breathing hard. She wanted to say something, but she bit her tongue, waited for Dep to collect herself. She did not. She sank to her knees, crying softly. Monaghan sat next to her, waited. When, at last, Dep had finished crying, she sniffled raspily and signed,

                “He was my dog,” she explained. “I knew he was dead, It’s been seventeen years. But…

                “But you weren’t expecting to find a grave,” Monaghan finished for her grimly. “Come on,” she said after a moment, standing and offering Dep a hand. “Let’s get out of here.” Dep accepted her help up and lead them out of the gravesite without another word.

                The mile back to Roughneck’s Crag was spent alternating who carried the duffle bag full of loot. They reached the bar and sat, relaxing and drinking water. The sun was high above them, beating down through a thinned atmosphere mercilessly. Dep patted her thigh until Timber trotted over. Using an empty bowl, she poured some of her own water into it, offering it to the fluffy dog, who lapped it up happily as she pet his head. Monaghan hid her smile behind her hand and turned away to wave at Hurk, who was trying to explain to Gina the subtle genius of the name “Blade” for their baby. Gina was having none of it, but Monaghan was not about to intervene, running her tongue over a chipped tooth from her last altercation with Gina. Monaghan looked at Dep, noting the blood stains splashed across her clothing, getting a whiff of sweat where she stood downwind. Monaghan had grown used to Dep’s body odor, knew she was not the freshest smelling person either, but, to be fair, hot showers were not exactly easy to come by.

                “Nana mentioned Timber’s starting to stink. I have to agree. I was thinking to take him down to the river for a bath in a few. Want to come help me?” Monaghan asked carefully nonchalant, knowing Dep was still grieving her own dog.

                Dep nodded a “yes” and Monaghan grabbed a stack of old cloths that were used for towels. They set out east, walking until they came to the clear blue river. Timber splashed in the cool water happily, scurrying and zooming around with his tail tucked playfully to stay out of Monaghan’s reach with the soap.

                Getting a sudden devilish idea, Monaghan stepped close to Dep, positioning herself carefully before shoving Dep abruptly into the water. Monaghan yelped as she was pulled in with her and they both ended up in the river, spluttering and coughing, treading water carefully. The former deputy splashed her angrily, grabbing her ankle and yanking her under, furious. Monaghan gasped and paddled away, kicking out at the deputy, surprised at her aggression. Dep’s head suddenly went under and when she resurfaced, she was spluttering desperately for breath, coughing violently before tumbling back under the water with a horrifying sucking noise. Cursing, Monaghan dove, grabbing her friend and paddling toward the shore with Dep cradled atop her chest awkwardly, holding her under her armpits as she swam.

                Finally on land, Dep darted away from her, coughing and choking, desperately trying to gasp in air. She held a furious hand out at Monaghan when she tried to approach. She turned away so that Monaghan could not see her face, removed her mask and hacked up a massive mouthful of water, snot and spit landing wetly on the ground. When, at last, she regained composure, she replaced her mask and stalked off.

                “Fuck,” Monaghan murmured, feeling like an ass. Dep returned a few minutes later, still stiff, clearly angry and still sniffling and coughing occasionally.

                “Don’t do that again,” she signed, and that was all that was said about it. Thoroughly chagrined, Monaghan nodded.

                “I’m sorry. I didn’t think. Are you alright?”

                “Fine.

                “Did water get in your –”

                “I signed ‘I’m fine.’” The movements are quick, angry. Sighing, Monaghan tossed her a chunk of soap and Dep took the hint, scrubbing at her feet and hands and scrubbing over her clothes at the edge of the river. Clouds of dirt and dried blood loosen and flow away from her filthy clothing. The deputy looked over with an uncertain little “heh?” at Monaghan, who can also take a hint. The captain walked Timber upriver, shedding her own clothes and bathing, the cold water invigorating as she let it flow through her long red hair. She felt awful for what happened. She knew Dep could swim, had seen her do so before, but whatever had been done to Dep’s throat, to her voice, must have destroyed her ability to control where water went if it was inhaled. Pushing away her guilt, Monaghan hung her clothes out to dry and found a wide patch of grass where she spread her towel and laid down, buck naked.

                Monaghan had not intended to fall asleep, but she suddenly snapped awake, Timber whining as Dep stepped into the clearing past the trees, freezing when she saw Monaghan’s state of undress.

                “Sorry,” she signed, turning away quickly. Monaghan pulled her now-dry clothing on, face reddening. Dep’s canvas and leather clothing was back on her figure, only mostly dry, but clearly cleaner than it was before. They made their way back to the bar and cooked dinner on the grill, chatting silently in ASL about inane, unimportant topics, Monaghan trying to help keep Dep’s mind on happy things, glad that Dep seemed to have forgiven her for almost accidentally drowning her. The signed conversation was soothing for them both and for just a few moments, Monaghan forgot what a shit-show the world had turned into. Carmina approached shyly and sat, Dep and Monaghan both turned to her expectantly. She clearly had something to say.

                “My parents told me you helped out the day I was born. Mom was in labor and you brought us to the birthing center. Do you remember any of that?” Rook nodded and let out a chuff; Monaghan recognized it as her sound for “yes.” “I’ve waited nearly eighteen years to say ‘thank you.’ Better late than never, I guess,” Carmina ended lamely, blushing.

                “Hhmm,” Rook purred softly. Her piece said, Carmina stood, turned on her heel and darted back over to where Gina and Hurk were playing darts, not giving Dep or Monaghan a second look.

                “Your goddaughter’s a good kid, Dep.” Dep nodded shyly, looking after her for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

                Sometimes, when Monaghan had a particularly trying day, she laid down and thought about her time in the Army, not because it was a healthy thing to do, but because sometimes wallowing in misery reminded her she was still alive, could still feel through the numbness this new world had brought. She had had an incredibly trying day, mostly because Dep had had a really bad day, had rambled with signs about Monaghan being the shepherd, had repeated inane phrases that Monaghan recognized from flipping through Joseph’s book. Monaghan had tried to change the subject, had tried to redirect Dep to a different topic of conversation and she had become distant, cold. Dep would not be derailed. When she signed, she signed Bible verses and Joseph’s bullshit, discouraging at the best of times, absolutely infuriating at the worst.

                They had argued, Dep hissing and spitting like an alley cat, Monaghan spouting off angrily, and by the time everything was said and done, Dep was perched up on a billboard, pouting, but still keeping a watch, Monaghan feeling guilty about prodding someone who was so clearly struggling with trauma. So Monaghan thought about her time in the army, the time when her job was to lookout for her fellow soldiers, and to train the soldiers in her company to do the same. She thought about their failure to bring justice to an area of the globe that sorely needed it, thought about how sometimes you think you’re doing the right thing, when really you’re doing an evil thing. Thought about how it turned out that policing the world was not the way to achieve peace but to do the opposite.

                Corbin Monaghan had joined the Army willingly straight out of her bachelor’s program, unsure what she wanted to do with her life; her parents encouraged her to explore, encouraged her to get some life experience so she could become a doctor, or a veterinarian. She did not have the heart to tell them she would rather drink a bucket of piss than spend anymore time in school. She had gotten a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in two years by finishing an associate’s degree concurrently during her last two years of high school, while participating in ROTC and she was sick of it, sick of studying, sick of writing papers, sick of feeling empty, purposeless. So, she joined the military, happy for the excuse, and eager for the position that completing ROTC throughout college had given her. She had been stationed in Afghanistan as part of a training operation. Many troops were being pulled out of the area as part of President Obama’s withdrawal plan, but more were added when new terroristic threats popped up in response.

                The official line was that Monaghan and her fellow troops were stationed in the Middle East to help train soldiers to maintain a newly established democracy. Rush had been her commanding officer, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young man with delusions of grandeur. Specifically, with delusions that war ever changed. After they’d seen one of their friends blown to pieces by an ISIS soldier, Rush’s excitement had been tempered into a desire to prevent there ever being a need for war, a desire, in Monaghan’s opinion, just as stupid as thinking that war would ever be about more than money and throwing soldiers at a financial problem. She had worked her way up, quickly becoming one of the better reconnaissance officers stationed in Afghanistan and often called in when they needed to reached out and touch somebody without being spotted. If you needed someone very dead from a mile away, Monaghan was your girl and the soldiers under her command were just as good.

                Unfortunately, her superior officers recognized her abilities in the field and felt she would be better utilized commanding and strategizing for a group of soldiers from a distance rather than spending most of her time on the ground where she loved it. Rush pushed her into the Captain’s Career Course, and the next thing she knew, she was nearly as high-ranking as he was after a grueling 21-week course and a slew of testing. So much for avoiding more studying. But, she was now Captain Monaghan and he was Major Rush, a step above her. He told her he was proud of her, but all she wanted was to be back in the dirt, belly to the ground, ending enemies with a well-placed bullet. She hung it up when a lapse in judgment had resulted in the injury and deaths of men under her command. Her stubbornness to be in the field had lead to poor reconnaissance, had missed an IED and that was all it took to ruin her, both personally, and within her career in the Army. It was only due to Rush’s influence that she had not been severely disciplined, but she did not care. The weight of those deaths, those injuries, was punishment enough.

                Burnt out and suffering a healthy dose of PTSD, Monaghan had gotten her DD-214 and gotten the fuck out, relieved to know she’d never have to pick up a gun again if she did not want to, relieved she would not have to lead a group of soldiers ever again. She was just so relieved to be away from the fighting. She had moved to the California coast with hopes of opening her own brewery and spending her days surfing. She managed to amass a down payment and buy a house just in time for the bombs to drop. Discouraged and strongly considering putting a bullet in her brain, Monaghan had been surprised when Rush showed up at her door, asking for her help and offering her shelter from the fallout. He and several others had amassed the California Company, a small paramilitary group committed to trying to fix not just the country, but the world.

                China, Russia and the United States had all been too overzealous with their show of force, in the case of the former, by intentionally using dirty bombs to salt the earth, and the latter by being caught with their pants down after effectively picking a fight with every other major world power. The bombs used by China had created great patches of unusable and dangerous land that would not be livable for at least thirty years. They had destroyed crops, cities and communications with extreme prejudice. The global dick-waving game had set everyone back by years, and the ensuing continuation of dick-waving had ensured that almost every country with a bomb arsenal had picked fights among each other, leaving the world in disarray as surviving populations rioted and panicked.

                But, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as always, Rush helped the California Company get its feet, amassing engineers, ecologists, chemists and more, clearing aggressive factions out of still-livable areas and establishing new colonies as they did so. It was like a modern-day Revolution, complete with gun fights in the woods. Until they made the fatal error of trying to help out Hope County, Montana, anyway.

                Night approached and Dep climbed down the ladder from the top of the half-destroyed billboard, sitting sullenly across from Monaghan at the fire she had built. Monaghan sighed, taking a deep, calming drink of the whiskey she kept in her flask. Dep shifted, propping booted feet up on a log. She was slowly plucking the leaves off a branch she had pulled from a bush next to her, methodically dissecting each leaf off like it owed her money.

                “I’m tired,” Monaghan said around a lump in her throat, intrusive thoughts echoing evilly in her mind as she laid down and drifted off to sleep. The face of a young Afghani boy melts in her mind, shuddering and revealing a tree in his place. The tree sprouts red flowers that weep and bleed. The drops of blood sizzle as they hit the sand and mushrooms, orange and glowing, sprout from each droplet; screams of terror and a shockwave emanate from each one. Monaghan opens her front door to a scream from outside and she saw a huge mushroom growing up, up, up in the distance, its head expanding wider and wider until it envelops her in flame and the flames flicker and reform into the Afghani boy’s face and she is screaming as blood flows from her hands. An insurgent rushes her, circles behind her, grabbing her shoulder. She throws her elbow back into the insurgent’s face and then snatches her enemy by the throat, fingers tightening hard around cartilage and muscle.

                “Heeeeeh, hrrrgh, sssssss hhhhggghhhh,” was rasped at her, a familiar hoarse hissing and spluttering that she ignored as she tightens her fingers in their grip underneath the carved wooden mask...

                Hissing again and gasping through a throat squeezed brutally shut by Monaghan’s fist, Dep clawed at the captain’s arms, yanking, tugging, wheezing, trying to squirm out of her grasp, her boots kicking out desperately to try to get purchase to escape. Monaghan let go of her neck abruptly and ran a hand over her face as Dep shuddered a racking series of coughs, scuttling away from Monaghan so she was out of reach.

                “Jesus, Dep, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I just…had a bad dream,” she ended lamely, guilt tightening her chest, tears gathering in her eyes, both at the dream and its result. Dep purred a long, low growl that was rough and ends with a spatter of coughs. She stopped scooting backwards, though she still rubbed her neck painfully, swallowing with an awful clicking sound that Monaghan knew she was responsible for. She felt sick, tried not to vomit. Instead, she stumbled to her feet, shaking herself. Her water canteen was close and she opened it, pouring water into her hand and splashing her face with it after she handed the container to Dep, who turned her back and took a long swig of water once she could stop coughing. Monaghan was drenched in sweat, her heart was still racing, hand aching with the remembered feeling of squeezing Dep’s trachea tight, crushing it in furious fingers.

                The next several nights, when Dep did not think Monaghan was looking, she’d pull that thin black balaclava down and massage her neck, red and purple-blue in the light of the campfire. Monaghan was horrified and covered her face in her hands, trying not to cry.

                “I’m so sorry, Dep,” she murmured two days after the assault happened, seeing Dep rub her neck gingerly after taking a long drink of water. Dep ignored her, walked away. Dep would not sign to Monaghan for a week, leaving Monaghan raked with guilt and distressed for her friend. When next Dep signed to Monaghan, her gestures were simple.

                “P.T.S.D.?” she asked, silent. Monaghan barked a bitter, humorless laugh.

                “And then some.”

                “What was it like?” Dep asked. Monaghan turned to her, eyes flicking to her now-covered neck.

                “Bad. It was bad. Even before the bombs went off the V.A. blew ass. I never did get the help I needed. Another thing we have in common,” she said offhandedly, looking at Dep. Dep was still for a moment, then signed, slowly so that Monaghan could catch all of it,

                “I don’t think there’s any help for me anymore. The Father said I’m a symbol, that even the worst sinner could be forgiven. I don’t feel forgiven. I don’t feel righteous. I thought my actions before the bombs were justified, and then I thought my actions after were justified. Now nothing feels justified. I felt safe in New Eden. Protected. But now? Seeing those I once called ‘friends’ look at me with disgust and pity? I don’t know who I am or what I’m supposed to do anymore. For just the briefest of moments while you were choking me, I hoped you’d finish it, end my misery. I don’t blame you for your trauma, I have my own. And…I don’t want to die, it’s just that sometimes I don’t want to exist anymore.” Monaghan stared at her, surprised at her sudden candor. She put a hand gently on Dep’s knee.

                “When we’re done with this shit, Dep, you and me are going to had a long, hard talk with the very first therapist we can find. And maybe a crate of Prozac each. How long do you think the shelf-life of Prozac is?” Monaghan wondered aloud. The Judge huffed a laugh.

                “Just please promise me you won’t come up with another creative way to kill me in the next week. After the drowning and the choking, I don’t think I can take much more.” Monaghan forced a laugh and nodded, patting Dep’s knee gently.

Chapter Text

                Feeling more than a little guilty for nearly killing her friend twice in as many weeks, Monaghan sent the Judge to check on her New Edener patrol groups, instead exploring the wasteland with Timber, content with yet another largely silent companion, though missing the conversation. Just for Dep, she taught Timber basic commands in ASL and patted the dog happily when he learned them almost instantly. Smart dog. He licked her hand, whining when her eyes go distant, thinking about all that needed to be done. The two explored old abandoned buildings, Timber helping her dig out supplies, whining or barking when an enemy or aggressive animal approached. Nearly three weeks after Monaghan had sent the Judge on their way, she heard grass rustling near her camp, her small fire flickering softly in the darkness, pushing it resolutely away. Monaghan put a hand on her sidearm, looking around as Timber growled low and dangerous in his throat. Cautious, Monaghan kicked sand quickly over the flames, darkening the area almost instantly. She stood, swinging her rifle around her shoulder until she heard a familiar hiss.

                “Dep?” she asked, cautiously. She was answered by the brown-garbed woman stepping into the clearing, looking tense.

                “I don’t think I was followed,” she signed by the light of the stars, barely detectable. She looked over her shoulder nervously, fidgeting, an action outside of her norm. Annoyed, but also relieved, Monaghan cleared sand off the fire, threw a handful of thin sticks over it and blew, flaring it back to life.

                “Nice to see you too,” she drawled, relaxing. The Judge was tense, tight.

                “Be serious,” she snapped with crisp sign, her back a hard line against the light of the fire. “I need your help,” she signed, softening a bit, and then petting Timber for a moment.

                “What’s going on?”

                “The Highwaymen took some New Edeners hostage. About a mile from here. They were patrolling and picking off single Highwaymen, and then about fifteen of them ganged up on a group of three. Two of my people are dead. The last is being held hostage, or worse. I killed the ones I could, but now R.U.T.H. is in the middle of their camp. I cannot save her alone. Please, help me.

                “Of course,” Monaghan said, gathering her things immediately. “Anything you need,” she promised, and she found she meant it wholeheartedly.

                “Thank you,” Dep signed slowly, staring at Monaghan behind that mask.

                “Lead the way,” Monaghan gestured. “Timber. Go home.” The dog whined, tucking his tail, wagging just the tip of it, plaintive. “Timber. Home,” she said, voice firm and she signed the word too, Dep cocking her head at this. The dog lowered his head, whining, but he slinked away in the direction of Prosperity.

                The two sneaked close, the Judge tugging Monaghan’s sleeve with a measured hiss. Monaghan watched her hands closely.

                “If they see us before we kill them, they will kill R.U.T.H.,” she signed, tight, hard. “I taught her how to hunt. Taught her how to fight. I failed her. Please. Please, I need to save her. I’ve lost too many sheep already. And…she is pregnant. I never should have let her leave the village. I should have kept her safe.”

                “Dep,” Monaghan said, resting a calming hand on her shoulder. “Everything’s going to be fine. We’ve got this. Take a breath.” The white wooden mask tilted toward her and the shoulders rise and fall.

                “Of course.” They crept forward on their bellies, Monaghan sighting through her scope. She put a hand back to stop Dep, feeling awkward when her hand encountered bear skin and the soft feeling of breast. She jerked her hand away abruptly, but the Judge did not seem offended at the faux pas.

                “Hold,” she whispered. She counted. There were eight Highwaymen left. Two were sleeping, wrapped up in blankets near one another, the way most people sleep when not indoors, tucked up tight and close. Good. It will make them easy to kill. The other six were scattered around the camp. There’s a quietly sobbing hostage in leather, face bloody and bruised, at least one eye swollen shut, her belly just starting to show the child that was within it. Monaghan felt a flare of temper, calmed herself, looked over to see Dep shaking with rage. She put a hand on her arm and the Judge jerked, looking at her, mask blank, but body language furious. “It’s okay,” Monaghan mouths slowly so it could be seen by the light of the stars and the nearby fire. “There’s three by the fire. We’ll handle them last. You shoot the two sleeping with one arrow. They’re tucked tight to one another, should be easy. I’ll pick off that one,” she pointed, “and that one. You get that one after the two sleeping. I’ll throw a Molotov in the fire. Should take out or at least handicap those three. On three. One. Two. Three.” They moved, aiming, firing, raining down righteous fury. Ruth screamed, terrified and collapsed in a puddle, her hands still tied behind her back. With a bloom of flames like a flower opening in fast motion, the three at the fire were knocked out. A knife to the throat ended each of them separately.

                The Judge approached Ruth, who flinched at her touch, but then sobbed with relief when she saw the familiar mask. The Judge helped her upright, cut her bonds, patted her shoulder gently.

                “Thank you,” Ruth whispered, and then looked to Monaghan. “Thank you.”

                “Take her home,” Monaghan said, picking bullets out of the pocket of one of the dead Highwaymen.

                “Put your hands up and drop your weapons, thudfucks,” came a voice. Monaghan whirled. There’s a large, burly Highwaymen who had stepped out of the darkness, previously unseen. “Put your weapons down,” he said slowly, threateningly, “or this one dies,” he said, flicking a switch. A red dot appeared at the center of the Judge’s chest. Monaghan looked at her, looked at the Highwayman, looked at Ruth, who was still unarmed and shaking. Monaghan considered, gave real thought to how valuable the Judge was to her, whether she was worth being captured or dying for. She sighed, held up one empty hand, held the other flat around her rifle, crouching to set it on the ground.

                “Easy does it. No one else has to die tonight. Come on,” she murmured, still seeing the red dot. It crawled like a deadly little insect up to Dep’s forehead, painting her mask with red light. “Just take me instead. Do you know who I am? Let them go, and take me and the Twins will made you a very rich man. Just let them go. Let them go.”

                “Shut up, bitch,” the Highwayman snarled, his finger slipping over the trigger. Monaghan swallowed, looked back to the Judge who was standing calmly, awaiting the outcome one way or another. A deep, resonant snarl cracked through the campsite. “What the fuck?” The Highwayman looked behind him just long enough to see a flash of angry white teeth. Timber ripped the Highwayman’s throat out with a splatter of red and a vicious, violent shake of his body, shredding trachea and vein and muscle. When the Highwayman stopped twitching, Timber released the body, tan and white face sticky and wet with red blood. He licked his chops and shook with a little whine, trotting over to Monaghan, who found herself breathing fast and hard, hands shaking as she picked up her rifle, realizing that she and Dep had nearly died due to carelessness.

                “Good dog,” she told Timber, petting him hard, trembling. “Good dog, Timber. Good boy.” He squirmed out of her grip, always independent, and licked the Judge’s gloved hand. Feeling uncharacteristically glad to be alive, and glad to see her friend alive, Monaghan grabbed Dep in a quick, hard embrace, cupping a hand behind her head and yanking her close to be sure of her. “You’re okay. We’re okay. Oh Christ, you’re okay.” The Judge tugged her way out of the hug, not unlike Timber in that regard. She brushed herself off and took a deep, raspy breath, growling a little at Monaghan, a gripe about sudden intimate handling, no doubt. She turned to Ruth and gestured for her to follow. She looked briefly back to Monaghan, staring at her for a moment where she stood with Timber panting next to her.

                “I’ll meet you at Roughneck’s Crag in one week,” she signed, cocking her head. She started to turn away, thought better of it, and turned back again. “Be safe, friend,” she signed. And then she was gone.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan was waiting for the Judge a week later and was relieved when she saw the masked figure making her way slowly toward the building, limping slightly. The beleaguered former deputy accepted a brief half hug that was out of character for both of them and pushed away, assuring Monaghan that she was fine, just twisted an ankle on the way over. Monaghan insisted on using a tandem bike, letting the Judge drive while she navigated. The pair of women worked their way through a valley, clearing out Highwaymen, freeing prisoners and generally causing panic and chaos among their enemies, two grim reapers come to collect enemy souls. Once, after the Judge’s ankle had healed, the woman had gone rogue, Monaghan cursing at Dep as she scrambled up a tree, her bow secured to her back. She had swiftly made it to the top, her speed belying her age, the pine tree groaning and swaying in the wind and against her weight.

                “What the fuck are you doing?” Monaghan snapped. Dep pointed. Up the road was a cargo truck that had been modified into a cage. It was speeding down the dirt road with a hostage inside of it. As it approached, Dep started swinging the top of the tree back and forth until it’s tilting so far Monaghan was concerned it will snap. Instead, it leaned down with a groan and Dep released the tree, dropping with a thump onto the top of the cage. “Puta madre,” Monaghan muttered, sprinting after the truck toward whatever fresh hell Dep was about to cause.

                Panting, Monaghan hoofed it, arms and legs pumping, seeing the drab form of Dep balancing carefully on the top of the truck. The former deputy darted forward, pulling out an arrow and swinging down to the driver’s side of the truck’s cab with the top of her body. If she fell, she will almost certainly die and Monaghan could feel her heart in her throat as she tore down the road after them, cursing. She saw the truck fishtail, saw Dep desperately scrabbling for purchase on the top of the truck after stabbing the driver with the arrow. The truck slowed, but Dep slid off, body rolling roughly in the ditch. She pushed up on her hands and Monaghan could hear her coughing from where she was, panting and pushing herself to run faster.

                Two Highwaymen jumped out of the truck, both bearing down on Dep, who scrambled backwards, trying to get into the tree line for cover. She pulled her bow off her back, but a third Highwayman pulled up from a cross street on an ATV and she was surrounded, rasping, threatening each one in turn with her arrow, but she was obviously outmanned. Monaghan could hear the Highwaymen screaming something at her. Dep dropped her bow, shoulders slumping. One of them kicked her in the belly, hard enough to slam her backwards and she dropped, coughing violently. Absolutely enraged, Monaghan dropped too, landing on one knee with a muttered “shhhhiiiit,” swinging her rifle around and sighting. She squeezed the trigger and a Highwayman’s head exploded in a cacophony of blood and bone and tongue and brain. Dep snatched her bow up, piercing a hole in the Highwaymen nearest her. Monaghan picked off the last one and ran up, gasping for breath, but more furious than she has been in months.

                “You fucking idiot!” she snapped, shoving Dep hard. “Don’t ever do something like that without letting me know first. What the fuck were you thinking? No, you know what? Don’t answer that, you were not thinking. Jesus Christ, I thought you were going to get yourself killed, soldier.” The epithet slipped out without warning and Monaghan felt her face go red. Furious, Monaghan realized Dep was laughing at her.

                “R.O.O.K.I.E, I used to do shit like this on the daily when I was younger,” Dep signed, fingerspelling “rookie” at her sardonically, as though it’s an inside joke with herself. She patted the dust off her front and popped her neck. Monaghan glared at her for another moment before a small, scared voice said,

                “Hey, uh, could one of you help me out?” Monaghan obligingly shot the lock on the cage and helped the black-haired twenty-something man down from the cage and took off his handcuffs.

                “You know how to get back to Prosperity?” she asked him. He nodded, looking warily at them both before relaxing.

                “Heh, y’all are like an old married couple or something,” he told them, rubbing his wrists. Monaghan levelled a nasty look at him.

                “Keys are still in the ignition. Be careful on your way back. Made sure Nick scraps the truck when you get there,” she ordered, dismissing him. She waited until he’s driven off and then she turned and sucker punches Dep where her mouth was under the mask. Monaghan yelped and grabbed at her knuckles, shaking out her hand painfully. Dep sucked in a breath, gasping at the sudden pain, holding a hand to her face and straightening her mask with a crisp movement. She stepped forward threateningly, snarling. “You had that coming, so don’t even start with me,” Monaghan snapped, pointing an accusing finger at her friend. “You could have died, Dep,” Monaghan could hear her voice shaking. “I’ve lost enough friends to this godforsaken world, deputy. I don’t want to lose you too.” Dep was silent and motionless for a moment. Then she signed,

                “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

                “I mean, really, what the fuck were you, wait, what?”

                “I’m sorry,” Dep signed again, a deep growling chuckle working its way roughly out of her throat. Monaghan stared at her in disbelief, expecting argument, not agreement.

                “Well,” she spluttered. “That was a dumbass thing to do…but goddamn you looked cool doing it. Just…don’t do it again. Come on, can you walk?” Dep nodded and they walk back to where they had left their packs.

                The deputy was sore for several days, but Monaghan had a hard time feeling sorry for her, was still pissed over the stupidity of her actions. Seeming penitent, Dep opened up for the first time since she allowed Monaghan to start calling her “Dep.”

                “You were right a while back, when you said I need to talk to my friends. I’m just not ready yet. Too much has happened; sometimes I can remember things, remember who I am. Most of the time all I could remember is everything I did wrong. I have too much to atone for. You’ve lost friends, but living with knowing some of your closest friends are dead and it’s your fault?” She shook her masked face seriously. “It will break you.”

--

                “I’m planning on heading into Prosperity in a couple of days,” Monaghan told Dep as they drove their recently-stolen components down a backroad cautiously. “You coming with me? I’ve got some work I need to do inside. May be there a while.” Dep had been characteristically silent since having the moment of candor with Monaghan. She had not signed more than three words to her for nearly five days. Considering Monaghan’s question, the deputy shook her head, hops out of the truck and took off into the woods, pulling her bow as she went. She never was one for long goodbyes, Monaghan thought with amusement and vexation. Probably going back to the New Eden compound given the direction she’d been trotting before the woods engulfed her. Monaghan shrugged and put the truck back in gear, taking her time driving through the countryside, occasionally stopping to drop an elk or a hog and dress it before dragging it into the back of the truck with assistance from the wench. She already missed Dep’s company, but knew the reclusive woman often wanted time alone and likes checking in on New Eden. She’ll be fine; having the deputy as a friend was a bit like having a wild animal as a pet. Interesting to be around, but unpredictable at all times.

                Besides, a little quiet time before swinging into Prosperity would do Monaghan some good. Give her time to think. The third evening, she tried not to worry when no radio squawk was given at sunset. Maybe Dep was out of range? Shaking worrisome thoughts from her mind, she found a stash of tin sheet metal and threw it in the back of the pickup with all the other things she has found or shot. When she had finally piled the back of the pickup to a point of absurdity and groaning shocks, Monaghan made her way to the southwest. Sighing, ready to take a long, hot shower, she drove up the long driveway to Prosperity and honked. The gates open and she parks her truck, waving to Nick.

                “Kim’s waitin’ on you inside, Captain.” His face was grim, but she did not stop to asked why, instead she picked up her pace, nearly crashing into the door of the lodge as dread fills her. She doesn’t see Rush anywhere. She spoke to Kim, blood draining from her face, feeling her stomach in her feet. Kim’s words play on repeat in her mind as she grabbed her keys, fueled up the truck, snapping at people to hurry up with the unloading.

                “It’s Rush. He’s gone. I don’t know where he is. He said he was going out to do some recon, but he never came back.” He never came back. The radio squawk never came. Somewhere in the wilds, the captain’s two best friends were in danger, or worse. She nearly hit the gates flooring the gas in her truck, fingers tight and white on the steering wheel.

                Monaghan heard an incoming radio call from the Twins letting her know they have her friends as hostages. She tore toward the fertilizer plant, heart racing, palms sweating in her gloves.

                “You motherfuckers,” she growled. “You pieces of shit. When I find you, I’m going to…” She let the thought trail as she took a curve too fast, the back of the truck fishtailing wildly before she regained control of both herself and the truck. Panic would do her no good. She reached the fertilizer plant, screeching the truck to a skidding halt on the sand and jumping out, hearing the Twins taunting her over the radio. They’ve taken hostages and hidden them throughout the plant, some tied to bombs, others simply chained in place. She dove through the compound, finding keys or breaking locks to release some of the hostages, her heart pounding. Rush was here somewhere. Was Dep too? She sprinted through the plant, freeing hostages, looking into each terrified face, some of them cultists and realizing with horror that she would not recognize Dep if the Twins had taken her mask from her. She defused bombs planted to four of the hostages, stomach churning with rage and disgust, eyes peeled for hostages wearing familiar brown cloth and leather, or a flak jacket and a thick mustache. Turning a corner, she heard a metallic sound of something bouncing down a radio tower next to the plant. Trotting over to it, she picked up a wooden mask with two holes for eyes. Trying not to panic, she looked up to where the hostage was struggling desperately, coughing and wheezing with effort, their hands chained above their head. They were wearing leather.

                Monaghan sighted through her scope, feeling lightheaded, the Judge’s mask tucked quickly into her bag. Dep’s face was exposed, her black balaclava tattered and torn, hanging by threads from her neck. Even had Monaghan known what she looked like, Dep would had been unrecognizable. Her face was bloody and bruised, one eye swollen shut, lips cut and puffy. Monaghan shrieked a scream of rage. The deputy was yanking at the chains, desperate, panicking like a wild animal. Dep rasped, growling, gasping, coughing, jerking back and forth urgently. There was not a clear shot with her struggling.

                “Dep!” Monaghan called. The deputy looked at her for the first time without the mask obscuring her face and even through the injuries, Monaghan could see relief. “I’ve got you,” she yelled, nodding to her friend. The deputy froze instantly at the familiar words, holding still and leaning her head away from the lock on the chain holding her arms up. Taking a steadying breath, Monaghan crouched, aiming carefully for the lock and firing. From that height, with no climbing gear, Monaghan knew it would take Dep a while to come down. She was on her own finding Rush. She spared a moment to tuck Dep’s mask deeper into her pack before taking off to release the other hostages. She would return it to Dep when she saw her next, hopefully after wringing the life out of the Twins with her bare hands. The hostages all freed, Monaghan looked frantically for Rush, searching in abandoned equipment storage rooms and finding a metal door leading into an office area. Before she could open it, a familiar voice buzzed again over her radio.

                “You’re gonna do exactly what we say, or Rush dies. Come meet us inside, hero,” Lou mocked.

                “Leave your guns outside. You don’t have the power here anymore,” Mickey said. There was no alternative. No way to go in attacking that will not result in Rush being killed. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she stashed her gun and opened the door. Rush was chained to a furniture dolly with his legs pinned and arms behind his back. He met her eyes, his face bruised and bloody like Dep’s, though not as badly. Dep must have put up more of a fight, Monaghan realized, stomach sinking.

                “Get out of here! Now!” he ordered.

                “Tom…”

                “Go!” Monaghan knows what is coming, knows there was no way to prevent it. Voice tight, she tells him the words he wanted so badly to hear.

                “Tom. I love you.” Rush clenched his eyes shut, sunk deeper into his bonds. Mickey interrupted before Monaghan could say anything else.

                “This feels real familiar. Like we’ve been down this road before. Relax. Stay awhile.” She pointed at a pair of handcuffs hanging from a chain from the ceiling, her meaning clear. Monaghan sneered as Lou approached. Mickey laughed when Monaghan sought Rush’s gaze, staring at him intently, seeking guidance from her commander. He refused to look at her after what she had said. “Come on. You’ve been so good up to this point,” Mickey taunted. Clenching her teeth, her lip curling, Monaghan snapped her wrists into place, feeling the clicking of the handcuffs locking like an announcement of a death sentence. “Look at that.” Mickey clapped. “See how easy you can be to get along with? I wanted you to understand that. I wanted you to see that things coulda ended differently if you just listened to us and went away,” Mickey lectured, pacing toward her, getting in her face. “Instead. You chose the stick.” Mickey sucked her teeth. “Here it is.” Lou put the barrel of her shotgun to the back of Rush’s head and in a second, before Monaghan could react, before she could say or do anything, Lou splattered his blood and his brains on the floor and on Monaghan’s feet. He flopped forward, limp, and very, very dead.

                “Nnnnnoooooooooooooooooo!” she shrieked, throat tearing.

                Rage, stronger and deeper than any rage Monaghan had ever felt coursed through her. She saw red blurring at the edges of her vision, gasped in breaths through clamped teeth, growling like a wild animal as she tore the skin at her wrists fighting the handcuffs.

                “Oh fuck. Gonna spend all night wiping those hopes and dreams off my boots,” Lou joked as she steps on a clod of brain matter. “Oh, you know, before you showed up, everything was fuckin’ great,” she said, punctuating the last word by smashing her helmet into Monaghan’s face. “Then you came along with your fancy train and your fancy people trying to made this place into something that’s never,” she hit her with the helmet, “gonna” hit again, “be.” One last hit. Monaghan groaned, but savored the feeling, used it to feed the fire that was the anger in her belly. Mickey piped up again.

                “And when we tried to be reasonable, you thought it’d be a good idea to stir up the pot.”

                “Over and over,” Lou agreed with her sister, smacking Monaghan in the belly with her helmet with each word. “And over!” she screamed, kicking Monaghan hard in the ribs with her brain-splattered boot and she could feel a rib snap.

                “All because you thought there was a hope for your future. There’s no hope for you, no future.”

                “For any of you,” Lou ground out, hitting Monaghan in the jaw with her helmet, the decorative bear jawbone affixed to the bottom of it slicing into the captain’s chin. Monaghan looked at the two and snarled, yanking her arms in opposite directions and snapping the handcuffs off her wrists, ignoring the tearing of skin and the dull crack of a bone in her hand as she did so. It’s unimportant. Only wrath, only vengeance was important now. Monaghan snarled, a wild animal, vision red and hazy.

                “Oh shit,” Mickey screamed, trying to hit Monaghan with her gun, but the captain grabbed it and threw her into the wall like a ragdoll, screaming in fury.

                “What the fuck,” Lou yelped, punching at Monaghan with her helmet over her fist. Monaghan caught and held it, reveling in the fear in Lou’s eyes when she looked to Monaghan’s grip on her helmet, the rage on her face, the cold fury seeping into her features. She punched Lou in the cheek, feeling muscle and bone give as she tosses her into the corner roughly. Monaghan rushed Lou, grabbing her by her greasy, bleached braids and punching her as hard as she could. Mickey levelled a shotgun at her and fired, the homemade gravel birdshot piercing in a hundred places and Monaghan stumbled backwards, tumbling out the window behind her. She landed hard on her back three stories down and lost consciousness.  She comes to with Lou kicking her. Mickey stopped her sister, pulling her away. Their words were blurred, fuzzy. Monaghan felt like her head was full of sand.

                “She was not like that before she went up North.”

                “Maybe it’s time to ask those freaks some questions,” Mickey suggested, and they walk away, leaving Monaghan to die. She stubbornly refused to – she had work to do.

                When she could finally bring herself to stand, the captain drug herself back up to the room, coughing up blood, mucus bubbling unpleasantly in her throat. She had to see him. Had to verify again that he’s dead. That she failed him. She pushed the door open and cried out, a harsh sound that she might have expected from the deputy’s throat, not her own.

                “Fuuuuuuuck!” she screamed, tears streaming down her face. “Goddammit!” She cannot bear to look at Rush, cannot bear to turn him over and see the gore, see how his face was blown apart. She leaned over the railing and vomited violently until her stomach was empty and then dry heaves some more. A gentle rasping next to her appeared and a light hand rested on her shoulder. She turned to look at the bruised and bloodied face of Dep, all swollen and blotchy tissue. Her blood shot eyes were a beautiful shade of green Monaghan thought tiredly. Any other time she would be thrilled to be seeing those eyes. But not now.

                “You O.K.?” Dep signed, wheezing, blood dripping sluggishly from one battered nostril.

                “I’m not gonna be okay for a long time, Dep,” Monaghan murmured. Dep pulled her hood tight around her face, trying to hide it, tearing the last of the balaclava off and jamming it in a jacket pocket with a short hiss of frustration. Monaghan took a breath and reached into her jacket, pulling the wooden mask from her pocket, a bit worse for the wear from its journey bouncing down the tower. “Here.” Monaghan had expected the deputy to snatch it desperately from her hand, but instead she reached for it timidly, taking it gently, brushing Monaghan’s fingers almost tenderly as she did so. She clipped it back in place and signed,

                “Thank you.” Dep took Monaghan into her arms as she wept, agonized wrenches of grief tearing through her. She collected herself after a moment of weakness, pushing away from Dep’s embrace and stepping back into the room where Tom’s body is hanging limply from his bonds, limp and still warm. They wrapped Rush’s body in a strip of canvas and Dep helped Monaghan carry him to the truck, helped her set him into the bed gently. Dep took her tattered balaclava back out of her pocket and gently pulled it over the gore of Rush’s head so that only fine black hair was visible, not white skull and dull grey-pink brain, covering the shattered remains of a once-handsome face. Monaghan wiped bloody hands on her pants, shuddering at the sticky feeling. Wordless, Dep got into the driver’s seat. Monaghan did not argue, just sat on the passenger side, buckled her seatbelt, stared out the window numbly. Dep was still for a moment, taking a deep breath, fingers tightening on the wheel as though she was remembering the last time she drove a truck. Monaghan did not have the emotional energy to spare to wonder if she was okay.

                Finally, taking a deep, rattling breath, Dep put the truck in drive and they move. Breathing hard, Monaghan could feel blood from her wounds seeping through her clothes and she coughed occasionally, ribcage aching, the adrenalin wearing off, agonizing pain beginning to set in. The deputy drove them to Prosperity in silence, honked once when they reached the gates. Monaghan was too stunned to be surprised when Dep drove in, exited the cab inside the gates instead of disappearing. The captain heard people muttering, heard Dep’s soft rasping breathing increase in tempo as familiar faces gathered around her, curious. The residents of Prosperity saw the body in the back of the truck and there was a cry of horror that spread through the crowd. Kim Rye took over the situation, ordered people to help carry the body, ordered some to dig a grave. She put a hand on Monaghan’s shoulder.

                “You need to see to those wounds.”

                “I’m fine,” Monaghan muttered, a tear trailing down her face that she wiped away roughly, sniffing. She was not fine. She was anything but fine. Kim turned to the deputy.

                “Hey,” Kim said softly, her voice warm, but sad. She tried to put a hand on Dep’s arm, but the masked figure pulled away with a gasped intake of breath. Kim nodded, pursing her lips for a moment. “It’s good to see you, Dep,” she told her, voice sincere. The deputy said nothing and Kim sighed. “Take the captain upstairs. There are bandages and water there. Up the stairs and to the right. I’ll made sure no one bothers you,” she assured Dep, glancing toward the explosives lab where Sharky was standing, hands on his hips. The deputy grunted a “Heh,” sound, which was probably meant as thanks. Monaghan felt a hand on her side, pushing her toward the door of the lodge. She went, obedient, ignoring the stares all around her. The deputy lead her up the stairs once they are inside the lodge, the only sound the wind of her breathing. She helped Monaghan strip off her flannel shirt and jeans until she was only in her underwear.

                “This is not how I imagined this happening,” Monaghan said, trying to joke, but it fell flat, both of them numb.

                “Hmmm,” the deputy growled, making Monaghan lie back on a cot and reaching for a cloth. She wetted it with hot water and wiped away the blood. Monaghan hissed in air through gritted teeth. There were gaping holes in her skin where the shot gun blast sent hundreds of little pieces of gravel into her chest, abdomen and legs. She was lucky she had been shot with a custom-made bullet and not deer shot or something worse. As it was, she knew she was only alive because of the changes to her body after she had eaten the fruit from Joseph’s tree. The deputy picked up a pair of hemostats and dug into the first wound. Monaghan groaned, and then screamed as the hemostats were dug deeper.

                “GOD FUCKING DAMMIT!” There was a clink as Dep dropped the pebble onto a tray. She poured alcohol into the wound and Monaghan ground her teeth hard. The deputy worked, pulling out the pieces and cleaning the holes, trying to be gentle and failing when she pulled a particularly large pebble out of Monaghan’s bicep. The captain knew from the tearing feeling that accompanies each breath that most of her ribs were cracked, at least two were broken. Once all of the pieces of gravel shot were removed, the deputy wrapped Monaghan’s chest in cloth, binding her ribcage tight. Monaghan kept up a litany of curses at the deputy, using creative epithets and threats the entire time, the pain of her wounds overcoming any affection she felt toward her friend. Dep did not respond to the cursing and name-calling, just kept gently doctoring Monaghan’s wounds. Selene, for once wordless, handed her a big bottle of antibiotics when she slowly made her way down the stairs, Dep having vanished somewhere. Monaghan sat numbly next to the fireplace, tears seeping slowly out and paving slick, salty trails down her cheeks.

                “We’re having the funeral tonight,” Kim said quietly when she approached. “Where’s the deputy?” Monaghan shrugged.

                “No idea. She doesn’t want to be here. Doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Probably snuck back over the walls.”

                “I can’t blame her. None of us trust the cult. We tried getting her out of there once. Something happened to you there, didn’t it?”

                “Joseph gave me some kind of fruit from a tree. He thought God had given me some kind of special abilities, that I’m his ‘chosen one’ or some bullshit. I think the radiation did a number on the tree that made its fruit have some awesome side-effects and I’m lucky eating it didn’t kill me. Either way, I’m not dead yet, and I’m going to put an end to those two cunts,” Monaghan promised, wiping her face.

--

                Monaghan sat at Rush’s grave, strumming a borrowed guitar after the funeral. Dep slinked out of the forest to sit right next to her, silent support once the crowd of mourners had dispersed.

                Tears silently dripping down her face, Monaghan sang:

“Black clouds are behind me, I now can see ahead; often I wonder why I try hoping for an end. Sorrow weighs my shoulders down, and trouble haunts my mind, but I know the present will not last, and tomorrow will be kinder. Tomorrow will be kinder– It’s true, I've seen it before. A brighter day is coming my way, yes, tomorrow will be kinder. Today I've cried a many tear, and pain is in my heart. Around me lies a somber scene, I don’t know where to start, but I feel warmth on my skin, the stars have all aligned. The wind has blown, but now I know that tomorrow will be kinder. Yes, tomorrow will be kinder.”

Chapter Text

                After the funeral, and after a conversation with Kim about the Twins’ plans, Monaghan found herself exhausted, out of breath no matter how much air she sucked into sore lungs. She knew she needed to heal, needed to give her lungs and ribs time to recover. Without her increased healing abilities, she knew she would had been laid up for a several months. As it is, she knew she needed to give herself at least two weeks to heal. A broken rib was one thing, a punctured lung was another monster entirely and she cannot afford for that kind of injury to happen when next she confronted the Twins. Prosperity was as good a place as any to rest and recover, but she longed for the deputy’s company, longed for the silence of their conversations, longed for the companionship of someone who truly knew how it felt to be responsible for a friend’s death. When she stepped out of the compound for a moment of solitude and fresh air, she was surprised to find the deputy standing there waiting for her, silent except for her ever-present raspy breathing. There was a four-wheeler parked just outside the gates and the deputy hopped on, looking at her somehow expectantly with her blank-masked face. Monaghan gingerly pulled herself up and grabbed onto Dep’s waist. Their journey was slow and cautious, made at night to avoid being found by Highwaymen. Dep travelled by moonlight, keeping the headlights off.

                They reached their destination a few hours later and Monaghan was exhausted, feeling ready to fall off the four-wheeler. The deputy helped her to her feet with a strong grip on Monaghan’s forearm and a hand at her waist, gentle but firm. They were on the northern island and near a familiar wooden house that was much closer to a shack than a cabin. The building was nestled in a small valley between hills, protected from high winds and shaded by tall trees. Dep made her lie down on a soft wool and linen bed in the corner of the house and curled up on the ground next to it after starting a fire in a crude fireplace in the corner. Amid her grief, Monaghan wanted nothing more than to invite Dep into the bed with her, to be a comforting warmth to curl into, but inside the cabin they were protected from the brunt of the wind and the cold, so there was no reason to share a bed.

                “Good night, Dep,” Monaghan finally muttered when she felt sleep overcoming her.

                “Hgmmph,” was the only growled response.

                When Monaghan awakened in the morning the light of the rising sun was shining in her face, due mostly to the fact that the house only had two full walls. The other two had been left open; there were multiple rooms in the house, but only one of them had four walls and it was clearly used for storage. This was not just any house, Monaghan realized, this was the Judge’s house. She understood with a little twinge of empathy for her friend that Dep’s terror of being trapped inside of a building extended to her own home. Dep still refused to follow her into bunkers, almost never agreed to come into any caves, and when they entered houses or abandoned businesses, she always left the door cracked open, as though terrified of being trapped. Who could blame her? Monaghan stared around the cabin, saw herbs hanging from the ceiling, a deer skin stretched on a frame in a corner. Standing and stretching gingerly, she yawned, searching for Dep.

                The brown-clad figure was not in the cabin. Perhaps she was finding them some breakfast. God, Monaghan hoped she was finding them some breakfast – her stomach was rumbling insistently. There was a handmade set of drawers close to the bed. There was a carved wooden tray holding a mangled bullet that was stained black with old blood, a bullet she remembered seeing long ago when she stayed the night here before seeking out the cult. A chill went through her now that she knew whose house this was.

                It was almost as though the two were fated to meet, she thought for a moment before pushing the superstitious notion away gruffly.

                Curious, Monaghan picked up a grubby, dirt-smudged Polaroid picture that was sitting next to the tray. It’s a photo from at least seventeen years ago. The faces were hard to make out, but Monaghan could see that it’s a group photo taken in front of two large, fortified gates. Hurk and Nick were in the picture, smiling happily, both younger and thinner than they are now. Hurk was holding a rocket launcher perched on one shoulder.

                “Nothing’s changed that much,” Monaghan muttered. There were a couple of obvious law enforcement officers, one a tall, kind-looking man with big glasses, a wide mustache and longish, dark blonde hair under his hat with his arm around a pretty red-headed woman holding a shotgun expertly. Grace was perched coolly on a half wall next to everyone else, sniper rifle held easily in her arms; a slight, hooded woman with scars on her face was just behind her holding a bow in one hand and making bunny ears on Grace’s head with the other. A goateed and short-haired Sharky was holding a flamethrower like he’s playing a guitar riff on it, his leg kicked up in the air, red-framed sunglasses perched on a sun-bleached blue baseball cap on his head. Most of the other faces Monaghan did not recognize, but she smiled at a scruffy merle shepherd wearing a red bandana, his tongue lolling out as he looked up at another law enforcement officer. This person was of middling height, though on the short side of middling, and had her hands on her hips proudly, a compound bow poking up over her shoulder. Her face had been scratched out.

                Monaghan set the picture down and opened a drawer, feeling only a little bad about snooping. Curiosity may had killed the cat, but she was not a cat, she figured. When she slid the drawer out, she was unsurprised to find a sidearm sitting there, but it was dirty and had clearly not been cleaned in many years. Law enforcement issue, a .44 Magnum L. Next to it, tarnished but still legible, was a brass and silver badge.

“Hope County

Montana

Deputy Sheriff

Protect ★ Serve”

Beneath this was a gold-trimmed brown shoulder patch with a gold star depicting a simple mountain scene with the words,

“DEPUTY

HOPE COUNTY

MONTANA”.

In the drawer, there was also a worn pair of red-framed sport sunglasses that look as though they were singed with fire at least once. With a little huff of breath, she realized they once belonged to Sharky Boshaw. There was a pin for the “Hope County Cougars” that had bubbled and faded with age. A tattered poster that read “WANTED: SINNER” was folded into quarters as well. It depicted a woman in jeans, a plaid shirt and a brown Stetson, but the face had again been scratched out. Moving aside the pin and the sunglasses, she saw another photo, a copy of a photo she had seen in Prosperity of a younger Nick Rye and a tired-looking Kim holding a small pink-faced bundle. Carmina. The deputy’s goddaughter. Under all of this was a small sketchpad. She flipped through it, surprised to find talented pencil drawings of faces, some of which she recognized. One depicted a young Sharky, another depicted Grace aiming down the sight of her rifle. There was one of a young archer with a cut drawn across her nose, and one more of a handsome man with a thick beard and piercingly drawn eyes wearing an elaborate coat. Yet another was quite clearly a drawing of a young, perhaps nine or ten year old Carmina Rye. Sad and feeling suddenly guilty over the breech of privacy, Monaghan put everything back and closed the drawer, wandering outside.

Dep was squatting next to a fire where she had built a makeshift grill to hold a cast iron skillet. In it were six small bird eggs and several strips of bacon.

“Goddamn, that smells amazing,” Monaghan said. The deputy growled at the blasphemy, as she always did, but Monaghan ignored the sound, too excited for the prospect of bacon and eggs to argue about “using the Lord’s name in vain.” There was tea steeping as well, and Monaghan missed coffee for the thousandth time. Monaghan looked at Dep, really looked at her for the first time that morning and noticed oozing blood seeping from under her mask. Dep reached a finger under the edge of her mask, prodded her jaw, and it was clear she was wincing underneath it, prodding at a tooth. If her wounds were still bleeding now, with the healing abilities the Judge possesses, they must be very deep. When the Judge was injured rescuing Nick, one of the New Edeners had explained that the healing still depended on care of the wound. A wound, left gaping and open, could still be infected, could still refuse to close. A bullet wound with the bullet left inside it would still fester. “How is your face?” Monaghan asked, concerned. Ignoring the question, Dep turned to her and signed,

How are your ribs?

“They’re fine. They’re not bleeding. You still are. You may need some stitches.” She said this last part in a hopeless tone, knowing the likelihood of the deputy removing that goddamn mask was not high. Dep grunts. “It’s going to get infected.” The deputy growled now, low and long, a deeply disquieting noise, but to Monaghan’s surprise, she unclipped the mask. There was a deep cut on her cheek and white bone could clearly be seen through the oozing blood. Her face was still swollen and bruised from the beating she had taken before being chained up, but her swollen features were pleasantly proportioned, her eyes that haunting forest green ringed in blue gray. Monaghan was pleased that she had had the sense of mind to keep her backpack on when she had stepped out of Prosperity. In it she kept a small first aid kit she knew had needle and thread. It would not be her first time putting stitches in someone, she thought with a pang of grief, eyes misting as she forced down a sob at the thought of Rush.

                “After breakfast,” Dep insisted. She did not put her mask back on for the moment, and instead set the cast iron skillet on a stump and motioned for Monaghan to sit across from her. Monaghan obliged and was handed a carved wooden fork. They ate from the shared skillet in silence, Dep favoring one side of her jaw as she chewed, Monaghan trying not to stare and failing. Dep looked up at her from under her hood and signed, “Stop staring” aggressively, her hand chopping down abruptly into the other, her features irritated, the motions accompanied by an angry hiss. It’s the first time Monaghan had gotten to see her made facial expressions, though, so she had to tear her gaze away.

                “Sorry,” she muttered, blushing beneath her own bruises. Lou’s helmet had done a number on her face, and now as she chewed, she could tell a few teeth had been loosened by the ordeal. After they finished eating, a task that took longer than normal with sore jaws, the deputy set the chunk of stump she was using as a chair next to Monaghan’s. “This is absolutely gonna sting a little,” Monaghan informed her, touching the edges of the wound carefully with a nitrile-gloved hand. She thanked her lucky stars she’d managed to recover a box of gloves after the train crash. Gently, she probed and the deputy hissed in pain, wincing, green eyes watering a bit as Monaghan washed the wound with a splash of filtered ethanol she had saved for just such an occasion. She sunk the needle into soft flesh and could feel the deputy clench her jaw hard, gasping. A few minutes and a few swigs of liquor for both of them later, and the gash was stitched and the other scrapes thoroughly cleaned. The instant Monaghan motioned that she was done, the mask was back on.

                They sat in their usual companionable silence sipping on the tea the deputy had made. It was acrid and bitter and it was not coffee, but it was a little bit caffeinated, so it would do in a pinch. Having seen Dep’s face, Monaghan guessed they were around the same age, late thirties to mid-forties, but the swelling made her unsure. She realized unhappily that she finally got to see the deputy’s face but still did not really know what she looked like under all that bruising and swelling. It seemed a normal enough face, no significant scarring, nothing out of the ordinary. But still, Dep was ashamed of it, felt the need to hide it from the world. Felt the need to hide her guilt, Monaghan remembered from the notes in the bunker and in New Eden.

                Monaghan knew the feeling now, knew that aching shame of failing those you care about, of creating more evil while trying to do good. She felt it first when Barnes and the others were killed, when Rush had been taken at the train, then when Prosperity had been attacked, and now, burning and numb simultaneously, when she had lifted the limp, still-warm body of Rush into the back of her pickup with Dep’s help. She covered her face with her hands and wept, sobs racking through her broken ribs. She embraced the pain, knew she deserved it. She let out a grating scream of anger and frustration to the Heavens, panting. “Please give me a mask…” she remembered reading, and for the first time she truly understood the need to hide one’s shame, to avoid looking those you had failed in the eye. She understood the feeling of knowing that everything you had done had led to ruin and pain and worse. A hand rested on her shoulder and she jerked away.

                “Don’t touch me. Do not touch me.” Monaghan stared up at the Judge aggressively. The Judge’s hand was held uncertainly between her body and the captain’s shoulder, still cupped and hesitant. Taking a breath, the Judge lowered her hand. Monaghan wondered if she could had saved Rush if she had not spent that extra time checking on Dep, making sure she was alright. Wondered if Dep could had prevented her capture if she had been more careful, if she had not been so goddamn reckless like she always was, like she did not care if she lived or died. Monaghan wondered if she should had forced Dep to come with her to Prosperity, wondered if she should had forced Dep to come in to that dark, now blood splattered room with her, to help her free Rush, to stop the Twins, to stop Rush from being shot…no.

                No.

                The guilt laid with Monaghan. Monaghan had suggested he do reconnaissance, had encouraged him to go out alone. Monaghan had left him, preferring instead to dick around with Dep. She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose delicately between two fingers, tears still slowly sliding down her face, guilt suffusing her. She wondered, with a jolt of pain, if she should have just left the Judge in New Eden in the first place, wondered if it would have made any difference if she had not been distracted with a crush... She looked up, saw a glimpse of eye through the hole in Dep’s mask, met its steady gaze. “Sorry,” Monaghan murmured. Dep sat lightly, this time rested a hand on Monaghan’s knee. She did not move away from the touch, and instead let herself be gently tugged and then forcibly pulled into a comforting embrace, heard the scratchy movement of air vibrating through Dep’s throat, heard the soft exhale behind the mask, realized Dep was crying too, crying for Rush, crying for long-dead friends, crying for Monaghan, crying, it was likely, for herself.

                The two spent most of the day silent, sitting or lying back on blankets. Trying to recover from both physical and emotional wounds. Monaghan napped fitfully, and then awakened and started crying again, ignoring the ache of her damaged ribs. If Dep was close by whenever this happened, she would silently stalk over and put a steadying hand on Monaghan’s shoulder before vanishing again. The days passed slowly; there was not much to do except mourn and wait for wounds to heal, and one blended into another. Monaghan kept in contact with Carmina and Kim over the radio. The Highwaymen had been awfully well-behaved the past few days. Rumor had it the Twins thought Monaghan was dead. Good. Let them make that mistake again.

                “We still need your help, Cap,” Kim’s voice floated over the radio. “Now more than ever.” Monaghan curled up to sleep, hearing those words boring into her mind. “Now more than ever.” She dreamt of better times, a brief respite from the aching loneliness and guilt.

                “You’re the spotter, Staff Sergeant, that means you spot. What do you see?” Monaghan stares through the scope, breathing slowly.

                “Sir, I see a boot, sir.”

                “Try again.” Monaghan takes a deep breath, forces herself to apply her intelligence training.

                “Sir, I see a brown object, likely made of leather, approximately eleven inches long and eight inches tall. It does not appear to be a threat, sir.”

                “Better. You might be able to pour piss out of it if the instructions were written on the heel.”

                “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

                “Permission granted.”

                “Sir, I believe you may have mistaken me for a Marine.” Rush smiles brightly, chuckling at Monaghan’s joke.

                “At ease, soldier. Just don’t go eating any crayons and you’ll be fine.”

                Waking from this dream, Monaghan found that the respite from grief was a cruelty, not a kindness, and she felt Rush’s loss so intensely it made her nauseated. She wanted to leave, wanted to get up and get ready for action but knew she needed a few more days to grieve and to process and to plan. This pain was like a physical weight around her neck, a distraction and a curse. She replayed Rush’s final moments over and over in her head, replayed the struggling Judge at the top of the tower, replayed everything that happened and a million ways she could have handled it all better. She needed answers, at least one. She finally blurted out after they eaten lunch,

                “How did they catch you?” The deputy’s masked face flicked up in surprise. She wheezed for a moment and then signed,

                “I was headed back to N.E.. Back to J.O.S.E.P.H..” There was a pause and she lowered her head in what Monaghan guessed might be shame, or might simply be taking a moment to think. “I heard a fight in the woods. Went to investigate. They had your friend Rush. I tried to help, tried to free him. I failed.” Her hands paused and went to her lap but then she signed, “Again.

                “You could have gotten yourself killed, you idiot,” Monaghan whispered, eyes watering again at the loss of Rush. Dep snorted, insulted at the epithet but Monaghan did not care.

                “I did it for you,” Dep signed, solemn, frank. They were quiet for a moment, and motionless. Monaghan laughed suddenly, making Dep let out a little cautious hiss of laughter herself.

                “We’re just a couple of screw ups trying our best. We’re a lot alike, you and I.” Dep did not object, was still. After several long minutes, decided, Monaghan asked the question she has wanted to ask since the deputy obediently followed her out of New Eden on Joseph’s command. “Do you really believe all that stuff Joseph said? Does he really have that much of a hold on you?” The deputy looked at her levelly, breaths sharp.

                “I don’t know what I believe now. But he broke me. At least, as Judge, I can help people. I can help you.

                “You don’t have to be the Judge for that,” Monaghan pointed out softly. Dep let out a stuttered chuff of air. “That mask, that book, that fruit, it’s all just ways to manipulate people, Dep. You know that. Or you knew it, anyway. Whatever good Joseph’s cult is doing now does not undo the bad he did in the past. You were fighting him, trying to destroy him. Don’t let him keep destroying you. And his son Ethan, well, there’s a real piece of work. Maybe even crazier than his daddy. But I don’t have to tell you that, do I?” Monaghan demanded, frowning. She was tired of tiptoeing around this. Tired of trying not to hurt or offend. She was just too goddamn tired for anything anymore.

                “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” Dep signed mysteriously, and walked away.

                “Well, what the fuck is that supposed to mean, pendeja?” Monaghan called after her, but she did not answer.

Chapter Text

                The two of them served as New Eden’s guards; any Highwaymen dumb enough or unlucky enough to wander onto their island was summarily executed. None were allowed to escape. Their island was the last defense before the Highwaymen stumbled upon New Eden. The buck, unquestioningly, Monaghan thought as she shot a wandering Highwayman through the eye, stopped right here. She made her way through the forested area, stepping lightly through the undergrowth, eyes peeled for unfriendly and venomous reptiles curled in the tall understory. She worked her way south, heard yelling and gunfire. A little flock of New Edeners was trying to fight off a group of Highwaymen just south of the Judge’s island, and they were, to put it in no uncertain terms, getting their asses kicked. Monaghan and the Judge stepped out of the forest into the open stretch of what was once a highway, the Judge shooting arrows, Monaghan bullets. The Highwaymen fell, screaming. Panting, the two got back-to-back, looking around for others.

                The Judge indicated to the New Edeners to go home, or to go elsewhere, Monaghan was not sure, but guessed that the New Edeners had figured out how to understand little gestured orders from their Judge. The group waved, scattered into the forest, and vanished as though they were never there. Monaghan picked bullets out of the grass, pocketing them and collecting the weapons that were still functional.

                “You go ahead,” she told Dep, “I’ll be back in a bit. Take these,” she requested, handing Dep the handle of the canvas sack she used to collect guns and ammo. She did not find the right caliber for her rifle, would have to made some when next she had access to a workbench, but she had her sidearm, at least.

                Making her way carefully down the bank of the river estuary, she checked the crawfish traps she had dropped there, cursing to find that raccoons had gotten into them and eaten her prey. She heard a twig snap behind her and ducked, hearing more Highwaymen patrolling down the road, likely looking for friends who had never showed up to a rendezvous. She cursed silently, wondering how many fucking Highwaymen the Twins had to sneak around and harass this county. She gritted her teeth where she hid in the reeds, deciding how to proceed. She decided that incaution was the better part of valor and dropped three of the Highwaymen, the rest yelling and scattering.

                Rushing through the dense undergrowth, Monaghan shot several more, listening for the others. She heard one behind her and swore when she realized she was cornered between too thick undergrowth and fast flowing water.

                “Come out, come out wherever you are,” comes a sing-song voice. Monaghan turned and saw the Highwayman, a lean, dark-skinned woman with a bright purple bandana over her hair. In her hand was a handmade spear, its sharp tip firmly aimed at Monaghan’s face.

                “I’m gonna end you, you piece of shit,” Monaghan hissed, reaching for her rifle.

                “You and what army, thudfuck?” The woman asked and out of the bushes near the river appeared the rest of the Highwaymen group. Monaghan surveyed all of them. Some only had melee weapons, baseball bats, metal pipes and the like. At least two of them had guns. “By my count, you’ve only got three bullets left in your clip, and there’s seven of us.” Monaghan smiled. Now she knew how many there were, evidently the ones she could see were the ones who were left. Goddamn, Highwaymen were stupid.

                “Well, that settles a debate – turned out Highwaymen can count,” Monaghan drawled in her Texas accent.

                “Shut up. Like I said, three bullets, seven of us. Put the rifle down.” Monaghan nodded, pursing her lips and sliding a finger to disengage the safety on her rifle. She wondered if the Highwayman had forgotten her sidearm, or were arrogant enough to think she would not try to use it. In her mind she planned her next move, sliding the safety of her rifle back on as an afterthought.

                “You’re right. I’ve only got three bullets,” she said, looking down at her rifle and then snapping her gaze up to the female Highwayman’s eyes, making the woman twitch. “But do you want to be one of the three I’m about to use them on?” The woman looked deeply uncomfortable, shifts her weight nervously. Monaghan shrugs. “Your choice.”

                “Put it down.”

                “Oh, you got it, sunshine,” Monaghan said with a toothy smile, flinging the rifle at her enemy suddenly. She pulled her side arm, shot four of them in quick succession and then dove back into the brush, the river lapping at her boots in the dense maze of cattail reeds. She ducked behind a large rock, hearing gun fire singing around her; bullets whizzed past entirely too close for comfort. She calmed herself, took a deep, steeling breath. One of them ran past where she was hidden behind the rock and she sliced their Achilles tendon with a precise jerk of her knife. They fell, crying out in agony.

                “Help, oh, fuck, help me, please!” they shrieked. Another came running to assist their injured friend and Monaghan planted a bullet in their chest. That was six down. One left. She heard soft footsteps coming from the other side of the rock and she shifted, waiting, muscles coiled. An ankle appeared and she nearly jabbed her knife down through the foot attached to it before its owner sunk down next to her, hissing.

                “I guess it’s a good thing I decided to come ask what you want for lunch.

                “I have it handled,” Monaghan smirked, but she patted Dep’s knee gratefully. Another heavy figure came tearing through the underbrush, and an agonized shriek sounded out as the person took an arrow to the belly. Dep ended the shriek with a slick hard motion of her knife against a neck as she stood abruptly. The two women stand to survey the area for more enemies. There were none. Monaghan picked up her now scuffed rifle, relieved she had taken the scope off. It was not like glass for magnification was very easy to replace these days. She grinned at Dep. “See, told you I had it handled.” Dep scoffed beneath her mask.

--

                When Monaghan went out to patrol the next morning, she found the Highwaymen’s bodies, stinking and starting to rot, still exactly where she and Dep had left them, tied to posts on each side of the road leading onto the island. Fear was a hell of a defense against bullies, as it turned out. When she finished her loop around the island, she found Dep sitting in a wooden chair she had fashioned out of branches, a sturdy but comfortable back and seat woven together through a carved frame.

                “About time for you to unass that chair and do a lap with me, Dep. Don’t want you getting out of shape.” Dep erected a middle finger, but Monaghan could tell it was in jest. At any rate, the deputy got up, dusting off her knees and stretching in the afternoon warmth before sitting again with a yawn. The early afternoon was warm and pleasant, with a light breeze blowing through the shady forest. They both sat, Dep in her chair, Monaghan on a log she folded her jacket on as a cushion. They ate lunch quietly, ancient, half-crystallized canned peaches and wild boar ham with homemade bread. Time whittled away the day, afternoon turned to early evening.

                “Tell me about yourself,” The Judge signed, as though this was somehow apropos to hours spent in complete silence.

                “What?” Monaghan asked stupidly, surprised at the sudden request.

                “You, no doubt, have been told much about me, most of it true, some of it exaggerated. You know much about who I used to be and at least some about who I am now. I’ve stuck my neck out for you, and your – our friends. But I still don’t know much about you. So tell me, Captain, what’s your story?” The deputy held up a finger, walked to the cabin and returned, a clear glass bottle of honey gold liquid in her hand when she returned. She uncorked it, pushed the neck of the bottle beneath the bottom of her mask and took a swig through the mouth hole of her balaclava, a new, clean one that has not been shredded and stained with blood. How she had not died from heat stroke wearing one nearly constantly was beyond Monaghan, but Monaghan was born and raised in Houston, Texas where heat was a state of life, not a weather condition. Dep handed her the bottle, coughing a bit. Monaghan raised an eyebrow, but accepted the liquor. It was malty and burned on its way down her throat.

                “McHelen’s whiskey. It aged for years at the bottom of Silver Lake,” Dep signed in explanation. “I was saving it for a special occasion, but now’s as good a time as any,” she signed with their pidgin ASL, shrugging at the end as though whatever special occasion she was thinking of was unimportant. Monaghan frowned.

                “Special occasion?” The Judge turned and looked at her, going still.

                “I was going to…” she signed the last part of the sentence by holding her right hand to her temple in the shape of a gun and pulling the trigger, an unmistakable sign even if Monaghan had not known the ASL gesture for the action. Monaghan took a long, long draw from the bottle, sucking in air at the burn when she was done.

                “Jesus. Heavy. I…I didn’t know how to respond before when you said you wished I had strangled you to death. When you said you didn’t want to exist anymore. I want you to exist, Dep,” Monaghan said seriously. The Judge nodded, shrugged, opening her hands as if to say “well, I’m still here, aren’t I?” After a beat, she began to sign again.

                “Joseph never had me as well-trained as he thought, though there were times when I lost myself. The Scavengers tried to rescue me. Or, at least, they tried to rescue the Junior Deputy. I was not the Junior Deputy anymore by the time they got to me. But their attempt reminded me…it hurt me. Brought to light again my guilt. I planned my ending as an escape, but then...” her hands dropped, trailing the sentence off deliberately, its ending a mystery. “Well, we’re not talking about me, are we?” Monaghan tugged the corners of her lips down in a facial shrug and handed the bottle back to the Judge. Dep again unclipped the bottom of her mask so it could be shifted to allow her to drink more easily, her neck and chin still obscured by the balaclava, her appearance warped. She took a draw, sniffing and coughing for a moment, cleared her throat roughly before handing Monaghan the bottle. Holding her hands in fists and touching the tips of her thumbs together, Dep jutted her hands forward twice. “Go on,” the sign said. Monaghan sighed, holding the bottle, staring at its contents for a moment, wanting to ask questions infinitely more than she wanted to answer them or talk about herself.

                “Well… I told you before, I’m from Texas. I did competitive shooting as a kid, my parents thought it would be a good activity to get scholarships for college. Pushed me really hard, said I had ‘a lot of potential.’” Monaghan thought wistfully, one corner of her lip raising in a small smile. She picked a long strand of grass and began stripping it into shreds distractedly as she spoke. “I went to high school and finished an associate’s degree concurrently. Wanted to be a vet for a while because I like animals. Realized how long I’d had to be in school and how much shit vets catch from literally everyone, so I stopped with my bachelor’s degree. Thought maybe joining the military would give me an excuse, or at least a reprieve from my parents nagging me about all that potential I apparently had. Spent the rest of my life up to now as a soldier. It’s where I met Rush.” She stopped, swallowed a hard, burning lump in her throat at the thought and cleared her throat.

Monaghan reached out a hand for the bottle, which Dep handed her. Taking a swig, she set it down next to her boot. Dep did not object. “I worked my way up – special forces. Got commendations. I did good in school, but I did fucking great in the Army. I was First Lieutenant and spent my time overseas doing reconnaissance with a group of soldiers under my command. We went around picking off important members of terrorist groups and they made me a captain after Rush pushed me to go for higher rank, and I did it, if only because it paid better. But I hated it. A lot of times being handed more power actually makes you pretty powerless. Once…” she sighed, steeling herself with a drink and hissing in air through her teeth. “Once, I got sloppy. I was bored, leading a bunch of soldiers around was stressful, and hard, but it’s boring. You don’t get your hands into it. I don’t know, It’s just...” She trailed off, searching for words, her eyes distant. She sighed deeply.

“Anyway. I got careless. I got complacent. We hadn’t had any issues with the terrorists in the area for months. I let one of my trainees do most of the reconnaissance for a group of Humvees moving troops. I thought it would be easy, that it would be a good in-the-field teaching moment but I was stupid, and careless and didn’t double-check his views like I should have. He missed – no, I missed a package, missed spotting an IED. Killed eight men, crippled two others. Nearly ruined my career. One of the guys who got hurt lost a leg. That wasn’t the issue, the issue was he was a senator’s son.” Dep huffed an angry breath, but Monaghan ignored it. “I didn’t give a shit about the senator, or what he could do to my career. I cared about those guys who died or lost limbs because I fucked up. At the end of that tour, I hung it up. Saved some money, bought a house, was working on starting a brewery. Then the bombs went off.” She wiped a hand across her face. “Does that answer your question? Interrogation over?” The Judge just looked at her mildly, took the bottle from her, took an awkward drink, wheezed.

                “When did you learn A.S.L.?” Monaghan inhaled and then blew out air hard, an annoyed sound, but she answered.

                “As a kid. My mom was deaf in one ear, hearing impaired in the other. I guess that’s a good thing, huh?” A sudden, unbidden flare of anger flicked through Monaghan, her default setting when uncomfortable. The sharing of personal information without any returned niggled at Monaghan. She snapped her gaze sharply up to Dep, who actually flinched at the change of expression. “What about you? Huh? Who was your high school sweetheart? What did you major in in college? What color are your eyes? How the fuck did you get mixed up in a cult you fought so hard to destroy? Why do you suddenly want to know so much about me?” For a moment, the Judge just stared; then she held the bottle out to Monaghan, who ignored it until Dep swished it enticingly in a movement that could be irritation or cajolement. Monaghan took it, took a drink, tried to calm herself.

                “My ‘high school sweetheart’ nearly got me run out of town,” Dep signed with a coughed laugh. “Her name was E.R.I.N.. She was the preacher’s kid and she was the kind of beautiful that took your breath away when it walked into a room. Before the bombs went off she had three kids by three different guys and was trying to sell me essential oils on Facebook,” Dep signed with another rough chuckle. “I majored in criminal justice with an emphasis in wildlife law. My eyes are green, but you probably already knew that. As for my participation with New Eden that’s a very long story I’m not ready to share yet. I will. But not yet.” Dep tipped her chin up imperiously. “As I signed. We’re not talking about me.” Adequately scolded and feeling like an ass, Monaghan nodded. “I want to know more about you because you are the first friend I’ve made in over a decade. Seemed only fair you let me get to know you better.” Monaghan gave a sheepish nod, reddening.

                “My birthday is August tenth nineteen ninety-five. I had a pet conure before the bombs went off named Mr. Tickles. Rush’s daughter has him now.” Another flare of that familiar pain in her chest. “I joined the California Company for Rush. Now…now I feel lost. I know logistics, know planning, but I still just feel so goddamn unprepared without him to lead. I feel overwhelmed and sad and, and I don’t know, but I hate this county for what it’s done to me, but I love it because I met people like Nick and Jerome and Grace and Nana. And you.” Dep chuckled and signed.

                “I know the feeling.” Might as well put it all out there, Monaghan thought, wondering how deeply religious Dep actually was.

                “I’m an atheist,” she told Dep. “My parents were atheists. And now I’m, I guess, a cult member.” Dep shifted, as she generally did, at New Eden being referred to as a cult, but did not interrupt. “I had superpowers given to me by a glorified apple and I’m sitting across from someone Kenny Rodgers might now refer to as ‘the coward of the county.’” Dep hissed at the possible insult. Monaghan shrugged, taking another swig of whiskey before Dep yanked it out of her hand in annoyance before setting it down to sign.

                “You like to pick fights.

                “No. No. I love to pick fights,” Monaghan corrected her. Dep scoffed and they glared at each other for a moment. Monaghan realized her vision was swimming and there were two Judges sitting in front of her, which would be problematic if she needed to hit one of them in a minute. Jesus, that whiskey was stout but it snuck up on you, she thought, closing one eye partially. The two Judges shared the bottle of whiskey, which was now two bottles of whiskey, and took a deep drink before two settled back into one and Monaghan took a deep breath. The sun was wearily creeping out of the sky and the woods darkened, wind flickering through the tree leaves peacefully. Monaghan leaned back and nearly fell off her stump, righted herself, sniffed and said, “My first boyfriend’s name was Keith, which should have been enough of a warning not to date him.” The Judge regarded her, listening. Monaghan smirked, slowly rocking back and forth on her stump. “My first girlfriend’s name was Callie and she was a firecracker,” she confided. “All angst and insanity, that one, but she was great in the sack. Taught me things I didn’t know about myself, that’s for damn sure.” The Judge leaned back, took a deep breath, caught herself on the edge of her chair when she started to tilt to one side. Monaghan scratched her chin, feeling the world spin for a moment. She noticed that the Judge was swaying, movements unsteady. Her signs were slurred and clumsy.

                With a huff of frustration, Dep peeled her leather gloves off, revealing those pale, freckled hands that Monaghan found herself wanting to feel on her body.

                “You’re just teasing me now,” Dep finally managed clearly enough for Monaghan to understand, distracting her from mental images of pale hands touching her waist, her breasts, her... Monaghan felt like she had cotton stuffed in her ears and she leaned forward heavily on her knees, reining in the hot desire she was feeling for her friend. Her friend. She was just a friend, she reminded herself firmly.

                “Maybe I am just teasing. Or maybe I’m just being honest. You asked about me, so I’m telling you. I’m a thirty-four C, or I was before every major bra maker was blown to kingdom come.” The Judge gave a rasping chuckle. “My favorite animal is probably extinct now – a kākāpō. I’m an only child. What else do you want to know?” It was clear to Monaghan that the Judge was even more drunk than she was, and given the rules of the cult, perhaps she was more drunk now than she has been in seventeen years. She stayed still and quiet and tilted her head up, gazing at the stars becoming visible in the flickering night sky now lit by northern lights. “Hey, you okay?” Monaghan asked, frowning, one eye now firmly clamped shut to slow the gentle swaying of her world.

                “I am drunk,” the Judge signed hazily. Monaghan barked a loud laugh.

                “Makes two of us.” There was a long, long silence where Monaghan just stared adoringly at the Judge. The Judge…Dep…was still staring silently up at the sky, expression and emotions fathomless behind her tilted mask, a mystery that Monaghan so badly wished to solve.

                “They all know who I am, don’t they?” Dep asked and Monaghan heard a sound that was half-hiccup, half-sob as she fiddled with her mask, fingers clumsy.

                “Yeah. Yeah, Deputy, they do.” They were quiet except for a long, shuddering breath. An owl hooted somewhere behind them.

                “I used to think this mask would protect me. But then I was told to confront S.H.A.R.K.Y and H.U.R.K. about their distillery. There was no hiding who I was from them after H.U.R.K. kicked my mask off. I still can’t forgive myself for what I’ve done. I don’t know if I ever will.” She still stared up at the sky while she signed. Her hands were still for a long, long moment. “There are many things I regret doing in my life, Captain.” Dep looked away from the sky abruptly and stared straight at Monaghan. “Following you is not one of them.”

                “I don’t know how to respond to that,” Monaghan answered with a nervous laugh, an odd tight sensation in her chest. The Judge stood, stumbling, and walked the short distance to the captain, put a gloved hand on Monaghan’s knee to steady herself. She leaned forward, her mask very close to Monaghan’s face. The two just look at one another, Monaghan surveying the gouges and cuts on the Judge’s mask, seeing the mark of at least one arrow tip strike. She opened her mouth to speak, to say something, though she has not decided what yet, when the Judge tumbled backwards, catching herself at the last moment from falling, but she swayed dangerously like a sapling in a hurricane.

                “Hold on,” the Judge signed with her index finger in the air and she staggered haphazardly toward the cabin. Monaghan watched her ass appreciatively as she stumbled away. There was clattering and a loud hiss that Monaghan guessed would had been a curse if Dep still had her voice. She returned, carrying a water skin, and an old, beat-up guitar case. Out of it, she pulled an equally worn guitar. It’s much the worse for wear, but had strings, clearly handmade from gut. The Judge handed it to Monaghan reverently and she took it, forcing herself to focus, to sober at this gift.  The Judge ignored Monaghan, taking a long drink of water and then cracking her fingers with loud pops and a soft grunt at one particularly loud snap of her knuckle. Monaghan looked longingly at those pale, lithe hands with freckles artfully scattered across their backs amidst the white scars of past fights. She tried very hard to ignore the harsh white scars at the wrists, evidence of bondage at some point. Shaking herself, Monaghan strummed the guitar, tuning it.

                “Where did this come from?” she slurred as she worked with the instrument gently, careful not to break a string in her inebriated state.

                “Found it for you,” Dep answered after she had put her gloves back on. “Was checking on a group of my scouts, explored a half-buried building that used to be a bar that I knew always had live music, before the Collapse. I found the guitar there and took it, made strings for it. For you. I remembered that night you sang to me in the cave to calm me down. I remembered the night you played for all of us. Your face was…” she searched for what word she wanted to use, “happy,” she decided on, simple. “It’s the happiest I’ve ever seen it. I wanted to see that expression on someone’s face more often in this world we live in.” Monaghan nodded solemnly, her fingers silencing the strings for a moment while she processed Dep’s admission through a brain hazy with alcohol, astounded that not only had Dep hand made strings for it, but she had willingly gone into a half-buried building to retrieve it specifically for her.

                When she began to play, Monaghan closed her eyes, listening to the warm voice of the guitar, a softer, more subtle sound than the usual steel strings she used.

                “Do you take requests?” Dep asked when next Monaghan looked at her, eyes glittering through the holes in her mask by the firelight. Monaghan smiled, nodding.

                “So long as I get applause after the performance.”

                “The Sound of Silence,” Dep requested before crossing her arms tight across her chest in the cool night. Monaghan’s eyebrows rose and she almost laughed at the request of that song from…well, from a mute person. Acquiescing, Monaghan fiddled a little more with the tuning, started to play, quickly getting the pace of the tune, starting to sing the familiar song only a little off-key in her inebriated state.

                Monaghan finished the last verse and Dep took the guitar from her carefully, returning it to its careworn case. Dep lifted the still half-full whiskey bottle, pushed her mask out of the way, on top of her head as though she was forgotten its importance, and took another small sip, gasping at the burn and handing it again to Monaghan, who took it, but did not drink. Monaghan looked at Dep’s eyes and lips through the thin balaclava, resisting the urge to reach over and pull it off. It was the first time Dep had ever moved the mask completely off her face. Monaghan still could not make out her features clearly, but it was remarkable that Dep had become this comfortable, even if it was only due to the alcohol in her system.

                “What’s your favorite movie?” Monaghan asked, shaking away the distracting thought of pulling that damn balaclava off, of pressing her lips to Dep’s...

                “Anything narrated by D.A.V.I.D. A.T.T.E.N.B.O.R.O.U.G.H..” The captain nodded, curving her lips into an approving expression. “Yours?”

                “Enemy at the Gates.”

                “Is that all snipers’ favorite movie? G.R.A.C.E. loves that movie too,” Dep signed, and then went quiet and still. Monaghan ignored it, not wanting to draw attention to sensitive discussion points, not now.

                “Favorite color?” That seemed a safe enough question.

                “Blue. No…green. Well, both. I like both.

                “Fair enough.”

                “Favorite book?” Dep asked, and Monaghan smiled at her participation in the game.

                “Easy. The Lord of the Rings trilogy.”

                “Good choice. Dune series here.”

                “Jesus Christ we’re nerds,” Monaghan laughed, taking a sip of whiskey and then handing the bottle to Dep. Dep took a sip, set the bottle down and stretched again, with a yawn. “It’s not bedtime yet, Dep,” Monaghan chided with a smile. She looked at the bottle, picked it up, swished the contents around and then smirked. “Never have I ever…” Dep chuffed a laugh and Monaghan held up a finger, thinking. “Never have I ever been to a strip club.” Dep took the bottle, and a swig and Monaghan smirked. Dep was still, thinking for a moment.

                “Never have I ever had sex with a man,” she signed, green eyes meeting Monaghan’s with a mischievous glint. It didn’t take long for the game to take its usual turn toward more risqué topics. Monaghan reddened, thought of the very last time she had done so, remembered that one tender night with Rush, felt a pang of guilt and grief, and took the bottle and a deep, deep drink from it.

                “Never have I ever…had a threesome.” Dep remained still and Monaghan shrugged. “Worth a try,” she said, grinning.

                “Never have I ever been to Disneyland or Disneyworld. Whichever one was in California.”

                “I’ve been to neither! Go fish,” Monaghan crowed, refusing to drink. “Hmm. Never have I ever shot a slingshot.” With an irritated growl, Dep took the bottle from her again.

                “Never have I ever…been married,” Dep signed, looking at the narrow, lighter-skinned depression on Monaghan’s left ring finger appraisingly. Monaghan went still and Dep frowned behind her balaclava. Monaghan smiled tightly after a beat, feeling bile rise for a moment. Dep cocked her head, hands fidgeting, as though unsure if she wanted to say something. Monaghan collected herself, swallowing, but not taking the bottle.

                “I was young. And dumb. And she was beautiful and smart and... I met her just before I shipped out. I thought she loved me, but it turned out I was just an experiment. A dalliance from the norm, just a game.” Monaghan clenched her jaw, tracing the lightened patch of skin on her ring finger. “She bought me a ‘promise ring’ when I left for the Middle East, promised to wait for me if I’d do the same. She sent me a ‘Dear Jane’ letter six months later. So. Never married.” She looked sadly away from Dep’s gaze, and when she looked back up, Dep signed, slowly and with an earnest look on features that could vaguely be seen past the thin balaclava,

                “I’m sorry.” Monaghan nodded, tipped her head to the side, sniffing.

                “Being bi has lost me a lot of dates. A lot of lesbians won’t date us because they think we won’t commit, or that we’re not actually attracted to women. I never understood the dislike and distrust some of the gay community had for bisexuals until Melanie did that. I’m not saying that behavior excuses shitty discrimination, but I get it. Shit hurts. What about you? You ever find true love?” Dep softly chuckled.

                “Never have I ever found true love,” she signed, and took a drink anyway. They’re both quiet and still for a moment, then Monaghan said,

                “Never have I ever taught myself ASL.”

                “Go fish,” Dep mimicked with a smile. Monaghan nodded, curious and took the bottle, and a drink, settling into the warm feeling of drunkenness. “Learned most of the ASL I know from the YMCA before I became a cop. I’m a little hearing impaired in my right ear. Figured it would not be a bad skill to have, so I took the class with a friend.” There was a rough chuckle. “She had a crush on a deaf guy and talked me into learning ASL with her. You remind me a little of her actually,” Dep signed, staring at Monaghan for a moment. “Anyway. It’s fortunate I learned it, I suppose,” she signed. In a moment of such absolute douchey-ness Monaghan wanted to shoot herself after the words were out, she blurted,

                “Never have I ever had my tongue cut out.”

                “Go fish,” Dep signed coolly, looking a little angry at the blatant grasp for personal information she was not ready to share. “Also, it’s my turn. Never have I ever been punched in the jaw because I’m an enormous jackass,” she signed, jabbing the bottle toward Monaghan, who accepted it, mortified, and took a large swallow. After a moment to compose herself, she chuckled.

                “To be fair, I totally have punched you because you were being a jackass,” she reminded Dep, who took the bottle back and took her drink as well.

                “Never have I ever been in the military,” Dep signed. Monaghan drank, world spinning again. Monaghan cannot remember the next question she asked, just remembered that Dep did not drink, then remembered drinking when Dep signed “Never have I ever had a one-night stand.” She managed to make Dep drink again when she said,

                “Never have I ever dyed my hair,” and the two stay close to neck and neck as the liquid in the bottle dwindled. Monaghan leaned, or rather flopped forward from where she was sitting and stared at Dep for a long moment, surveying the curves of face behind her balaclava. “Never have I ever seen such beautiful green eyes,” she slurred.

                “I think maybe you’ve had enough,” Dep signed cautiously, seeming to be having trouble getting her fingers to cooperate to say so, however. Her eyes were vague and unfocused as they stared at Monaghan. Monaghan grabbed the water canteen instead of the liquor bottle and took a deep, sobering drink, rubbing her head for a moment.

“Shorry,” she said, slurring a bit. Dep did not sign anything, just looked at Monaghan. The captain felt that searching gaze on her skin like a touch, reached out to caress Dep’s leg, but was intercepted by a bottle instead. “I’m…I’m good. You’re right. ‘Ve had enough.”

 Dep polished off the last of the whiskey, sighing deeply, but then coughed and hissed and Monaghan was left once again to wonder what happened to her voice. The Judge stood, stumbling a bit as she did so. She steadied herself on a nearby tree and looked back at Monaghan. Monaghan, forcing herself to focus on being appropriate, sobered a bit more, forcing herself to take another drink of water.  

                “It’s late,” she said to Dep. “Better get some rest.” Dep nodded, staggering and nearly falling after doing so. Monaghan wrapped an arm around her waist, steadying her, hyperaware of the feeling of Dep’s warm, thin body in her grip. Dep threw an arm over her shoulder, her gloved hand close to Monaghan’s cheek. “Down we go,” Monaghan said, dumping Dep on top of the mattress. “’M gonna sleep…gonna sleep on the ground,” she said, not trusting herself so close. Dep balled her fingers in the front of Monaghan’s shirt, those too green eyes meeting hers, looking open and lonely and desperate. “I should…I should sleep on the ground,” Monaghan insisted again, pulling back, but Dep’s grip on her shirt was inexorable. Monaghan let herself be pulled down. Her lips were just inches from Dep’s and she tipped her head forward…and smacked her forehead on the uptipped end of Dep’s wooden mask. Dep released the front of her shirt in surprise and embarrassment, yanking the mask back down to cover her face again. “I’m gonna sleep on the ground,” Monaghan repeated, sobering from the awkward moment.

                Shivering, the captain curled up in the handmade leather sleeping bag, cursing her forwardness, cursing her drunkenness, cursing herself for potentially ruining yet another friendship. Her bearskin blanket was abruptly yanked off.

                “What the fuck?!” Monaghan demanded, sitting up. Dep was looking at her through that bleached wood mask, one hand holding Monaghan’s blanket.

                “Get in the bed. It’s too cold for you to sleep alone.” Sheepish, and hesitant, Monaghan laid down next to Dep, pulling the bearskin blanket over them both. They curled up for the cold night, and Monaghan tried to still the fast beating of her heart when Dep pulled her in close and nuzzled her masked face into Monaghan’s neck.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan was doomed. She knew it. It was obvious and unavoidable. One would think, with the way the deputy could be standoffish, stubborn and annoyed at the drop of a hat, that Monaghan would reciprocate those feelings, that the sturdy leather-clad figure would annoy the shit out of her, she thought to herself. But she did not. Dep’s rough growls and murmured hisses, once so disturbing, were now words and phrases. Her recalcitrant silence was now comfortable companionship. Her deft hands, once nothing more than weapons of violence, were a welcome voice to talk to. After the night they had shared the whiskey, Dep had skirted around her carefully, avoiding touch any time except at night when they lay down together to stay warm. She resolutely avoided small talk, breath rasping nervously when Monaghan tried to learn more about her, which seemed unfair, but she knew she said or did something that night that made the Judge uncomfortable.

                “Fuuuuuuck,” Monaghan muttered, heart fluttering as she stared at the deputy’s back where she stood, stock-still but relaxed, taking careful aim at a buck twenty feet below and thirty feet away from the deer stand where they were perched. A whiz and a buzz and a thunk and the buck stumbled, kicked, ran fifty feet to the edge of the clearing and dropped with a groan. The deputy gave a tiny nod, so subtle you would miss it if you were not looking for it. It was a nod of self-congratulation and pride. Dep grappled down off the deer stand and landed, signing to Monaghan to hurry up. Monaghan slid down the ladder and landed on her ass. A chuff of laughter and then a leather hand was outstretched to pull her up. She stared at the blank mask and wondered what expression was behind it. The deputy turned away and Monaghan, an absolutely doomed Monaghan, stared as her ass, swallowing. “Fuck,” she whispered again. She had fallen for this silent, dour hero of yesterday. As much as everyone, Joseph included, swore that Dep was loyal to nothing and no one other than Joseph, Monaghan knew better. Everyone swore he erased the deputy’s personality, that he turned her into a machine. A monster. Monaghan knew better. Everyone swore she believed all the cult’s tenants. Monaghan knew better.

                Monaghan had watched the once cold and silent Judge gradually slip back into the Deputy’s skin. Had seen rare tender moments become commonplace actions of kindness, had seen gruff and chilling nonchalance falter and become friendly, even warm. The Judge was almost non-existent around Monaghan lately, the deputy had replaced her. It’s not until they encountered other people that Monaghan saw why everyone thought the deputy was gone. Around others, the Judge returned, silent and serious, to a guardian of faith, a symbol of the cult.

                Monaghan hated it, hated Joseph for what he had done, wondered what it would be like to see Dep out of those fucking cult clothes, and not just because she would like the chance to see her naked, would like the chance to touch, to caress, to bring pleasure. She wanted to see the deputy, not the Judge, wanted to pull the Judge out of her and off of her like a stain from fine silk. A month had passed since Rush’s death and the wound is not so gaping anymore. It allowed for other feelings like this warm, tight pull in her chest when she looked at the deputy. It allowed for soft feelings of hope that flooded her when the deputy curled up in the makeshift bed next to Monaghan, cuddling her unselfconsciously in sleep.

                Monaghan told herself the deputy shared the bed with her because she wanted her there beside her, but knew it was actually because the nights were cold as fuck once the sun went down, and anyone in their right mind shared a bed or a sleeping bag if they didn’t want to spend the night shivering.

                Monaghan told herself they shared all their meals together because Dep enjoyed her company, but knew it was because the food was done and it was time to eat and why not eat it near the fire? She knew her feelings were not returned in the same way, remembered Dep’s embarrassed scramble to cover her face before Monaghan had kissed her. But it did not matter. She was doomed.

                Monaghan sighed, helping Dep pull the buck up by a chain, helping her clean it. She sighed again as Dep laid out the skin, stacked the meat in neat, cloth-wrapped piles. She sighed one more time as they loaded the buck and all its parts onto the back of Dep’s four-wheeler. Finally, annoyed, Dep turned to her and signed,

                “You O.K.? I thought my breathing was loud.” Monaghan choked out a nervous laugh.

                “Yeah, sorry, deep in thought.” Dep shrugged and hopped on the four-wheeler, waiting for Monaghan to join her. The thought of being pressed up tight behind Dep, arms wrapped around her waist was too much. “I’m gonna walk back. You go ahead.” Dep tilted her head.

                “Be careful,” she signed, or maybe she meant “Take care”? Regardless, she took off, turning back once to look at Monaghan as she left.

                “Fuck!” Monaghan yelled once Dep was out of ear shot. “Fuck.” She pulled Rush’s scissor-handled knife from her pocket where she had taken to keeping it. It was something to remember him by. She remembered him ordering her to seek out the cult for assistance. If it were not for Rush, she might never have met Dep. Heart aching, she murmured, “Thanks for that, Tom. You always were a great wingman.” She remembered nights sharing a whiskey bottle, remembered a night nearly two years ago, Rush teasing her about refusing to sleep with Barnes…

                “He’s just so annoying,” she protested. “Plus, he’s not my type.”

                “I think we both know your type is a lot softer and can’t grow a beard.”

                “I just told you Barnes is not my type, Tom,” Monaghan jokes and they both laugh cacophonously. Monaghan gets serious after a moment – knows she has suggested it before, knows he’s turned her down, but in the light of the fire with a warm whiskey fire burning in her belly, she cannot help but give it another try, because goddamn, that was a handsome man, and even if he was her best friend, she is feeling randy. She meets his eyes, glances down to his lips. “You sure you still don’t want to mess around someti…”

                “I’m not over my wife, Corbin,” he cuts her off firmly, but not unkindly. “And I’m not looking for a one-night stand with you. You find yourself someone else. Someone you want more than one roll in the hay with. Someone who’ll stick with you.” He chuckles self-deprecatingly. “Someone who isn’t so damaged. You’ve got a bigger pool to choose from, after all. What ever happened with that red-head you met in Oregon?”

                “Oh shit, she was a stage five clinger. Thought she was going to murder me when I told her we were leaving.” He laughs.

                “That’s the fun of red-heads. They’re great in bed and every one of them is absolutely bat-shit crazy,” teases Tom, tugging on a strand of Corbin’s intensely orange hair. Her last name is Irish, as is her fiery red mane and drop-of-the-hat temper. She smirks at Tom.

                “Well, you know what they say: don’t stick your fingers in crazy.” He nearly snorts whiskey out his nose at that.

                “Oh, Jesus Christ, Corbin!” She grins at him, eyes twinkling mischievously.

                “I don’t date women, Tom, I just fuck ‘em. I don’t need twice the female drama in my life.”

                “Well, why don’t you tell us just exactly how it is,” Rebecca said dryly, walking over and motioning for the whiskey bottle. She is a tall black woman with hazel eyes and cherry red lips and she is a damn fine strategist. She was a personal trainer before the bombs went off and it shows. Monaghan winks at her lasciviously and Rebecca rolls her eyes. “Not even if you were the last woman on Earth, Monaghan.”

                “You wound me!” Monaghan says dramatically, miming pulling an arrow from her chest. They all laugh until Barnes walks up.

                “Hey guys, what’s going on over here?”

                “I have neither the time, nor the crayons to explain the entire conversation to you,” Monaghan snarks. Tom gives her a look and she flicks her eyes at him in annoyance. “Take a seat, Barnes. Here, have a drink if Becca left any in the bottle.”

                “Hey, fuck you,” Rebecca chides, laughing, but she passes the bottle to Barnes, who, to his credit, takes a deep swig of whiskey and says to Monaghan,

                “You know, Cap, if I were suicidal, I’d climb to your ego and jump to your IQ.” The others hoot and holler and even Monaghan laughs at the jab.

                It had been a good night.

                “So much for finding someone less damaged, Tom,” Monaghan muttered to the knife before sliding it back in its sheath. Feeling discouraged, Monaghan decided a walk was just what she needed, but she did not turn toward the deputy’s house. Instead, she found herself walking steadily toward the old cult compound. She picked up a fishing pole stashed there and perched on the steeple of the old church building, idly casting her line and drawing it back, not really expecting to catch anything with the tiny worm she had strung on the hook. The sun made its way lazily across the sky and Monaghan took a cloth-wrapped oat bar out of her pocket, chewing on it idly. Morning turned to late afternoon heading into evening. Crickets and frogs were beginning to chirp along the edges of the lake, emitting a shower of natural music from the tall reeds. She heard a crack of a branch breaking and whirled, jumping off the steeple onto the roof and pulling her sidearm.

                The deputy stepped out from the tree line, and, spotting Monaghan, her shoulders rose and fell in a motion of relief.

                “Hey,” Monaghan greeted, holding a flattened palm with its thumb tucked in to her forehead. Dep returned the gesture, but it was tight, forced and deeply unfriendly. Her stance was stiff and coiled like an angry snake, fists balled. “Everything okay?” Monaghan asked.

                “You didn’t come back. I was worried,” Dep’s hands said, the signed snapped and abrupt.

                “I’m sorry,” Monaghan both signed and said, rubbing a curled fist on her chest. A sudden wisp of anger flared through her, her usual coping mechanism rearing its ugly head. “Apparently you’re the only one of us allowed to disappear.” The Judge turned to her sharply, arms crossed over her chest. “What? Nothing to say?” Monaghan taunted, feeling like a jackass, but she cannot help herself, her temper had gotten the best of her. The Judge emitted a growl, storming off. Monaghan trotted after her, furious. She grabbed Dep by the shoulder and yanked her around roughly. Dep responded with an erect middle finger and jerked her shoulder out of Monaghan’s grip. Just to made the point clear, she repeated the action, pointing at Monaghan.

                “Fuck you.”

                “Fuck me yourself, coward,” Monaghan snarked haughtily, but she was not at all prepared for what happened next. The Judge knocked her off her feet with one end of her bow, tilting her back, a hard hand holding her up in a dancer’s dip and that wooden mask was suddenly an inch away from her own face. Her breath stuttered in surprise and she could hear Dep’s breathing too, fast and rough. Dep tilted her face even closer, her mask nearly touching Monaghan’s nose and lips. Then, as though the action was entirely imagined, the deputy released her, setting her upright. They both breathed heavily, glaring at each other, or at least Monaghan was fairly certain Dep was glaring behind that fucking mask.

                “I –”

                “Dinner will be ready by the time we walk back,” Dep signed and stalked into the forest toward home without letting Monaghan finish her sentence, which was for the best because she had no idea what she actually intended to say. Chagrined and mind racing, Monaghan followed. When they arrived, Dep fished a covered skillet out of the ashes. Two deer steaks were sizzling next to a pile of wild onions and carrots. Monaghan’s mouth watered. The two shared the skillet, not saying anything for a long time. Dep shoved the pieces of deer under a slightly tipped mask as she always did, cautious not to show any more of her face than was absolutely necessary for the function of eating. “I am sorry I have left you before. You make me feel…” She paused as though searching for what she wanted to say and then signed “Confused. Afraid. Happy. Sad. Lonely.” Monaghan was glad she had been reviewing that ASL dictionary, but she was at a loss for words herself.

                “I don’t know what to say,” Monaghan admitted quietly, scared of saying too much, scared of not saying enough. She could tell from the wiggling of Dep’s leg that she wanted to get up, wanted to leave. She was practically hopping up and down in body language. “Let’s just agree to give one another a heads up when we leave, yeah?” Dep both nodded and signed,

                “Yes.

Chapter Text

                It was their last night at the deputy’s house, Monaghan had decided. Her ribs were totally healed, most of her gunshot wounds had long since begun to scar, and the gaping hole Rush left when he died had at least stopped oozing emotion non-stop in her chest, had stopped making her feel choked and paralyzed with grief. It was time to get back to work. Sure, they had done odds and ends tasks the past couple of months, gathering intelligence and keeping cult members out of Highwaymen hands, but it was time for bigger-picture work and it was time to give the deputy more space. If you love something, set it free, all that crap, she thought to herself, ignoring for the moment that she had just thought the word “love” when thinking about the former deputy.

                Dep had slept in the bed with Monaghan as usual, but since their halted, awkward conversation about feelings she did not snuggle close, just shared the space, shared ambient body warmth, did not pull Monaghan closer, did not let herself be pulled close. She left space between them, cautious. She signed only the bare minimum to communicate, no longer casually conversational with Monaghan. Monaghan had no idea what to think about where they stood with one another. She wanted to talk about it, but did not know what to say, did not even know if Dep wanted to talk about it. So they didn’t. She just told the deputy that she was leaving tomorrow and the deputy nodded and that was that. The two don’t talk, don’t sign, they just existed around each other the way a planet revolved around a star, far enough apart not to collide, close enough to stay in motion.

                The two moved around each other uneasily and silently, preparing food and water canteens with minimal interaction. Monaghan cleaned her guns, adjusted the sight and tautness of her saw blade launcher, a hilarious weapon that Dep absolutely detested, much to Monaghan’s amusement. Dep worked on making new arrows, splitting the ends to notch comfortably on her bowstring. She carefully rolled and stored extra strings, tucking them into a pocket of her jacket. Packed and ready to head out the next day, they ate silently, sat silently, hands still, no words shared between them. The deputy was breathing so softly it almost could not be heard. There was no fire built yet since It’s still daylight, but the birds and other wildlife were quiet. A storm was coming, the sky a gray-blue that reminded Monaghan of the outline of Dep’s green eyes. With a small smile, she remembered a quote from one of her favorite book series. She was still pissed the author never finished the third book before the bombs went off.

             “It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

             The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn left. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music...but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

             Inside the Waystone a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint.

             The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar. And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.

             The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.

             The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who was waiting to die.”*

 

                Dep took a deep, shaking breath, breaking the silence like a glass shattering and it drew Monaghan’s attention. Monaghan looks over at her. Her hands, even as she signed, were trembling.

                “I wear this to hide my guilt,” her deft hands said. “When I am with you, I don’t feel as guilty,” she signed awkwardly and looked away. “It’s easy to forget my shame when I’m around you.” Again, Monaghan did not know what to say, did not know how to respond. A country girl from Texas, she never was very good with subtlety, never was good with mincing words. She always said what she meant and meant what she’d said and she had never had a problem labelling feelings before now. The only time she hid what she really felt was when polite company called for a “bless your heart” instead of the preferred “go fuck yourself.” But what Dep made her feel? Some combination of pity and horror and love. It was too much and not enough and it scared the shit out of Monaghan.

                Dep reached shaking hands to her face and pulled off her mask, tucked her hood down and pulled her balaclava off so that her face could be plainly seen.

                The Judge was gone entirely as though she was never there, as though she was never drug from Hell’s bowels and jammed, screaming, inside an innocent junior deputy who deserved a better fate than madness at the hand of a cult leader.

                The Deputy sat across from the Captain, breathing harsh and fast. Monaghan cannot help but stare. The bruises from the day of the kidnapping were gone. The stitched cut was now just a short pinkish-white line. Monaghan realized with surprise that Dep was beautiful, but plainly, understatedly beautiful like a sunrise over calm ocean waves. Her face was symmetrical, her eyes that piercing green ringed with the blue-gray of a summer rainstorm beneath two shapely dark honey-brown eyebrows.

                Dep’s nose was small and pointed slightly upward. Her lips were pink and full, laugh lines framing them. Her hair, a soft golden-brown, was highlighted with gray and white strands. One white streak at her hairline stained the honey-brown locks with a stripe of stark lightness that was quickly tucked behind an ear with a long, shaking finger. Though Dep’s face was pale from years of wearing the wooden mask, there were still the soft brown spots of freckles from sunlight spattered long ago across apple cheeks. There were crow’s feet at the edges of her eyes, deep lines between her brows above her nose.

                There was an aching, sweltering sadness burned into those green, green eyes, burrowed into darkened brows. There was guilt, and shame… Monaghan met her eyes… and hope. Monaghan stood to walk across to her, sat down next to her. Dep shut her eyes, flinched slightly as Monaghan rested a hand on her cheek.

                “Look at me,” Monaghan said softly. Dep’s eyes flickered open like the first flowers of a cool spring day. “You don’t have to hide your guilt from me because as far as I’m concerned, you have nothing to be guilty for.” Dep shuddered in a shaky breath and leaned forward, eyes locked on Monaghan’s lips, one hand on Monaghan’s shoulder, another at her waist. The two leaned in toward one another, so close. Monaghan’s lips were nearly brushing Dep’s and her heart was beating madly in her ears, a staccato of happiness as the woman she adores looks at her with tender, expressive eyes, her mouth just slightly opened, her bottom lip trembling.

                Gun shots pop, pop, popped in the distance and in a moment the Deputy was gone and the Judge was back, unslinging her bow and sneaking through the tall grass, mask back in place.

                Monaghan groaned in annoyance and slung her sniper rifle over her shoulder, peered at their opponents through her scope. She spotted one, aimed for their head, took a breath, held it and squeezed the trigger. The man’s head exploded in a splatter of blood and bone. She breathed, charged the rifle again, aimed, fired. A Highwayman threw something and Monaghan yelled “DUCK!” as she aimed and fired at it. Her shot caused the grenade to explode over their heads instead of in their laps, but shrapnel still flew wildly, showering the area. There was a screech of pain and gasping breath. Monaghan swore and tore through the long grass. Bullets whizzed around her and she hit the ground, hissing in pain as her knee slammed into a rock.

                “I’m coming, Dep,” Monaghan called as loudly as she dared, looking for their enemies in the shadows of the trees. A harsh whimper was the only response. She crawled forward, aimed at an enemy, fired. Crawled forward, aimed, fired. Reloaded. There was the Judge, squirming on the ground, holding her side where a chunk of shrapnel had pierced just at the edge of her waist, a through and through wound, thankfully. “You’re alright,” the captain said. “I’ve got you.” The Judge looked down at the wound, realized it hurt worse than it actually was and she accepted a bandage from Monaghan, slapping it over the wound quickly. She took a deep, shuddering breath and staggered to a crouch, nodding to the captain.

                “I’m good,” she signed urgently, and pointed a straightened hand. “Dogs, at ten o’clock.” Monaghan turned, aimed, fired. A yipe. Aimed, fired again. Another. Grass shifted behind Monaghan and she felt more than saw the Judge slink behind her like a cat, heard a fhizt sound of arrow leaving bow and heard an answering thnk and a harsh cry as it pierced flesh. Again. Again.

                “They’re over there,” a male voice called. “Watch your ass!” He grunted as an arrow sprouted out of his chest and he slumped to the ground.

                “Leave some for the rest of us, Dep,” Monaghan shouted with a toothy grin, pulling out her submachine gun and peppering the enemies with bullets. They scattered and were picked off by arrows, the last sound they heard a malevolent, demonic growling. When the area was empty, Monaghan stood and waved to Dep. The leather-clad figure nodded and scurried toward the bodies, searching pockets, flipping over backpacks and rifling through their contents. Just as raindrops started to fall, Monaghan stepped up to Dep, put a gentle hand on her friend’s waist. “I guess there’s no chance of us just picking up where we stopped back there, huh?” Monaghan asked lowly.

                A hiss of breath was her only answer as Dep turned away, one hand on her injured side, the other picking bullets out of the dust.

 

*The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Chapter Text

                Monaghan turned the volume up on her communication radio, poking at a fire she built. It had been over a week since she had seen the former deputy, but every night, like clockwork, came a squawk of the radio, sometimes with a rasp of breath quiet in the background. It had not come yet tonight and she tried not to worry, tried not imagine any of the hundreds of things that could happened to the deputy if she were wandering the countryside alone doing the kind of heroic, dumbass shit that had given her the pre-apocalyptic reputation Monaghan had heard all about. The captain sat close to the fire, though it is not needed for light. The moon was so full and so bright in the damaged atmosphere that it was almost like daylight, though subdued like sunlight through thick winter clouds.

                Finally, finally, there was the squawk and Monaghan relaxed suddenly, realizing that her muscles were sore from being so tense. She wiped a hand over her mouth, thinking. Decided, she picked up her pack and trudged the two hour long hike to New Eden’s gates. When she knocked at the door, it was not the Judge that greeted her, but another New Edener she had met before, a capable warrior though he looked as though he wasn’t even twenty years old. He was tall, red-headed and had crystal blue eyes. Jake, she remembered. She nodded to him as he opened the gates.

                “Shepherd,” he said in a low purr.

                “Is Joseph – is the Father here?”

                “In his house praying,” Jake answered. “Would you like to speak with him, Shepherd?”

                “Please.” He nodded, gesturing to another New Edener to guard the gates. She followed the massive teenager, impressed at the sheer bulk of him, at the massive shoulders and height. He looked oddly similar to Joseph, like a red-headed step-son or something. He led the way to a humble cabin toward the back of the New Eden compound and knocked.

                “Father?” Jake asked. Joseph pushed the leather door aside a few moments later, looking exhausted, but he met Jake’s eyes and put a gentle hand on his arm.

                “I’ve told you to call me ‘Uncle’ how many times now, Jake?” the greying man asked. Jake reddened.

                “Yes, sir,” the giant teenager muttered. Joseph turned to Monaghan, but he didn’t look surprised in the slightest to see her.

                “Shepherd. The Lord told me you would be coming.”

                “I’m sure he did,” Monaghan answered dryly. Joseph trained sad eyes on her and shook his head a little.

                “Please, come in,” Joseph said. Monaghan obliged, setting her back down at the door, though she kept her sidearm on her belt. “Tea?” Joseph asked.

                “Cut the shit, Joseph. What the fuck did you do to the deputy’s voice?” Monaghan couldn’t stand it anymore, couldn’t stand the not-knowing. She had to know, and then she had to do something, even if ‘something’ was just punching Joseph right in the throat. Joseph’s shoulders slumped and he sighed deeply.

                “Please, sit. You’ve come a long way on behalf of Charity.” Monaghan’s gaze snapped abruptly to his face. Finally, some honesty – using her real name. “I am glad you are taking such good care of our judge,” he said easily and Monaghan clenched her fists, instantly on edge again, but she sat down. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder and handed her a wooden cup of warm, spicy smelling tea. She sipped at it suspiciously if only to give herself a moment to calm.

                Joseph sat across from her, his knees popping. He grunted a bit and smiled sheepishly.

                “Time comes for us all,” he confided as he rubbed at his back. Monaghan clenched her jaw. He flickered his blue gaze up at her. “Captain, there are many things I took from the deputy. Many things I did wrong. But I did not take her voice.” He swallowed, took a drink of his tea, stared into the small fire that was built at the center of his cabin. Bluish gray smoke drifted up from it out of a crude chimney. He looked up at Monaghan again, his blue eyes meeting hers intently. “She did that herself.”

***

--

                Joseph had hoped that the deputy would calm, that she would see that things would be alright, that the Lord would provide. Things had not gone according to plan, but they rarely did. She fought him, fought herself. He was terrified that she would hurt herself, the way she slammed her hands backwards in the cuffs, the way she thrashed and screamed, kicking out at him wildly and yelling expletives, spitting on him. He flickered back and forth between fury and pity. He was furious that she had killed his family, that she, a law enforcement officer, had butchered his siblings rather than allow them to do their work. Even an arrest would have been a better fate than being mercilessly slaughtered by a half-insane deputy with a personal vendetta. But he felt pity for her as well. He understood why so many rejected his words, ignored his warnings, her included. So he treated the deputy with measured doses of fury and pity, both punishing her and loving her.

                She had to read the Word, had to accept that God would rule their lives. She had to accept that she needed God. Now that the old world had ended and he had saved her life, he had to save her soul. So, feeling sick, he starved her, bit by bit. Starved her of food, starved her of water, starved her of basic needs, hoping it would drive her to seek redemption. But it had not. Instead, one night several months into her captivity, she had waited for him to leave her alone to sleep and had taken matters into her own hands.

                Joseph walked into the cramped back room, feeling bile rise in this throat at the scene before him. The sheets from the bed were wrapped tightly around her neck and tied securely to one of the iron pipes running along the ceiling of the bunker. Her feet dangled, twitching. Her face was purple and she wasn’t breathing, was slumped against the sheets, back arched and arms stiff at her side. Panicking, Joseph felt himself breathing hard, trying not to weep. He scrambled for the footlocker, forcing it beneath her and standing on it, taking her weight in his arms. He frantically scratched at the sheets, untying them as quickly as he could.

                “No, no, no, no, no, no, my child, please no, please,” he begged as he brought her down, collapsing onto the cold floor with her body in his lap. “Please, please, Lord,” he prayed, rearranging her so that she was on her back on the floor. He tipped her chin up and pumped his clasped hands on her sternum, forcing her ribcage to expand and contract. Her face grew less purple-blue, lightened to a pale white. Tears dripped from his cheeks and nose onto her, but he kept pumping her chest desperately, kept praying hysterically. At last, with a shuddering gasp, Charity Rook took a massive breath, mouth opened wide to pull in air. She looked up at him and her face crumpled again. She rolled away from Joseph onto her side, coughing roughly, hacking up blood and mucous, her shoulders jumping with hard weeps. She forced herself onto her backside and hugged her knees, weeping hard, sobbing, but hardly any sound came out when she did so.

                “Why?” she asked in a broken hiss, coughing and choking again, clutching at her purple-black bruised throat. Joseph met her eyes with tear-filled ones of his own.

                “Because God still has a plan for you, Deputy.”

--

***

                Monaghan had listened to Joseph’s story intently, not wanting to miss a single word. Joseph was a master storyteller and his words played out in her mind as though she had been there, making her feel ill. She held a hand over her mouth until the feeling passed. With an abrupt movement, Monaghan stood and paced around his cabin with her hands on her hips, her boots scuffing up dust and ash until Joseph put a calming hand on her as she paced past him. Monaghan finally plopped back down as Joseph finished up his story.

                “So see, you had it all wrong,” Joseph told her, steepling his fingers delicately, elbows balanced on his knees. “I…I wronged the deputy. I tried to break her. But I did not succeed. Captain…the deputy…she broke herself. I just helped her personal destruction along. And I will regret that until the day I die.” Monaghan swallowed hard, tears burning in her eyes. She pinched her nose hard between thumb and forefinger, feeling a hard, hot lump in her throat, feeling as though if she let herself cry she would never be able to stop. She took a ragged breath and met Joseph’s gaze once more, unfazed by his aquiline stare.

                “How do I know I can believe what you say? How can I know that’s what really happened?”

                There was a soft knock at the doorframe and Joseph closed his eyes before opening them and gesturing toward the leather door.

                “Why don’t you ask her yourself?” he suggested.

--

                With the grace and silence of a ghost, Dep pulled Joseph’s door open.

                “Father,” she whispered, a rasping, broken sound that was barely understandable. He stood, put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

                “My child. The Lord has called you here.” The Judge inclined her head. She turned to Monaghan.

                “Come with me,” she signed. The two walked silently toward the Judge’s Keep, Monaghan feeling that hard lump still in her throat, feeling dread in her chest. Was Dep angry she had confronted Joseph?

                The captain could tell Dep’s shrapnel wound from days before was still sore and bothering her the way she favored that side, the way she placed her foot carefully as she strode toward her home, the way deep breaths made her wince to the side slightly. Monaghan wanted to ask her how she was, but as usual, was unsure where they stood with one another. Was unsure, frankly, if this was Dep in front of her, or the Judge.

                They reached the cabin and Dep sat at a small fire that she nursed back to life with small twigs and a thin log. She sat and indicated for Monaghan to do the same.

                “So now you know,” Dep signed after several minutes of terrible silence. Dep stared at Monaghan behind that wooden mask, breathing ragged, as always. She had not removed it since their moment of intense and interrupted intimacy when last they saw one another. “I know you wanted to know. My voice. My breathing. My throat.” Monaghan felt dread thick and sticky in her belly, felt nauseated. She swallowed hard. “I know you wanted to know why.”

                “I’m sorry,” Monaghan started, but Dep held up a hand crisply. Dep put a hand shakily to her mask as though bracing herself for what she was about to sign next.

                “You can’t imagine…you can’t understand what it felt like, waking up…seeing him there. Hearing him speak. He was right. He was fucking right. I had doomed people, destroyed bunkers to spite the cult. So many people died because of me. My best friends were dying just outside, bleeding out because I wrecked our truck and I was trapped. I…I just wanted to die. I screamed and I sobbed. Joseph…” There was a bitter sound that was not quite a laugh. “He tried to comfort me. My worst enemy. He was right. I…I killed so many people. I didn’t want to live in a world where Joseph was right, where I had doomed innocent people because of my anger. So I waited. I bided my time. I fought him at first, just to spite him, but then I realized if I cooperated he would take off the handcuffs. I realized I could make the pain go away. But Joseph wouldn’t let me die. Joseph would not let Death take me. I hated him for it at first. But then…then I grew to love him as a father. As a leader. As a friend.”

                “Jesus, Dep,” Monaghan whispered, turning her face to the side, feeling sick. “Please. Please, you can’t let him manipulate you.”

                “Stop. Just stop,” Dep signed. “Please. Please, just hear me out. You have this idea in your mind of Joseph Seed as a monster…and perhaps he is, or was. But more than anything else, he was a man burdened with a gift he did not know how to bear. Joseph did not silence me, Captain. He saved me.” It felt almost as though the ground has dropped out from under Monaghan’s feet. Her stomach dropped yet again, not knowing how to feel, not knowing what to believe. Dep stared at her from behind that eerie white mask, a rough hiss working its way out of her throat. “I could barely breathe for a week after I had hanged myself,” Dep signed. “I coughed up blood for nearly two months. The scars from the damage to my trachea still make me cough, still hurt even now. Sometimes food or spit gets inhaled because of the damage. It’s why I am careful when I swim,” she told Monaghan, clearly recalling the time the captain had playfully shoved her into the river unexpectedly. “After my attempt took my voice he began to show me kindness. Stopped using his siblings’ tactics to get through to me. He stopped doing the kind of evil things that made me kill his brothers and his sister and his followers in the first place.” Monaghan sniffed.

                “Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, Joseph Seed. They all sound like peas in a pod to me.” Dep shook her head adamantly.

                “If you think they are alike, then you are still unaware of the depths of the nature of evil, of how man’s nature can be tainted. Joseph was misguided. Those men were deliberately malicious toward their fellow man, power hungry and arrogant.” Monaghan wanted to shake Dep, wanted to grab her by the lapels and knock some sense into her. She wiped a hand down her face, frustrated.

                “How can you still follow Joseph? Still obey him after all the things he has done to you? After all the torture and abuse he has allowed?” Dep’s mask turned toward Monaghan coolly, shoulders rounding in defeat.

                “At first I fought him,” Dep signed. “Then I followed him,” she repeated herself simply, offering no further explanation for a moment before moving her hands to sign further. “Accepting that I was wrong and he was right seemed a better fate than falling headlong into my guilt. He offered me forgiveness. Better than letting my sins overtake me. And…he changed with time. Learned from his mistakes. He punished those who abused me, left New Eden to keep the tree safe from Ethan…and others. Before he left, he allowed my writings to be used with his own, allowed me to soften his views on the weak. He was right, Captain. About the Collapse, all of it. He showed me the way. You know it. You felt it,” Dep attempted to persuade her. Monaghan tried to ignore the shiver that made its way down her spine as she remembered the feeling of burning rage tearing through her like a wildfire through a pine forest, remembered punching a Highwayman so hard he flew backward into a tree, the back of his skull smashed to pulp. Remembered snapping a pair of handcuffs as though they were toys. Remembered blending into her surroundings as though she had been made one with the Holy Ghost. These abilities, this change terrified her. But it was useful.

                Whatever was in that fruit, it had altered something in the captain, poured pure power down her gullet. She was not sure if it was for the better.

                “When Joseph first discovered the tree, when he took the fruit, he thought that all of his followers should eat the fruit. But those who were weak, those who could not overcome their sin were turned to monsters. Monsters I was then forced to execute…” Dep’s hands still for a moment and she coughed, shuddering. “So he realized that the fruit must only be given to those who are worthy. Those like you. Once again, he was right.” With a shrug, Dep took a bottle of whiskey from Monaghan’s pack and her neck worked quickly, the pale skin showing as she tilted her head back to better swallow. Dep’s excuses for Joseph sounded an awful lot like Stockholm syndrome from where Monaghan was sitting.

                When Dep finally set the bottle down, she unclipped her mask and wiped a hand across her mouth, sucking air in hard through her teeth and wheezing. Once again Monaghan scanned her eyes over Dep’s exposed face, feeling her chest tighten. Dep set her mask down almost reverently and turned to Monaghan, meeting her blue-gray eyes with sharp green ones. “I need to bathe,” she signed. “You may join me, if you want.” Monaghan realized with a shock that Dep mouthed every word she signed, that she has been talking underneath that mask this whole time. Dep shed her leather jacket and Monaghan was surprised to find she was wearing a white Henley-style shirt underneath it. Dep grabbed a cloth from her pack and walked toward the nearby river, not looking back to see if Monaghan was following.

                Nothing, not wild horses, not Highwaymen, not even a nuclear bomb could have kept Monaghan from following. Curiosity had always gotten the better of her, and this, of course, was no exception. The waist exposed from the jacket was narrow and trim, though still muscled by years of hard work. Slinging her towel and her clothes over a tree branch as she shed them, Dep’s body was exposed as a wiry testament to years of training and only bare amounts of food. A bound cougar claw and a matching bear claw were hanging from her muscled neck, rested gently between her breasts. The skin of her shoulders and legs and thighs was pale, almost pallid in the moonlight, but, like her face, was spattered with freckles. Her legs were muscular but thin, her feet calloused, but graceful. But what caught Monaghan’s attention most were the scars etched on her body They were clearly cut with a sharp, hot knife. They were words.

                PRIDE and WRATH were carved upon Dep’s back. LUST was carved just above Dep’s groin in a different hand than the other two.

                “Jesus Christ,” Monaghan whispered, horrified. “Jesus Christ.” There were tattoos on Dep’s skin as well, a flock of birds flying over one shoulder, a black cross with a blue line across it on one shoulder blade with a birth and death date of someone. In rougher ink were doubled-crosses, again, the word ‘WRATH’ across her chest and again on her left forearm; other symbols were scattered over her skin, verses, most from the book of Revelations. In yet another hand was branded a list of names on her leg, wrapping around a muscular thigh:

                Earl, Joey, Staci, Burke, Virgil, Faith, John, Eli, Jacob, Dutch, Jess, Mary May, Wheaty… on and on the names curled around her thigh, down her calf in thin cuts. These scars…they captivated Monaghan’s attention, made her stomach do a violent flipflop in her abdomen.

                Monaghan came close to Dep, frowning at a lacy patch of severely burnt skin on her right arm.

                “Jesus, did they burn you too?” Dep started laughing that growling, hissing laugh of hers, her face suddenly extremely amused, eyes glittering.

                “No. S.H.A.R.K.Y. lit me on fire.”

                “What?!” Dep got a wistful look on her face and her eyes went a little distant.

                “We were attacking an outpost years ago before the Collapse. When I was still a deputy.” Dep scratched a hand over the scar. “S.H.A.R.K.Y. got a little…careless.” Dep gestured at the list of names, at her other marks. “They are my sins, and those whose deaths I am responsible for,” Dep signed and mouthed in the moonlight, standing naked before Monaghan, shivering with cold. “The Father was right. I needed to be cleansed of my sins, needed to be absolved of my crimes.”

                “Bullshit. Bullshit. You did not deserve that. No human deserves that. What the fuck, Dep?” The deputy met the captain’s eyes.

                “We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” she said with her hands.

                “I don’t know what he did, or how he got into your head, but this is not right. This is not right. Goddammit none of this is right!” Monaghan cried to the cosmos. The deputy did not respond to Monaghan’s declaration, but walked into the river and for one long, terrifying moment Monaghan thought she was going to allow the river to sweep her away, but then she pulled out a bar of cinnamon-scented soap and started washing herself, standing in water just deep enough to cover her waist. Shivering, Monaghan stripped and joined her in the water. She noticed Dep staring at the large tattoo across and over her shoulders. “These marks were my choice,” she cannot help but say. She had gotten the tattoo when she had served with Rush, the same time as he got his eagle tattooed across his neck. Her tattoo depicted a huge pair of ravens, Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, thought and desire, covering her shoulders and a good chunk of her back with an inscription between them:

“Huginn and Muninn

Fly every day

Over all the world;

I worry for Huginn

That he might not return,

But I worry more for Muninn.”

                “My name, Corbin, means ‘raven,’ or ‘crow.’ My mom was an ornithologist before the world went to shit. Loved birds. Ravens are smart birds, really smart. In Norse legend they told Odin everything they saw and heard, keeping him informed about events. I was Rush’s lookout, see, and, of course, his sniper when things got sticky.” She paused and met Dep’s gaze. “You are not the only one who’s failed, Dep.” The loss of Rush, her guilt at having failed him in the first place, at having been unable to keep her friends safe on the train washed over her like a flood. She fought back tears, pushed away the grief, and continued. “I never believed in God, never heard a preacher speak that wasn’t spouting horseshit, Joseph included. I was always interested in science as a kid, in what I could see and touch and feel. No fanatic has ever laid their hands on me and forced me to do anything I did not want to. Science never flew any planes into buildings, never carved sins into a woman’s back.” Her tone was bitter, too bitter and she was scared Dep was going to leave again, so she forced herself to stop ranting.

                The deputy stepped into deeper water, treaded water, hacking for a moment and letting out a wheezing breath before swimming to the bank and climbing out. The night sky was clear, all clouds disintegrated and for a moment, Monaghan pushed aside her horror at Dep’s many scars, both seen and unseen and looked lovingly at her body, thin, and lean. The curve of her breasts and swell of her hips were so beautifully feminine they took Monaghan’s breath away. Monaghan stepped out of the water, ignoring the cold, ignoring the water dripping softly from her fingers as they stared at one another for a long, tense moment. Dep was the first to look away, and she grabbed her cloth, covering her hips and chest shyly. She tucked it so it stayed up on its own, grew serious again and signed to Monaghan.

                “We all have sins, Captain, regardless of our beliefs. We all have things we regret. The only difference between you and I is that my sins are plainly printed on my skin, but yours are a hidden burden that you must bear alone.” Stunned, and having no idea how to respond to that, Monaghan watched her walk away, shivering in place for a long, long time. When Monaghan got back to camp, Dep was back in her leather outfit, having swapped out the clothes she wore underneath. She was laying on her back near the fire.

                “Still awake?” Monaghan whispered. Dep nodded a fist. “Can I join you?” Another nod. “Are you cold?” Another nod. “I’ll put another log on the fire. That river is fucking cold. My nips could cut glass right now,” she informed Dep, her usual irreverent self now that she had allowed herself to calm down after seeing those ragged scars on her friend’s body. A raspy laugh emanated from the deputy. “Are you angry at me? For asking Joseph about your voice?” Monaghan clarified.

                There was still so much the captain did not know about this mysterious woman. The deputy shook her head and closed her fingers together in the sign for “no.” Monaghan thought for a moment. “Why do you trust me enough to show me your ‘sins’ now?” The mask turned toward her and after seeing the deputy’s real face, it was even more eerie than before. Dep touched her forehead with the bottom of her flattened hand and flicked it outward with a shrug and a shake of her head.

                “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

                The former deputy had not seemed angry that Monaghan had asked Joseph about her past, seemed relieved, actually, that Monaghan had chosen to talk to Joseph for the first time since their first interaction. She was absolutely furious, however, when Monaghan’s gun gave their location and intentions away to an entire camp of angry Highwaymen.

                “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Dep, run!” Monaghan yelled as the flare tore a burning red hole in the night sky, alerting every Highwaymen for miles to their presence. Her makeshift silencer had blown up in her face when she tried to shoot out the distress beacon controls, burning her cheek and making a lot of goddamn noise. The Judge hissed, clearly annoyed, and they both booked it, ducking bullets that whizzed around them. Monaghan slammed to her backside, sliding on sand to cover behind a large granite rock. “Any ideas?”

                “Maybe don’t alert a whole fucking camp to our presence when we’re trying to infiltrate it?” Dep snarked with her hands, wobbling her head to add to her sarcastic tone.

                “Alright, smart ass, real plans?” Monaghan griped, wiping her face and seeing blood on her hand after she did so. “Fuck,” she whispered again. She looked at Dep who nodded toward a tandem motorcycle parked nearby, keys dangling from the ignition.

                “RUN,” she signed. “On one. Three…” she folded her thumb down, “two…” her middle finger, “one.” They made a mad dash, Monaghan diving into the passenger seat, Dep starting up the bike with desperate quickness, fishtailing wildly on the sand. She gunned it, the engine whining. Monaghan heard other engines starting and saw they were pursued by a truck and a four-wheeler, each carrying two Highwaymen. The Judge ducked down low and tight to the bike, Monaghan heard her hard, rasping breaths, glanced at her back to made sure she has not been hit. She turned in her seat, firing shots off behind her with her sidearm, flattening the tires of the truck and hitting at least one Highwayman on the four-wheeler.

                “Just one more, keep going, Dep,” Monaghan yelled. “Brace yourself,” she added, pulling the pin from a grenade. She counted down, tossing it expertly in the lap of the remaining Highwaymen. She did not bother looking back as the concussion of the blast rocked them both. Panting, they climbed off the bike once they were a safe distance away, the Judge pulled off her mask and wiped her face wearily, her expression annoyed. She leaned against a pine tree, sighing.

                “I’m teaching you how to use a bow,” she signed and mouthed crisply, a little furrow creased between her brows.

                “I know how to use a bow,” Monaghan said, indignant. Dep gave her a look before clipping her mask into place, a skeptical, irritated look. They encountered a wandering patrol of New Edeners, who greeted the Judge with something closely resembling hero worship, all gathered around and greeting her with blessings and respectful faces. These people may obey Joseph and Ethan, but they genuinely respect, and maybe even fear, their Judge. The Judge patted one of them on the shoulder kindly and reached for their bow with a cock of her head, asking with her body language, pointing at Monaghan to clarify what she was requesting.

                “Of course, Judge,” the woman replied, handing her the bow. She handed her the quiver as well without her asking. “Keep it for as long as you need, Judge.”

                “Thank you,” she signed. Dep walked back to Monaghan, body language at ease and handed her the bow.

                “Patience has agreed to let you borrow her bow until you can make your own. It’s the right size for you.

                “Thank you, Patience,” Monaghan said, smiling warmly at her. She returned the expression and nodded easily, pulling an elaborate hand-made slingshot out in its stead.

                “Whatever you need, Shepherd. May God guide your hand.” Monaghan forced herself not to roll her eyes, especially when she noticed Dep tilt her mask toward her uncomfortably.

                Dep allowed them the night to rest, curled gently around Monaghan, protectively cleaning the wounds on her face from the silencer exploding before they laid down. The little burn wounds stung, but were already starting to heal. Unused to gentle touches from the Judge, but welcome to them, Monaghan tucked a lock of hair behind her ear where it had slipped out from beneath her hood. Dep purred appreciatively, and they drifted off to sleep, the New Edeners nearby keeping guard.

                When they awakened, or rather, when Monaghan awakened, it was to the feeling of a boot toe gently prodding her in the ribs.

                “Are you going to sleep all day?” Dep teased.

                “Ugh. Breakfast.”

                “After training. Come on.” Dep held a hand out and helped Monaghan to her feet, waiting as she yawned and stretched. Monaghan saw that Dep had marked several places on several trees with spray paint no doubt scrounged from a Highwaymen camp previously, given the bright pink color of the painted targets. Monaghan had expected to despise the training, especially so early in the morning, but since the New Edeners had moved on and there was no one else around, she was pleasantly surprised by the Judge removing her mask so that she could sign more clearly, using facial expressions and the direction of her gaze in addition to her hands. Dep stepped closely up behind her, so close their hips were touching. She pushed Monaghan’s foot and leg forward with her own, correcting her stance, tipping her elbow down, then back up slightly, running her index finger from Monaghan’s waist, under her armpit, making her flinch suddenly. She was ticklish. The Judge smiled with a small hiss and it felt like Monaghan had swallowed a jarful of butterflies. She corrected her stance again, gentle movements pushing and pulling until Monaghan’s stance was solid, her grip on the bow correct.

                “Relax,” Dep signed and mouthed, an open, kind expression on her face that partially melted Monaghan from the inside out like butter put too long in the microwave. Dep weaved her fingers into Monaghan’s, testing her grip on the bowstring. “Lighter. This is not a gun. Just like you don’t pull a trigger, you squeeze it, you don’t pop a bowstring, you release it. Here, like this,” she demonstrated once she had finished the sign.

                The lesson continued like this, with Monaghan having to take deep, steadying breaths to calm herself when Dep tucked her body up close behind her own, her curves squeezing against Monaghan’s own as though she was oblivious to it. The Judge gently indicated at Monaghan’s breast, showing where the bowstring was pulled, warning her to be aware of where the string was touching. Dep touched her jaw, and her chin, critiquing where her hand had hooked the bowstring, her mouth moving as constantly as her hands until Monaghan was hardly looking at the signs and was instead watching her lips to know what she was saying. Monaghan took another deep breath as Dep brought her head next to hers, looking down the line of her arm, adjusting her aim.

                “Good,” Dep signed, “always take a deep breath or three to supersaturate your lungs. You want to be relaxed and not sucking in air while trying to aim. Exhale as you release your bowstring. Go ahead.” Monaghan took another deep breath, glanced at Dep from the corner of her eye after she had aimed. Dep pointed at the target, her intention clear. Eyes on the target. She fired, the arrow hitting true and deep. Dep nodded. “Good,” she signed again. “Do it again.” This time, Monaghan did it without her guidance. Dep stepped forward, correcting small mistakes. “Again.” This continued until Monaghan ran out of target arrows. Dep pulled them from the trees and shoved them into Monaghan’s borrowed quiver in a compartment next to her regular arrows. “More practice later. Now breakfast.

                Assured that the lesson was over for now, Monaghan snatched the Judge by the front of her jacket and pulled her forward, their faces an inch apart. She could see in Dep’s eyes now that the silent figure was aware of exactly what she had been doing to Monaghan, saw Dep’s eyes flick to her lips, saw the pupils of those green eyes flare with excitement and arousal. Monaghan tilted her head slightly, aligning their faces so that with just another tiny, infinitesimal movement forward from one or both of them, their lips will touch.

                “Thanks for the lesson,” she whispered, eyes grazing over Dep’s features, looking down at full, pink lips, memorizing freckles and wrinkles and laugh lines. Then she backed away abruptly, picking up her pack. She heard a stuttered breath behind her and smirked, refusing to look back though she badly wanted to see the look on Dep’s face.

                Monaghan started pulling little paper wrapped packet of oats and dried berries out of her pack and Dep walked up, fidgeting. Her face was beet red.

                “I’m…I’m going to go get a drink at the creek.

                “Cool. Bring water for the oatmeal when you come back,” Monaghan replied as casually as possible. Dep started off and Monaghan grinned when she saw the canteen sitting next to her pack. “You forgot something!” Dep turned back, snatched it, having already clipped her mask back on, unfortunately, so her expression was a mystery.

                The Judge eventually returned, all cool professionalism, handing Monaghan the now-full canteen. Monaghan poured it into two tin cups and set them over the small fire she built while Dep was gone. As the water started to steam, she added the oat and fruit mix, nostrils flaring and stomach rumbling at the scent. Dep pushed her mask to the top of her head like a cap to get it out of the way and slowly ate, savoring the sweet, filling meal. She resolutely did not meet Monaghan’s eyes.

                “I could show you a thing or two in return for the archery lessons,” Monaghan finally said, tone intentionally suggestive. Dep finally looked up, a devious, lewd smirk crossing her lips.

                “I’m not sure there’s anything you could show me that I don’t already know,” she teased, setting her cup down so she could sign.

                “Oh, I don’t know, my knowledge of rifles and explosives is pretty extensive,” Monaghan suggested, shrugging.

                “And what can you teach me about linguistics?” she asked, voiceless, entirely deadpan. Monaghan snorted water out her nose and choked, wheezing as a breathy laugh shuddered from Dep. The two laugh companionably, Dep jostling Monaghan abruptly with a hand, uncharacteristically unreserved.

                “Thanks for taking the time to teach me,” Monaghan said, sincerely. Dep nodded, and took a drink of water. Over the next month, Dep taught Monaghan better archery, and in return, Monaghan taught her a few new things about trap-making and reconnaissance. She still refused to use any guns, the philosophy of New Eden being that guns and explosives made death too easy to inflict on another person. Monaghan could not say she disagreed with the point, but they could pry her rifle from her cold, dead hands.

                With gentle hands, Dep showed Monaghan how to fashion her own bow, how to choose the wood, how to determine the length. Dexterous, agile hands assisted with smoothing wood, with wrapping leather tightly. Soft green eyes watched Monaghan’s movements, looked away shyly when she tried to meet them. She did not pull her hands away as often now when Monaghan’s brushed over hers deliberately. Laying down for the night, when Monaghan was lucky, and Dep had had a particularly healthy day mentally, she could feel a quick, soft press of lips behind her ear from a face that was not covered with a mask. Dep had taken to removing her mask at night for comfort, though her balaclava generally remained. Still, improvement, Monaghan thought, reaching a hand back slowly to caress a soft, age-worn cheek with care, cautious, as though petting a wild animal. Dep tilted her face into the touch, and snuggled closer, drifting peacefully off into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

                “Hello, dear,” Nana greeted, holding up a hand and smiling sweetly. Both Monaghan and the deputy wave back. Monaghan cocked her head at the deputy. They had pulled up to the gates of Prosperity, truck windows rolled down.

                “You mentioned you had a friend who was married to Nana?” Monaghan asked conversationally. Grace strode up, speaking before Dep responded.

                “She was Sheriff Earl Whitehorse’s ex-wife. Earl was real important to her. I know you miss him, Dep. We miss you,” she said. Dep’s shoulders shuddered once before she collected herself.

                “Oh. Jesus. Sorry,” Monaghan said for what felt like the millionth time, remembering the name from Dep’s many scars. “What’s up, Grace?”

                “Just sent some feelers out. Apparently the Twins are still looking to capture some cultists. Evidently, they heard about some crazy powers a certain someone has acquired,” she said, giving Monaghan a measured, mistrustful look that was still intense even coming from blind eyes. Her tone was disapproving. After hearing all the shit Joseph had done, Monaghan could not blame anyone for doubting the wisdom of being associated with anything related to the cult, but she’d gone on the drug trip and eaten the Fruit and that was that. Spilt milk, as they say.

                “So it’s open season on cultists even more than before,” Monaghan said softly and Dep stiffened. “Hey,” she said, grabbing Dep’s arm across the center console. “They’re not all your responsibility. Joseph said you were supposed to stay with me.” There’s a crackling huff. For whatever reason, Dep would not sign when others were around, but Monaghan could tell she was distressed. “We’re just gonna have to be more careful, okay? We’ve got to find a way to get close to the Twins. We’ll put an end to all of this,” she assured her friend. “I’m going in,” she beckoned to the gates. “Are you coming?” The deputy sighed deeply, glancing at Grace who somehow seemed to know she was being observed.

                “I know everyone would like to see you, Rook,” she intoned.

                “Rook?” Monaghan asked, frowning. Grace turned blind eyes to her.

                “It’s the deputy’s last name. Her boss Sheriff Whitehorse always called his newest officer ‘Rookie.’ Never used their real name, especially not their last name, not while they were a newbie. Rook here’s the exception. She worked animal control before she became a deputy, so everybody already called her by her last name. She was the first deputy in thirty years that got referred to by her last name, even if it was just a convenient coincidence. Whitehorse always called her lucky. Not so sure about that anymore.” A quiet growl emanated from Dep’s throat. “Nobody here wants to call you, Judge, Rook. Best get used to it.”

                “Grace,” Monaghan said quietly, seeing how eerily still Dep had gotten. Grace sighed.

                “Sorry. I just hate seein’ you like this, Rook. We all do.” Actual sight aside, Monaghan knew what Grace meant.

                “You O.K.?” Monaghan signed so Grace will not know she was asking. Dep hissed an affirmative. “Dep?” she said out loud. “We going?” Dep nodded this time. “Good.” Monaghan tapped her horn and the gates were opened obligingly.

                There were a few murmurs at the presence of the Judge, but they died down quickly at a malevolent look from Monaghan.

                “Hey Kim!” Monaghan greeted her with a wave.

                “Captain…and Deputy. Great to see you two again. How are the ribs, Cap?”

                “Much better, thank you for asking. Any chance of a bed and a hot shower after I get briefed?”

                “Sure thing. I’ll have Carmina heat some water. Upstairs left bedroom is yours. Dep, we can set up a cot…”

                “She can bunk with me,” Monaghan heard the words come out of her mouth as though someone else had spoken them. The deputy turned to her and Kim’s eyebrows disappeared under her bangs.

                “Oh. Um, okay.”

                “I mean, if you want to,” Monaghan spluttered at the Judge, whose plain mask turned toward her eerily. “I know there’s not a lot of room, and…” There’s that breezy half-laugh again from behind the mask and Monaghan felt relief flood through her at the sound.

                “All right,” Kim said crisply, straightening her face into a completely neutral expression. They carried their bags into the room and Monaghan shut the door behind them, clenching her jaw at her faux pas.

                “Sorry,” she both said and signed as she turned to face Dep. “That was presumptuous.” Before she could think, before she could do anything, Dep shed the mask and strode up to her, pressing her lips gently to Monaghan’s. Monaghan stood stock-still. Moving might break this moment, might destroy everything. Dep stepped back.

                “O.K.?” she asked, brows furrowed.

                “Yes,” Monaghan said, voice shaking slightly from shock. “Did you know both ravens and rooks mate for life?” she blurted out before she realized how weird and cringy the random animal fact sounded in the current context. Dep chuffed. “I mean, I’m just saying because earlier with your name, and my name was…and I just thought it would be a cool fact…to…tell…you…” She stopped talking, forcing her teeth shut with a click.

                “C.O.R.B.I.N.,” Dep said her name in signs. “Relax. I haven’t kissed anyone in a long time. Nice to know I still have the same effect,” she joked, face amused. It was the first time she had called Monaghan by her name. Her chest felt tight, the room was suddenly a hundred degrees too hot. Monaghan had wanted this so bad that now that it had happened, it did not seem real.

                “I didn’t think the cult allowed…” Monaghan trailed off, heart still racing from the feel of soft lips against her own.

                “It does. But even if it didn’t, some things are worth sinning for.” Dep’s eyes twinkled mischievously. This was a new side to her, more open than Monaghan had seen her since the night she had invited Monaghan to bathe with her, to see her scars. Monaghan pinched herself. Dep frowned.

                “Just checking,” she muttered. “I didn’t think you felt…I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought you felt. I…I didn’t want to overstep, I was worried that I’d…that you’d–” Dep cut her off by pressing her soft lips to Monaghan’s again. Monaghan’s hands were held awkwardly away from both of them, like she had forgotten what to do with them when kissing someone. Dep grabbed one of them and placed it on her hip, grabbed the other and held it, dipping her tongue into Monaghan’s mouth gently, exploring. Their teeth clicked together awkwardly and Monaghan reddened, but Dep used her free hand to tilt Monaghan’s jaw, bit her lower lip and worried it gently between her teeth before releasing it and then lapped at it with the tip of her tongue as her lips pressed against Monaghan’s artfully.

                Monaghan could feel her heart beating fast, could feel want flooding through her, pulled Dep in close, their hips and breasts touching with only clothing between them now. She framed Dep’s face in her hands, caressing the soft cheeks, stroking a hand through her hair and grabbing a fistful of it to keep her entangled in the kiss. Dep gasped softly and Monaghan gave an answering whimper when Dep’s hand stroked down her waist and grasped her ass firmly, pressing her groin onto Monaghan’s upper leg. Monaghan felt the warmth emanating from Dep and was bumping her insistently toward the bed when there was a knock at the door. Monaghan pulled away, cursing under her breath as she saw Dep snap her mask quickly back in place. “Yeah!” she called, preparing to strangle whoever is at the door for interrupting this.

                “Oh, hey, uh, hey Cap,” the squeaky voice of Bean filtered through the door. “Kim said I could find you up here.”

                “What do you need, Bean?” Monaghan tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice, her eyes clamped shut as she tilted her face toward the ceiling in a martyred pose.

                “I’ve got some new maps for you and Grace said she had more detailed info for you. I really wanna show you these new maps, there’s some really great information filtering in and I’m so excited for a chance to– ”

                “Bean,” she cut him off, opening the door. “I’ll be down in a few minutes. The deputy, er, the Judge and I just got in. It’s awesome you found some new maps, but I will meet you in the Wikibeania office, ‘kay?”

                “Oh, oh, okay, sure,” he squeaked, noticing the imposing figure of Dep behind Monaghan. Monaghan closed the door behind her and turned back to Dep.

                “Where were we?” she asked, grinning.

                “About to get back to work,” Dep signed, serious.

                “Ugh. You cannot just kiss me like that and expect me to go right back to work.”

                “Of course I can. Come on. Work to do.” Monaghan raised an eyebrow when Dep pinched her ass subtly on their way out the door.

--

                Dinner that evening was more comfortable than Monaghan thought it would be. Just Kim, Nick and Carmina joined them at the table and conversation was easy. Dep still did not participate, but she did lean back restfully, pushing bits of food under her mask and listening to the conversation. Only once did the dinner get uneasy, when Nick put his hand on Dep’s arm urgently. He stared at her mask and said,

                “I cannot thank you enough for protecting me and mine.” The Judge huffed something and Nick removed his hand, nodding awkwardly.

                “More wine, anyone?” Kim asked and topped off everyone’s glasses without waiting for an answer. Nick fondly told the story of Dep driving Kim to the clinic while in labor, humorously recounting the deputy scrambling to avoid animals and spilt haybales and a crashed plane in the road on the way. Monaghan found herself cackling at Nick’s impressions of the deputy and she looked over to her friend, who was sitting quietly, completely relaxed, occasionally sipping at the recently re-filled cup of what Sharky had claimed was “wine,” air quotes and all. It was sweet, but it burned going down and was clearly alcoholic as fuck. Monaghan had been taking it easy, but Dep was on her third cup. The deputy’s tranquil body language had put all of them at ease. After dinner, Monaghan helped with washing and drying dishes and Dep wandered off somewhere.

                “You’re really good for her,” Kim murmured, gazing at her fondly with a pleased grin on her face.

                “It’s not like that,” Monaghan began, wanting to protect Dep’s privacy, but Kim chuckled.

                “Even with that mask on I can see the way she looks at you. She is special, Cap. She deserves someone who will help her out of that void Joseph put her in. Looks like you’re doing a pretty damn good job.” Monaghan blushed.

                “We’ll see,” she said quietly, not wanting to be too optimistic. Often, the deputy’s demeanor had lightened, only to revert to silent, gruff piety given the right trigger. They are not out of the woods yet. For all she knew Dep would start signing Bible verses the instant Monaghan touched her next. But she really hoped not, she really hoped they could continue their interrupted activity.

Chapter Text

                With a sigh of discouragement, Monaghan found Dep curled on the floor in a sleeping bag, already asleep when she went to their room. She figured the former deputy’s sudden affection earlier was too good to be true. Sighing, she doffed her towel from showering, pulled on a too-long t-shirt and slipped into the bed, stepping carefully over Dep’s sleeping form. She heard a rasp that was not a snore. Not asleep, then. Monaghan clicked the bedside lamp on, thankful for solar power. She heard Dep shift.

                “You don’t have to sleep on the floor,” Monaghan said to the ceiling, not looking at Dep yet. “If it would made you more comfortable, I’ll sleep on the floor. You’re older, after all,” she teased, to lighten the mood. She turned to look at her friend. Dep was staring at her intently, her mask and hood both off. She was wearing a tank top and a pair of tattered men’s boxers. Her cheeks were a rosy pink and her eyes were a little unfocused. “Oh, fuck,” Monaghan said because Dep just looked so very hot in the lamplight, and because she was not sure what to do now, was not even sure if Dep was sober enough to consent, technically. The buzzed archer clambered up into the bed with the captain, climbing on top of her, framing her hips with her legs and leaning down, kissing her gently again. Monaghan stared into her too-green eyes. “What is this?” she whispered.

                Dep put a finger on her lips for a second.

                “No talking,” she signed, shaking her head, at least aware enough to communicate, which made Monaghan feel better. Dep’s gaze flicked to Monaghan’s lips, and to her eyes, and she kissed her again, a probing tongue lapping into Monaghan’s mouth, teasing, pressing at Monaghan’s lips. Still concerned with how inebriated Dep was, wanting to make sure she has true consent, Monaghan signed to her instead of speaking.

                “Is this what you want?

                “I want you,” Dep signed and mouthed firmly, certainly, eyes intense. In an instant, Monaghan decided and she tipped her mouth upward, kissing Dep passionately, running hands up her waist to her breasts, kneading the soft flesh there. Dep gave a satisfied little sigh at the massage and ground her groin down onto Monaghan’s thigh, mouth opening and eyes going unfocused as she rubbed herself against the captain. Looking down, Dep threaded her hands into Monaghan’s damp hair, Dep kissed her jaw, her ear, ran a hand down to her waist, up to her breasts.

                They touched one another desperately, seeking pleasure from one another’s hands, Dep’s hips gently rocked over Monaghan’s leg. Monaghan bit Dep’s bottom lip gently, sucking it into her mouth and releasing it, returning the earlier bite from when they were interrupted. A scratchy moan started to shudder out of Rook, but she caught herself, biting her lip to prevent the sound as Monaghan slipped a hand into the opening at the front of her boxer shorts, rubbing against her front, raising surprised eyebrows at the trimmed hair, teasing with seeking fingers. Monaghan dipped her fingers gently into hot wetness, feeling herself flush and shudder as she realized how aroused Dep was at her touch. Monaghan flipped the two of them over abruptly, wanting to be on top, feeling a need so hot in her belly that she had to touch, to taste, but Dep froze the instant Monaghan had her pinned, shaking. Concerned, Monaghan slid off and to the side, cupping her cheek.

                “Hey, you okay?” Dep turned to look at her and there was a panicked spark in her eyes. She was trembling violently now, trying not to cry. She swallowed hard and a tiny, strangled noise escaped her throat, the frightened sound shattering Monaghan’s heart. “Hey, hey. I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Dep. It’s alright.” Stupid. It was stupid, pinning down someone with a known fear of restraints and small spaces. Dep shook, breathing hard, near hyperventilating and Monaghan recognized the symptoms for what they were – a panic attack. She pulled the deputy close, making sure they were side by side, but that no part of her was pinning Dep down. Monaghan hugged her gently, waited for the coughing gasps to subside.

                “Sorry,” Dep signed once she could stop trembling and Monaghan released her from the embrace, face regretful and embarrassed.

                “Don’t ever be sorry for needing time, Dep,” Monaghan murmured, placing a light kiss on her forehead. “We’ll get through this, you and me.” Monaghan gently stroked her fingers through Dep’s hair, holding her close. They fell asleep curled into each other, fingers intertwined.

                Monaghan woke up first in the morning to Dep’s gentle snoring and she watched her sleep by the light of the rising sun filtering in through the window.

                “Hey,” she said softly when Dep’s eyes slowly open. “Sleep okay?” Dep nodded a fist, yawning. Monaghan tried not to notice the dark red scars inside her mouth and running down her throat. She felt mildly nauseated seeing them. “Hungry?” Dep nodded, not meeting her eyes. “You a coffee drinker?”

                “That’s just mean,” Dep signed, annoyed, finally looking at Monaghan crossly.

                “Well, then I guess you won’t want any of what I pilfered from the kitchen last night,” Monaghan said nonchalantly. Dep frowned, cocking her head. Monaghan held up two individual packets of instant coffee, long expired, but still coffee. Dep’s eyebrows flew up and she reached for a packet, but Monaghan snatched it away. “It’ll cost you.” Dep rolled her eyes but looked at Monaghan expectantly. “You have to let me kiss you,” she whispered, teasing and hoping the request did not push a boundary Dep did not want to cross this morning. Dep smiled shyly and nodded, to Monaghan’s relief. Monaghan leaned in slowly, like she was approaching a spooked horse from behind, and planted a soft, chaste kiss on Dep’s forehead. She knew it would probably be the last one she would get today, and she was correct. Dep dressed quickly, pulling on her mask last. They made their way down the lodge stairs quietly, careful not to disturb people who were sleeping on couches and cots set up in the great room. “Here you are, Rook,” Monaghan said, handing her a steaming cup of water that she dumped her instant coffee packet into.

                “You calling me ‘R.O.O.K’ now?” Dep signed. Abashed, Monaghan stuttered, realizing she’d never asked permission to use the nickname, had found that it just rolled off the tongue easier than “Judge” or “Dep.”

                “S-so long as you’re alright with it,” Monaghan offered, stuttering and blushing a little. Dep shrugged.

                “Is a gathering of crows called a ‘murder’?” she signed, setting her coffee down for a moment to free both hands. Monaghan chuckled.

                “Wiseass,” she chided, taking a sip of truly terrible, but nostalgically delicious coffee and closing her eyes in ecstasy.

                Monaghan looked out at the snoring, heavily breathing bodies in cots and on couches and thought wistfully back to her first night sleeping near Rook, who was, at the time, most decidedly the Judge and no one else.

------

                After swallowing the foul-tasting cocktail that would counteract the “Bliss,” a toxic chemical she had encountered while lighting Eden’s fire, Monaghan collapses awkwardly, forcing herself back to her feet stubbornly, but the world spins wildly. Ethan orders the riled up cultists to prepare a motored fishing boat for her. He turns toward her wildly, his face a wolfish mask.

                “You must rest before your journey. The Judge will show you where.” Monaghan turns to the masked figure, nearly falling over once more, feeling faint and drunk.

                “Alright Lord Vader,” she snarks blearily. The figure is silent except for its rough breathing. It walks off and Monaghan hesitates before following, the world swimming in a haze from the drug’s effects. It’s only early afternoon, but if this task is supposed to take place as soon as possible, she’ll relish at least a cat-nap and an opportunity to sober up from the sacrament. She is led to a large cabin equipped with a rough fireplace. The leather clad figure gestures to a cot that is the bottom portion of a bunk bed. The figure itself climbs up onto the top one without looking at Monaghan again.

                “Oookay,” Monaghan says, pulling off her boots and flannel shirt. She gets into the bed and cringes, shifting. Shifts again. Shifts one more time because surely there was some part of this bed that was comfortable? An irritated growl emanates from above her. She flicks her bunkmate off silently, knowing the gesture cannot be seen and shifts again. Maybe on her side? Nope, that’s worse. A snarl and a wooden mask peers over the edge of the bed, leaning dangerously. The Judge tries very hard to pretend they did not fall out of the bed, and they almost succeed, landing heavily on their wool-socked feet as though it was mostly intentional. Monaghan swallows a flutter of laughter as the furious figure rips a thick leather pad off its own bed and thrusts it at Monaghan before climbing back up into their own bunk. “Thanks,” Monaghan chirps, putting the pad under her other bedding. The Judge purrs a growl and Monaghan smirks. The pad smells like cinnamon and leather, a warm, relaxing scent.

                Awakened several hours later by a tug on her shoulder and raspy breathing near her ear, Monaghan gets up and stretches, her back popping unhappily as her vision clears from whatever was in the sacrament they had given her earlier. Clearly the bunk she had slept in was designed by someone who thought backache and insomnia built character. She yawns, staring out at the cool night sky, lit by ribbons of northern lights.

                Monaghan heads out quickly, prompted and prodded by Ethan and his too many and too large teeth, her boat loaded with incendiary arrows. She had been instructed to light pyres wherever the torches along the way were absent or extinguished. The morning was cool and still mostly dark. Monaghan propels the boat forward with a roar of engine and she is soon on her way. Often, in the corner of her eye, she saw movement on the bank and she turned, spooked, only to find there was nothing there. The boat glides forward and a sweet-smelling breeze wafts lazily over her, smelling like gardenia, but sickeningly sweet, oddly familiar. Her head swims, tiny flickers of purple lights alighting from the torches like colored fireflies. She swats at them, coughing, feeling her head buzz. Gotta light the pyre, she thinks. She is badly out of practice with a bow, but hits the pyre with a third arrow and it erupts, burning off the noxious gas. She shakes herself, taking deep gulping breaths of fresh air and pressing forward. She steps onto the river bank, fighting off half-crazed coyotes and a wolf that had gathered hungrily at her presence. Knocking a wood chuck out of the way, she gets the large gate wheel started and it opens the sluice door, allowing her through further up river.

                Monaghan is nearly to the second gate, the Bliss once again overwhelming her when she again sees movement out of the corner of her eye. She blames the hallucination on the Bliss. It’s thicker here, and insidious. She sees eyes glowing on the banks, eerie and clearly malevolent. She sees a dark, slight figure slinking down the bank, following her, stalking her like a cougar, eyes glowing a murky green. It vanished into the darkness and she shakes her head, trying to clear the fog. She is supposed to be doing something. Supposed to…her fingers brush the bow leaning in front of her legs and she gasps air in, feeling another wave of nausea and, yes, bliss wash over her. There is nothing to worry about. There is no danger. There is only peace.

                No!

                Monaghan shakes her head again, crying out, half slumped in the boat, picking up the bow and trying to notch an arrow. The first arrow lands in the river feet from her, sizzling out as it touches the water. She gasps again, purple fireflies buzzing around her. The cougar is back, its green eyes burning, staring at her. It is standing on two legs. Not a cougar, Monaghan thinks hazily, heart pounding. Her eyes are burning, her throat feels like it is on fire from the noxious substance in the air. Coughing, Monaghan forces herself to notch another arrow, tries to aim for the pyre, but it is too late, the dizzy, idyllic sensation is overtaking her. The figure steps toward her from the bank and in a moment of sudden clarity, she is afraid. But not of the figure.

                “Help me,” she whispers, honest in her need. The figure reaches into the boat, picks up an incendiary arrow and notches it to its own bow. It aims, takes a hissing breath, and fires.

                When Monaghan comes to, she is shivering. Water has splashed up onto the bottom of her pants, soaking them thoroughly. The pyre is lit. The bow is hanging lax in her hand. She had done it, she’d lit the pyre? The thought is a question, not a statement. She shuddered and again steps out of the boat, opening the sluice gate before returning to the vessel.

                Monaghan manages to light two more pyres, sliding through the water urgently in her water craft, eager to be away from the dark wasteland, longing for the sun to come up and burn away this evil place.

                The last sluice gate is riddled with wolves. The green-eyed figure stalks from the shadows again, a rumbling snarl in its throat. The wolves yip and bare teeth, licking their noses nervously. They part tensely, skipping around, whining and growling, tails tucked between thin legs. The figure clears the way for Monaghan who follows as though she is in a dream. As she climbs down the sluice gate wall to clear the chuck, the figure vanishes again into mist.

                Monaghan has made it through the night. Like a blanket yanked off a sleeper, the darkness pulled away, the mist melting back and morning sunlight shines over the too-blue river. She pushes the engine harder now, relief flooding her. She sees a bamboo and wood building ahead. She turns back to look only once, sees glowing green eyes, and then turns away.

------

                “You were there,” Monaghan realized now, turning to Rook in surprise. Rook cocked her head, a question. “In the Bliss, when I was going to meet Joseph – you were there. You saved me,” she said, voice a little awed, a little humbled. Rook nodded and slowly, deliberately signed, partially with fingerspelling,

                “‘Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous hand.’” It was a paraphrased Bible verse Monaghan recognized from the time her childhood friend Hannah had taken her to vacation Bible school. Rook signed again. “For if God is with us, who can be against us?” A shiver rushed through her. Monaghan wanted to asked more, wanted to probe if Rook really believed that Monaghan was “The Sword” or “The Shepherd,” wondered with horror if it was the only reason Rook wanted to be with her. She forced this thought away, and her chance to asked Rook any further questions was gone as a yawning Carmina walked up, rubbing her eyes tiredly.

                “Good morning,” she said pleasantly. “Hey Dep,” she chirped, smiling at the Judge. The Judge was silent, and stalked away, but not without taking her coffee with her.

                “She’s not much of a morning person,” Monaghan joked, eyes following Rook out of the room.

                “She seems to be doing better around you,” Carmina said softly, looking wistfully after the figure stalking away like an angry housecat.

                “Sometimes,” Monaghan agreed hesitantly, prying her gaze from Rook’s back and glancing at Carmina with a sad smile. “She’s still got a lot of ‘splinters in the gray matter that need tweezing,’ to quote a certain crotchety sniper.” Carmina chuckled.

                “Joseph really did a number on her, huh? My Dad thinks killing him would snap her out of it.” Monaghan laughed and took a sip of stale coffee.

                “I doubt it would be that easy. She is pretty damaged. Couldn’t hurt though,” she shrugged, a righteous anger flooding through her at the memory of described abuse, at the knowledge that Rook had nearly killed herself due to Joseph and his family… She cut off the train of thought before she shattered the coffee mug she was squeezing in both hands with her white-knuckled grip. Feeling like she was invading Rook’s privacy more than when she went through her drawers in the cabin, Monaghan met Carmina’s crystal blue eyes. “Was Rook religious before…well, before?”

                “I don’t know. I know in one of the pictures my mom had of her, she was wearing a cross necklace. You should ask her.” As if on cue, Kim walked into the kitchen, yawning mightily. “Hey Mom, was Dep religious before the bombs?”

                “At least a little bit,” she told them as she poured herself some water, scratching at her bed mussed hair. “Nick and her went to the same church as kids. Baptist, I think.” Monaghan groaned. Baptists, ugh. All the guilt of Catholicism without the sacramental wine to soothe the pain, plus a little hellfire and damnation thrown in. “Her parents were pretty religious. Her dad, Abraham was a deacon and I think her mom Eve taught a Sunday school class for kids. You’ll had to ask Nick more about it. Rook had a beautiful cross necklace, I know that much. She told me about it, years ago. It’s made from her dad’s wedding ring. Her mom had it made for her eighteenth birthday, the year after her dad died. Nick!” Kim called. Monaghan winced as the yell rang in her ear and half a dozen grumpy heads poked up in the great room. “What?” Kim asked at everyone’s annoyed looks. “It’s six o’clock already.” She picked a massive cast iron skillet out of a cabinet and started it on a solar powered burner, cracking an absolutely ridiculous number of eggs into it and slurrying the mixture with salt and pepper.

                “Dammit, Kim, I was havin’ a really great dream,” Nick mumbled, stumbling into the kitchen as he wiped his hand over his face groggily. Kim kissed him gently on the cheek and ruffled his hair.

                “Morning, honey,” she greeted him.

                “Mornin’ sweetcheeks,” he tested a new nickname for Kim, remembering the smack that “Muffintop” got him yesterday.

                “Better,” Kim commented dryly, stirring the scrambled eggs. “Cap here was wondering about the deputy’s religious beliefs before the Cult.”

                “Oh. Yeah, well, you know, It’s hard losing a parent…and being told you’re an abomination by your pastor in the same year.”

                “WHAT?!” Monaghan blurted, nearly spilling the last of her coffee down her front, wondering how the two things could possibly be related.

                “Well, uh,” Nick fumbled, scratching the back of his neck uncomfortably. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “The deputy is gay.”

                “Nick, I know that,” Monaghan said flatly, looking at him with an unimpressed expression stamped on her face.

                “Well,” he looked deeply uncomfortable now. “She got caught rolling around in the hay with the pastor’s daughter shortly before her dad got killed. The pastor tried to keep it hush, hush, but also wanted Charity kicked out of the church. It was a real bad time. Lots of nasty, real unkind words got thrown around. Then her dad got shot. Shook that kid to her core. She was a good kid. Memorized Bible verses, helped around the community. She spent all her free time volunteering at the animal shelter for cryin’ out loud. The way the church treated her was not right. She stopped going after her dad’s funeral. So yeah, I guess you could say she was religious before. But not…not Joseph’s kinda religious.”

                “Thanks, Nick,” Monaghan said gently, putting a comforting hand on his. It was clear that talking about it was upsetting for him. Nick did not do well discussing emotional topics.

                “Breakfast!” Kim hollered, pulling dried biscuits out of a box and portioning out eggs onto plates. Murmurs and yawns filled the once quiet kitchen with a cacophony of humanity. Monaghan piled double the amount of eggs she wanted on her plate and walked outside, shocked to find Rook sitting quietly next to Sharky on the eastern wall. They were both silent, both staring out at the sun rising over the mountains from their respective places. It was so domestic and normal it pulled at Monaghan’s heartstrings.

                “Mornin’ Sharky,” she said and he turned his head to her abruptly as if pulled out of a reverie.

                “Hey Cap. Was just enjoying the sunrise.”

                “I see that. Kim’s got breakfast made inside. I’d have brought you some if I’d known you were up.”

                “It’s alright, Cap.” He stood, knees creaking, giving a last solemn glance to the Judge and walking down the stairs without another word.

                “Everything alright?” The Judge looked around, saw there was no one else present.

                “All good,” she signed.

                “Sharky talk to you?”

                “No.

                “You gonna sign more than three words to me today?” Monaghan prodded, teasing gently. Rook ignored her and snuck a bite of egg up and under her mask, chewing thoughtfully. “It’s a beautiful day. I’m planning on getting maps from Bean and getting more info from Grace and Kim. I’m going out on foot, so prep a pack and lots of socks.” Monaghan shoveled egg into her mouth and chewed slowly, enjoying the taste.

                Timber ran up happily, tongue lolling out of his mouth, tail wagging wildly, almost knocking the plate out of her hands. Monaghan chuckled and scratched him behind the ears. “Hey bud, you doing a good job being a guard dog, huh? Yeah, oh what a good dog!” He sneezed happily into her face and Monaghan heard a soft, hissing laugh next to her. Rook picked up a gob of scrambled egg and fed it to Timber, throat rasping as she scratched him on the rear and his leg twitched spastically. “He likes you,” Monaghan said. “Dogs are good judges of character, you know?” Rook was silent, just kept scratching Timber, and suddenly Monaghan realized she was crying again quietly. Rook flopped down off her chair and let Timber crawl up on her lap, though he’s at least three sizes too big to be doing so. Rook wrapped her arms around him in a hug and he tolerated it, tail wagging slowly, head propped on Rook’s shoulder, tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. Rook finally let him go and shook herself, trotting down the stairs to the armory, no doubt to stock up on specialized arrows. Monaghan watched her go and gave Timber the rest of her eggs, her vision blurred. Must be allergies, she thought, muttering, “Good dog,” thickly.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan reached for Rook’s hand as they trekked toward a Highwayman outpost and was deeply hurt when it was yanked away. She gave Rook her space, allowed her to skirt through the brush as they made their way toward a small camp with a chimney of black smoke flickering from it. Late afternoon brought a light, cool breeze, and Monaghan smiled to Rook pleasantly, but she swiftly looked away. Finally, annoyed and feeling up to a fight, Monaghan snapped.

                “What the fuck, Rook?” The leather-clad figure turned to her mildly. “What is your problem?” she asked, trying to keep frustration out of her voice and failing. This regression that had overwhelmed Rook since their night in the lodge made her want to scream, made her want to fire Joseph out of a cannon and into the sun for whatever he had broken in Rook. Regardless of what he claimed, he was responsible for much of Rook’s damage.

                “What we did was a mistake,” Rook signed solemnly. “It’s not the Father’s will.

                “Stop it,” Monaghan begged, grabbing Rook’s hand but she tugged it away.

                “I am the Judge. I am not supposed to feel. I don’t have thoughts of my own. My actions are guided by the Father…”

                 “Please stop this. You are not the Judge. You’re the deputy. Your name is Charity Rook. Please stop this. Please, Rook.”

                “I am not ‘Dep,’ I am not the ‘Rook,’ I am the Judge–”

                “No, stop it!” Monaghan snapped, upset and feeling helpless. “Your name is Charity Rook. Your best friend is Charlemagne Victor Boshaw the Fourth, ‘Sharky’ if you require brevity in your day to day life,” she quoted to her, grabbing her by the shoulders, sinking fingers into the bear skin padding there. “I am Corbin Monaghan. I’m your other best friend, and I need you. I need my friend, not the Judge. You have to stop this. You are not the Judge. You are the deputy. You are my friend. Please. Please, Charity.” She grabbed Rook’s wrist roughly, pulling her close, trying desperately to remind her who she was. Monaghan reached a hand out and unbuckled the side of Rook’s wooden mask. She looked into forest green eyes ringed with storm clouds, saw sadness there, and guilt and pain. She leaned in, staring into those eyes, stroked a hand behind Rook’s hood, pressed her lips to Rook’s gently. The woman was silent for a moment, still. Then, her lips moved, caving to Monaghan’s. Monaghan slid her hand from behind Rook’s head and used it to tilt her chin up, finishing the kiss, and then pulling away. “Are you ‘you’ again?” she asked, chest aching, brows drawn together, staring into Rook’s eyes. Rook was breathing heavily, gasping for breath, her eyes dilating.

                “It’s me,” she signed. “It’s me, I’m here. I’m sorry. I got lost.

--

                Monaghan would be lying if she said that she ditched the truck entirely for stealth. Sure, they needed to be stealthy now more than ever, so it was as good an excuse as any, plus, even with four-wheel drive, it could not climb a mountain or skirt through a forest, but that was all just front. She really wanted to be on-foot to spend more time with Rook, more time camping with her and eating with her and generally trying to ignore that they lived in a post-apocalyptic world and not a romance novel. She had to remind herself occasionally that she was here to save the county, not just Rook.

                They walked side-by-side and Monaghan let her hand brush Rook’s occasionally, testing the waters again. Rook did not respond, did not take her hand, did not remove her mask, did not wax philosophic with her hands about how much she adored the Captain. It was all just too good to be true, but at least she was walking nearby, at least she was carrying herself like the deputy, not the Judge. They sit, silent, next to their fire and finally, unexpected and unasked, Rook unclipped her mask, set it down on the log next to her. There were white streaks of tears dried and crusted on her cheeks. Monaghan said nothing, waited.

                “I don’t know who broke me first…Joseph or myself.” Monaghan closed her eyes, chest tightening and burning at once, a lump of hatred and anger and grief forming in her throat at the thought of Joseph’s abuse of Rook. “But regardless, I am certainly broken,” Rook sighed when Monaghan could bring herself to open her eyes, could stop herself from shaking into a million pieces from rage. She let out a sharp breath she did not realize she had been holding. “He forced me to stay in the bunker, in the back room. Starved me. Tortured me. Wouldn’t even give me the escape of death.” Rook’s hands flew, describing her torment, her destruction, her rebirth into something that was no longer her.

--

                Joseph bangs two pans together, screaming some verse, or some inane version of a verse he had bastardized for his own use. Charity jerks awake, her wrist cut deep by the movement against the handcuff. Scratched on one side are initials: EW. These are Sheriff Whitehorse’s handcuffs, she realizes, yet another stab at her heart, yet another jab of grief that overwhelms her. Her breathing is rough. She swallows carefully and coughs, throat still burning from the fire she had encountered before Joseph dragged her into the bunker with him. Joseph has not let her sleep for longer than an hour in four days. Already she is hallucinating an aura around him. He leans down and whispers in her ear, insidious.

                “Are you ready to submit to the Lord, my child? To listen to his Voice?”

                “Fuck you and fuck your word and fuck your schizophrenic voices you son-of-a-bitch,” she whimpers, voice shaking, terrified but still defiant. Clenching his jaw, Joseph stands.

                Charity desperately needs to urinate, but will not ask, will not submit. She has not eaten in a week, and her stomach rumbles, churning, making her feel like she needed to vomit, but vomiting would only result in dry heaves. Her mouth fills with saliva and her abdomen lurches. Gritting her teeth, she focuses on not pissing herself, focuses on not gagging.

                “Let the Lord speak to you,” Joseph says. “Let the Lord whisper in your ear and you may sleep.” He hands her the book and with a cry of anger, she flings it away from her awkwardly, hands still attached to the bedframe. “You will seek his forgiveness eventually,” Joseph says, resigned. She tries desperately to hold her bladder, tries to clench down, grinds her teeth against the stinging pain, but she cannot. She wets herself, sobbing quietly at this new indignity, unable to escape the puddle of humiliation. Joseph comes back an hour later as she is starting to drift off to sleep, picks her up by the hair, forces her to move as he mops up the urine with an old towel.

                Joseph leaves her in her soiled pants. Three days later, Charity is near begging for the book. She snatches it from Joseph’s hand as soon as it is offered. With a solemn nod, Joseph releases one of her hands so she can turn the pages on her own. He leaves clean clothes, a bucket, water and a bowl of food for her and she weeps as she reads the first three chapters of the first book, hands trembling. She spares a few drops of water and the corner of her dirty shirt to wash herself of the urine before putting on the new clothes and guzzling the rest of the water greedily, scraping the bean and hotdog mixture into her mouth desperately, her stomach jerking and spasming.

                Joseph lets her sleep for four hours. He startles her awake roughly and she tries to scramble away from him, but her wrist was still attached to the corner of the bedframe. He sits backwards on a wooden chair in her room and gazes at her mildly.

                “Do you know how many you doomed? How many more people might had been saved if you had just left us to our work? ‘For lo, the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy; I have come so that they may had life, life abundant,’” Joseph declares in his soft Georgia accent, arms outstretched to the heavens burning somewhere above them. “You should have walked away, deputy,” he tells her levelly. “Your friends, your family. They’re all dead, all dust.” Tears streak down Charity’s face.

                “No, no, it’s not my fault, it’s yours,” she snarls, glaring at him like a caged tiger.

                “It’s your fault, and the fault of those like you. Those liars and politicians and lawless enforcers of man’s laws over God’s. You are responsible for this, deputy. You must live with it. But I still offer my forgiveness, God offers his forgiveness, but you must accept it. Must take it willingly.” He holds his hand out to her. Summoning all her rage, she spits thick, stringy saliva at him. He blinks. “Very well. God yet has a plan for you, my child. But, like all of his plans, it requires suffering.” In a lightning fast movement like a snake striking, his fingers are tangled in her hair, the action reminiscent of his dead brother John. “I will purge your sin from you and you will hear God’s voice if you just listen,” Joseph hisses, pressing the deputy into the floor, his knee between her legs, pinning her. She cries, scratching and pushing against his chest. “You will submit to God’s will!” Joseph cries, eyes wild.

                Grabbing her again by the hair, he drags her under the metal bed frame, tying her wrists and ankles to the feet of the bed so she is spread-eagled beneath it, unable to tilt her head up, unable to move. Shoulders aching, straining against the zip ties he had used, Charity feels panic and claustrophobia rising. He leaves her there for a week, until she is sobbing for water when he enters the room. She takes what he offers her greedily, but lashes out when he goes to cuff her right hand back to the bedframe. He stares into her eyes until she looks away and locks the hand in place before pacing softly out of the room, returning with a chair and the Word.

                This time he keeps her awake for a full week, reading the Word to her. Charity wobbles where she sits on the ground next to the bed, idly scratching another mark into the wall. It has been two months since she was locked in here with Joseph. She can see her reflection in a metal mirror on a locker door close to the bed. Her cheeks are gaunt. There are dark black and purple rings under her eyes. Her skin is sallow and tight, her ribs and vertebrae visible through the thin tank top she is wearing. Her pants hang from her pelvic arches like an empty sail. She was once gently rounded, with feminine curves and taut muscles; now she is barely skin and bones. Tired, constantly, achingly hungry, she starts to cooperate, starts to comply, picks up and reads the Word and is rewarded with food, and sleep and a bucket to use with privacy and toilet paper.

                Joseph gives her a journal to write in after three months of good behavior. He gives it to her wordlessly after she has agreed to study another chapter of the Book of Joseph, after she has meekly bowed her head when Joseph comes in to pray over her. Charity scratches wildly onto the paper with a pencil, desperate to gather her thoughts, to latch onto whatever sanity she may had left. She wails and sobs the first time she has the journal pulled from her hands, replaced with the Word of Joseph and she hits him with a hard left hook, throwing the book savagely in his face and trying to bite him when he grabs her. He snaps one of her fingers and then handcuffs both of her hands back to the bedframe. The journal and pencil are confiscated calmly as he rubs his jaw with a hand.

                “I forgive you, child.”

                “I don’t need your forgiveness,” she snarls, a tear trailing down her cheek. Joseph blinks, walking from the room and closing the door behind him with an air of finality. When he returns, she apologizes, takes the book, refuses to meet his eyes. Fury and pain flood through her.

                Joseph, her enemy, the man responsible for her torture and imprisonment steps out of the room after uncuffing her, a reward for accepting the book from him again. Checking the small square window of her room to ensure he is out of line of sight, Charity works quickly, stripping the sheets from the bed, tying them to the pipes, twisting them around her neck, stepping off the bed in a final act of defiance. Oblivion swallows her. And then Joseph’s face hovers over her again. Her throat burns. Her soul shrinks. Her heart breaks.

                Charity lies down on the blank mattress, swallowing blood, holding her bruised throat. Joseph had taken the sheets from her.

                “You are not the deputy,” Joseph says soothingly, petting her many days later. She tolerates the touch because she has no choice but to do so. She shakes her head defiantly and he clenches his jaw. “You’re no hero,” he reminds her, a shadow of his older brother. “You destroyed Eden. Like a snake, you slithered in and corrupted God’s garden. You will be God’s tool yet. Don’t you see that you can redeem yourself, my child? Don’t you see that God still has a plan for you?”

                It has been a year locked in with Joseph.

                “You are not the deputy. You are not ‘Dep.’ You are not ‘Rook.’ You are the Judge. God’s holy judge. He will purge you with holy fire,” Joseph assures her, heating a knife and sliding it into her skin where it sizzles. “Your wrath will be God’s wrath. Your pride will be in following His Word. Your fear will be of the Lord.” He cuts words into her back, pausing to heat the knife over the battery stove occasionally. She does not resist. Just lies belly down on the cold floor, her cheek pressed into it as Joseph sits on her back, pinning her down as he works. A tear streams from her eye as pain radiates from the touch of the sizzling knife blade. She has accepted the marking of her sins wordlessly, but Joseph still has not broken her, after all this time.

                “You are not ‘Dep.’ You are not ‘Rook.’ You are not the deputy. You are not a hero. You are God’s Judge. You are my Judge. I am your Father. Don’t you want to be redeemed? Don’t you want to be forgiven?” In a moment of rash anger, she bites Joseph’s outstretched hand.

                Frustrated, Joseph keeps her awake and starving for a week again with no food and only a small amount of dirty water, something he had not done since she had tried to kill herself months before. Half-dead, Charity sees her father, his kind face leaning over her.

                “Hey kiddo. What’s wrong?”

                “Dad, please, help me,” she begged with a non-existent voice, a ragged sob shaking her body.

                “It’s alright, kiddo…your–”

                “–Father is here,” Joseph whispers in her ear. She screams, ragged, rough, terrified, crying out,

                “Someone please help me! Help me! Help me! Help me!” over and over in broken hissing sounds until Joseph grabs the outstretched fingers of her left hand and yanks them abruptly backwards, dislocating almost all of them.

                “Pain will bring you to God, my child. Embrace it.”

                What little was left of her voice is destroyed as Charity forces out a scream, tearing through the last of her vocal cords as she thrashes, sobbing raggedly, collapsing backwards into the warm chest behind her. It feels safe. It’s the Father. He embraces her gently, soothing her, pulling her fingers back into place and wrapping them with bandage material tenderly.

                “You will have peace, my child.”

                Charity loses consciousness and this time she sees her other father, her adoptive father, Sheriff Earl Whitehorse.

                “Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone, Rook,” his gravelly voice says softly, caterpillar brows drawn together kindly, concern etched on his features. “What did he do to you, kid?” Earl asks, cupping her cheek with a big, gentle hand.

                “Sheriff,” she sobs silently, blood dripping down the inside of her throat. “Please. Please help me.” Charity weeps as she looked into that familiar face with its kind blue eyes and yellow aviator sunglasses.

                “I am here, child,” Joseph whispers, and the sheriff is gone.

                It has been two years locked in with The Father.

                “You are the Judge, child. My Judge. God’s righteous Judge. You are not the deputy. You are the Judge because you need to receive absolution. You are the Judge because being so will bring you peace and safety from your guilt. Who are you?”

                “I am your Judge,” she mouthed numbly, believing it, knowing it. Accepting it.

                It has been five years locked in with the Father. The Judge scribbles on the paper The Father had given her, perched on her bed with her soft blanket.

                “I cannot think, I’m getting hungry we need to go topside soon but I’m terrified I think I did the right thing I want to do the right thing now he said he forgives me but I cannot I don’t know if I did the right thing I don’t understand and all he gave me was the Word”

                They have perhaps two more year’s worth of supplies before they run out, even with the sparse amount of food The Father gave her, just enough to keep her from starving. No, The Father provides for her, gave her all she needed, she reminds herself, cradling her head in her arms and shaking it wildly. He whispered to her that she was his child, that he loves her, that he forgives her, but she knew now that she did not deserve forgiveness, but she needed it. She thought she had done the right thing fighting the Cult, but she had gone against God’s plan, destroyed Eden. She needed redemption, needed to purge her guilt somehow, but she did not know the way.

                The Judge scribbles again on paper, face and eyes wild as she listens to The Father speak.

                “You know. You know best. God tells you. If I listen to you, It’s good, and right, and I could help, and I could save people, and made it right, and everything will be okay. If I judge as your Judge the judgement was right and just, the judgment was God’s Word. I see now. I am so sorry. Please give me a mask I am afraid. No one could know me. Please let me be reborn like the world, cleansed of sin and new, and I will fight to cleanse the sin. Thank you Joseph thank you Father.”

                She writes wildly, shaking with glory and revelation.

                It has been seven years with The Father and the Judge is skin and bones, more ghost than person.

                They crack open the bunker doors and survey their surroundings. The undergrowth of the forest is gone, but the trees have regrown their leaves. They hunt for food, finding a deer. The Father hands the Judge a bow and she nods, aiming it. The deer drops. They eat.

                Huddled masses of humanity come to The Father in the wilderness, seeking wisdom. Others seek violence, and at The Father’s command, the Judge visits violence upon them without hesitation. It’s time to abandon the bunker for good, to build a New Eden, but The Judge is terrified, does not want her face, her sin to be visible, does not want others to know who she once was.

                “Do you renounce your sins?” The Father asked, a piece of wood and a knife in his hands.

                “Yes, Father,” the Judge mouths obediently.

                “Will you listen to the Voice and heed its commands?” he questions, carving quietly. He had been working on it for a week, shaping it and smoothing its surface.

                “Yes, Father,” the Judge promised with silent reverence.

                “Will you be my Judge, my righteous one, who will bring justice to my people?”

                “Yes, Father.”

                “I give you leave to wear a mask to hide your sin, then, my child,” he said, and he hands her the wooden mask. She takes it gratefully and covers her face. Stepping for a final time into the bunker, the Judge writes haphazardly, eyes wide behind her new mask.

                “I have survived and they no longer have any power over me. And now I bask in the peace of God’s unconditional love, shielded by the serene companionship of You my Family. And I now know what it means to be fully and trully accepted. By You my Family.” The Judge left the pencil, set the paper down lightly, breathing raggedly, and followed the Father; they close the bunker, leaving it behind. It’s not part of the Garden.

                The Father lead the way as they search for survivors. They find John’s old silo, open it, find a few living cult members, who rejoice and follow them. The Judge, and the Father and their followers travel North toward Jacob’s old compound, searching for a place to build their Eden and they find more followers, find, incredibly, Jacob’s son. A few months later, visitors to the valley bring Joseph’s son and he weeps with joy at the reunion.

                They search for Eden, search for a place to call home, travelling together, gathering followers and seeking God’s face, bringing sustenance to their Family. They find the Valley of the Shadow of Death, terrible wisps of mutated Bliss wind toward them, and the Family is afraid. The Father looks to the Judge, who waits for his guidance.

                “I need to pray,” he says softly. He left them, wandering into the wilderness and when he returns, he is ecstatic. He has seen a vision from God. He took the sacrament, a mixture told to him by the Lord, he gave it to his Judge. He gave it to all of his Family.

                Euphoric, The Father guides them through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, to the North, where God had commanded them to go. Demons and evildoers haunt the banks of the river and the Judge visits righteous justice on them, impaling them with arrows.

                “God guides our path, child,” The Father whispers eyes wide and earnest. “Yea though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” The Judge cries with joy at the sight of the tree, its blooms a searing pink. “Come, my child. Come and eat of the fruit of the Garden of Eden,” The Father urges. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, as well as death and disaster.”

                The final transformation is rending. The deputy is defeated, lying motionless on the ground, chest sprouting dozens of arrows, her mouth gasping desperately for air. She turns to the Judge and reaches out a hand.

                “Forgive me. Please forgive me,” the deputy begs. The Judge turns her back and kneels before The Father, weeping, but does not know why. Joseph offers the fruit to the rest of his flock, but many fall, transformed by their sin. The Judge intervenes, trying to save them. One rakes a bear-like claw at her, gouging deeply into her mask and hood and she leaps back, sinking an arrow into their eye. They fall, dead. They build their Eden around the tree, and Joseph kept offering the fruit. The Judge cries, and prays for mercy from God for each soul that tried to overcome its sin. Joseph sends groups of Eden’s people out with the fruit, to share it. His followers continue to die, overcome by their sin. Grieving their family’s loss, the Father finally agrees with his Judge, the fruit must be protected.

                It had been eight years by the Father’s side. Their Family builds defenses, builds gates to halt travelers from reaching the tree, moves back south, back to safety.

                It had been eleven years by the Father’s side. Joseph’s son Ethan tries to rebel, tries to return to the garden, and pained, grieving, the Father comes to his Judge.

                “Stay, child. Stay and guard our Family. Keep them safe from all who would do evil to them. But speak to no one but The Shepherd. You will know the Shepherd by their works. Speak only violence to those who reject our God.” The Judge weeps as The Father leaves her out of his garden, orders her to stay in New Eden with his son.

                The Judge does not see the Father again until she follows the Shepherd seventeen years after the bombs have fallen. She watches over her as she battles her sin, prepared to put her down. Follows her home, follows the Father home.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan had watched Rook tell her story, fascinated and at times disgusted, her heart rending at the descriptions of tortures, at being held down and starved and tattooed and burned and cut. She thought she understood, at last, the depths of Rook’s brainwashing and self-hatred, but knew that strongminded people could often break through that kind of mental damage given time and patience. She thought, she hoped, that Rook was doing so, slowly, but so surely, remembering with a small smile the feeling of soft lips on her own.

                Pensive, but exhausted, Monaghan laid down to sleep, happy when Rook curled up tight against her back, huddling next to her for warmth.

                A Voice spoke.

                “SAVE MY SHEEP,” it said, in a voice that was not booming, but soft, whispering, neither feminine nor masculine.

                The two scurry quietly around the hilltop. Monaghan aims at the radio tower’s control panel, breathes out, squeezes the trigger.

                “Just one more,” she says to Rook, who is squatted down and sifting sand through her glove, bored of waiting.

                Monaghan scans the camp, sees the antenna sticking up, positions herself to aim at the control panel. Breathes. Squeezes. “Let’s go,” she says, beckoning Rook. The two drop Highwaymen from a distance, death from above and below as they sneak through the camp. Monaghan aims at one sniper tower, waits for a head to pop up. Breathes. Squeezes. She searches the other tower but no head pops up. Rook must have gotten him. They make their way to the center of the camp, picking off the Highwaymen one by one. Finally, no more fighters are left. Tired, but pleased at their win, Monaghan climbs up on top of one of the tin buildings with Rook, scanning the area. She smiles at Rook, is about to reach out and take her hand then there is a sharp CRACK and a shrill phhtt. Rook’s shoulder is thrown back and she grabs at her chest as a mist of blood leaves it in a sudden red cloud that spatters Monaghan’s face. Rook falls to her knees, choking, coughing, clawing at her chest.

                “No!” Monaghan screams. She sights through her scope, sees the head, not in the sniper tower, but in the trees. She breathes, squeezes, then drops her weapon, pulling Rook into her lap. “You’re okay. You’re okay, you’re gonna be okay, I’ve got you, I’ve got you, please don’t go…” Her voice breaks as Rook pulls off her mask, mouth open wide gasping for air, eyes watering with the pain. Blood is pooling out of the hole in her back into Monaghan’s lap. It looks so small, so inconsequential, It’s the size of a dime. The captain sees her hand full of the hot, sticky liquid and whimpers. “Rook, no, please don’t go, don’t leave me, please, please!” Rook shudders, gasping and coughing a splatter of blood across Monaghan’s front. “Please, Rook! Please!” Rook is sucking in air in rough, torn gasps, fingers clutching at Monaghan’s shirt, green eyes filled with tears meeting Monaghan’s. The life drains from behind them, leaving them glassy, dull, like leaf-colored marbles. Rook’s hand slips from Monaghan’s shirt, her pinkie, index finger and thumb out and Monaghan screams, shrieks to the heavens as she holds her dead friend’s still-warm body, pulling her into her chest so that Rook’s head lolls onto her shoulder heavily. Sharp, heaving sobs rack Monaghan’s body and she cries, cries for Rush, cries for Rook, cries for every person and every thing she has ever failed, sticky blood drying lugubriously on her shirt.

                “Save my sheep,” The Voice reminded her, and she was shaken awake, shuddering, hot tears dripping down her face. Rook was looking at her quizzically, her mask in one hand, her exposed expression concerned. Monaghan yanked her into a hard, long hug, holding her tight and rubbing her shoulders as if to assure herself that this Rook was real, this Rook did not have a dime-sized hole in her back where a high-caliber sniper bullet had exited her chest. Taking a convulsing breath that was ragged and rough, Monaghan kissed the side of Rook’s face before releasing her.

                “Are you O.K.?” Rook signed and mouthed, concerned, hand on Monaghan’s shoulder to steady her as she continued to cry softly.

                “I had a terrible dream,” Monaghan whispered. “I dreamt you died.” Rook did not look surprised, just nodded and rubbed Monaghan’s shoulder gently.

                “It was just a dream,” she signed. “Here,” Rook gestured, leaning back against a rock after putting a portion of her bedroll over it, and she pulled Monaghan back so that she was laying back on Rook’s abdomen between her friend’s thighs. It was not particularly comfortable, but it was comforting. Rook held her, murmuring little hisses and hums and purrs that Monaghan realized was her talking with no voice. When she turned to read Rook’s lips, the woman stopped speaking, reddening slightly. Eventually, Monaghan started to get drowsy again. They readjusted and slept side by side again, tucked into one another.

                When they awakened in the morning, they came across a Highwaymen encampment. Monaghan gestured to Rook to follow. They needed to knock out the radio tower control panels to prevent their enemy from calling in backup. She spotted one, aimed, took a breath, squeezed the trigger.

                “Just one more,” she said to Rook, who was squatted down and sifting sand through her glove, bored of waiting. Monaghan felt suddenly nauseated, disoriented.

                Shaking herself, Monaghan scanned the camp, saw the antenna sticking up, positioned herself to aim at the control panel. Breathed. Squeezed the trigger. “Let’s g–” She stopped herself, blinking. “Come on,” she revised, beckoning Rook. They dropped Highwaymen as they sneak around the camp, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Monaghan aimed at a sniper tower and, feeling intense déjà vu, ended the person sitting in it when they looked over the border wall. She searched the other tower long and carefully. There was no one in it. They made their way to the center of the camp, picking off the Highwaymen one by one. Finally, no more fighters were left. Tired, but pleased at their win, Monaghan climbed up on top of one of the tin buildings with Rook, scanning the area. Monaghan smiled at Rook, but the smile faltered and her outstretched hand paused. Rook cocked her head. Eyes widening, Monaghan screamed, “Get down!” yanking Rook down by the shoulder. A bullet whizzed past her arm above Rook’s head. Monaghan, gritting her teeth, spotted the sniper. Aimed. Fired.

                “SAVE MY SHEEP,” The Voice whispered in her mind. She looked down to a stunned Rook, who stood, wiping the front of her pants of dust.

                “What just happened?” Rook asked seeing Monaghan’s expression. Terrified, shaking, Monaghan met her masked gaze.

                “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

                Just because Joseph was right did not mean that he was right, Monaghan thought. Even if there was a god, or an alien or the fucking Force from Star Wars, that did not mean that what he had done was right. Humans had always committed terrible acts in the name of God, how was Joseph any different? The presence of a Voice in her head means nothing, means that maybe there was a real Voice and maybe Joseph did hear it, but he clearly misinterpreted something, because the Voice Monaghan had heard was benevolent, kind. That Voice had saved her best friend, it did not advocate for torture or death threats or killing those who disagreed.

                Reluctantly, with great prodding, Monaghan told Rook about hearing the Voice. Rook sat staring for a long moment, fingers stroking her chin, her other hand holding her mask in front of her in an unintentional mimicry of Hamlet holding poor Yorick’s skull. She set the mask down with shaking hand and signed,

                “‘Let Your work and the signs of Your Power be revealed to Your servants, and Your glorious majesty to their Family.’”

                “Stop quoting Joseph’s bullshit,” Monaghan snapped. Rook was not offended, but met Monaghan’s gaze bluntly.

                “I am not. That’s from Psalms.” A full-bodied tremble worked its way through Monaghan.

                “I’m an atheist, Rook,” Monaghan argued, cross.

                “That complicates things, doesn’t it?” Monaghan cannot tell if Rook was joking or not since she kept her face guardedly blank, as much a mask as the wooden thing sitting next to her.

                “I was raised by scientists Rook. I told you, my mom was an ornithologist, my dad was a mathematician. I don’t believe in the Bible, I don’t believe in visions, I don’t believe in any of this nonsense,” Monaghan blurted, hands shaking as she held her face in them.

                “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth,” Rook quoted as Monaghan peeked through her fingers, shrugging at the end of her signed statement.

                “Oh, so I’m the Holmes to your Watson, is that it?” Monaghan griped, tone nasty as she looked up again.

                “I like to think of myself as H.O.L.M.E.S.,” Rook signed with a smirk and Monaghan was now sure Rook was fucking with her.

                “You are suggesting that I ignore the tenants of my upbringing, that I should reject science, and logic and reason and just, what convert?” Monaghan demanded, breathing hard.

                “I am suggesting that science cannot explain everything. I am suggesting that perhaps you should at least consider worldviews outside your own,” Rook signed reasonably. Monaghan shook her head wearily.

                “I thought I was pulling you out of this crap, not the other way around,” Monaghan whispered in frustration. One step forward and twenty steps back, and now she was losing her fucking mind too.

                “Do you truly think I have not changed?” Rook signed, looking hurt when Monaghan finally peered up at her again. “The Father told me to follow you, to obey your commands. You are my shepherd,” Rook’s hands worked quickly, earnest.

                “Oh Christ,” Monaghan muttered, more frustrated than before. Rook grabbed her shoulder and shook her, signed right in front of her face so that the message was clear.

                “Not that father.” Stunned, Monaghan’s jaw nearly dropped, but she controlled her reaction, kept her face carefully neutral.

                “Nick said you walked away from all that,” Monaghan argued, guarded.

                “From the church, yes. Not from God,” Rook clarified, face serious. “Spending time with you has provided clarity, has shown me the way. I hear The Voice too. It’s not hate, or intolerance. It’s love. I don’t know if it’s God or something else, but I believe it will do good work in you. I believe it will allow you to free us from the Twin’s violence, from J.O.S.E.P.H.’s madness, from his son’s wrath. I believe in you, C.O.R.B.I.N.” Rook’s hands stilled. “Religious or not, The Voice spoke to you, through you. It’s your choice to listen, or to twist its words because of your pride or madness as Joseph did.”

                “Save my sheep,” the Voice said softly and Monaghan wiped her face, her jaw clenched until her teeth creaked from the strain.

                “How can you believe in a God who has allowed so much suffering? So much pain? Who says your very existence is sin?” Monaghan asked, knowing this might be a very touchy subject.

                “I don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God,” Rook signed, as though that explained everything.

                “And?” Monaghan prompted, tone sarcastic.

                “The God I believe in, the God I had forgotten when J.O.S.E.P.H. corrupted me was neither a benevolent nor an evil God. He was merely the watchmaker. He made the watch, he wound it, he allowed it to tick as it would, stepping in only occasionally to reset the time. The God I believe in created life, not humans. Evolution did that. The God I believe in is indifferent to sexual preference. The God I believe in is not wrathful, but indifferent. Why he is stepping in now is beyond me, perhaps this voice is not truly him, perhaps the God I believe in does not exist. Regardless, if the voice directs you to do good works, should you not? If it warns you in advance of tragedy, will you not avert it?” Rook’s eyes flicked away for a moment, a look of pain passing over her features like a dark cloud. “I am too old to discuss philosophy anymore. When I die, what happens, happens. But I am not too old to dispense justice,” she signed, meeting Monaghan’s eyes calmly. “I am, after all, the Judge,” she finished with a wry look.

                “Jesus Christ, my head hurts,” Monaghan complained. “Between you and Hurk, I guess I was bound to find religion,” she said flatly, sighing.

                “Captain…C.O.R.B.I.N…..I recognize that what Joseph has done was wrong. I recognize that he twisted the words of the Voice. I recognize that he must face justice for the evil he has wrought. ‘Who knows, perhaps you have come to your position for such a time as this?’”

Chapter Text

                Monaghan’s thoughts raced as they made their way through what was formerly Hope County, searching for components for Prosperity. The Judge, Rook, was on board with her plan to confront Joseph after they dealt with the Twins, had accepted that he had committed evil acts in the past and needed to be held accountable for them. If that was not a Cosmic Entity-level win, Monaghan did not know what was.

                “So why the mask still, Rook? Why not take it off if Joseph no longer commands you?” she asked as they walked, looking for a place to climb up to a bridge they could see. The road was washed out, so finding a way to it had proved challenging to say the least. They walked side-by-side over an open area of gravel so they could talk.

                “My mask is between myself and God,” Rook replies simply. “J.O.S.E.P.H. never forced me to wear it.”

                “Sure, he just tortured you and tormented you with your own guilt until you felt you had to,” Monaghan growled. Rook stopped her with a hand on her shoulder and a soft growl as a rattlesnake slithered over their path. Monaghan ground to a stop before she stepped on it, retreating a step or two for good measure. They waited for it to pass; it was minding its own business, as all animals seemed to do near Rook.

                “I am guilty, M.O.N.A.G.H.A.N.. I am a murderer. I could have handled the cult differently. I could have walked away.”

                “Please don’t start…”

                “No, look, I am not signing this because J.O.S.E.P.H. saying it made it true. It is true. The situation could have been handled better. My fight with the cult started for the right reasons, but ended for the wrong ones. I could have shown mercy and chose not to. I killed J.O.S.E.P.H.’s family not because it was the right thing to do, but because I wanted to do it, because I was so consumed by anger and hate that I did not consider any other alternatives. I never even considered arresting them. Instead I killed them all, and many of their followers with them. I flooded or burned bunkers that could have saved people had my pride not gotten in the way. There are too many cases where positions of authority are taken for granted and innocent people suffer because of decisions made by wrathful, prideful leaders. How do you think the bombs happened? And yes, before you lecture me, Professor, I know the bombs falling were not my fault. I can see that now at least.” Rook was panting heavily at the end of this monologue, her body language a little wild, like she was on edge.

                “But the mask…”

                “I wear this mask around others not because I don’t believe God has forgiven me, but because I have not forgiven myself. I am not yet prepared to look my friends in the eye and speak to them about what has happened.” There’s a “yet” in that gestured sentence, and the word burned hope like a lightning strike in Monaghan’s chest.

Chapter Text

                “It’s a good opportunity, mon amie. It is worth the fuel. A friend of mine, you see, she has connections for fuel stops between here and Pensacola.” Monaghan pinched the bridge of her nose, biting back a hasty diatribe when Roger finishes his ridiculous suggestion. Ticking off her points on her fingers one by one as she spoke, she told him all the reasons why it was a terrible idea.

                “Roger, that is nearly twenty-five hundred miles of flying. Nearly twenty-four hours of flying with fuel stops, and another day back, assuming it doesn’t turn into a shit show and we don’t all die, which is likely, let’s face it, because it’s me and Dep, and we’re cosmically unlucky motherfuckers. Christ. And what’s it going to cost us, Roger?”

                “Mon Dieu,” he scoffed, clearly irritated with how his idea had been received, “I’ve got it all taken care of, can’t you see? My friend Sheila has got us covered for the fuel. Her only price is sharing whatever we find, and we’re sure to find something good, no? Trust me, mon bon capitaine.”

                “We’re going to need to be stealthy.”

                “You are telling me! These merdique bête Highwaymen are trying to take over what is left of the country, stealing supplies, killing people for fun. Ça a pas d’allure! It’s time we took the wind out of their sails, mon amie.”

                “I’m going to have to persuade the Judge to go with me. I don’t trust anyone else to keep their cool and stay silent in a high pressure situation.”

                “As though she ‘as any choice, eh?” Monaghan gave him a nasty look and he had the decency to look sorry for the comment.

                “It’ll probably take me a day or two to get her to go along with it. She’s squirrelly about leaving the New Edeners without a guardian nearby.”

                “Alright, well, n'attendre pas que le curé se mouch,” he said, visibly annoyed.

--

                “ABSOLUTELY NOT!” Rook signed broadly and crisply, indicating her feelings without facial expression being needed.

                “Dep, I really need you, here. It’s gotta be quick, quiet, in and out. You’re the only one I trust not to get me killed. Please.”

                “Take N.A.N.A.,” Rook signed, clearly annoyed, throwing Monaghan’s old go-to insult back in her face.

                “Nana doesn’t shoot a bow and even with a silencer her rifle is way louder than your bow. Please. I’m relying on you, Rook.”

                “I cannot leave my flock.

                “In case you’ve forgotten, they’re my flock too. We need the resources, we need to reach out to other areas. The whole world’s gone to shit, Rook. Taking tech and intel from the Highwaymen gets us one step closer to putting it back together. It’s good for the Scavengers in Prosperity, It’s good for the members of New Eden. Goose and gander and all that bullshit. Come on. Please?”

                “J.O.S.E.P.H would not like me leaving the county,” she signed, hesitant, suddenly stiff, suddenly more the Judge than the deputy. Rage flared through Monaghan, uncontrollable and hot like a diesel fire. Her face contorted with it and she clenched her fists so tight her short nails dug into her palms painfully.

                “I don’t give a baker’s fuck what Joseph wants, Rook, and you shouldn’t either, given…you know…”

                “What?” Rook snapped with her hands. “Given what?” Monaghan sighed, putting her hands on her hips in frustration and turning away, trying to compose herself, and failing. She turned back and let loose, let her anger pour words out of her mouth like bile.

                “Given the fact that we’re even having to have the conversation like this,” she both said and signed, her face furious and eyebrows deepening the depth of her angry expression, her hands signing the words largely, the signing version of a yell. “Given that he drove you to try to kill yourself and you fucked up your voice in the process. Given the fact that he tortured you and brainwashed you into thinking he knows what’s best. Given the fact that the only reason you want to protect those people so bad is to do penance for something you are not even responsible for. Rook, please, come on, see the bigger picture here!” Jaw working beneath her mask, Rook turned and vanished into the tree line without another sign.

                “Fuck!” Monaghan massaged her forehead with a hand, released a breath, and then stepped back inside Prosperity, picking up her weapons and her pack. She twirled a finger at Roger from across the courtyard and he nodded. Pulling her headset on, she checked her pack and hopped into the helicopter, buckling up in the back seat.

                “Where’s your petit oiseau chanteur silencieux?” Roger asked. “It’s only been a couple of hours. Thought you said it would take time to persuade ‘er, yeah?”

                “It’s just me,” Monaghan answered him, terse, tired of fighting. He nodded and the helicopter lifted straight up, buffeting the grass and hair of the people below. They headed south east, Roger starting their journey slow. From two hundred feet up, Monaghan could see a figure waving its arms before they collapse to their sides in defeat. She started laughing. “You stubborn fuck,” she muttered, but it was loud enough for her headset to pick up.

                “Est-ce que t’as des bibittes?”

                “Sorry, Roger. My ‘silent songbird’ as you call her is down there trying to hitch a ride.”

                “Well, tell her to flap her arms, then,” he growled, but he started lowering the helicopter gently nonetheless, jaw ticking in annoyance. Rook hopped up and picked up a headset, moving the mouthpiece out of her face immediately.

                “Better late than never, huh?” Monaghan commented, not expecting an answer. Rook looked away from her, instead gazing out the chopper window.

                Including fuel breaks, the entire journey took them a little under two days. Dep was silent for most of the trip, her hands still. Monaghan gave her space, let her be angry even though she wanted nothing more than to keep poking the bear.

                Roger dropped them off, moving the chopper a safe distance away. The H.M.S MacCoubrey loomed below them, sitting idly in the water. It looked for all the world like a wasp's nest that had fallen in a puddle. It was swarming with Highwaymen. They glanced at one another and formulated a plan, zip-lining down to the base of the ship using an old power cable strung from a radio tower. Paddling quickly in the choppy surf, they scurried up a ladder to avoid sharks that had taken notice of their presence. Once they pulled themselves up onto the deck of the ship, they began dropping Highwaymen silently like two angels of death. The whole thing was going great, a perfect in-out mission until a fucking GPS indicator on the package of circuit boards and other important components turned on, cheeping an alarm like a frightened baby bird.

                “Shhhiiiiiiittt,” Monaghan drew out, hearing yells. Dep hissed next to her, concerned. “Let’s go, Rook.” They climbed up onto the flight deck of the huge ship, both breathing heavily. Monaghan heard bullets flying around and looked back frantically to Rook, who was gracefully sprinting backwards, loosing incendiary arrows at their pursuers while still heading toward their extraction point. Screams of pain and fright followed them as they ran, dashing toward another power line they could use as a zip line.

                Monaghan strapped the package to her back and pulled her side arm out before hooking onto the line and sliding down it. She heard a keening screech behind her and turned, seeing Rook hanging by one arm, her quiver dropping to the cold water below. She looked up at Monaghan, and then let go of her grip on the line, dropping like a rock into the water after her quiver. “Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me,” Monaghan hollered, seeing blood rise from where Rook dropped into the water, and seeing a tell-tale fin pop up a hundred yards away. The torpedo-shaped fish was making a beeline for the cloud of blood in the water. Monaghan heard the chopper, and argued with herself for a moment before going to meet Roger where he had landed the chopper on the sandy beach. “Here,” she said, tossing the package in. “Leave without us if you have to.”

                “What the fuck? You better hurry up, you enculée,” Roger snapped, furious. Monaghan grabbed the GPS unit off the package, winking at Roger.

                “Don’t worry, it’s all under control,” she assured him with more bravado than she felt. She leapt into the cold water, gasping at the frigid feeling as she paddled toward where she last saw Rook. The fin was close, way too close for comfort and as she dove under to look for Rook, she saw the tiger shark darting gracefully toward Rook. She had her quiver by the strap and was struggling upwards, blood trailing from her shoulder. Monaghan intercepted the shark, bumping it hard on the nose. It opened its mouth, thrashing and she tossed the GPS unit from the package in past a ring of multilayered teeth, nearly losing her fingers in the process. She kicked the shark gently, pushing it away. It thrashed and swam away from them with an unhappy flap of its tail.

                Rook was hovering in the water, hand gone limp, quiver floating serenely next to her as bubbles escaped from beneath her mask like frightened fish. Swearing in her mind, Monaghan swam to her, grabbing the woman by the arm and snatching the quiver as an afterthought, hauling them both upwards. They reached the surface, spluttering, Rook hacking up water, and paddled to the shore, sprinting and ducking as the Highwaymen fired on them, converging. Monaghan pulled her sidearm and mowed down several Highwaymen and they leapt onto the hovering chopper, Rook with some assistance from Monaghan.

                Shivering and angrier than a hornet, Monaghan wiped her hair out of her face, tying it back into a ponytail before she looked over to where Rook was slumped in her seat, breathing hard.

                “Hey,” Monaghan said, pulling Rook’s mask off to weak protest. Roger kept looking resolutely forward, his eyes on the sky and his instruments. He was a good dude, Monaghan thought. “Hey.” She slapped Rook gently and her friend hissed out a rough groan. “Let me see.” She unbuckled Rook’s bearskin shoulder cloak and pulled her sopping wet jacket out of the way. Breathing a sigh of relief, Monaghan saw that the bullet scraped deep enough to make Dep bleed, but no muscle or bone was significantly damaged. The only thing seriously damaged, as far as Monaghan could tell, was the ancient-looking red and brown striped quiver. Its tan belt had been cut clean through by the bullet. The quiver was empty, all of Rook’s arrows lost to the ocean. Monaghan sighed. “Was this thing really worth nearly getting eaten by a shark?” she asked, holding it up critically.

                “It belonged to a friend,” Rook signed simply, snatching it from her, and for the thousandth time Monaghan had to remind herself that Rook had lost just as much, and probably more, than she had. “J.E.S.S.. She taught me how to be a better archer.” Monaghan did not ask what happened to her, she probably knew already. If it was not the bombs, or the cult, then it was radiation sickness or starvation. She nodded and did not argue with Dep about it, just quietly cleaned her cut and bandaged it, helping her put her jacket, cloak and mask back on.

                They landed in Prosperity two days later and Kim met them as they land, clearly relieved to see them in one piece. They debriefed one another, and Kim suggested trying to infiltrate the Highwaymen from the inside. Monaghan agreed with this idea, was at a loss for how else to get near the Twins without getting more people she loved killed. They needed to infiltrate the Highwaymen, and soon, Kim argued, stating that the Scavengers had to save a caravan of cult hostages from them recently. They were hunting for information. It was important to keep it from them. Resolved, Monaghan gathered a still quiet, but always loyal Rook, and they headed out to gather more information.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan reached for Rook’s hand as they walked and the masked figure turned to look at her, pulling her hand gently, but firmly away, striding far enough ahead that making another attempt to touch her would require Monaghan to jog. They were silent, hiking through the woods like they did before Rook would sign to Monaghan.

                “I fucked it up, didn’t I?” Monaghan asked finally, panting as they took a break, the midday sun beating down from above. Rook cocked her head. “You opened up to me before we left for the ship, talked to me about dealing with the cult, talked to me about your mask. And then I lashed out at you when you didn’t want to leave Hope County with me.” Monaghan flicked sweat from her brow and glanced away for a moment before looking back at Rook, expression earnest. “I’m sorry. I’m getting damned tired of saying that, but I am. I’m sorry.”

                “You have nothing to be sorry for,” Rook signed after a moment’s thought. “We’re both damaged goods. A little disfunction is to be expected.” Monaghan grinned, feeling relief at Rook’s response.

                “Everybody’s damaged, Rook,” she posited, feeling philosophical. “It’s just a question of how badly and if you’re healing up or still bleeding out. The question is, do you want to get better, or do you want to keep bleeding out? You tell me you accept that Joseph was wrong one minute, then next you’re arguing with me about what he would think. The only power he still has over you is the power you give him.”

                Rook let out a growling scoff from beneath her mask, shaking her head in frustration and leaning back against a tree, fiddling with her glove for a few moments. She squatted down and picked a flower, twirling it between her fingers before tossing it away and turning to Monaghan.

                “You keep making this assumption that I can just turn this off,” Rook signed, gesturing at herself. “You keep assuming that I’m not permanently fucked in the head from what he did to me in that bunker and from what I did to myself both in and out of that bunker. I know J.O.S.E.P.H. was wrong, but I still care about my people. You don’t spend years with people and not care about them. New Eden now is not now what it was then as Eden’s Gate, and I’m partly responsible for that.” Rook looked skyward, collected her thoughts.

                “I stayed up late nights, helping J.O.S.E.P.H. write new teachings after we left the bunker and after he stopped force-feeding all of his followers those damned apples. I helped him see that God’s love is not forced. I’m not saying he was not a monster, that he is not still a monster, but most of the New Edeners are not who I was fighting before those bombs went off. The violence, the manipulation with drugs, the programming, Joseph allowed that, yes, but he was not responsible for it entirely. I’m not saying he does not deserve punishment, he does, but make sure you don’t blame his followers for their leaders’ sins.” Rook stretched her fingers, popped her shoulder and Monaghan was quiet, waiting for her to finish, determined not to fuck up more by interrupting.

                “Most of the young New Edeners were kidnapped from their families, and in some cases, were forced to eat their parents by a monster working for the Cult.” Rook growled deep and malevolent in her throat at the memory. “Men make evil choices every day without the okay from a leader or a god. Joseph did not condone those actions, but he is complicit in them, and I understand that. Eden’s Gate brought out the evil in men’s hearts, it did not put it there. I do still struggle with ignoring what J.O.S.E.P.H. might think of my actions because I have been trained…brainwashed that way, but please know that when I expressed concern over leaving Montana, my concerns were for my people, not the Father. Not J.O.S.E.P.H..”

                Monaghan sat tiredly, nodding, not wanting to argue anymore.

                “I know. I know, Rook. We’re getting there. It’s just sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees.” Rook unhooked her mask for a moment, wiping sweat from her brow and she met Monaghan’s eyes. Monaghan smiled. “That helps,” she told her, scanning her features with a wistful look.

                “I’m working on it,” Rook signed and after a few minutes, replaced her mask.

                They hike the rest of the afternoon, largely silent, simply enjoying one another’s company now. Rook had perked up considerably since Monaghan apologized. They managed to light a small fire to heat a can of beans over and Rook sat back lazily, signing to Monaghan. Monaghan was watching, enraptured. It was the first time she had ever spoken in any detail about her time as a deputy. She signed to Monaghan about zombie-like Bliss addicts that had grown aggressive and brain-dead, essentially walking dead bodies called “Angels.” She described recognizing Sharky from his Wanted poster, remembered his telling the then-deputy that she would never take him alive before he realized she was not there to arrest him. Monaghan grinned widely as Rook described their first team up.

                “So this idiot cranks ‘Disco Inferno’ up to eleven and he hands me a flamethrower, a missile launcher and he had about two dozen each of dynamite, proximity bombs, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails sitting on one of those white plastic tables you see at any redneck family reunion. In any normal circumstance, I would have been arresting him for having all this shit, wanted poster aside. The music attracted just ridiculous numbers of these things and they’re climbing the trailers, scratching and throwing themselves at us and I’m trying to keep up with this fool. Then he tried to shut the music off and couldn’t. So my dumbass, who agreed to this in the first place, by the way, had to run around shutting off generators to make it stop, all while we’re being bombarded by Angels. I finally got them all switched off and climbed back onto the roof, singed, smoking and missing at least seventy-five percent of my eyebrows and he said, ‘That was fun,’ all while he’s jumping up and down with a shotgun in his hands. And that’s when I knew he was going to be my best friend.” She ended her story and went suddenly silent. Rook stared into the fire for a long, long moment.

                “It’s still fixable, Rook,” Monaghan assured her, putting a gentle hand over one of Rook’s.

--

                There was really no telling why Monaghan had a nightmare. Usually, such things were caused by thinking about her time in the Army, or by being shot at that day. Regardless, a nightmare she had, all darkness and faces and shuddering, screaming voices.

                Then, soft, whispering, insidious, Joseph’s voice.

                “In the beginning was the Word…” There were whispers, soft screaming as though through iron walls, shouts, murmurs and Monaghan tries to clamp hands over her ears, but it does not help, does not stop the cacophony of human voices.

                She is zip tied to an iron bedframe. A lamp lights the room. A balding, goateed man leans over her, cuts the zip ties. She takes off her uniform, swapping it for a flannel shirt, heart racing. Running. She is running through a dark forest, men and women shouting. They’re looking for her. Her heart beat hard. She takes a poisoned arrow to the leg and stumbles. Falls.

                “Cull the herd,” comes a dark voice. “Only You” plays in the background, sound warping eerily in the stillness when the voice is gone.

                She sits in her own urine, eyes flickering as a projector screen shows violence. Kind hands touch her and then are gone. Fury. A young female archer, eyes distrusting, shooting a man who was dressing a human like a deer, for meat. Rage, stronger than she has ever felt before. Putting bullets between the eyes of every person she saw wearing that doubled-cross, armed or not.

                “Sin must be exposed so it may be absolved.” Terror. Escape. Death. Recapture.

                “Did you think you were free?” that dark, purring voice asks.

                “If violence is the only language you choose to speak, then I’ll speak your language,” says a soft feminine voice. Agony as she watches a father figure try to hang himself. Bliss. Then nothingness.

                “You believe you are on the righteous path, you believe you’re a force for good. But you are not.” Flight, exhilarating and terrifying. Chasing a man on foot. Being chased. Hallucinations of animals, kicking a bear off her chest that vanishes a moment later.

                “You still don’t understand. You don’t know what it is you’re doing, do you?” A plunge of knife into soft, female belly and pained blue eyes that fall backward into a fast-flowing stream.

                “Did you think you were free?” That song, that awful fucking song and then a friend is murdered…by her hand. The crack of the sniper rifle in her hands. A ginger head snapping back, dead. Yellow sunglasses and a greasy beard, piercing blue eyes, intense, mad with righteous anger, yet somehow soft with empathy, with love.

                “No one is coming to save you. I know you are in pain. Pain…sacrifice…these are all part of his test. We had to prove that we could serve God no matter what he asked.” A mushrooming cloud of violence. Doom. Death.

                “Nooooooooooo!” and it is not Monaghan’s voice streaming out of her mouth. She woke, her hand gripping Rook’s, both of them panting, sweating.

                “Bad dream too?” Rook signed finally, pulling her hand free.

                “Like you would not believe,” Monaghan murmured, wiping her face shakily. “That fruit…the powers it imparted…it scares me, Rook,” she whispered, wide-eyed as she looked at the panting deputy. Rook said nothing, but nodded solemnly, seeming to understand without Monaghan telling her that somehow, they had just shared the same dream. Somehow, Monaghan had just experienced some of Rook’s worst moments.

--

                As they worked their way through the forest, picking through tall grass and newly-grown brush over old park paths, Monaghan noticed Rook making more of an effort to walk side-by-side with her when it was possible. Her gloved hand will occasionally brush her own, pausing, hesitating before being pulled away to balance herself or to check her repaired quiver on her back. They did not share any more dreams, but the one they had shared left Monaghan deeply unsettled. To fight so hard against something only to be pulled into it? It was a nightmare in more than one way. She started to understand, started to really see how Rook could have been persuaded that so much death and destruction could be her fault. The heady, furious feeling of shooting as many cult members as possible in the dream had turned from anger to a dark pleasure. Put under enough pressure, the human mind has only two choices – bend or break. Joseph probably thought Rook’s was broken. Monaghan thought so less and less by the day.

                They paused for a water break, Rook drinking a little too quickly and having a brief coughing spell. Monaghan had patted her back and encouraged her to sit. She let her hand on Rook’s shoulders linger just a little too long. Rook allowed it, and leaned into the touch. When they stood, Monaghan took her hand and pulled her to her feet, holding it a beat longer than needed. They crossed a creek and collected some water, wiping sweat off before proceeding. Monaghan slipped on a slick rock and Rook caught her. The captain could vaguely see green eyes through the holes in the mask and they were intense, captivating. She swallowed as Rook set her back upright. She tried very hard (read, not actually that hard) not to stare at Rook’s ass as she took the lead, gracefully finding a path, turning over her shoulder to look at Monaghan occasionally and once she caught her staring. Monaghan thought she heard a soft huffing laugh, so, feeling mischievous, she pinched Rook on the ass as she took her turn as point. A rasp hissed out from behind the mask and Rook stopped walking. Monaghan, resolute, kept moving, but she was smirking.

                “Keep up, Rook. Got a way to go.” Footsteps started up again, but when she looked back, Rook was sheepishly scratching the back of her neck.

Chapter Text

                It was late. Rook had only recently put her clothes back on after bathing at the hot spring they had found. Her mask had clearly been carefully cleaned, all blood-stains and dust removed, the wood looked a brighter white and was reflecting a bit of light as though Rook oiled it. Her homespun clothes could be smelled from where Monaghan was sitting ten feet away by the fire, a strong scent of cinnamon and something mildly floral from the soap that the captain knew Rook made herself. The only part of her clothing not back on were her boots since they were about to lie down to sleep. Rook cuddled into the blankets Monaghan had laid out, yawning audibly from beneath her mask. Monaghan was not sure why Rook sometimes slept with the mask on and sometimes did not now, but decided not to point it out. She knew, having handled the mask in the past, that there was a soft leather lining that made it more comfortable to wear than Monaghan would have originally supposed.

                Monaghan stepped toward the hot spring pool just out of sight of their camp, toeing Rook playfully on the ass as she stepped over her friend. Rook slung a foot back to trip her, but Monaghan avoided it with a smirk and heard a rough, scratchy huff of laughter.

                “Back in a few,” Monaghan promised, taking the little package of soap Rook had made for her. She was touched by the gesture, as she always was when Rook showed any kind of care and affection. The soap was lumpy and misshapen, but smelled divine. It imparted on Monaghan the scent of pine sap and peppermint, crisp and invigorating. For a few minutes after contact by the soap, her skin tingled with the aromatic touch of mint, relaxing sore muscles. Stripping, Monaghan sank into the hot depths of the spring, sighing as the water enveloped her. She scrubbed at herself with the soap, watching dirt and sweat fall away with the thick bubbles. Running the chunk of soap over her breasts, she shivered in satisfaction at her own touch, arousal pouring through her, unbidden.

                Maybe tonight I will try again, Monaghan thought, chewing at her bottom lip uncertainly.

                Monaghan swam to the rocky shore, grabbing her straight-razor. She slid it carefully down her leg, shaking the stubble off the blade onto a leaf and taking care not to cut herself. In a world set back decades by nuclear warfare, Monaghan still was not willing to give up the comforts of personal hygiene. She may be a gruff, imperious woman dripping bravado and feminine power, but she still liked having shaved legs, goddammit. Monaghan shaved for her own benefit, no one else’s. She relished the soft, silky feel of her own legs and she certainly preferred to tame her armpit and pubic hair. There was nothing quite as unpleasant, in Monaghan’s opinion, as wearing a Brillo pad beneath your arms and between your legs. She wiped her razor and ran a hand over her legs with a satisfied sigh. Want poured through her at the feel of a feminine leg, even if it was her own.

                I will try again tonight, she decided.

                Putting clean clothes from her pack on, Monaghan walked back to the camp and laid down next to Rook facing her, her damp hair tied back in a bun behind her head. The night was uncharacteristically warm. They would not have to cuddle tonight unless they wanted to. And Monaghan wanted to, but she wanted more than that, she knew, feeling an ache between her legs, urgent and hot.

                “Hey,” Monaghan whispered, putting a hand on Rook’s waist. “You still awake?”

                “Heh,” Rook purred, her version of “yes.” Monaghan ran her hand from Rook’s waist over her arm, up to her shoulder and then to her mask, framing the side of it with her fingers carefully, trying to see Rook’s eyes.

                “May I?” Monaghan asked, fiddling with one of the clasps of the mask. There was a little nod beneath her fingers. Monaghan unclipped the small buckles that hold the bleached wood mask to her friend’s face. She set the mask gently aside and pushed the hood back, pulled the balaclava down and out of the way. She looked into Rook’s face, seeing uncertainty there, but interest. Unmistakable interest. Delicately, she took Rook’s slightly wet braid into her hand, pulling the tie from the end and tossing it away, smelling that cinnamon soap in the clean hair. She threaded her fingers onto Rook’s scalp, pushing through the thick, soft hair, loosening the braid gently. Monaghan leaned in and kissed Rook gently on the lips, a kiss that was tenderly but shyly returned. Next, she undid the ties at the front of Rook’s coat, ignoring long-dried blood stains that no amount of soap could remove. Sliding it slowly from Rook’s shoulders, she set it aside. She could see, now that the thick material was out of the way, that Rook was trembling slightly.

                The last time Rook had been in this state of undress around her, she had taken her clothes off herself, had been drunk. The alcohol had made her brave, had torn down her self-built walls. It was not necessarily the healthiest way to try to overcome nerves, but Monaghan could understand a desire for social lubrication to ease awkwardness. Now, stone sober and nervous, Rook shook under Monaghan’s touch.

                “Relax,” Monaghan whispered, cupping Rook’s face in one hand, tracing the edge of her ear with an index finger. She reached down and took each of Rook’s hands, tenderly tugging the soft brown gloves off and setting them aside.

                Careful now, meeting Rook’s gaze to watch for any sign of fear or hesitation, Monaghan reached for the leather tie that kept Rook’s pants hiked up on her hips. She undid the tie, tugging them down over the swell of buttocks and pushed them down Rook’s pale, muscular thighs. Rook laid before her now in a thin undershirt and a soft pair of underwear, still shaking a bit. “Are you okay?”

                “I don’t think anyone has ever looked at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It’s like you’re trying to decide if you want to eat me or if you’re concerned you’re going to break me if you touch me,” Rook signed, fingers a little awkward as she met Monaghan’s eyes, her own uncertain.

                Monaghan gave an airy chuckle.

                “You’re not wrong.” Monaghan’s gaze ran over Rook’s light skin, those brown-red freckles, her golden-brown hair, wavy from being in a braid while damp. Her eyes were inexorably drawn to Rook’s breasts where the pink nipples could be seen through the thin cotton blend shirt. Slowly, breath hitching in arousal, Monaghan slipped the shirt up and over Rook’s head as the woman lifted her arms to make the action easier. Monaghan reached out and cupped one soft, palm-filling breast, squeezing it gently, thumbing lightly over the nipple so that it stood at attention. She ran her hand down the light line that ran between Rook’s breasts, down to her waist, bumping into her navel, dragging down, down, to the band of her underwear, catching a finger in the waistband.

                Monaghan tugged very slowly, eyes meeting Rook’s, resisting the urge to stare down at what she was revealing. The front of Rook’s panties sank downward beneath Monaghan’s fingers, revealing a meticulously groomed thatch of very short golden hair in a V shape where her thin legs meet her torso. Monaghan ran her other hand down Rook’s back, sliding her fingers over a buttock under the underwear and shoving the material out of the way. Monaghan pushed the soft material to Rook’s knees and Rook kicked them aside, looking shyly into Monaghan’s eyes, cheeks burning bright red.

                With a little nervous chuckle, Monaghan reached up to run the tip of her thumb over Rook’s bottom lip with her fingers cupping her jaw, movements slow.

                “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. We can stop right now. We can stop here and never go any farther. Ever. It doesn’t matter to me, I just want you by my side.”

                “I…I’m not sure how far I can go. I don’t want to…break again in the middle of things.” Rook’s face was alternating pale white and harsh red and her throat ticked when she swallowed. Monaghan leaned forward and kissed Rook very lightly on the forehead, a chaste, simple kiss of affection, no lust in it whatsoever.

                “I’d love to make love to you,” Monaghan told her, her voice a rough whisper, deepened by her arousal. “I’d love to make you squirm, make you sign my name. But if you’re not ready, I can show you what I’d like to do to you. Would that be okay?” A little shy nod and a grin showing white teeth. Rook reached out and touched Monaghan’s cheek gently and the captain turned her head, kissed Rook’s palm, shutting her eyes for a moment, just taking in the clean cinnamon scent of her companion.

                After a beat, Monaghan leaned back and surveyed Rook. She felt hot wetness between her own legs, knew the barest touch would have her gasping and coming hard at the mere thought of Rook touching her. She was so aroused the moon seemed too bright, her pupils were so dilated. With great effort of will, Monaghan made herself go slowly. She slipped her jacket off, dropping it next to Rook’s. Next, she unbuttoned her flannel shirt button by button, showing off, meeting Rook’s eyes and biting her bottom lip. She slipped the red and black shirt off, tugged her white undershirt over her head, unclasped the ragged bra she wore and tossed it aside, sitting up so Rook could see her better. Next, she shimmied out of her jeans, swaying her hips from side to side, relishing the friction feel of her pants against her flesh as she did so, letting out a little aching whimper just loud enough for Rook to hear. She pushed her underwear down and kicked them off.

                Rook’s eyes never left Monaghan, which was good, because Monaghan was showing off for her.

                Monaghan laid back, a calloused hand running over her own chest, fondling a breast and pinching her nipple lightly. She traced the hand down herself, circling her navel with an index finger before running it down to the neatly trimmed red hair between her legs. She slid it down further, running her finger over her sensitive skin with a throaty little moan. It had been a while since she had allowed herself the leisure to touch herself, been at least a month since she had orgasmed and she longed for it, her breath catching in her throat as she looked at Rook lying naked before her. She put a finger on each side of her clit, squeezing gently and rubbing, grinding up into her own touch.

                Her other hand she slid downward, sinking two fingers into the hot, silky wetness that was already there, sliding her fingers inside herself, pulling them slowly, gently, in and out, spreading her fingers slightly to give the illusion of fullness moving in and out, imagining that her own touch was actually Rook’s tongue and fingers. She rubbed with her other hand, heartbeat accelerating as she pleasured herself. She could feel tingling sensations starting at her toes and fluttering up to her core and she met Rook’s needy gaze and climaxed, letting out a breathy little cry of pleasure.

                Monaghan did not have to ask Rook to join her, did not have to ask if Rook wanted to try again to have sex. In half a moment after she had climaxed, Rook was on top of her, kissing her hard, biting her lip roughly, a growl tearing out of her as she sank a hand into Monaghan’s red hair, tugging a little roughly. Monaghan felt a hand cover and then squeeze her breast, felt Rook’s own wetness rubbing smoothly over her thigh. Monaghan slipped her tongue into Rook’s mouth, taking control, reaching a still wet finger up and onto Rook’s clit, rubbing gently before slipping into tight, warm wetness, feeling Rook shudder above her. Rook’s mouth was open and her eyes were half-closed in an open expression of ecstasy.

                The hand fisted in Monaghan’s hair pulled, a rough little whimper tearing out of Rook that she swallowed, cutting off the end of the sound. Monaghan flipped them so that Rook was on her back, but scooted down so that none of her weight was on Rook. Her friend was in no way pinned down, in no way restrained. Monaghan met Rook’s eyes and gave her a moment to relax. Rook took a deep breath, nodded and shuffled in the blankets, relaxing. Monaghan pushed her legs apart and without further ado, kissed the delicate flower petal skin there, seeking with her tongue. The cry of pleasure that ripped harshly out of Rook was incredible, damaged as it was and Monaghan felt fingers sink into her hair, pushing her head down gently in encouragement. Rook started to moan again, but again bit it off, stopped the sound. Monaghan stopped what she was doing and looked up with a concerned frown.

                “Rook?” Rook looked down at her where she was perched between her legs, reddening a little. “The noises…the growls…stop silencing yourself because you think I don’t want to hear your voice,” Monaghan asked shyly. Rook looked surprised, as though she did not think that Monaghan would notice. Her cheeks burned with a red blush and her eyes flickered. She pulled her hands out of Monaghan’s hair and signed as she mouthed what she had to say.

                “I don’t sound…feminine…I don’t sound like a woman should when she…” Monaghan grabbed one of her hands to cut her off.

                “You sound like you. Don’t ever be ashamed of that.”

                With a smile and with no other warning, Monaghan slid two talented fingers home, curling them in a “come here” gesture that had Rook squirming. She slid the rough of her tongue over Rook’s clit, taking it gently in her lips and sucking lightly as she moved her fingers. Rook’s back arched desperately and the archer’s gasping, growling cries were desperate and keening, stuttered though they were as Rook began to accept the noises she made as her own. Monaghan wondered idly what she would sound like if her vocal cords were not destroyed, but pushed the thought aside, reveling in the noises that Rook was finally allowing herself to make. The captain drug her fingers in and out of Rook, adding her tongue, pushing in and lapping, her fingers stroking sensitive tissue, dragging across that delicate point nestled at the front of Rook’s entrance. With a shudder, Rook clamped down on Monaghan’s tongue and fingers, a torn growl punched out of her, her fingers clutched in Monaghan’s hair so tightly it hurt. Rook climaxed, gasping for breath and looked down at Monaghan in surprise, her eyebrows nearly lost to her hairline. Monaghan grinned and moved to Rook’s side, kissing her, letting her taste herself on her breath.

                Rook threaded her fingers again into Monaghan’s hair, knocking the bun down and fisting into fiery red locks with reckless abandon, a deep growl shuddering out of her as she put Monaghan on her back and set their hips together, rocking onto Monaghan with an open-mouthed gasp. She grinded there for a moment and climaxed again with a coughing chuff of pleasure from a destroyed voice before she slid down with a breathy groan, mouth lapping at the wet warmth between Monaghan’s legs. Monaghan’s back arched upwards, pushing desperately into Rook’s warm, talented mouth, fists clutching into the blankets instead of Rook’s hair, unsure if grabbing her will trigger her and not wanting to interrupt that tongue, those lips, those…oh Christ, those talented fingers! Monaghan cried out in ecstasy, feeling herself tighten around Rook’s fingers, feeling the rolling purr in every nerve as Rook kissed her center with soft lips.

                “Oh, ah, fuck!” Monaghan gasped out, breathless. Rook ran a hand up her side and massaged her breasts, sliding up and onto Monaghan, slinging one of her legs over so that they were pressed groin to groin, rubbing together, rocking, grinding motions making both of them breathe hard. Rook grabbed the back of Monaghan’s head and pulled her into a rough, crushing kiss, drawing blood when she bit Monaghan’s lip hard. She dropped her lips to Monaghan’s jawline, sucking and licking, leaving little patches of red behind. She licked at Monaghan’s pulse line and bit gently, sucking. Monaghan threw her head back to allow better access and Rook bit her where shoulder met neck, leaving two half-crescent imprints there, marking Monaghan as her own.

                More aroused and more excited than Monaghan had been in years, she slid a hand down Rook’s back, over rough scars and down to her buttock, grasping the hard muscle there tightly, pushing their groins harder together and they rock, rock, rocked until both of them cried out, climaxing together.

                They sat in one another’s laps for a moment, Rook studying Monaghan’s face, her lips slightly parted and still wet. Monaghan gave her a little smile, pushed a strand of hair behind her ear gently.

                “Okay?” Monaghan asked. Rook nodded, leaned forward, kissed her softly.

                “I never thought I’d feel that way again. Never thought I’d find someone who…” her hands fell still and she made a little chuffing purr, caressing the side of Monaghan’s face. She almost looked like she was about to cry. Monaghan did not comment, just disentangled her legs from Rook’s and laid back. Rook did the same, her expression shifting through a variety of emotions before she calmed. “You are…everything to me, C.O.R.B.I.N..

                “I l…” Monaghan cut herself off. It’s too soon. Too much, right after. “I’m so glad I found you,” she settled with. Oblivious to Monaghan’s previous dilemma of word choice, Rook moved closer, cuddling into her despite the warm night. They laid together, skin to skin, holding one another until they drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

                The journey through the remains of Hope County was long and arduous, but the weather had been nice recently, cool during the day and warmer than usual at night. They finally got good information on where Irwin Smalls was staying, having captured and interrogated a small Highwayman courier, a nasty woman with crooked teeth and a jagged scar across her eye. Monaghan granted her a quick death, but not until she got the information she needed. Smalls was a hard man to find, often on the outs with the Highwaymen and in hiding until he regained their favor. He was now, apparently, deep into what was once the lower rim of the Whitetail mountains, looking for a fighter to participate in the Highwaymen boxing competition.

                The competition had a reputation for death and dismemberment, a rough and tumble event that usually resulted in the death of whoever did not win each week. It was a brutal but effective method for finding new Highwaymen to strengthen their numbers, and Monaghan knew she needed to put an end to it. Unfortunately, she would have to participate in it first, needed an opportunity to get in the with Highwaymen, a thing Gina was unable to help with despite her past.

                But, at last Monaghan had solid information on where to find Smalls, and that at least, was a relief, despite her weariness at running all over the county. A week into their journey they found a secluded cabin tucked into a large crevasse in the mountainside. The building was damaged, of course, but it had a solid roof and enough walls to stay standing. There was a dusty bedframe that was comfortable once they piled their bed rolls over it. Yawning, Rook unclipped her mask and set it on the rickety bedside table, doffing her gloves and other leather clothing until she was standing casually in white panties and a tan Henley, pale legs tightening as she stretched upwards like a cat.

                “My God, you’re beautiful,” Monaghan murmured, walking up behind Rook and putting her arms around the woman’s thin waist, unable to keep her hands off any more after so many little glances, so many touches from gloved hands, restrained since the night two weeks before that they had rocked together in pleasure, since the night Monaghan had had to stop herself from saying those three terrifying words to Rook. The time for restraint was gone. Rook stiffened for a moment in Monaghan’s grasp, then relaxed, purring softly and again Monaghan was reminded of a cat. She resisted the urge to make a cougar comment. Rook, as it turned out, was five years older than she was and had aged remarkably well having not been exposed to much sunlight for over seventeen years.

                Rook turned in Monaghan’s grip and gazed at her thoughtfully. They were nearly the same height, so when Rook leaned in for a kiss, their noses bumped and they both smiled, lips slotting together as though they were made for one another. Rook pulled Monaghan’s flannel shirt off, tugged her tank top over her head and yanked at her jeans, smirking when Monaghan’s hands went to her belt, urgent to remove them. Monaghan pushed Rook backwards until the backs of her knees hit the bed and she sat abruptly, Monaghan following, hovering over her, but not pinning her down.

                “The things I want to do to you,” Monaghan whispered in Rook’s ear, biting the lobe playfully. She leaned back when Rook pushed on her. She signed,

                “God is watching,” but her eyes were twinkling with merriment. Monaghan brought a knee up between Rook’s legs and she ground on it, letting out a huffing growl. Monaghan framed her face with her hands, kissing her wildly, nipping at her jaw, suckling her neck, pushing her Henley out of the way and sucking a nipple into her mouth. Rook moaned roughly, back arching. She let out a sudden raspy growl that was close to a yelp when Monaghan ran a cold, wet washcloth over her belly.

                “Bath first, we’ve been walking all day,” Monaghan pointed out, always a fastidious person; not even a nuclear holocaust could change that about her. Rook nodded and they stripped completely, taking turns with a tiny sliver of soap and a bucket of water Monaghan had collected at a nearby creek. It was frigid and goosebumps stood up on Rook’s freckled skin. Monaghan kissed the nape of her neck, kissed down her arms, kissed each finger as she washed the former deputy. The favor was returned, passionate lips burning a trail of goosebumps that were not of the “cold” variety.

                Once they were clean, they laid back down on the bed, Rook taking the lead, kissing her way down, down, down until she nipped the inside of Monaghan’s leg and the captain climaxed just from that with a whimpered gasp. A windy chuckle and another bite. Another. Another until Monaghan was squirming. She looked down and made eye contact as Rook licked long and slow from the back of her slit to the front, wiggling the tip of her tongue over that tight little spot that Monaghan could feel in her toes. “God fucking dammit, oh Christ, oh God,” Monaghan moaned, and Rook bit her this time, actually fucking bit her leg, hard enough to leave a bruise and teeth marks on the sensitive skin. “Ow, fuck!” Monaghan objected, half sitting up, annoyed.

                “Stop blaspheming while I’m fucking you, C.O.R.B.I.N.,” Rook took a moment to sign, teasing, shoving Monaghan back down. Rook returned to her task, reaching under Monaghan’s thighs and tugging her closer to her face, sticking her fingers inside and stroking until the captain was panting as she lapped and kissed at were her legs met her torso. The captain grabbed Rook roughly by the hair and pulled her up to kiss her, tasting herself. Monaghan found herself stubbornly refusing to let those three little words she so badly wanted to say bubble up and out of her as they stared into one another’s eyes, gazes flickering over lips and nose and cheeks. They surveyed one another, laying there still for a moment, quiet. Monaghan clenched her jaw, taking a steadying breath before she flipped Rook onto her back, swallowing that three word phrase again, terrified of saying it and not hearing it back.

                Staring down at this beautiful woman, heart thundering behind her ribs, Monaghan reverently kissed her way along that pristine neck, kissing freckles as she worked her way downwards, massaging breasts, laving her tongue into navel and making Rook squirm and rasp, hissing with pleasure. When she finally pressed her lips to that warm slit, rubbing flower petal folds, her mouth was watering and she pressed fingers deep inside Rook, licking and sucking her clit while she searched until she bumped her G-spot and with a clamping of muscles and a tightening around Monaghan’s fingers, Rook came, the little scratchy whimper that fluttered forth unrestrained from her the single hottest thing Monaghan had ever had the pleasure of hearing.

                Sitting up suddenly, Rook hooked one leg over one of Monaghan’s and tugged them together, four wet lips touching as they kissed and ground against one another, panting softly. Monaghan smiled and let out a satisfied sigh, guessing that this was one of Rook’s favorite positions given her enthusiasm in pressing into the captain’s pelvis with her own. They tipped and rocked backwards and forwards, Monaghan making little desperate noises as Rook crooked a hand behind her neck to hold her in place as she gasped into her mouth, coming again with a punched out groan. Rook climaxed as the same time, that gorgeous scratchy whimper of pleasure and desperation poured out of her as they held one another close, rocking, rocking until neither knew where one started and the other ended.

                “My Rook,” Monaghan whispered in her ear, feeling her chest tight and warm, feeling something in her chest like a hard burning lump, almost like she wanted to cry, but hotter, more urgent, an emotion she cannot quite explain.

                “My Corbin,” Rook whispered almost silently, mostly mouthing it. It was scratchy and hard to understand, but Monaghan heard it and wanted to cry with joy, wanted to hear Rook say her name a thousand times, realized with a shock that she wanted to spend an eternity with this woman. Before Monaghan could open her mouth to speak, before any more words could tumble out, their foreheads bumped together. Rook held a hand up, her pinkie, index finger and thumb extended and hand wobbling.

                “I love you,” Rook whispered as she signed, meeting Monaghan’s eyes with a vulnerable, scared expression, biting the edge of her lip uncertainly. Stunned, Monaghan swallowed. Rook felt the same way. Rook felt the same. Rook loved her. With a rough gasp of breath, Monaghan leaned in and kissed Rook again, pulling away long enough to murmur,

                “I love you too,” into Rook’s ear, that tight sensation in her chest finally relaxing now that it was said.

Chapter Text

                “I don’t like this,” Rook signed emphatically, after they found and spoke with Irwin Smalls.

                “Look, I don’t trust the guy as far as I can throw him–”

                “He’s tiny; you could throw him pretty far,” Rook interrupted with her hands and Monaghan grabbed them gently, smiling at the joke, but silencing Rook by holding her hands, the way she would stop a speaking person by covering their mouth.

                “I don’t trust him, Rook, but we need his help. We need to get close to the Twins and put an end to them. I have to bring them to justice. That’s my task right now, you know that. They’re after your people–” Rook tugged her hands free with a growl.

                “Our people,” Rook interrupted again, signed crisp, meaning clear.

                “Yes, Rook, our people. All of our people. If going in this underground fighting ring is what it takes, then so be it. I’ll be fine.” She put her hands on her hips. “I’m a badass motherfucker,” she reminded Rook, whose shifting, pigeon-toed stance made it clear she was worried. “You can’t keep me from doing my job just because we caught feelings, Rook,” Monaghan chided, trying to be gentle, but clear. Rook snarled angrily and stalked off a ways, hands on her hips in agitation.

                “You know there is a difference between bravery and stupidity, right?” she signed when she turned back to Monaghan.

                “In my experience they often coincide,” Monaghan said offhandedly and Rook hissed, bending down to pick up a handful of dirt, an odd habit she had when she was bored or annoyed. Monaghan could guess which it was this time as Rook stood stiffly, letting dirt pour slowly out of her outstretched fist. “Are you done pouting?” Monaghan asked when Rook dropped her handful of dirt and wiped her glove on the side of her pants. Another hiss.

                “I’m coming with you,” Rook signed stubbornly.

                “No, you’re not,” Monaghan argued, stepping up to her. She tugged at Rook’s mask and the deputy obligingly unclipped one side so it could be pushed out of the way. Monaghan stared into her eyes, cupped her cheek, leaned in and kissed her lightly. “I will be fine. I need you out here so you can come in and get me if things go to shit. The last thing I need is you being recognized as a cult member and killed. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. Let me do this one solo. Please,” she begged, emphasis on the last word, plus making the sign for it. Rook sighed, refusing to meet Monaghan’s gaze.

                “Fine,” she said with her hands, her face looking miserable, like a kicked puppy before she snapped her mask back in place.

                When Monaghan stumbled out of the network of pipes late that night with a black eye, a shattered nose and a broken arm, Rook choked, coughing and gasping, tearing a med kit out of her pack and injecting Monaghan with pain medication.

                “You O.K.?” Rook signed frantically and Monaghan cannot help but laugh, had never seen her this protective or panicky. The laugh sent pain shooting through her broken arm. It was just a cracked bone, not a snapped one, but she could feel the pain like a hot poker spiking up her arm and into her shoulder, making her eyes water. It was unmistakably broken.

                “You should see the other guys,” the captain snarked, but her head ached and her arm was throbbing painfully. She knew she was concussed, but all she wanted was to lay down and take a long, long nap. Rook wrapped her arm wordlessly with a splint, her face a mystery behind her mask, but Monaghan could tell she was angry. “I gotta talk to Smalls. Watch my six, okay. Hey?” She pulled Rook’s head forward so her masked forehead bumped Monaghan’s own. “I promise you can bitch me out until your fingers fall off after, okay?” She kissed the mask lightly where she knew Rook’s lips were and stumbled toward Smalls’ bridge, Rook several yards behind, cautiously watching their surroundings.

                “Hey, Slick!” Smalls greeted her. “You think you’re clever, huh? You think you’re hot shit? Because that’s exactly what you were back there. You fought great! I think you’re the kinda ass-hat I could work with. Asset, I mean, asset. The shit we could get up to together, ho…great things, great things. I know you got shit to shovel with Mickey and Lou. I could get you close to ‘em. And then you could take care of business. I’ll figure it out. Don’t worry, Slick, I’m gonna make this happen for you. I gotta put on my thinking cap, I need some space to figure this out, so you run along. Can’t think with you nose-breathin’ over my shoulder. I’ll be in touch.”

                “You got it. Just don’t take too long, Smalls,” Monaghan warned him. He crossed his arms over his chest and said,

                “Get the fuck outta here. I’ll call you when I’ve got a plan.”

                “Looks like we’ve got a reprieve,” Monaghan said to Rook when she found her just down the dirt road from the bridge, crouching in bushes and fiddling once again with a handful of dirt.

                “Which you need because you broke your fucking arm,” Rook signed crisply.

                “It’s fine. It’s just cracked.”

                “Regardless, it needs time to heal, and I need to check on my Family,” the Judge gesticulated and Monaghan’s heart sank.

                “You want me to go back to Prosperity without you,” Monaghan clarified dully.

                “I want you to come back to my house and take it easy,” the Judge said, becoming Rook again with a softening of her stance. She slapped her gloved palm gently against Monaghan’s cheek. “I want you not to do dumb things. I want you to be careful. Because I care about you, dummy,” she continued, signing the word “dummy” on Monaghan’s forehead instead of her own.

                “Took you long enough to realize it,” Monaghan purred, pulling Rook close. Rook unclipped her mask and kissed her gently.

                “‘Lollipop’?” Rook asked with a smirk. Monaghan guffawed.

                “Not my idea. Didn’t know you could hear the announcements outside the dome.” Rook’s face went a little red, looking guiltier than a nun doing squats in a cucumber field. She had not been outside the dome, apparently. “You stubborn ass,” Monaghan laughed, but she cupped Rook’s face in her hands and kissed her again.

                “Let’s go, Lollipop,” Rook suggested with amusement.

                “Hey, I can’t help that people want to put me in their mouth and lick me,” Monaghan teased to an eyeroll from Rook.

                “Alright, wiseass. Let’s get out of here. I saw a H.W.M’s four-wheeler a click that way,” Rook gestured.

                They picked their way as far as they could up the path on the four-wheeler until the trail gave out and they were forced to go on foot. They abandoned the vehicle, siphoning fuel out of it into a collapsible bag Monaghan carried for this. They made their way across the dark landscape, treading carefully and quietly. A rumbling growl sounded behind them as they walk in darkness, their way illuminated by eerie green and yellow northern lights.

                “Did you hear that?” Monaghan signed by their light, nervous.

                “A bear, I think. It should leave us alone,” Rook replied quickly. “That signed, let’s pick up the pace.

                The two cautiously increased their speed and this time Monaghan heard heavy footsteps. Her heart started pounding and she could feel her palms sweating on her rifle’s grip. Animals leave them alone, leave Rook alone, especially. They somehow seemed to know she meant them no harm, was, in fact, mostly benevolent toward them. She killed any prey animals needed for food or clothing quickly, made sure her first shot was a lethal one and used all parts of the animal. So what the fuck was following them?

                A strangled, pinched yelp escaped Rook’s throat as she was picked up by the nape of her jacket and slammed against the side of the mountain, air rushing out of her in a gasp and she thrashed, hissing in pain and fear. Her mask had been knocked to the side and Monaghan could see the terror in her eyes as she looked up, up, up nearly thirteen feet into the scabbed, mangy face of an angry, cancer-ridden mutated Grizzly bear.

                “Oh fuck!” Monaghan yelled. She made eye contact with Rook, who signed,

                “Run! Save yourself!” The bear was standing above her, shaking its massive head, lips lolling and it roared viciously.

                “Oh, fuck off, I’ll save both of us,” Monaghan argued, rolling her eyes at Rook’s emotive declaration, always the queen of the fucking melodramatic and maudlin. “Hey fuck face, over here!” She yelled, hucking a rotten piece of meat she had kept to use as bait. The bear turned, coming back down onto its front feet with a thump that shook the ground. Pebbles clattered down the mountain. Monaghan ran backwards while aiming right between the bear’s eyes and firing. The bullet ricocheted off with a piercing whizt sound close to Monaghan’s ear. “Oh fuck,” she said again, still running backwards as it tore toward her, wild anger in its beady eyes. It moaned when three arrows sunk deep into its back and it turned again.

                Rook was standing, wobbling, but determined, pulling another three arrows out and firing, this time hitting the bear in the shoulders. It swatted her with a flattened paw and she flew ten feet and slammed into a bush. She did not get up. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Monaghan said, a litany and a prayer to no one in particular. She aimed again, this time for the bear’s eye, a tiny target even if it were still and not making a beeline for her. She took a deep breath, forced herself to remain calm as the eleven hundred pound animal galloped toward her. Time slowed and she blew the breath out, feeling sudden peace. She was either about to kill the bear, or it would not be her problem anymore. She squeezed the trigger and the bear’s front legs dropped from under it. It slid forward down the incline until its nose was pressed against her boot. Time sped up, the world returned to normal and she hissed air in through her teeth, wincing. Her arm was screaming with pain under the wrapping Rook had put around it, and her heart felt like it was about to pound its way out of her chest.

                Monaghan stepped over the stinking animal and darted to the bush where she saw Rook land. The woman was limp, her arms flailed to her sides, fingers twitching, breaths shallow and ragged.

                “Oooww,” she growled softly with her raspy, broken voice when Monaghan bent down and shook her gently.

                “You okay?” Monaghan asked, voice high from the adrenaline.

                “I’ll live,” Rook signed painfully, sitting up.

                “So much for being an animal-whisperer,” Monaghan said, hands shaking as she helped Rook to her feet. Rook tenderly felt at her own back, her shoulders, wincing deeply as she prodded a rib. “You okay to keep going?” Rook nodded and winced again. Monaghan started back on her way, but heard a wet tearing noise and she turned around, disgusted to see Rook carving the head off the bear with her knife. It made moist squelching noises as she cut through fat and muscle and ground unpleasantly as she cut between two vertebrae. She collected the claws as well, tucking them into a pocket.

                Rook tied the head, still dripping gore, on the outside of her pack. Lip curled in disgust, Monaghan started to ask why she wanted the head, but decided she did not want to know and kept walking.

                Exhausted and sore, they stumbled into Rook’s shack after a canoe trip across the lake-turned-enormous-river. Monaghan was asleep almost as soon as her head laid on her arms.

                When she awakened the next morning, Rook was moving stiffly, like an old woman, favoring her left side delicately, but she was working on dyeing and tanning a thin, soft piece of leather. She worked most of that day, and the next two, cutting and hand-sewing pieces of dark black leather together. Monaghan saw this project the last time she was here, odd bits of leather here and there. Looking for some wild mint for the stew she was making, she came across a massive ant pile with a skinned bear skull sitting in it and felt nauseated.

                “Ugh, gross, Rook,” she muttered in disgust. A week later, Rook was practically squirming with excitement and she made Monaghan sit, made her tie a cloth over her eyes. Monaghan sighed dramatically, but complied.

                “Hrghh,” Rook rumbled and Monaghan pulled the mask off. Rook was holding up a pair of leather and canvas pants, boots, gloves and a jacket with a black bear fur collar ringed in the front with wrenches that had been sharpened at one end to resemble claws, interspersed with real bear claws. She handed it to Monaghan, looking pleased. Her mask was sitting atop her head like a cap, momentarily forgotten. Rook pulled one more object out, a bear skull that had been fashioned into a mask.

                “Rook,” Monaghan said hesitantly.

                “It’s for you to keep your identity hidden when you want to. The Twins think you’re dead. It would be wise to made sure they keep that impression.

                “I don’t know what to say,” Monaghan admitted, surprised and touched by the gift.

                “The traditional response is ‘thank you,’” Rook teased, bumping her chin with the fingers of her open hand once and pulling it outwards.

                The two look absolutely terrifying together, Monaghan thought as she caught their shared reflection in the water of the pond after she had changed. One in brown, one in black, faces obscured, bristling with weapons. They needed to stock up on supplies in Prosperity. Monaghan uncovered her pickup from where she left it the last time she visited here and after a couple of tries, it roared to life.

                The drive to Prosperity took a couple of hours as they had to stop and deal with a few Highwaymen. Monaghan could tell they were unnerved by the two masked, silent individuals and it gave her an odd sense of power and comradery with Rook. Two peas in a very fucked-up pod, she thought to herself.

                Monaghan pulled the truck through the front gates of Prosperity and looked over at Rook, whose head was lolled to the side and was snoring gently. She had taken a hard fist to her broken ribs from one of the Highwaymen earlier, and Monaghan could tell she was in pain, favoring her side, groaning softly when she moved.

                “Hey, old lady,” she shook her lightly. “Go see Selene. I radioed ahead and she’s expecting you. She’ll get you something for the bruises, give you a good once-over, maybe xray those ribs with the equipment we found a few weeks ago at that old clinic.” Rook shook her head vehemently and Monaghan rolled her eyes. “Please? For me?” Rook hissed a sigh and nodded, stalking toward the clinic. When she returned to Monaghan’s side a while later, her stance was relaxed, her movements fluid and hazy, running an affectionate hand across Monaghan’s shoulder, an action she was fairly certain Rook would not do in front of other people if she were not high as a kite on painkillers. “Oh man, Selene gave you the good shit, huh?”

                Rook nodded a lazy, “Yes,” with her fist and staggered slightly.

                “Steady on, Dep,” Monaghan chided, putting an arm around her waist and guiding her to sit down next to the fireplace inside the lodge’s great room. Kim approached, setting down a rolled-up map.

                “Can we talk?” she asked. Monaghan looked at Rook, whose head had slouched onto her shoulder. She saw Kim try to keep a straight face and nodded, smiling. “We’re all still shaken by the loss of Rush, but we can’t let up. As much as I hated the idea of talking to Joseph, I have to admit that having New Eden attack the Highwaymen has given us a chance to blindside them. Didn’t you meet some crazy little fucker named Irwin?” Monaghan nodded, petting the top of Rook’s hood gently. “If he’s as close to the Twins as he claims, he might be our way in.”

                “He’s already offered to help, had to do him a favor first, though,” Monaghan said, indicating the wrapping around her arm. “He said he’ll contact me when he’s got a way to get me close.”

                “Good deal. Is she okay?” Monaghan chuckled.

                “Got a rib broken by a bear and then got that rib punched by a Highwayman on the way here. Selene gave her the good stuff, so she’s a little out of it.”

                “How’ve you been? It’s been a little while.”

                “Not bad, like you said, the New Edeners are helping us out with the Highwaymen. I’ve cautioned all of them to avoid capture since the Twins seem to want information about them. Slow and steady wins the race,” Monaghan assured her.

                “You two seem closer,” Kim commented cautiously looking up at the taller woman and Monaghan smiled, turning to look at the blissed out Rook.

                “You have no idea,” she murmured, lifting one of Rook’s hands and kissing it lightly.

Chapter Text

                While waiting to hear from Irwin, Monaghan and Rook patrolled near settlements, and Rook insisted on checking on New Edener outposts. It was lucky, or perhaps unlucky, depending on how one viewed the events, that she did. They encountered a young woman, bloody and dragging herself toward New Eden near one of the outposts that Rook and Monaghan had found suspiciously lacking in New Edener warriors. She spotted them and shrieked, staggering toward them, talking ninety miles an hour, so fast and so frantic that Monaghan held her hands up as though they would stop the onslaught of words pouring out of the young woman. She cannot be much older than seventeen or so, but she was pale, clearly injured and terrified. Her ankle looked broken, was swollen and yellow-purple with bruising.

                “Slow down, slow down, what happened?” Monaghan asked the panicked New Edener. Rook was hovering over her shoulder, signing madly, and Monaghan held out a hand to stop both of them. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” she assured the girl, who was sobbing, wet tears trickling down her face onto her tunic. “What’s your name?”

                “Sarah,” the New Edener choked out, whole body shaking.

                “Alright, Sarah. You know the Judge, and you know who I am. You’re safe now. We’ve got you. Now why don’t you tell me what happened?”

                “The Locusts…the, the Highwaymen, they grabbed us, they took Paul and Jake. I got away before they…but I saw what they did to Jake,” she sobbed, breaking down again. Monaghan squeezed her shoulder and looked over to Rook for a moment. Rook is not signing anything anymore, was just listening now, but she was breathing hard as though she was furious or trying not to cry, or both. “They asked us where New Eden was. Asked us how to get in. Asked us what made us different. But, we, we didn’t tell them anything. And when Jake wouldn’t say anything, the bigger one, she…oh god, she cut out his tongue!” Sarah dissolved into sobs again. It was bad, sure, but it did not seem that bad, Monaghan reasoned, realizing for a moment just how very fucked up her life had been for her to think that.

                But then Sarah continued. “And then…then they ripped his pants off, grabbed him…I don’t know what happened after…I…I left them…” Sarah shuddered and Rook let out a rasping, furious growl. Covering her eyes with her hands, Sarah wept, looking up again with reddened eyes. “I left them. Father forgive me, I left them,” she sobbed. Rook pushed Monaghan aside and pulled Sarah into her arms, rocking her gently and Monaghan could hear her growled, whispering voice muttering something unintelligible.

                When at last, Sarah pulled away from the Judge with a little frightened sound, Monaghan asked,

                “Where was the camp?” Sarah told them as best she could, pointing on Monaghan’s map and describing landmarks.

                “Were there any vehicles there? Any mounted guns? No. Good, then we can go right now. Alright, Sarah. Look, we have to go, but I want you to stay here and I’ll radio someone to escort you home. Is that okay? Okay. Hey. It’ll be alright.” Monaghan turned to Rook, who was shaking with cold fury.

                “I knew the H.W.M. were scum…I knew they were torturing their prisoners, but…sexual assault…or something worse…?”

                “I know. Let’s go.”

--

                “Goddammit! God fucking dammit, she said there weren’t any vehicles!” Monaghan yelled. The Twins were nowhere to be found. Jake, it seemed, was already dead. They had snuck up on the camp and managed to kill most of the Highwaymen, but not all of them. To their horror, as soon as a Highwayman saw them, Paul had quickly been loaded in the back of a prisoner truck that was now screeching away from the camp madly. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Monaghan yelled, sighting down her scope. “The truck’s cab is armored, there’s no way I can hit the driver.”

                “Please! Please don’t let them take me! Plllleeeeaaaase!” Paul screamed from the cage as Monaghan and Rook sprinted after the vehicle. They were quickly losing ground. Rook stopped suddenly.

                “What the fuck are you doing?” Monaghan yelled. “We have to save him! We have to kill the driver before they get away!”

                “Not the driver,” Rook signed, shaking her head slowly.

                “What?!”

                “Not. The. Driver.” Realization sank in.

                “Fuck.” Monaghan turned back to the truck, trotting after it again, but she knew it was hopeless on foot, running uphill after a vehicle. If left with the Highwaymen, Paul would face the same fate, or probably worse, as Jake. They had found Jake with his pants down around his knees, blood seeping from his nose, draining copiously from his mouth, from many wounds on his body. There were the marks of a severe beating and Monaghan knew that worse had happened to him. Paul was going to the same fate, would probably be endlessly abused, starved, god only knew what else until he broke and revealed all of New Eden’s secrets. The last thing they needed was a superpowered pair of psychos. Pushing away a wave of grief and disgust at what she must do, the captain lifted her rifle, aimed, breathed, and shot. The truck kept rolling, did not even slow. It did not matter anymore.

                Monaghan slung her gun over her shoulder and stumbled to the side of the road, panting and feeling a hard lump welling up her throat, was not sure if it was the beginning of tears or vomit, found that it was both. She emptied her stomach onto the ground, coughing and choking and sobbing. Just like that she was back overseas. Just like that she saw the face of a little Afghani boy that had stepped in front of her shot. Just like that she saw the spray of bright red blood, a mist of life leaving the body. Just like that the world was as dark and as evil as it had always been and no amount of love, no number of good deeds could overcome it. The darkness was seeping, inevitable, enveloping Monaghan.

                Rook stepped forward, put a hand gently on Monaghan’s shoulder. She shook it off. This was Monaghan’s fault. She had been reckless. Selfish. It was just like when Rush had been taken. She spent so much of her time getting to know her companion that she had lost focus, lost sight of what brought her to this county. The thought of Rook trying to comfort her when she had allowed Rook to be the very distraction that caused this made another wave of nausea course through her. She felt herself trembling, felt herself at the beginning of a panic attack like a swimmer treading water at the edge of the abyss, knowing that the Mariana trench was far below, deadly and infinite, a crack in her very being. Cold panic, and anger and grief chilled her to the bone as she treaded there in her brokenness, floundering, choking on her own breath.

                “How dare you ask me to do that?” she whispered so softly she was not sure Rook would hear.

                “I am sorry.” That white mask tilted forward and to the side, eerie and unfamiliar again as Monaghan thrashed in the depths of her panic and self-hatred.

                “Yeah. Well. We’re all sorry,” Monaghan snapped, voice trembling.

                “C.O.R.B.I.N..”

                “I don’t know how this keeps happening,” Monaghan gasped out, eyes staring blankly at nothing, unfocused, wild. “I keep losing sight of things. Keep losing sight of how bad this really is. I’ve become so…numb killing Highwaymen, like it’s nothing. I let myself fall for my hired gun and lost track of what I’m here for. And now another person’s dead, and it would have been my fault even if it was not my bullet that killed him.”

                “What are you saying?” Rook asked with a stuttered hiss beneath her mask.

                “I’m saying…I’m saying this is a distraction, Rook.”

                “C.O.R.B.I.N..

                “Stop that. Stop signing my name like I owe you something.” With a pained noise, Rook turned away, back toward Jake’s body. Rook flipped the red-headed young man over gently, breath catching in her throat. To the surprise of them both, he was alive, but barely breathing. His eyelids fluttered and his hand clenched around a wet pink lump dripping blood from one end. Monaghan realized with horror as she forced herself to approach that it was his tongue. He opened his eyes and startled, crying out, making little frightened noises deep in his throat, hand going to his mouth in shock. Rook looked over her shoulder at Monaghan, desperate.

                “Say something to him, please,” she begged with her hands.

                “Hey, hey Jake, it’s alright,” Monaghan lied, bending down and gently prying his tongue from his hand, and setting the gory object aside. She smiled at him. “Hi Jake. I’m the captain. We’ve met once before. I’m here to help you. Can you wiggle your toes for me?” He moved them weakly and Monaghan nodded. “Good, that’s good. Here, can you grab my hand? Okay, good. You’re doing great, Jake.” Monaghan continued chattering away to him as she assessed his injuries, starting to wrap the worst ones. There were cuts and bruises all over him, gobs of saliva were in his hair, on his clothing and his skin from being spat on during his torture. There was a deep gash on his inner thigh. Monaghan wanted to pull his pants up, wanted to help him cover himself, but she had to focus on stopping the bleeding for now. She radioed Prosperity lowly, urgently and was relieved to hear that Sarah’s escort was still close by with a truck.

                “Where is P.A.U.L.?” Jake signed suddenly, surprising Monaghan.

                “You know ASL?” she asked dumbly. He looked frustrated.

                “A little. Where is P.A.U.L.?” Monaghan was not the kind of person to sugarcoat things, to lie. But she did not want to say the words that were about to bubble out of her. She opened her mouth, but Rook touched her forearm quickly, stopping her.

                “Everything’s alright, Jake,” Rook signed very slowly. Once again Monaghan was surprised. She had only rarely seen Rook sign to anyone but her. “Here. This will help the pain,” Rook told him with her hands, and she injected him with a sedative from their health kit. His head lolled to the side. In the distance, they could hear the sound of an engine, one Monaghan prayed belonged to the Scavenger coming to retrieve them and not another Highwayman patrol.

                Monaghan stood, walking away from both Rook and Jake now that his injuries were under control. That panic, that stark fear threatened to overwhelm her again, as did her guilt at being distracted by Rook, her guilt of shooting an innocent kid, her guilt at having ever participated in war. She felt sick to death of violence, wanted nothing more than to throw her weapons, and then herself off a cliff. She took a shuddering breath, putting her palm hard to her forehead to push hair out of her eyes. She clamped her eyelids shut and licked her lips, fighting another round of nausea, the taste of vomit still strong on her breath. The fighting didn’t work and once again Monaghan bent in half, dry heaving, bringing up nothing but bile and acid. She coughed, wiping roughly at her mouth, weeping again.

                The truck was getting closer, puttering along down the sandy road. Rook approached, putting a hand on Monaghan’s shoulder, but she jerked away.

                “I can’t,” was all Monaghan said, voice thick through a gob of mucous and the roughness of tears. Rook stilled. She took her mask off, wiped her face, her shoulders slumped.

                “You cannot ask me to stop loving you,” she mouthed and signed, face miserable, pained. They stood for a long, solemn moment in silence, Monaghan considering.

                “I’m not,” Monaghan finally said, closing her eyes and clenching her jaw. “I’m just…I’m just saying we need to focus. It’s too much right now.” Rook stepped forward, touched Monaghan’s face, but the captain pulled away again, more gently this time, the movement less of a jerk and more the slow, inevitable way a chunk of glacier slips into deep water, a shattered piece of a whole. Stubborn, Rook grabbed Monaghan’s shoulder, leaning in to kiss her. “I just threw up.”

                “I don’t care,” Rook mouthed. “I love you. This is a setback. But you never gave up on me when I pulled away. I’ll give you space. I understand. But please don’t push me away.” She kissed Monaghan gently on the forehead and stepped away, clipping her mask back on as the truck pulled up.

                “Are you going back to New Eden, or Prosperity?” Monaghan called after her as she saw Rook take the keys from the Resistance member, a man named Arnold. Rook turned to her.

                “You need time. You need to heal. You need to grieve. I will be in New Eden when you need me.” Rook approached Jake’s sleeping form and pulled his clothing back in place. Arnold wordlessly helped her put Jake into the truck. Monaghan could hear Rook crying softly as she grazed her fingers across Jake’s face, caressing his shock of bright red hair. Rook did not turn her masked face toward Monaghan, but she began to sign again. “He was named for his father. His father was…a deeply disturbed man. He needed help, but I offered none. He needed mercy, but I had none to give. I have failed them both. I have to get Jake help.” Rook finally looked at Monaghan from behind that eerie mask. “You know where to find me.” With that, Rook stepped into the truck, and drove away, leaving Monaghan alone with Arnold, who, wisely, stayed silent. Monaghan dismissed him with a few words of thanks and a promise to radio if she needed anything else.

                The gaping trench of anxiety and despair did not engulf Monaghan immediately, did not overwhelm her until both Rook and Arnold were out of sight. And then the panic came. Hyperventilating, gasping for air and sobbing, Monaghan felt her head pulled under, lost herself in panic and in pain.

--

                Monaghan was stalking silently through the forest, using methods of movement Rook had taught her. She was wearing the dark bear skin outfit Rook had made for her. She saw her prey move and raised her bow, aimed, breathed, loosed. The Highwayman fell, dead. It had been nearly a month since the unfortunate incident with Jake and Paul, a month since Monaghan had seen Rook. She had been destroying Highwaymen left and right, insisting that cult members stay in New Eden, sending them tersely back to their Judge, back to safety. Satisfied that she had cleared this area, she relaxed, walked to the nearby cabin and sat at the firepit, cooking a dove she had shot earlier in the day. She ate silently, staring blankly at nothing, feeling as broken now as she had been a month before when she had been forced to shoot an innocent teenager. She felt no closer to dealing with the Twins, though she had easily wiped out half their forces.

                There was a nearly silent rustle of leaves nearby. Monaghan pulled her bow off her back, scanning the trees. The Judge stepped out.

                “Thought you were going to stay in New Eden until I needed you,” Monaghan said in a monotone, but her very soul ached. She wanted nothing more than to rip that mask off and make long, desperate love to this woman.

                “I’m not here for you,” the Judge signed, shoulders rounded in defeat. Jake stepped out from behind her.

                “Can we talk?” he signed. Monaghan looked from one to the other and then nodded. Jake stepped forward. The Judge melted into the trees, gone as quickly as she had come. Monaghan’s heart sank, but she stayed where she was as Jake approached, swallowing loudly, clearly still adjusting to his tongue being gone. “I never got the chance to thank you. You haven’t visited New Eden. Since.” Monaghan looked down at her hands where they rested in her lap, realized how much she missed signed conversations, but unable to bring herself to sign to anyone but Rook.

                “How have you been?” Monaghan asked. Jake chuckled, an odd sound, a nearly normal laugh with a little garbling.

                “I’ve been better,” he both said and signed, the words just barely recognizable. He swallowed hard, looking apologetic and switching back to signs, speaking words only when he couldn’t remember the sign for what he wished to say. “I loved him, you know,” Jake signed slowly, still becoming accustomed to communicating without his tongue. Monaghan turned to face not just his hands, but him, saw the depth of feeling there, saw blue eyes swimming with tears. “The Judge is one of only a few people who know that we weren’t just friends. He…he was everything to me,” Jake signed, a tear slipping out and curving over proud cheekbone and dripping off his broad chin. “The Father doesn’t forbid such things, but it is discouraged. There aren’t many of us, so…Anyway.” He stopped signing for a moment, clenched his jaw. “It’s my fault it happened. We…we were together when the Highwaymen found us. They tried questioning me, they hurt me, mocked us for being with one another…like that. And when they realized I wouldn’t talk, when they realized their slurs and their punches weren’t having an effect, their leaders cut out my tongue and made Paul watch.” Jake clamped his eyes shut. “They thought they could get him to talk by hurting me worse than they already had. Their leaders, those two horrible women left them, told them to do anything necessary to make us talk. When you arrived some of them were about to cut my…to remove my…

                “I got it,” Monaghan whispered, remembering the deep gash on the inside of his thigh. Jake opened his eyes, met Monaghan’s.

                “You killed the man I loved, yes, Captain. But he was dead the instant he was put in that truck,” he mouthed and signed. Jake surveyed her for a moment before staring up at the blue sky above them, holding one hand on his chest for a moment. He turned to her again. Hot tears were flowing down her cheeks, unfettered. “I spent the first few days furious at you. I wanted to kill you. I wanted to kill the Judge. But then I realized it wouldn’t change anything, it would just bring more death for no purpose. I know Paul would not have wanted to be tortured. I know his death was painless…for him.” Jake put a hand softly on Monaghan’s shoulder. “And I recognize now that it must have been excruciating for you.”

                It was as though a dam had broken. Sobs, loud and shrill poured out of Monaghan, her shoulders bouncing violently. She buried her face in her hands and let out a shriek as she wept. Jake pulled her close, rubbing her back softly, murmuring nearly intelligible things in her ear as she let out the pain and guilt and anger of the past month, the past months, the past years. She cried and she cried until she felt empty and she could cry no more. Silent, embarrassed, she at last collected herself, sniffling. She turned to him.

                “I’m sorry.”

                “You have nothing to be sorry for,” he signed and said as best he could with half a tongue, “Except what you have done to the Judge by leaving her to bear her burdens alone. I would do anything to be with Paul again, would do anything to breathe the same air as him, to exist under the same sky once more, to feel his hand in mine once more. You still have that chance, and yet you have squandered it. We are guaranteed nothing in this life, Shepherd, except death. It is important to fully live before it comes.”

                “Jesus Christ,” Monaghan whispered, throat raw from crying. “How did you get so wise in such a short amount of time?”

                “The Judge was not my mother,” he answered, “But she helped raise me.” Jake gave her a sad, weary smile, red hair glistening in the sun as a cloud moved away in the bright blue sky.

                “You’re a lucky kid, then,” Monaghan murmured, squeezing his bicep gently.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan knocked at the gates of New Eden a week later, half expecting not to be welcomed there. Jake opened the door for her, nodding to her.

                “Shepherd,” the big ginger teenager said, this time much more clearly, enunciating slowly. He had obviously been forcing himself to practice speaking with only half a tongue.

                “Jake.”

                “The Judge is not well,” he admitted. He pointed at Joseph’s cabin toward the back of New Eden. The Judge was perched on the roof, cross-legged.

                Great. She had been spending time with Joseph.

                Monaghan approached slowly, but couldn’t bring herself to call out to Rook yet. Curious what Joseph would have to say, she knocked at his door.

                “Come in,” he said softly. When she did so, he looked surprised, eyebrows raised.

                “What, God didn’t warn you I was coming this time?” she asked sardonically.

                “No. But I am surprised it took you this long,” Joseph answered her tersely. “My Judge will not speak with me. Will not communicate with anyone. She guards, and she hunts and she kills and she roosts right back where you can see her outside. Like Noah’s raven, unable to find dry land, she returns here without hope.”

                “And whose fault is that?” Monaghan asked dully. Joseph met her gaze steadily.

                “This time, child, it’s yours.” He chuckled humorlessly. “I am glad I have someone to share the guilt with now,” he admitted. Monaghan hummed.

                “Did you mean to make her the Judge?”

                “She was always destined to be our Judge.”

                “Give me a straight answer.” Joseph’s eyes went distant and he sat heavily, joints crackling when he did so. He gave a little groan of pain and then opened his mouth to speak.

                “I meant to convert her first. Then I meant to get revenge. She killed my family, so I made sure hers died too.” Joseph looked away, steepled his fingers where he sat. “Then I meant to save her. I accomplished none of those things. I just broke her even worse than she had broken herself.”

                “She is not broken,” Monaghan hissed adamantly. Joseph looked at her oddly, one brow cocked.

                “Perhaps you are right. ‘The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in the storm.’”

                “Confucius?” Monaghan asked. Joseph nodded to confirm and Monaghan felt a momentary flicker of respect form for this odd man. She sniffed, clenched her jaw. “Confucian thought discourages the judgement of others. I do not. Judgment is coming, Joseph. Don’t forget that.” He met her gaze steadily.

                “‘Judge not, lest ye also be judged,’” he reminded her gravely. Monaghan gave him a cold smile.

                “I’m counting on it,” she told him, and stepped outside without another word. She found a low spot to grip onto and pulled herself onto the roof with a grunt of effort. She sat down cross-legged next to where the Judge was perched at the apex of the roof, curled in on herself. “People keep thinking that you’re broken,” Monaghan said softly, hands sitting limp in her own lap. “I’m starting to think maybe I’m the broken one.” She looked at Rook, who had not moved or turned toward her. “I’m sorry I left you like that. I’m sorry I left you alone. I’m sorry I lashed out. I’m sorry I can’t seem to stop doing things to be sorry for.”

                “Don’t set yourself up as a victim,” Rook signed pithily, turning to her with an abrupt motion before steadying herself on the roof. “Stop apologizing and change your behaviors. I understand you needed space. But you also needed support. Pushing people away is not the solution to healing. Trust me when I tell you that. ‘Everybody’s damaged,’” she quoted, “Are you healing up, or bleeding out now?”

                Monaghan sighed.

                “I could use some bandaging to stop the hemorrhaging,” she admitted, putting a hand on the side of Rook’s neck, her thumb rubbing against the edge of her mask.

                “That I can help with,” Rook signed gently.

                “I may…also…need some help getting down from this roof,” she told Rook. That got a laugh and it made her feel a little better.

--

                Rook followed Monaghan into Prosperity when she made her way there to catch up with Kim and the others. Rook was more at ease with the residents of Prosperity this visit, seemed to be putting on a strong face for a still-depressed Monaghan. Monaghan, despite her earlier words about trying to heal, was still struggling, but she was nonetheless relieved, pleased to see that Rook’s behavior had not regressed to the point of refusing to come to Prosperity again. She still would not take off her mask in front of anyone, but she did make little sounds of acknowledgement when people spoke directly to her.

                Approaching cautiously after taking a lap around the top of Prosperity’s wall, Rook signed a greeting to Monaghan, who tipped her beer back in response. Sitting down across from her, Rook signed,

                “Are you alright?”

                “That’s a very stupid question.” The thin skin beneath Monaghan’s eyes was black from lack of good sleep. Her skin was sallow and the thin sheen of sweat across her forehead reeked of alcohol and the musk of body odor. Her hand was shaking where it held the now-empty beer bottle.

                “That’s fair,” Rook accepted with a small nod of her masked face. “But I want to know.”

                “No, I’m not alright,” Monaghan intoned harshly, but then she softened, reached out a hand to Rook, who took it carefully. Monaghan shook her head a little bit, but composed herself when she heard footsteps approaching. It was Carmina. The kid seemed to only work up the nerve to come talk to Rook when Monaghan was around, so instead of getting up to get another beer like she wanted to, Monaghan stayed put when she saw the teenager, trying to push away thoughts of another teenager, dead by her hand.

                “You might be New Eden’s Judge and all, but I know deep down there’s still something left of that deputy I’ve heard so much about,” she blurted out. Rook purred calmly, to Monaghan’s surprise, not reacting violently and emotionally to her goddaughter’s statement. “You’re not just helping us for New Eden’s sake, you remember the people here. They were your friends and you want to help them. And I appreciate that.”

                “Hhmm,” Rook purred softly, acting a little awkward, her boots scuffing into a pigeon-toed stance that made Monaghan smile a bit.

                “I don’t think there’s a lot of the Judge left,” Monaghan murmured, still holding one of Rook’s gloved hands. “I think the deputy was there the whole time. And of course she remembers the people here, kid.” Monaghan did not look away from Rook as she was speaking; Rook squeezed her friend’s hand gently. “She just lost her way for awhile. But enough of waxing philosophic,” the captain said dismissively, lightening the mood with a snarky look in Carmina’s direction. “Scram or get us some more beer,” she said, seeing Rook squirming uncomfortably at being the topic of conversation; too much contact and she vanished up onto the roof of the Lodge or on top of the walls to simmer silently by herself. Monaghan did not want that to happen, did not want her to sink into one of her reclusive, melancholy moods where she sank into her pain and regretted the last eighteen years. Monaghan was doing enough of that herself. Carmina stood with a little smile.

                “Do you want a lager or a stout?”

                “It’s sunny and ninety-five degrees, kid, is that a serious question?” Monaghan asked with a light scoff. Carmina returned with two cold, golden-colored beers. She patted the captain on the shoulder.

                “I’m supposed to be watching the kids. Find me later and we’ll finish up that chess game we started last week.”

                “Looking forward to it,” Monaghan agreed, taking a swig of her beer, knowing full-well Carmina was leaving so Rook could drink her beer in peace. Rook was still incredibly squirrelly about lifting her mask around anyone but Monaghan.

                Night fell slowly over Prosperity like a blanket, tucking in the sun and laying across the world a duvet of stars and bright ribbons of magnetic light that flickered and churned above them. It was beautiful, Monaghan thought, staring up where she laid next to Rook on the roof of the lodge. The chill night air was oddly soothing, the cold and buzzing race of goosebumps down her arm an anchor against her pain. Rook reached an arm out and held Monaghan’s hand gently, squeezing it. Monaghan turned to her. Rook’s mask was resting on her chest, slowly riding up and down as Rook breathed. Her face was open, innocent, earnest.

                “What can I do to made it better?” she asked, moving her lips slowly and clearly so Monaghan could understand her without signs. Monaghan sighed.

                “Just be here. Just stay with me. I can’t give you anything more than that right now. I lashed out, and I was wrong, but we do need to focus. Things are getting more serious. The torture. The capture of innocents. We have to get this situation under control, right now. I’m going to contact Irwin at the end of this week if I haven’t heard from him by then. It’s been a month since I’ve heard anything from him. I can’t take much more of this. I need it done.” Rook squeezed her hand.

                “A good night’s rest would do wonders,” she mouthed slowly, scanning her eyes over Monaghan’s exhausted face.

                “Can we stay here? Will you hold me, please?” Monaghan asked, eyes begging. “I feel so trapped inside those walls. And…if I have another nightmare, they’ll all hear the screaming if we stay in the room.” Rook smiled a little.

                “I gave up a soft bed once to sleep next to you. What makes you think I will not do it until the day I die to stay by your side?”

                “Don’t. Don’t say things like that to me right now, I can’t,” Monaghan struggled to say, voice shaking. She was still so consumed by guilt she couldn’t handle trying to be happy, trying to be in a healthy, functional relationship. She needed the Twins dead first. She needed to not be responsible for the safety of the entire county anymore. It was like a sword dangling over her by a string. No amount of intimacy could change the fact that these people were her responsibility. She couldn’t lose sight of that again. She couldn’t handle any more guilt.

                “Come here. Come here,” Rook whispered in her broken growl, pulling Monaghan into her chest. She held her until the captain stopped crying, until the material of her jacket over her shoulder was saturated with tears. Her hand held the back of Monaghan’s head gently, her other hand was holding the captain close. She tried to made little comforting noises, internally cursing for the millionth time the destruction of her voice. “I’ve got you,” she mouthed, hoping the sentiment could be felt if not heard. “I’ve got you, Cap.”

Chapter Text

                Monaghan often found Sharky hanging out near Rook when they were in Prosperity. In the mornings, Monaghan could most frequently find her companion sharing a mug of ancient instant coffee with her old friend, sitting out on Prosperity’s wall together, quiet, but enjoying each other’s company. She tried not to be jealous when she saw Rook allow Sharky to pull her into the occasional hug, tried not to resent how easily they rekindled their old friendship, slowly at first, but then in leaps and bounds.

                Monaghan saw the way Sharky looked at Rook and felt a sudden nasty streak of hatred for him, wondering if Rook was returning the loving gaze under her mask. Stepping quietly up the stairs further down the wall to remain unnoticed, she watched the two sitting together, silent, just watching the sun as it rose and painted its rays over the valley. It was the longest Monaghan had ever seen Sharky go without talking, but then the coffee kicked in, and he was off, chattering away to his old friend, telling her all about his nephew Blade, telling her about his new bomb prototypes, telling her about the totally-not-made-up woman he had fucked last week with titties “this big, man, I swear to god, they were beautiful, made me think of you,” he showed with cupped hands to demonstrate the size of the maybe-fictional breasts until a look from Rook’s blank mask made him rethink his words. “I mean, made me think of you in that, I know you like them big ol’ titties. Come on, man, don’t made it weird.” Rook huffed in amusement and Sharky went back to being at ease. Monaghan huffed out a little sigh of irritation. She didn’t like the longing look that passed over Sharky’s face as Rook looked away from him. It was all Monaghan could do not to start a fight over it, but at least the jealousy took her mind off the grief she still felt for having killed Paul. Slowly but surely the sting from that wound began to fade, replaced again with affection for Rook, though Monaghan forced herself to be professional, to restrain herself when all she wanted to do was run off to the forest with Rook and forget the rest of the world.

                Deciding not to stay mad at Sharky’s obvious feelings for Rook, and knowing that time spent socializing with anyone was good for her companion, Monaghan forced herself to walk around the various work areas of Prosperity, greeting Bean and several other residents before she stretched, popped her knuckles and picked up the shared lodge guitar, climbed back up the stairs to the wall and sat next to Sharky and Rook, who looked at her mildly. Even after all they had been through, even after the trauma, Monaghan just couldn’t stay away from Rook. The captain fingered the strings of the guitar, playing whatever came into her mind, adding soft music to the gentle cacophony of human noise below them.

                “Sing for me?” Rook asked, tilting her masked face, her attention now entirely off of Sharky. Monaghan smiled, thought for a moment, looking up and to the side and biting her lip. It came to her, the song she wanted to sing to Rook, despite her pain, despite her need to get angry and push people away. No amount of pushing away would keep her from Rook. She was drawn inexorably toward her like a moth toward a candle in the night. Rook was her light, her respite from her own darkness. Monaghan started playing quietly, looking at the woman she loved and feeling emotion welling up as she sang.

“Wise men say ‘only fools rush in,’ but I can’t help falling in love with you. Shall I stay? Would it be a sin if I can’t help falling in love with you? Like a river flows surely to the sea, darling, so it goes. Some things are meant to be. Take my hand, take my whole life too – for I can’t help falling in love with you…”

                Monaghan sang softly, like she did not want to scare off the morning birds singing in the trees around the settlement. A small crowd gathered below, quiet and reserved as though they understood the importance of letting Rook adjust, letting her be part of the community, letting her be loved, and letting Monaghan love her, despite her pain. Rook did not notice the hard swallow Sharky gave as he looked at her while Monaghan sang, did not see the watery sheen that his eyes took on before he stood, glancing at Monaghan with a look of despair before walking away.

--

                Smalls contacted Monaghan over the radio the next week, telling her to meet him near the Hope County Jail. Rook got restless and worried, signing that the Twins had been keeping their prisoners there, signing that her scouts had begun to avoid the area to avoid capture. Monaghan could imagine Smalls’ plan even before she had met with him, and just to lighten the mood, she picked up the shared lodge guitar once more and people gathered around her to listen. She summoned the emotional energy required to put on a show and pasted on a smile. Morale was starting to slump, and now more than ever, Monaghan needed the support of her people.

I hear the train a comin', It’s rollin' 'round the bend, And I ain’t seen the sunshine Since, I don’t know when I'm stuck in Folsom Prison And time keeps draggin' on…” Monaghan played and sang, dancing around, being silly, knowing the members of Prosperity had more than earned some entertainment. If her sudden energy and playfulness was just a symptom of serious compartmentalization, the residents of Prosperity didn’t need to know that. Monaghan pasted on a smile and sang for her people. “Well, if they freed me from this prison If that railroad train was mine, I bet I'd move out over a little Farther down the line, Far from Folsom Prison, That's where I want to stay. And I'd let that lonesome whistle’d Blow my blues away.

                There was loud applause and Monaghan postured, slinging her leg up and around and grinning hugely, her bear skull mask perched on top of her head like a toothed crown. Rook was leaning against a post with her arms crossed, but Monaghan saw her foot tapping and blew her a kiss, earning a surprised look from the settlement members who had not seen the pair’s affectionate interactions yet. Sharky, however, a mere two sheets to the wind as most everyone had been drinking that evening, let out a hoot of encouragement followed closely by something that sounded oddly like a sob.

                Panting with excitement from the crowd’s cheering, Monaghan hopped down off her improvised stage and walked over to Rook.

                “If you’re doing this, then you need to come with me,” she signed, all business. “Follow me.” She entered Sharky’s lab and approached a flat wall that had been designated as a drawing board. Picking up a piece of chalk, she rapidly drew building plans, labelling and adding detail. She walked Monaghan through the layout of the Hope County Jail, a building Rook was intimately familiar with from her time as junior deputy.

                Wasting no time, they packed supplies and made their way through the landscape on foot. Rook seemed to be pushing back the inevitable, seemed to dread allowing Monaghan to be put into the custody of their enemies. Rook stopped occasionally as they hiked, hand sliding tenderly over a rock, or a dead tree. Sometimes she stared up into the sky, other times she looked wistfully out over the river at the mountains. The closer they got to the jail, the smokier and more macabre the landscape appeared. Burned and rotting corpses of trees jut into the sky like broken teeth in the jaw of a dead man, giving the area an deep terroir of dread.

                “This place used to be so beautiful,” Rook signed regret at the end of the statement.

                “It still is when you look in the right places,” Monaghan attempted to comfort her, putting a hand on her shoulder. With a deep, crackling sigh, Rook continued.

                “The trees were taller, thicker. There were yaupon and dogwood and cherry trees. The grass was thick and flowed when the wind moved through it, looking like green-brown water, like a gentle ocean when the wind blew,” she signed slowly, fingerspelling some of the descriptors. “The sky was clear and a lighter blue, not so harsh, not so fluorescent. The mountains were covered in green, topped in gray and white. The animals were different.” She sniffed. “There were more animals, more kinds of animals. The silence of the forest was peaceful, not pensive. I used to climb and wingsuit for fun. There were so many lizards. So many more birds. In the fall, you could hear the cranes flying over, stopping at the lake during migration. Pink verbena did not used to be the dominant flower. There were scarlet paintbrushes, Mexican hats, lupines, blanket flowers, bitter root, and harebell.” Rook’s hands had become poetry in movement even having to fingerspell most of the words and descriptions and Monaghan felt her sudden sadness, understood this mourning for a place that once was and would not be again. “Let’s go,” Rook signed. “I don’t want to think about it any more.

                Monaghan met Smalls at the top of a hill overlooking the jail, Rook signing urgently to her about details of the place, closet, washrooms, storage areas, quizzing her as they approach Smalls’ truck. Rook melted into the forest, unseen by Smalls. He had the good sense to turn away while Monaghan changed into an orange jumpsuit or she was fairly certain he would have grown a few arrows from his chest. She left her weapons and her leather outfit in a bag provided by Smalls and he slung it into the cab of the cage truck. She hopped in, holding out a hand with pinkie, index finger and thumb extended and wobbling it in the direction of the forest. Smalls explained the need for Monaghan to kill Frank and replace him in the derby so she could be invited to the winner’s circle dinner, the same derby Monaghan had saved Gina from before. He agreed to spring her five days later, telling her she would have to find another way out if she missed the short bus.

                Once incarcerated in the awful, soot-stained jail, Monaghan spent nearly a week watching the coming and going of guards, watching shift changes, finding blind spots. Her hands were sore from operating the bullet press and she resented being trapped here when she heard the Twins pass through unannounced. If only she had a gun, she had thought bitterly. The vile women were gone as soon as they arrived, though, called away by someone important visiting. Monaghan had stared after them, not moving, not being even a little cautious about the vicious glare she was giving their backs as they strode away. A guard knocked her to the ground abruptly and she glared, but glimpsed a wooden mask beneath the motorcycle helmet’s acrylic face plate.

                “Be more careful,” Rook signed in small movements. “You’re going to get yourself killed.” Monaghan clenched her jaw so tight her teeth squeaked and she had to force herself not to speak, not to say anything to the quiet figure. Rook straightened her getup, a motorcycle helmet over her normal mask. Her wool and leather clothing was gone, replaced instead by form-fitting biking pants and a spandex sport shirt. Chest armor lifted and separated her breasts and knee pads accentuate the thin musculature of her legs. Monaghan gave her a lascivious look, eyes tracing up and down appreciatively, though she was still angry. Rook had hissed quietly and vanished into the shadows, tugging awkwardly at the spandex tights she was wearing, much to Monaghan’s amusement.

                The fourth day of her imprisonment, a guard kicked Monaghan squarely in the ribs while she slept for absolutely no reason but meanness. Monaghan gasped, spluttering, wincing at the feeling of a bruised rib, more sensitive than normal to injury since being cracked months ago. The guard in question did not live to see another day. They were pulled, struggling, into darkness and Monaghan heard sounds of violence, heard hissing and fumbling, heard material ripping, heard a strike. Then a different, familiar guard stepped out.

                “Go back to sleep, love,” she signed quickly.

                “I did NOT need your help,” Monaghan signed back, furious.

                “We’ll talk about it later. I was not leaving you in here alone. If you knew someone who had the familiarity with this jail I had that was not me, don’t tell me you would not have brought them. Now get some sleep,” Rook signed with small motions.

                “Come here,” Monaghan signed after she looked around and ensured they were the only two in eyeshot. They were standing in a lean-to shack made of box pallets that had been provided to each of the prisoners to rest in. It was dirty and certainly didn’t provide protection from the cold nights, but it was better than nothing. Regardless, it was good enough to hide them from prying eyes for a moment. Rook stepped cautiously forward and bent down, bumping the forehead of her helmet against Monaghan’s forehead. She cradled a hand at Monaghan’s jaw, a soft hiss filtering out from beneath the two face coverings. Through the tinted acrylic of the biker helmet Rook was wearing Monaghan looked to where she knew those green eyes were staring back at her. She smirked and ran a hand up Rook’s thigh to the codpiece of her biking gear. “It’s a shame we don’t have more privacy,” she murmured. “Those pants and that breastplate…you look hot.” Rook scoffed and pulled away a little, but Monaghan tugged her back by the collar of her breastplate, grabbing her hand and kissing it gently. “ Hey. Listen to me,” Monaghan whispered, getting serious. “Be careful. I’m fine. I’ll get out of here. But thank you. For your help. Now go. Go, before we get caught. I love you.”

                The next day, the fifth day of her imprisonment, the day Smalls was supposed to be back with the truck to smuggle her out, Monaghan snuck through the jail, snapping necks and leaving desecration in her wake each time she encountered a Highwayman. She grabbed one, snatching them by the head, about to tug it roughly to the right when the guard gave a familiar hiss, struggling.

                “Mother fucking god dammit, Rook,” she snarled softly, releasing her. The Judge shrugged, gurgling quietly.

                “Frank is outside on the roof of the office buildings. I didn’t want to raise an alarm by killing him for you and leaving an undressed body for anyone to find. You'll have to grab his clothes quickly and run. I heard Small’s truck pull in earlier. Time to move. There’s a ladder on the north side that will get you where you need to go.  I’ll see you on the outside.” With that, like a ghost she was gone.

                Monaghan crept through the jail, using a shiv Rook had handed her to end every Highwayman she encountered. She made her way outside cautiously, grabbing another from behind, stabbing them and moving on. She gave the night a hard, disapproving look when an arrow appeared in one’s chest before she got to them. They died, choking and Monaghan stepped over them, holding up an erect middle finger that was met with a distant hiss.

                “Goddammit, Rook,” she groused. She made it to the top of the guard area and stabbed Frank to death, jabbing the shiv into his neck viciously until his gurgling stopped. She reached down, picked up his helmet and other gear and turned, seeing a dark figure padding along the outermost wall, stepping gingerly through razor wire like a demented cat. “You are going to get yourself killed,” she signed furiously to the figure, who ignored her and jumped off the outer jail wall and out of sight. Scrambling not to be seen, Monaghan vaulted over the wall and climbed into Smalls’ truck, tucking tight to the floor and covering herself with a brown tarp. He sped down the drive and she heard a heavy thump on the roof of the cage and for a moment was deeply concerned they had been caught, but then she heard that tell-tale rasping breathing that she had grown to love and she smirked, peeking out from under the tarp. “I should be insulted by how little faith you have in my abilities,” she said. Rook let out an amused hiss and leaned with the truck to keep her balance. She was wearing her usual outfit again, Monaghan noticed with a little chagrin.

Chapter Text

                “You’re makin’ me a little nervous,” Smalls stammered when Rook hopped off the truck and turned her masked face toward him malevolently. She gave a soft growl and he forced himself to look away as Monaghan took her stuff back and changed behind the truck, away from the two of them.

                “Play nice,” she signed as she walked back around the truck and Rook crossed her arms in annoyance.

                “I cannot overstate how much I wanted Frank to die,” he admitted when she came back, tugging at her shirt collar a bit. “Thank you. Cannot believe that idiot thought he could drive in the derby. I could drive in the derby, I could run the derby! I know more about cars than any of ‘em. I once built a car outta nothin’ but a kitchen sink.” Rook and Monaghan looked at him skeptically and he shifted nervously, scratching the back of his head before he continued. “The spot in the derby is yours now. And that’s gonna get you up close and personal with Mickey and Lou,” Smalls explained and even Rook chuffed as though she agreed it was a decent plan. “Alls I gotta do is finagle you a halfway decent set of wheels, and you’re good to go. Look, we don’t want to be seen hanging around together, so you gotta move on outta here. Don’t worry, I’ll be in touch real soon.”

--

                Entering the racing ring with the halfway decent car Smalls had arranged for her, Monaghan felt her heart racing, tightened her fingers on the wheel until the knuckles go bright white. She saw Rook stubbornly perched on one of the sniper towers, squatted small and brown, blending into her surroundings. Monaghan had threatened to chain Rook to Prosperity’s gates to keep her from coming, but was not sure if even that would have stopped her.

                Feeling warmth in her chest despite her irritation, Monaghan stuck her hand out the window, wiggling her hand with the pinkie, index finger and thumb out and saw the response, smiling, heart calming. She tore around the ring, expertly ending her opponents, using explosives to destroy the other destruction derby contestants with extreme prejudice. She made her way up to the award dinner, itching to wrap her fingers around two necks and squeeze.

                But it was not to be.

                Monaghan was horrified when the Twins declared that they were leaving…with Ethan Seed. Monaghan wanted to confront him and them, wanted to stop this before it started but knew she would just end up riddled with bullet holes if she did. Rushing, she found the gun that was stashed in the bathroom by one of Smalls’s friends and took out half of Mickey and Lou’s retinue, running for a derby truck and diving in, searching the sniper tower for Rook. Where was she? After several minutes of looking and returning fire on the Highwaymen that were pursuing her, Monaghan was desperate and picked up the radio.

                “Rook, come in. Rook, come in, this is Raven, over. Come in, Rook,” she said, anxious, feeling worry rising. Nine clicks broadcasted over the radio, sending a wave of nausea through the captain. Three short. Three long. Three short.

                “Heeey, Rabbit,” came an all too familiar voice over the radio. “We’ve got your little bunny friend here. I recommend you don’t follow us.” There was the sound of scuffling and then a harsh growl of agony after a blow landed. Monaghan felt all the blood in her face drain, felt it turn to ice in her veins. She abandoned the derby vehicle for a four-wheeler, changed into her stealth gear and grabbed her weapons. Monaghan did not need the radio GPS to know where she could find Rook. She knew where Ethan was taking the Twins, and Rook.

Chapter Text

                New Eden was burning. Heart pounding, jaw creaking as she clenched her teeth against frantic tears, Monaghan slammed through the wooden gates, staggering into the first building where someone was screaming in pain. There were burns all over the person’s body and the smell of burnt leather and hair made Monaghan gag.

                “They’re locusts are here, please help us,” the person, Sarah, Monaghan remembered, whimpered. Monaghan helped her to her feet, but she staggered, barely staying standing. Unfortunately, Monaghan had no time for compassion.

                “Where is Rook?! Where is the Judge?!” she asked, shaking Sarah by the lapels.

                “The Twins have them.”

                “Stay here,” Monaghan ordered, priming her rifle, hot fear in her belly. She dashed through the village, reviving leather-clad figures, none of them the one she was looking for. She made her way to the chapel, coughing from the smoke. She darted into the chapel, searching wildly for Rook while trying to stay behind cover, knowing her enemies were here somewhere. A shattered radio had been strewn around the chapel. A wooden mask was on the ground, smashed in two, a muddy boot print stamped on it, but Rook was no where to be found.

                “Hey, Rabbit,” Lou greeted her. “Thought we took care a’ you. You just don’t seem to wanna die. So fuckin’ stubborn. We’re stubborn, too.”

                “The shame of it all was we coulda been on the same side. You and us, we really could’ve done something. I guess it’s not meant to be,” Mickey lectured, arm slung over her sister’s shoulder.

                “So let’s end this,” Lou said, and they each pulled the pin on a smoke grenade, backing out as smoke overwhelmed Monaghan’s vision. She tripped on something in the thick smoke, falling forward hard onto her hands, feeling sand and gravel cut into her palms. “Get the fuck out of there already,” Lou taunted her from outside. By the time Monaghan could stumble out of the burning chapel, the two were side-by-side on one of the buildings facing the chapel, Joseph’s house, Monaghan realized dully through a haze of panic. Rook was there, struggling at a rope tied around her neck desperately, choking and coughing. Lou kicked her in the belly and she fell onto her backside, gasping for breath. “Ethan seemed to think you like this one,” Lou yelled, yanking the rope roughly and Rook cried out hoarsely with her destroyed voice.

                Time slowed as Lou pushed Rook off the building so that her back was against the edge of the roof, her weight on her shoulders and the rope at her neck, her feet kicking wildly.

                “It’s time somebody broke some of your toys again, remind you the lesson you shoulda learned when we killed the first one you cared about. What was his name? Rash?” Mickey laughed as Monaghan shrieked in fury. The pink-clad woman pushed Rook the rest of the way off the roof, slowly so that she was asphyxiating instead of her neck snapping, a sadistic smile on the Twins’ faces as they watched the Judge struggling like a fish gasping on a line, panic in her eyes, her exposed face reddening and then going a sickening shade of purple. Rook dangled, feet kicking desperately for purchase, boots scrabbling at the outside wall of the cabin briefly, hands scratching urgently at the rope, choking and trying to gasp in breaths that did not come. She kicked, and kicked, and kicked and Monaghan ran toward her, screaming. Lou lit her flamethrower and a forty foot flame extended, licking Monaghan’s front. She could smell her eyebrows burning off, could feel the heat of the flame, ignored it. She knew she could not reach Rook. Rook’s eyes met hers and her swollen, darkened face convulsed, her eyes flickered shut.

                Rook’s legs were not kicking any more. The only evidence that there was any part of her still living was that her fingers were wiggling spastically, her abdomen thrashing occasionally, her back stiffening. S

                Stepping back and taking careful aim, Monaghan breathed. Aimed. The Voice spoke. “BE NOT AFRAID, FOR I AM WITH YOU.” Squeezed. The rope broke as the bullet singed through it and Rook’s body free-fell, a six-foot drop from the bottom of her boots to the ground.

                Monaghan stepped forward as Lou aimed and spat fire at her. Her vision went a little red at the edges, and she felt the familiar streak of adrenaline from her abilities. Flame curled around her, licking her skin, tasting her clothes, caressing her, and she kept walking, felt the soft silk of flames around her. Inanely, the tune of “Disco Inferno” looped through her mind and she smiled, eyes glowing with holy wrath. She was a burning sword, a shepherd culling wolves preying on her sheep. She snatched a metal Highwaymen shield from the ground and blocked the fire, throwing it back with a billowing movement of the shield, forcing Lou off the roof of Joseph’s house. Mickey vanished into the smoke flowing from the flames, screaming. In the break provided by the Twin’s shock, Monaghan reached Rook, ripped the rope off her neck like it was made of thread and not nylon cord, effortless in her anger and urgency. Rook was not breathing. She pumped on Rook’s chest, all her focus on this task, her mind engulfed with the need to resurrect her Judge.

                “Please,” Monaghan whispered to the Voice, the first real prayer her lips had ever uttered. Rook’s eyes snapped open and she opened her mouth wide, gasping, sucking in air, retching, coughing, but breathing. Breathing. “I will be right back,” she promised, pulling Rook to a rock outcropping and cupping her cheek briefly. “I love you.”

                Monaghan turned, wrath pouring through her. She obliterated all the Highwaymen she encountered, dropping them like they were flies and she was a holy newspaper wielded by God Himself. She chuckled raggedly, her grip on her sanity slipping. Furious, she peppered Lou with bullets when she found her, ignoring the billowing flames. The only proof there was fire was that she had to gasp for oxygen as breathable air was burnt away.

                “What the fuck?!” Lou screamed, wide brown eyes broadcasting that she was clearly terrified. Mickey fired her rifle from across the village and Monaghan trotted toward her, firing wildly to cover herself, Lou in hot pursuit behind her, yelling inanely. Turning with a face like stone, the Captain waited until she was sure Mickey was watching, made sure she felt the dread of the shot coming, made sure she felt that same sinking agony that the captain had felt when they had shot Rush in front of her.

                “Noooo!” Mickey screamed, sprinting, but she was too late. Merciless, Monaghan aimed and blew a gaping hole in Lou’s chest. Mickey shrieked and charged toward the captain, but Monaghan caught her, threw her down and beat her nearly to death with leather-covered fists, the edges of her vision red, realized she was growling like a wild animal as her fists pummeled her enemy’s face.

                Monaghan released her, panting. With a little whimper, and then a moan of pain, Mickey drug herself to her sister, shaking, head wobbling unsteadily.

                “Fuck,” she gasped, groaning, clutching her chest where Monaghan had managed to hit her with wildly sprayed bullets earlier. Lou was in much worse shape, bleeding out on the ground.

                “Hey, Mickey. You okay?” Lou asked, fronting as though she was not currently exsanguinating. Monaghan’s lip curled in disgust.

                “No! You?”

                “No. Hey, you ain’t dyin’ are you?” They were both breathing heavily and the heady smell of smoke and blood combined sickeningly in Monaghan’s nose.

                “I guess I broke my promise,” Mickey said, leaning back wearily.

                “What?” Lou asked softly around a mouthful of blood.

                “To Mom. I told her we wouldn’t end up like Dad.” They looked at one another, Monaghan momentarily ignored.

                “We had a lot of fun though, right?” Lou asked, smiling and they both laughed. Rage burned through Monaghan like a flame through gasoline. She would have intervened, would have stamped the life from both of these insects, but Lou’s laugh turned to a cough and then a death rattle.

                “Hey. Hey! Don’t die first,” Mickey begged, shaking her sister and righteous anger made Monaghan feel giddy as Rook limped up to her, putting a hand on her shoulder to steady them both. “You don’t get to die first. I’m the oldest, I go first, goddammit.” Rook made a gurgling noise and leaned weakly against Monaghan, who steadied her with a hand. “Lou?! Lou,” Mickey shook her sister again, her voice breaking but Monaghan had no pity to spare for her. They killed Barnes. They killed innocent people in Prosperity and New Eden. They killed Rush. They caused Monaghan to relive the nightmare of war, made her kill an innocent kid. They nearly killed Rook. They deserved this. This was a fitting end.

                “I was supposed to take care of you,” Mickey sobbed to her sibling. “I was supposed to take care of you and I didn’t and I’m so fucking sorry I fucked this up, man. I fucked…this…” she gasped for breath messily, a gob of blood splattering her front as she sobbed for a moment. She stilled finally, staring up at Monaghan and Rook with a look of utter defeat. “Y’know, Rabbit, you remind me of our Mom. She had hope. She had dreams. She…she just wanted to fuckin’ make things better and I should’ve listened to her, but…things just got carried away,” she admitted, taking a deep, rattling breath. “Do what you gotta do,” she muttered. “Ethan’s gone after his father. You might have time to stop him. If not…well, you’ve had a good run.” Monaghan felt Rook stiffen next to her. “Can’t believe I’m still alive. You could do something about that. Or, if you just leave, you’ll never see me again,” she reasoned, breathing ragged.

                Monaghan did not need a moment to consider, was not hesitant. She took careful aim between Mickey’s eyes, and squeezed the trigger.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan turned to Rook, shaking slightly.

                “Are you okay? Let me see.” She pushed Rook’s balaclava and shirt collar out of the way and saw mottled purple and red bruising around an oozing line along Rook’s neck. Her eyes were bloodshot and her face was still red. Monaghan touched the rope burn gently and Rook hissed in pain, flinching back. “I’m sorry,” Monaghan whispered, caressing her cheek. “I’m so, so sorry.”

                “It’s not your fault. You did not make the Twins do this,” Rook signed wearily. “We need to get to Joseph’s Sanctuary,” she gestured, stumbling a bit in place.

                “It’s over, the Twins are dead,” Monaghan replied, shaking her head, her relief at being done with her mission palpable. “I need to take you to Prosperity. The Twins were my responsibility and that’s taken care of. Whatever Ethan and Joseph have going on is between them and no one else,” Monaghan told Rook stubbornly. She was done fighting other people’s battles.

                “No,” Rook growled with her broken voice even rougher than normal from being hanged. She switched back to ASL. “No. We cannot let Ethan murder his father. Whatever else he might be, Joseph is…was…my…my responsibility.” She paused for a moment, letting out a conflicted sounding growl. “I can’t let him die in good conscience. Not like that.” Monaghan huffed out a sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger, thinking. So long, so much work and still Rook wanted to protect Joseph. If it was what Rook wanted, then it would be done. Looking up, shoulders rounded in defeat, she answered.

                “Fine,” Monaghan snapped, “I’ll take care of Ethan, you stay here and rest.”

                “No!” Rook both signed and growled out, “I’m coming with you,” she transitioned to signing as she began to cough violently. Her fearsome expression brooked no argument. Monaghan put a hand on her shoulder, relishing the warmth and reassurance that Rook was still alive, but cursing her stubbornness.

                “You’re the most bullheaded person I’ve ever met who wasn’t me. Alright. Fine. But I’m doing the steering. You do the pyre lighting. I left the gates open when I came back down from Joseph’s domain last time. Let’s go.” They tossed their bags into a large, two seat canoe. The motored fishing boat was nowhere to be found. Accepting that the canoe was their only option, Monaghan paddled quickly, pushing the boat up and around the remnants of the island, upriver, toward Joseph’s haunt. Rook wearily relit the extinguished pyres with her bow and arrow, sometimes having to take two shots to do so, making Monaghan look at her worriedly.

                After a couple of hours of fast paddling, Monaghan was exhausted, but they could see Joseph’s sanctuary, could see the bright pink flowers of the tree far above them. She pulled the canoe to the makeshift bamboo dock and helped Rook out, patting her on the back and making eye contact.

                “Will you be okay?”

                “‘O.K.’ has variable definitions,” Rook replied with her hands and she crooked her head up toward the tree where they could see a figure silhouetted against the uncharacteristically cloudy sky. “Let’s go. Hurry.” The two rushed up the path to the top of the waterfall toward the tree. Monaghan saw Joseph standing, unharmed, by the tree. Ethan was kneeling at its base. She sighed with relief and they approached. Joseph made eye contact with Rook first, looking mildly surprised at her lack of mask, but he held out a hand to both of them, asking them to stop. Careful, Monaghan complied, touching the back of her hand lightly to Rook’s to comfort them both.

                “Ethan, what have you done?” Joseph asked softly, seeing his singed and bloody clothing, taking in Monaghan and Rook’s burns and other wounds.

                “I did what I had to do,” Ethan said dully. “I freed myself, I freed us all from you, from your rules.” He stood, caressing one of the fruits of the tree tenderly.

                “Ethan don’t,” Joseph pleaded. Ethan turned sharply, his wolfish eyes meeting Joseph’s as he cupped his hands around the fruit and then tugged it from its branch.

                “I will have what you denied me.” He strode forward, fruit held aggressively in his hand and his voice raised to a shout. “You gave it to an outsider,” he gestured madly at Monaghan, “but you would not give it to me.” Ethan turned away from Monaghan, turned back to his father, his tone accusatory. “I am your flesh and blood.”

                “That was God’s will,” Joseph said levelly, blue eyes staring into his son’s hazel ones.

                “You don’t know God’s will!” Ethan screamed in his face, furious, and Monaghan had to agree with Ethan, for once.

                “I was trying to protect you, son!” Joseph yelled, pointing a wrinkled finger at his son’s chest, features tight and furious and Monaghan could hear Rook behind her rasping wildly, could feel her fidgeting, imagined she could hear her heart beating with terror. Ethan took a bite of the ripe morsel he cradled in his hand, chewing it while still meeting his father’s eyes. Disappointment flooded Joseph’s features as Ethan closed his eyes in ecstasy.

                “The taste is sweet,” he whispered eerily. He placed an open palm on his father’s chest, over his heart, and then with the same hand, abruptly snatched Joseph by the neck. Monaghan placed a hand on Rook’s chest, kept her from lunging forward, though she snarled dangerously. Ethan gasped, choked, released his father’s throat and took a step back. Monaghan could see his jugular outlined crisply under his skin, could see his pulse jumping. He bent in half, gripping his stomach with a grunt. He turned to look at his father, a helpless expression on both their faces. Ethan turned to stare at Monaghan, gasped and, stumbling, ran upriver. Monaghan watched Joseph, unsure what to do. Joseph was staring down over the waterfall, shoulders slumped.

                “His soul was not clean.” Joseph turned to her, his eyes sad, but determined. “Stop him. Please.” He gripped her shoulders and turned her toward where his son was running and she heard Rook bite back another rough snarl. They tore after Ethan, breathing hard as they loped along the riverside. Oozing green fog curled insidiously ahead of them and Monaghan could feel it tingling like a slow burn. She turned to Rook, who was gasping, her crackling breaths disturbing. Monaghan made her sit on a fallen tree a safe distance out of the fog.

                “Please stay here. Please. Please listen to me this time. I cannot lose you again,” she insisted, teeth clenched. Too weary to fight, Rook nodded, coughing.

                “Aim for his weak spots. Along his ribcage, his back, his eyes.” Right. This had once been her job. Monaghan nodded, leaned down to kiss Rook gently on the forehead and turned back to her quest.

                Monaghan covered her face with part of her shirt, lowered the bear skull mask Rook made solidly onto her face, trying as best she could to keep the stinging fog of mutated, probably irradiated Bliss out of her lungs. She found a cave opening and stumbled in, adjusting her weapon. Ethan roared and underwent a horrifying transformation, screaming in agony as internal fire consumed him. His form grew and shifted, skin blackened and glowing, pulsating growths oozing along his sides and shoulders. He stood, stretching to transform into a nearly twelve foot tall inhuman monster, a demon. His eyes glowed with the light of hellfire. Monaghan swallowed.

                The Voice spoke so that they both hear, whispering throughout the cave and what-was-Ethan held clawed hands to his head, baring sharp teeth in a burning orange mouth. Monaghan could not make out the words, but it did not matter. They were not meant for her.

                A wild, righteous fury overtook Monaghan and she rushed forward, ignoring the danger to herself, firing at Ethan. He roared with pain and leapt toward her, knocking her down. Scrambling to her feet, she stabbed with the knife affixed to the end of her rifle, jabbing into one of the cankerous orange tumors. Blood flowed from it and Ethan screeched, swatting at her as she dashed away, jumped up when she was behind him, fired again at the sores. They danced and wove around the cave, Ethan smacking her hard across her front, slamming her into the cave wall. She shook herself, eyes widening when he leapt, rolling hastily to the side and sprinting across the cave, reloading.

                The Voice whispered to her softly.

                “BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS. I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU OR FORSAKE YOU.”

                “Yeah, well a lot of fucking help that is, oh Holy Cheerleader,” Monaghan snapped to a Voice that she still thought might be nothing more than a symptom of fruit-induced schizophrenia. Shutting thoughts of sanity from her mind, she steeled herself.

                Ethan charged with a screech that shook the cave, dropping pebbles from above. He thundered toward her like a freight train, but she stood, feet braced, rifle cocked and held upright, her eye sighting down its barrel. It was all the same, she realized. Protecting those she loved, cutting down those that deserved it. It was all just aim…breathe…squeeze. She blinked, feeling sudden calm flow over her like cool water. Staring Ethan down as she had the grotesque bear her mask was made from, Monaghan aimed. Breathed. Squeezed. He fell.

                “Ethan? No…” Joseph’s anguished voice sounds. He staggered into the cave and Monaghan could hear hissing behind him. She breathed deeply, forcing herself to calm, reigning in her anger.

                Joseph approached his son, who cried out, his huge body trembling, black smoke roiling from him. He dissolved back to his human form, bloody and burnt and shaking.

                “Father…Father...” He reached a stringy hand out and Joseph strode forward putting a hand on his son’s outstretched arm, the other gently cradled his head. “I’m sorry,” Ethan gasped, sucking in a painful breath.

                “I know,” Joseph assured him.

                “I’m so scared,” Ethan cried, voice breaking.

                “I know, son,” Joseph choked out through a sob, stroking his son’s limp arm.

                “Can you forgive me?” Ethan pleaded, sucking in another labored breath. Joseph tipped his chin down, leaned forward, softly kissed his only son on the forehead, the tender caress of a grieving parent. “Father?” Ethan called, his gaze going glassy. He took several more gasping breaths, panicked, then he gurgled, and was still, staring into eternity.

                “No,” Joseph cried, leaning over him. He looked toward heaven and screamed in pain, eyes wide, mad and he choked, shaking, hands padding over his son’s dead body. “Oh my son…my son,” he sobbed, picking his body up gently, his joints creaking with the effort. Monaghan just watched, numb. Cradling Ethan’s body in his arms, Joseph turned to her. “His only fault was that he was mine,” he forced out, walking away toward the cave entrance with his son’s body, limp, his back arching against the weight of his offspring’s form. A purring growl sounded from behind Monaghan and she felt a hand on her shoulder, a comforting presence. A shelter from the storm.

Chapter Text

                They followed Joseph back silently, watched as he laid his son’s body at the base of the fruit tree. Joseph picked up a torch, his movements tight.

                “I thought I understood God’s plan,” he admitted, to his son or to Rook or to Monaghan, she did not know, but she listened silently, hand holding one of Rook’s. Joseph stared up at the muted pink foliage of the tree, hand touching its trunk. “I thought He wanted me to build a New Eden…” He turned toward Monaghan, his feet shuffling as he stepped away from the trunk. He lifted his torch and held it to the tree’s outstretched branch until it alighted. “But I am not his shepherd. You are,” he whispered, meeting Monaghan’s gaze. “My soul has become a cancer,” he continued, shuffling toward her like a man already dead. “I am a monster.” Rook hissed quietly next to her. There was agony in Joseph’s voice, so much that Monaghan almost felt sorry for him. Almost. “I only spread suffering and death in the name of God. My family is all ashes,” he said, avoiding Rook’s gaze. “Eden is dust. And there is no redemption from this.” He met Monaghan’s eyes again, and then Rook’s. “No atonement.” He reached out a gentle hand, grasping the wrist of Monaghan’s free hand which was holding her sidearm cautiously.

                Joseph lifted Monaghan’s hand to touch the gun’s muzzle to the center of his chest, both hands holding hers now. His eyes stared into her own, eternally sad and pleading. In this moment, he was pathetic. He was not the monster he once was; he was a man, broken and bruised by his own sins and Monaghan felt pity at his touch. “There is only the justice of God’s hand. End this vicious cycle,” he begged her, hands tightening around her grip on the pistol. “Give me God’s justice. Release me.” Monaghan stared at him, mind reeling, listening for a Voice that was suddenly absent. “Release me!” Joseph demanded. “Release me!” he pleaded. Monaghan stepped back, and he let go of her hand, holding his arms outstretched like a martyr. “Release me,” he whispered, falling to his knees, and his gaze went to Rook before returning to Monaghan. “Release me!” he screamed. Monaghan stared down at him coldly, remembering Rook’s torment, remembering her agony, and her nightmares, and her sobs. Remembering the terror in her friends’ eyes when they told her about his works. She turned to Rook, who nodded, and then back to Joseph.

                “I am not the Judge,” she murmured, and she handed Rook the gun.

Chapter Text

                Rook refused to take the proffered weapon. She signed what she wished to say to this broken man who was once her greatest enemy, once her father, now a mewling worm before her. Monaghan translated for her, staring not into Joseph’s eyes, but at the side of Rook’s face. Rook was staring intently into Joseph’s gaze, anger roiling from her like a physical thing.

                “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them,” Monaghan whispered for her, and she felt goosebumps shiver up and down her arms and across her neck at the words of holy wrath.

                Joseph lowered his arms, shaking with a terror Monaghan believed he had never felt before.

                “I have sinned against the Lord, and against you,” he wept. “Forgive my sin and pray to the Lord to take this pain away from me.”

                “‘You have much for which you must atone,’” Rook quoted the words he once said to her and Monaghan spoke them for her. “You will tell my people all the evils you have done. You will admit that you have led the flock astray, you will admit that what you did before the Collapse was done from Pride, that it was not God’s will. Then and only then will I grant you the release of a quick death. Lie to them, try to justify the actions of your siblings and your followers and yourself, continue practicing deception and I will exile you to the wastes to die slowly, rotting on the outside as surely as you have allowed yourself to become rotten on the inside.” Monaghan finished translating and Joseph sobbed harder, scrabbling at Rook’s feet. Disgusted, the captain pulled him up and away from Rook, yanking him toward their boat.

                Monaghan paddled the canoe silently back to New Eden, where the survivors had already started putting out fires. Rook guided Joseph Seed through the blown-open gates, his arms held together in front of him, her right hand on his left shoulder, looking so much like a cop with a prisoner in custody it sent a chill down Monaghan’s spine. At the sight of Joseph, the New Edeners ceased their work and gathered. Rook took him to the opening of the ruined chapel, the highest point in New Eden. He stretched out his arms toward his followers.

                “My children,” he called, voice shaking, “My family. I have led you astray. I thought I was speaking the Words of God, but in my arrogance and my contempt I twisted them to my own evil purpose. I am not the mouth of the Lord. I am not the Father. I don’t deserve your praise, nor your love. My family…my brothers…my sister…we did evil things in the name of God. It was not his voice, but my own greed and pride that drove me to hurt those that once lived in this valley.” He glanced at Rook. “It was my wrath that drove me to torture and torment those who fought to right my many wrongdoings.” Joseph sighed, seeming to wither in place, looking at the ground before he glanced back up and met the many eyes that were trained on his face. “I tell you this before I die: Go into the world and spread God’s love. Don’t exclude your fellow man. It is not technology, or advancement, but the loss of connection which had lead to our downfall. Look to the Shepherd and the Judge as your leaders, as your righteous protectors. Love your fellow man as God loves you and do not harm him. I have sinned before the eyes of God, and earned death.”

                Dark, brooding storm clouds gathered above him and the New Edeners chattered and murmured, nervously staring at the darkening sky. A violent wind whipped through the clearing, extinguishing the last of the fires in mighty gusts. Fat raindrops fall from above, spattering them with cold drops and Joseph extended his arms, looking to the heavens. He looked very pale, and Monaghan saw him wince as though he were in pain. “Wash me of my sins, Lord. Grant me release, I have atoned,” Joseph cried, raising his arms to the heavens, begging for swift death. Thunder rumbled through the clouds and lightning flickered violently. “Release me, Lord!” Joseph screamed, but his eyes meet the Judge’s. With a cry, he grabbed at his left arm and dropped to his knees, staring at Rook, waiting.

                Monaghan looked at Rook, saw an odd expression on her face. There was no anger there, no wrath, no pride. There was compassion. There was forgiveness. Rook dropped her bow and staggered forward, toward Joseph. She signed and Monaghan translated, shocked at the words.

                “I cannot kill you. I can’t. I spent years subservient to you, angry at you. You may have bent me, but you did not break me. For years I imagined this moment, imagined you brought low. I thought that it would make me happy, but I just feel empty. Joseph Seed…I forgive you for what you have done to me. God must be the one who brings you final judgment, for I cannot.” Joseph’s eyebrows raised as Rook bent down toward where he had collapsed to his knees. He flinched as though expecting a blow, but instead she embraced him, pulled him to his feet and tugged his small, withered form close to her, one hand held gently behind his head. Their foreheads bumped together and Monaghan saw Joseph’s jaw clench tightly as he raised a hand to cup Rook’s jaw. He wept and half-collapsed in Rook’s arms before he suddenly gasped, struggling. Monaghan frowned, unsure what was happening.

                Joseph Seed coughed, and Rook caught him as he stumbled and fell. She cradled him gently in her lap as they both went to the ground.

                “My child,” he said, one hand clutching his chest, the other stroking her face, “My child,” he pursed his lips as he stared into her eyes, a tear falling from his own. Thunder cracked overhead, the mighty boom shaking all of them. Joseph smiled sadly as he choked in a breath. Rook brushed an errant strand of hair out of his face gently, tears falling from her eyes. “God has judged me. Go in peace.” Joseph took one last, labored breath, and then breathed no more. Shoulders shuddering with sobs, Rook pressed his eyes shut for a final time, holding his body to her chest as the New Edeners looked on in shock. Rook reached to Joseph’s arm and tugged on a chain around his wrist, pulling it free. It was a silver cross necklace.

                Monaghan approached cautiously and Rook looked up at her, face pinched with grief and other conflicting emotions.

                “It is finished,” she mouthed.

Chapter Text

                They were not quite finished. There was still, after all, the remaining Highwaymen to deal with. The Twins were but one set of faction leaders. Monaghan was tired, eternally, permanently tired. Rush was gone and she was fairly certain the last of her paramilitary group had moved on or that they were gone entirely, gone extinct with the train crash. She would have to make some effort to contact possible survivors, perhaps with help from Roger Cadoret. But right now, all she wanted was to visit Rush’s grave, and drink a beer.

                Rook limped behind her, breath scratchy and rough. Several New Edeners had followed them, and were making amends with the Scavengers in Prosperity. Old friends and family were reunited, new children were introduced. Sharky stepped out, saw the deputy, saw that her mask was gone, her balaclava was absent, her hood was pulled down and he approached hesitantly, steps faltering with more than arthritis, but Rook rushed toward him, embracing him around the neck tightly and crying gently.

                “I missed you so much,” she mouthed. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Monaghan repeated the mouthed words for her quietly, trying to keep her voice from breaking.

                “It’s not your fault,” Sharky ground out, taking a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry I was such an asshole about it, Dep, I really am. I should have known you were still in there somewhere, Popo.” The two gripped forearms, their eyes meeting and smiled. “If you weren’t a big ol’ lesbian I’d be kissin’ you right about now, Dep, I just want you to know that.”

                “You have the subtlety of a brick and the depth of a shot glass, Sharky,” Monaghan commented, still jealous of his obvious feelings for Rook. He looked affronted, but Monaghan was not looking at Sharky anymore. Monaghan only had eyes for Rook now. She pulled Rook into an embrace and kissed her gently to whoops from a few people close by.

                Monaghan grabbed the guitar and made her way outside the walls to Rush’s grave. Carmina approached, a six-pack of home-brewed beer in her hand as Monaghan had requested. Carmina set them down next to the grave as she sat herself and Monaghan opened three, handing Carmina one as the teenager sat. It was her eighteenth birthday.

                “Don’t tell your parents,” Monaghan ordered, eyes twinkling. Rook squatted down beside her.

                “He’d be proud of us,” Carmina said, gesturing to Rush’s grave. “Look at what we’ve built together. How far we’ve come. There’s always going to be trouble out there, but we’ll manage, right? There were so many times I thought we were going to fail. That all this would be for nothing.” A wild rabbit hopped close and she smiled at it fondly as it sniffed Rook’s knee. “But we just didn’t give up. Because we had hope. Here’s to hope.” Rook, Monaghan and Carmina clinked their bottles together and they smiled, contented, each taking a sip of their beer.

                “And love,” Rook signed, staring into Monaghan’s eyes and then smiling to Carmina, her goddaughter, for the first time without a mask. “Happy birthday.” She handed her the silver cross necklace with a wistful look.

                Finishing her beer and waving at Kim and Nick, who give Carmina a sharp look, but then smiled, Monaghan picked up the guitar, strumming and tuning as she sat on the large rock next to Rush’s grave sign. Monaghan glanced at her fingers for a moment as they worked their way across the strings. The music attracted many of the Scavengers, bringing them outside the walls of Prosperity to listen. Monaghan began singing a song written by Horatio Spafford and Philip Bliss in 1873, the one and only hymn she had ever liked and, she had learned, it was Rook’s favorite hymn from her childhood in church.

                “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say: it is well, it is well, with my soul. It is well with my soul.”

                “With my soul,” Rook’s fingers said along with Monaghan’s singing, and echoing, as did the crowd in a gentle cacophony of voices.

                “It is well, it is well with my soul…”

                “With my soul,” Rook echoed with her hands, eyes closed peacefully as the crowd echoed the line softly.

                “It is well, it is well with my soul! My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole was nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul! It is well (It is well) with my soul (with my soul) it is well, it is well with my soul!”

                Monaghan played several more chords to transition the song to silence and saw Rook sitting, gentle tears rolling out of closed eyes.

                “Are you okay?” Monaghan asked Rook as she set the guitar down, concerned.

                “It has been a long time since I was this O.K.,” Rook signed back, smiling serenely. “‘It is well with my soul,’” she quoted, face beatific.

Chapter Text

                Nothing was ever perfect, Monaghan knew, but that knowledge did not made it any easier when, months after Joseph had died, Rook still had nightmares, still had days where she was sullen, and recalcitrant and angry, lashing out furiously with a broken voice that could not be understood while refusing to sign. Some days she pulled her hood high and tight around her face, refusing to go near anyone and ignoring Monaghan’s efforts to help her. There were some nights when Monaghan awakened from her own nightmares, only to find that Rook was sitting in the corner of their bedroom at the lodge, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, refusing to sign anything, just rocking slowly with tears trickling down her face. After a week of this, frustrated and on the verge of heartbreak, Monaghan packed two bags, handing one to Rook.

                “Come on, we’ve got more work to do.” Wordless, Rook took the bag and slid the straps over her shoulders. They stepped out of Prosperity, headed northeast. They made their way to the southern island, the hike taking them a little more than a day. They passed a destroyed coup that New Eden had long ago burnt, and then spray painted with the words “Burn your sin” across the doors. It was intended as an invitation, but it really just came across as threatening. Regardless, Monaghan agreed with this message for once. Sometimes destruction was the best way to deal with pain. She hoped this would provide catharsis and not more fuel more madness.

                Monaghan lead the way, hearing muttering, hissing, growling and heavy breathing behind her as their destination became obvious. She dropped back so that she was walking side-by-side with Rook. She put a gentle hand on her arm. Rook looked at her, green eyes afraid. “I’ve got you, Dep. I’ve got you.” They made their way up the familiar trail with burnt-out torches on each side. At the end of the path was the beginning. A heavy bunker door, once hunter green, paint now bubbled with age and exposure. Monaghan opened the door slowly, using all her strength to set it down gradually and without a massive boom that might startle Rook. She turned to her companion.

                “We can go in when you’re ready, or not at all,” she said quietly, stepping back. Rook looked frozen in time and space, her shoulders rising and falling slowly as the only evidence that she was not a statue. “If you don’t ever want to go in again, I’ll blow the whole thing to kingdom come. I’ll scorch and salt the earth here. I’ll find an unexploded nuke and I’ll shove it straight in that bunker. Whatever you want. Anything you want.” Rook held a hand up suddenly and crisply to cease Monaghan’s tirade. She turned her face away from the black opening of the bunker and met Monaghan’s intent gaze.

                “If I go in, will you follow me? I am afraid.”

                “Of course.”

                “I need a minute.”

                “Of course.” Rook stood, still breathing hard, shifting silently from foot to foot, her breath panicked, growling rasps.

                “Those foreboding stairs, that path into the depths where light cannot reach, where man was never meant to go. Into the deep, the dark...” Monaghan did not know if Rook was quoting something, but the signed words gave her goosebumps. She shivered, reminding herself she had nothing to fear from this bunker. Rook took a last, deep breath, then held out her hand. Monaghan took it unquestioningly. They stepped forward, down the stairs and into a darkness that Monaghan obliterated with a handlamp. Rook walked slowly, as though through waist-deep molasses.

                Releasing Monaghan’s hand, Rook took a half step forward and stumbled when she reached what was once her room. Stepping inside after a long minute of contemplation, she touched her notes, tacked to the walls and scattered on the floor. The small room still smelled mildly of urine and blood, even a decade after she was released from it. She gingerly touched books, maps, an old radio.

                “This place was not always my prison. It was once a bastion of safety. I was saved by the man who built this bunker. J.O.S.E.P.H. killed him. His name was D.U.T.C.H.. I want all of this burnt, and I don’t ever want to step into this room again,” she signed, walking out of the room and letting Monaghan close the door behind her.

                The deputy, the Judge, the deputy again, whoever she was, she paced slowly through the entirety of the bunker, opening doors that had probably not been moved in years. Most of the hinges squealed in protest as they were opened. Rook pulled one open with great effort, pushing away Monaghan’s assistance. Gingerly, almost tenderly, she pulled out a dusty forest green shirt, running her thumbs over the material for a moment, a wistful look on her features. She set it down momentarily, stripped off her jacket and let it fall to the floor. She was wearing a sweat-stained white t-shirt underneath it.

                With care, Rook pulled the uniform shirt on, rolling her shoulders and then buttoning it as though she was about to go in to work, as though the last two decades had not occurred. She dropped her wool trousers and pulled up the black-blue jeans, snapping the metal buckle in place. Her soft boots were replaced with brown-black western-style boots, complete with short spurs. At her belt were two pairs of handcuffs, a holster for a missing gun, a long-expired can of mace, and various pockets for other odds and ends, a policeman’s equipment belt. She tucked the shirt in and turned to Monaghan, unmistakably the junior deputy from so long ago. Rook was shaking, trembling in place. Her face was pallid, all the blood drained by some inexplicable emotion.

                Monaghan surveyed her friend, took in the uniform and smiled gently.

                “Don’t you think you’ve done enough protecting and serving, Deputy Rook?”

                “Not until the day I die,” Rook signed back, a slow smile working its way over her face as well. She hooked her fingers in her beltloops and they walked back outside after Rook had tucked her other clothing in her bag.

                “It’s your choice,” Monaghan said again as Rook stared at the doors of the bunker, thinking.

                “There’s a skeleton, D.U.T.C.H.’s skeleton, in the footlocker in the Room. I want to bury it. Burn the rest.” Monaghan nodded.

                “The bunker?”

                “Its air filters are spent. The air ducts collapsed after we…after I left with J.O.S.E.P.H.. There’s no food left. No weapons. No tools. All the maps are useless now.” Rook turned to her, eyes roving over her face. “Let’s destroy it, Cap.” Monaghan nodded, stepped back inside, pulling all of Rook’s writings off the wall and from the floor, wadding them up and throwing them in the corner. She opened the footlocker and beneath a yellow-white skeleton, found a sketchbook. She flipped through it and saw sketches of a kind-eyed man she recognized from a photo, his arm around a lovely woman looking at him in adoration. Sheriff Earl Whitehorse and his fiancé, Clementine Williams. There was a sketch of Sharky, of Hurk, of baby Carmina, of a dozen other people, some she recognized, some she did not. She wanted to hide it, wanted to save it without permission, but she did not, knew she had to ask Rook for permission, even if it meant it would be destroyed.

                Monaghan planted explosives in the footlocker and on the bed, but walked out of the room with the sketchbook in hand. She handed it to Rook, who took it hesitantly, face surprised as though she had forgotten about it. She flipped through it, eyes watering. Without another word, and to Monaghan’s great relief, Rook tucked the sketchbook into her bag for safe-keeping. Rook also took the bag with Dutch’s bones in them reverently.

                They wired the explosives carefully, running wires between each room, all the way to the hatch door, adding kindling and logs as they went to ensure utter destruction and a hellishly hot fire. They each grabbed the handle and slammed the bunker shut, stepping back carefully. Monaghan handed Rook the detonator. Taking a deep, settling breath, Rook closed her eyes and cradled the remote in her hand for a moment before she looked at Monaghan.

                “‘I am glad you’re here with me. Here at the end of all things,’” she mouthed. Monaghan barked a laugh.

                “Did you just quote ‘The Lord of the Rings’?” Rook let out a raspy, hissing chuckle, looking a little embarrassed. They sobered, and Rook leaned over to Monaghan, kissing her gently.

                “Thank you,” she signed. And then she hit the switch.

Chapter Text

                “I always hated climbing these fucking things,” Rook mouthed and signed gingerly after testing her rigging for the thirtieth time as she looked down, down, down the radio tower to the ground far below. Monaghan chuckled. “Remind me again why you volunteered us for this?

                “I volunteered me. I voluntold you,” Monaghan joked, cuffing her on the shoulder to an irritated hiss. “Come on, we get this tower back up and running, we could start connecting with more resistance groups and then maybe one of these days you and I could retire to Florida.” Rook gave her a nasty look, but took the proffered Philips head screwdriver, tightening the circuit board gently. Monaghan threw a switch and heard the tell-tale hiss of the radio, switched channels, heard chatter. They both grinned and began the long rappel down. Rook landed hard, wincing and hissing as her knee popped and folded under her. Monaghan helped her up with a chuff of laughter. “Like I said, we’re getting to retirement age.”

                “One of the reasons I became a cop was for the retirement package, the pension,” Rook signed with a dry hissing laugh. “So much for that.

                “Yeah, well,” Monaghan drawled, slinging an arm over Rook’s shoulder, “at least the cancer will probably take us before the dementia does.”

                “Wow. That’s dark,” Rook signed, but she was smiling. “Are you sure you want to spend the rest of your life here with me?”

                “Well, you know I always did go for the emo girls,” Monaghan teased. “And it’s not like there’s many fish left in the sea.”

                “Ouch,” Rook signed, visibly insulted.

                “Hey,” Monaghan said, cupping Rook’s chin in her hands, framing her face with gentle fingers, and then moving them back to run gently through her hair. “One of my greatest regrets in this life is that I didn’t meet you sooner, so that I could have loved you longer.” She planted a chaste kiss on Rook’s forehead. Rook reddened a bit, eyes flicking away for a moment. “Come on, don’t get squeamish on me,” Monaghan teased, prodding Rook in the side until the terse figure rasped a laugh and cracked a wide smile. “I’m going to tell you how much I love you and how much I need you and how much you mean to me until you’re sick of hearing it,” Monaghan promised, pulling her close and kissing her again, this time on the lips. Rook deepened the kiss, pushing Monaghan back and down onto the thick, soft grass at the base of the radio antenna. Hands searched, and touched and they moved together, rocking in the warm afternoon sun. They lay, contented, watching clouds go by until the sun started to get low in the sky.

                “Move in with me,” Rook signed. Monaghan turned her head toward her wildly, eyes widening. Her face split into a grin as she sat up.

                “You’re serious?” she asked, sounding surprised. Rook scoffed, sitting up with her.

                “Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” Monaghan shook her head with a small, not-quite-bitter smile.

                “I guess I never thought I’d be happy again after the bombs. Never thought something like this, like us, could happen. So I’m a little skeptical when you say things that make me feel so warm inside I must have swallowed a nuke.”

                “Don’t joke about nukes,” Rook chided, but she was smiling. “I don’t have a key to give you, but as far as I’m concerned, my cabin is now our cabin.” Monaghan swallowed hard, reaching out a hand to caress Rook’s face, rubbing her thumb on Rook’s lower lip.

                “I would give anything, anything, for you not to have gone through what you did, for the bombs not to have dropped…but I’m glad that those things brought us together. I love you, Charity Rook.”

                “And I love you Corbin Monaghan,” Rook half-mouthed, half-rasped.

--

                “You know the California Company could use some new blood,” Monaghan commented to Carmina as the teenager drew her bowstring back, Rook gently pushing her elbow down, adjusting her fingers on the string before nodding. Carmina released the string and the arrow struck just to the left of center.

                “Good job,” Rook signed and Carmina set the bow down and signed back,

                “Thanks!

                “You really think so, Cap?”

                “Only if it’s something you want. I could write you one hell of a recommendation letter,” Monaghan jested.

                “I think I’d like that, but I want to made sure the county is safe first.”

                “Kid, why did you think we were coming to Hope County in the first place? You thought the most organized paramilitary group left in the US swung by Hope County, derailing all other plans just because you asked nicely?” Carmina looked at her, frowning. “This valley was always part of our logistics, it was always the plan to settle here as a base of operations. The floral bloom here, the life in the midst of all the death from the bombs. It’s what Rush wanted. You asked us to help Hope County, but you weren’t the only reason we came. If you sign up with the California Company, you’d be working for me. Far as I can tell, no one else survived the train wreck. Most of the California Company was with us and the remaining ones have joined other groups since. I’ve made a few contacts via radio that suggest that my former co-workers are working on finding scientists, professionals. And they’re headed this way now that they’ve heard back from me. So yeah, we’ll clean up the county before you start for the company, but when you join, it does not mean you have to leave here if you don’t want to.”

                “You’re serious?” Carmina searched Monaghan’s face, looking a little pale.

                “Yeah, well, don’t get too excited. You’ll probably have to work under your mom. She has got more leadership experience and I’ve already recruited her. Maybe you will want to leave the county,” Monaghan teased.

                “Shut up,” Carmina laughed. Monaghan winked and pulled her own bow out, taking a few practice shots.

                The survivors of Hope county had been slowly but surely picking off Highwaymen since the Twins had died six months before. Spray painted monuments to them had been dug out, pulled up by cars or by the moose they’ve started training like horses. Wreckage was cleared out as well, burned or repurposed. There were plans to collaborate with remnants of the California Company, and groups like them to bring in specialists, especially a collection of engineers, ecologists and physicists who were working to make safe again the fall out areas that had restricted foot and ground vehicle travel. Monaghan and Rook explored while hunting, searching bunkers and caches for anything that could help keep the land and its people alive and happy. It turned out Rook’s mother was a botanist, and Monaghan could see the look of delight spread over Rook’s face when she found an old bank of wildflower seeds in a rusted, half-collapsed bunker that had belonged to a Vietnam veteran named Wendall Redler. Rook had gotten better about going into bunkers, Monaghan noticed, but did not comment. The first few times they entered a bunker, Monaghan nonchalantly sang “Shelter from the Storm” and Rook seemed to relax.

                Recovery was a slow, slow process and Rook still had nightmares, still got quiet and recalcitrant at times, often disappearing into the forest for days before returning, but she always gave a chirp of her new radio at sunset.

                Monaghan awakened one morning their cabin on the north island, stretching sleepily and sitting up. Rook was pacing, looking distressed.

                “Everything okay?” Monaghan asked, stomach dropping.

                “We have a problem,” Rook signed, eyes wild. Monaghan pulled her shirt over her head and straightened it, frowning.

                “What’s up?”

                “Most of the New Edeners want to keep peace, a lot of them are moving to Prosperity. But there is a group…there is a group who believes we were responsible for Joseph’s death, that I killed him, and that he’s still the true father. They believe that you and I are sinners.” Monaghan scoffed, nonplussed.

                “So let them,” she commented, relaxing.

                “No. You don’t understand. The ones who believe this are original cult members. Members who participated in the drugging, the kidnapping. The murders. They have the potential to be very dangerous. I found this out because one of them spat on me this morning when I went for my morning walk. I spoke to Jake about it. It’s bad.”

                “Rook…Charity,” Monaghan softened, grabbing her hand to stop the frenetic pacing. “We lived in a world with extremists for a very long time. Westboro Baptist Church, Al Qaeda, MAGA-supporting Neonazis, ISIS, sovereign citizens, white supremacists, you name it. There will always be people who think they’re better than everyone else, who think that they could do as they please because some imaginary friend in the sky told them so…” Rook interrupted her with a little growl, reminding her that she had a deep-seated belief in God and did not appreciate the condescension. Monaghan sighed, flicking her eyes in annoyance. “Look, I’m just saying, as long as people are around, they’re going to disagree. So let them disagree. If they do anything worse than call us names and spit at us, we’ll intervene.”

                “It concerns me,” Rook signed, insistent.

                “And it concerns me, but people have the right to believe what they want unless they’re hurting someone. We can’t force them to believe what we want them to believe. What do you suggest? Violence? Extermination? Sometimes…sometimes you’re better off leaving well enough alone.” That clearly struck a nerve and Rook went deathly still, face whitening in rage or in horror, Monaghan was not sure which. “Kick them out of New Eden,” Monaghan suggested. “Show the rest of the cult you will not tolerate hate. Extirpate the ones who are acting like assholes, let them see what it’s like living alone with no resources. I’ll let the Scavengers know not to trade with them. Sometimes the only way to stop hate is to starve it out,” Monaghan mused.

                “Fine,” Rook signed once she has collected herself. “Will you come with me?”

                “The infidel? The nonbeliever? Is that really who you want by your side when you piss a bunch of people off?” Monaghan asked with amusement.

                “Be serious,” Rook snapped with her hands, signed sharp. “You’re their Shepherd. They will listen to you. And…I need an interpreter, you ass.” Monaghan blushed.

                “Right, sorry. Of course, I’ll come.” The two get dressed, Monaghan insisting on drinking a cup of chicory coffee before they headed out.

                They approached the gates of New Eden and Rook hesitated, an uncharacteristic action when entering what was her home for nearly a decade. She balled her fingers into a fist and knocked. After a few moments, there was a response. Daniel, a tall New Edener of about twenty pulled the hatch door back, surveyed the two.

                “Judge. Shepherd.” He opened the gate and they stepped inside. The village was largely as they left it, though with the burned buildings torn out and rebuilt. There was a larger garden tilled now and morning glory flowers grew thick on the inside of the walls, blooming readily after the fires. A few New Edeners looked up, waving to the pair. Some look disapproving when Monaghan reached for Rook’s hand and squeezed it. Rook tugged it loose, looking at her sternly.

                “Don’t add fuel to the fire,” she signed. Monaghan rolled her eyes.

                “If you really think hiding who you are again is a reasonable solution, you really haven’t learned anything,” she snapped, but she did not touch Rook again. Rook looked away, hurt, but continued forward until she reached the chapel. It did not get used much since neither Rook nor Monaghan were interested in providing sermons to the New Edeners. This time, however, Rook stepped into the chapel, motioning to a child to ring the bell.

                Monaghan posted up just to the side of Rook where she stood at the lectern, patiently waiting for the New Edeners to file in. Jake walked up, shaking Rook’s hand before pulling her into an embrace. The huge eighteen year old made Rook look tiny when he hugged her, his red hair sticking out haphazardly around a handsome, serious face.

                “I’ve got your back,” he murmured, having long since learned how to speak again with only half his tongue. She murmured soft thanks and he took up a place behind her, arms crossed threateningly over his chest as he watched her back.

                As more New Edeners came in, Monaghan squirmed, seeing that some of them, mostly older ones, looked angry and aggressive. Nearly the entirety of the cult filed into the chapel. Some of them remained standing, but most sat cross-legged on the floor, faces earnest, or angry, or interested, or excited. The age range was wide, some people clearly in their seventies, others young men and women holding squirming babies. Rook turned to Monaghan enough so that she could see her sign clearly, but her body was still mostly pointed toward the New Edeners settling in.

                “I need to you interpret for me verbatim, so I’m going to fingerspell a lot and I will be mouthing what I’m saying very clearly. It’s important you don’t paraphrase or change the words that I use. I’ll go slowly.” Rook reached out a hand and grasped Monaghan’s shoulder tightly. “I love you, and I am not ashamed of you, but I am also not willing to put us into danger by intentionally stirring up the anger of those who don’t agree that love is love.” She glanced at Jake as though to emphasize her point. “Acceptance can only come with time. Be careful, and be ready for a fight if things escalate. What I say may make some of them very angry.” With that, Rook turned to her audience, taking a deep breath. Monaghan interpreted with a clear voice.

                “Something is coming.” Rook met the eyes of her people, stopping on a few, holding their gaze until they looked away. “You can feel it, can’t you? That we are creeping toward the edge…and there will be a reckoning. That is why we started the Project, because we know what happens next.”

                There was a murmuring through the gathered group and goosebumps raised on Monaghan’s arms. What she was saying was clearly significant, though she didn’t understand why. She continued, watching Rook’s hands closely. “They will come. They will try to take from us, take our guns, take our freedom, take our faith. We will not let them. We will not let their greed or immorality or depravity hurt us anymore…” She stopped and Monaghan looked at her, brows furrowed in confusion, not knowing what was going on, thoroughly freaked out. Rook looked into her eyes, her expression sure, comforting. She continued signing and Monaghan spoke the words for her, her mouthpiece.

                “Nearly twenty years ago, some of you here heard Joseph Seed speak those words as I walked into your church. You remember his words. You remember what he stood for, and what he did, and you tolerated it. Most of you have accepted that what he did was wrong, that he misinterpreted the Word of God, whether through malicious intent or mental illness, the reason is not important. He taught you to do wrong. Yes, I tempered him, helped him see that he had done wrong, but his actions were still those of an evil man in his younger years. He had to atone.

                “Now that he is dead, now that you know that he was not a true father to you, some of you understand that belief cannot be forced. Our views on technology and violence and the world before the collapse aside, you learned that we are a family, and that we cannot afford to separate ourselves from our fellow man. Some of you are moving to, or have visited our friends in Prosperity. You know that the real measure of a man is how he treats those who are different from him.

                “But some of you…” Rook shook her head, face furious and as Monaghan spoke for her, she found herself mimicking the expression. New Eden’s Judge pointed out several individuals pointblank with a condemning finger. The accused shuffled and looked angry or ashamed or defiant as she identified them. “The locusts in our garden…they would destroy all that we’ve built. We will not let their hate, or their corruption or their defiance of God’s will divide us anymore. There will be no more suffering. There will be no more judgment. There will be no more bigotry. Those who believe that New Eden is a haven for hatred of those who are different, who believe that the weak should be destroyed, who believe that Joseph was right to allow murder and torture to happen under his watch…you are not welcome here anymore. My people…drive them out.”

                Rook stepped down from the lectern and passed through her followers, most of whom had been her family and friends. She was nearly out of the chapel when she turned, a pained expression on her face. She stood, staring into space, thinking. Some of the New Edeners murmured nervously until her eyes flashed upwards and a cold look flashed across Rook’s face. When she finally signed again, Monaghan interpreted for her in a clear, sure voice. “If I find that any of you hateful few still reside in New Eden when I return, I will kill you,” she said, and was gone.

Chapter Text

                The two put the small sect of angry, hateful cultists out of their mind. Rook received a report from her scouts that the group had indeed been exiled from New Eden, and life returned to normal. The two occasionally encountered one of the ousted sect, who had deemed themselves “Joseph’s Angels.” They were clearly afraid of Rook, and flee soon after spotting either Rook or Monaghan, though they usually muttered a hateful “sinners,” under their breath before they go. For the time being, the captain and the deputy were satisfied that the problem had been put to an end.

                Continuing their work of improving the county and working with the California Company and its scientists and other allies, Rook set fire to a huge field of fiery pink verbena where farmland had once been eighteen years before. She helped the Scavengers make leather harnesses and capture and train cattle and young moose for labor. She claimed one young moose fawn in particular for herself, an odd speckled gray creature she named “Pepper.” It drug a till made out of a modified plane rotor, tearing up old pieces of metal, turning the burnt ashes of the verbena into the soil with the wildflower seeds Rook scattered. As time passed, lupine and every other kind of flower Rook had mentioned so long ago popped up, vibrant, making the land look like a multicolored blanket.

                Rebecca came to Hope County, reuniting with Monaghan once train wreckage was cleared and she greeted other familiar co-workers as they trickled in over the course of the next few months, introducing them to Carmina, who had hero worship in her eyes. They contacted a new group that called themselves the “Corp of Scientists,” who came to the county bearing tools and expertise. One of them had a background in psychology, to Monaghan’s great relief. The Corp of Scientists stayed and helped, rebuilding the destroyed dam to provide more reliable power, recycling toxic soil, burning the invasive Angel’s Trumpet flower that popped up in irradiated areas.

                The psychologist spoke with Rook and while it was hardly ideal, Monaghan translated for her, acted as Rook’s voice so she can talk out her guilt and her fears and her hopes. Monaghan could tell that it helped, but knew that Rook will always carry a blackened mark on her soul. The captain was worried when Rook made another mask, but it was strictly used for hunting, made of a large cougar skull.

                Several New Edeners turned Scavengers left with the California Company when they packed up, promising to help fight the rest of the Highwaymen in other areas. Like most New Edeners, they preferred pacifism to violence, but were willing to spill blood when needed to restore peace. Carmina did not take missions with the California Company that kept her out of Hope County for any length of time because she met a boy from New Eden and they fell in love, as young people are wont to do. Rook and Monaghan expanded their house, adding more walls, but building a large covered porch where they spend most of their time. Sharky, Grace, Jerome, Nick, Kim, Hurk and the others visited often, drinking with Rook and recalling good times together.

                Another group of scientists and settlers visited the county from UC Davis and one of them offered to made a voice emulator for Rook. She refused it, but thanked them. She had embraced her silence and Monaghan loved her quiet hisses and growls and purrs, had learned to read her lips almost as clearly as her signed. A professor from the Montana School for the Deaf & the Blind moved in and taught many in the community ASL and Monaghan could tell Rook was trying very hard not to cry the first time Sharky attempted to carry on an awkward, choppy ASL conversation with her, but she laughed as he fingerspelled curse words with practiced ease.

                Kim and Nick rebuilt their airfield and built new planes. With their help, more and more counties and towns were connected, designing maps to avoid still dangerously radioactive areas.

                Hurk and Gina marry and then divorce and then re-marry within the space of two years.

                Rook took a deep, shuddering breath, as one of the scientists pointed out the date casually. It had been twenty years since the bombs went off.  She vanished into the woods, much to Monaghan’s chagrin, but she returned with a box of mementos. At last able to try for closure, Rook enlisted her friends’ assistance arranging four funerals. She had found an old sheriff’s badge, worn and damaged, but unmistakably Sheriff Earl Whitehorse’s. She carved four crosses and Monaghan read the names as Rook hammered them into the ground near a tree outside the destroyed remains of the bunker she had spent so many years of her life in.

“Sheriff Earl Whitehorse – A father for those who had none.” Rook buried his badge at his cross.

“Deputy Joey Hudson – Sister. Friend.” For this, Monaghan made a contribution – a wrinkled, hole-filled uniform shirt she had found while exploring.

“Deputy Staci Pratt – Friend. Confidant.” Nothing was buried here, there was no physical reminder of him left, but Rook loosened the ground here anyway, planting a peach tree over his grave. Monaghan didn’t quite understand why, but several of their friends had murmured that it was fitting.

“Richard ‘Dutch’ Roosevelt – Survivor. Hero.” This was the only grave actually containing a body. Rook handled and buried the bones with care, arranging them in the grave from head to toes.

                Jerome presided over a small gathering of people, reading a eulogy for each person, and for all the citizens of Hope county who had been killed by the cult or by the bombs. When he had finished and those who attended the funeral started to socialize, Rook had disappeared into the woods again, but this time she waited for Monaghan to follow.

Chapter Text

                Things were, in a word, going swimmingly. The valley was nearly as technologically adept as it had been before the bombs fell. They had power from the repaired dam, and running water from a repaired and upgraded water treatment plant. Things were almost too good to be true, but Monaghan chose not to think about what could still go wrong, chose not to give any thought to the scraggly starving hate group that still haunted the valley. Joseph’s Angels were on their own, shunned by all members of the Hope county community. Putting them entirely out of her mind as she walked back toward Rook’s house after a day of tending to their orchard, Monaghan stopped for a moment, fidgeting.

                She was nervous.

                Getting Rook’s attention with a shaking voice, Monaghan pulled a little metal ring out of her jean pocket, but Rook raised a hand to stop her.

                Her heart sank.

                Maybe Rook wasn’t the marrying kind.

                “It’s alright,” Rook signed to reassure her, smiling a secret little smile, one that Monaghan saw rarely, and loved. The former deputy reached into the pocket of her jacket and brought out a metal ring of her own, an intricately designed pair of birds with the tips of their wings touching to form the circle. “You have no idea how challenging it was to explain to Sharky what I wanted without talking. I had to draw it for him. He made it months ago, and I told him I’d castrate him if he told anyone about it,” Rook confided, eyes twinkling. “Didn’t know when the right time was, but…” She let her signed sentence trail off with a blush as she looked pointedly at the ring Monaghan was holding.

                “Wow, that is just, so much cooler than this one,” Monaghan stuttered, embarrassed at the plain band in her palm.

                “It’s not about the ring,” Rook stopped her.

                “Well, but now I’m worried mine’s offensive…it’s made from steel from…” Rook took it gently.

                “The bunker. Where it all began. Where it ended.” She looked up at Monaghan. “Where it began again. Sharky told me. You must have used the wrong threat to keep him quiet, he’s terrible at keeping secrets.” Monaghan chuckled nervously, wiping sweat off her forehead.

                “The point is…”

                “The point is,” Rook interrupted with her hands and a smile, determined to beat Monaghan to the punchline, “will you marry me?”

                “Of course I will, you idiot. So long as you’ll marry me.” The two grinned at each other. “Sharky,” Monaghan said, slipping the simple ring onto Rook’s finger, “is getting punched in the mouth next time I see him for giving my plans away.”

                “He meant well,” Rook signed after slipping the two-raven ring onto Monaghan’s left ring finger, defending her friend from her now fiancée’s wrath.

--

                They found old white sheets in a long-abandoned store and Kim sewed them simple, knee-length dresses. Rook stubbornly refused to wear a flower crown and insisted Monaghan not do so either.

                They walked up the aisle in the newly invigorated forest outside Prosperity, arm-in-arm, Monaghan with a thick bouquet of wildflowers and Rook with a wildflower corsage so her hands were free to sign. Jerome officiated the wedding, of course.

                They danced slowly, their heads bumping together and Monaghan could not help but notice the network of wrinkles and age spots on Rook’s face. They’re both middle-aged and Rook had started limping from lumbar issues, but she had never looked more beautiful. All Monaghan could think to say when Rook looked at her inquisitively were words similar to ones she had said to her two years ago at the base of a radio tower:

                “I wish I’d met you sooner, so I could have loved you longer.”

Chapter Text

                “All good things come to an end.” It was a phrase Monaghan’s mother had taught her when she was young. Her mother was not a pessimist, exactly, but, given that she was an ecologist, it had been hard to remain optimistic in a world where few people really cared about the planet. So she had often said, in situations where it was appropriate,

                “Remember, Corbin. All good things come to an end.”

                So Monaghan held Rook’s limp hand, thinking to herself, “All good things come to an end.”

--

                “You go that way, I’ll go this way,” Monaghan said, cackling as Rook missed grabbing the chicken for the tenth time. “You’ve gotta corner them!”

                “I know, I used to be an animal control officer. Shut up,” Rook signed, panting for breath. The little red chicken made a beeline for the water bucket they had left out, drank, shit and fluttered its feathers. The two women ran together, chasing the little band of wild chickens. Rook snatched one, a mighty squawk escaping the speckled white and black bird. Monaghan was too busy laughing at the chicken shit running down the front of Rook’s red checkered shirt to catch a chicken of her own. Scowling, Rook tucked the chicken in the basket they had brought, wiping sweat from her face with her sleeve.

                “Do you need a hand, Judge?” a man clad in New Edener garb asked, walking up quietly from out of the nearby woods. The two turned to greet him. Monaghan smiled, but she saw a swift, desperate movement from Rook and felt herself yanked violently to the side, heard an angry growl. Before Monaghan could object, she saw the man pull a cord with a sudden jerk.

                “I do this for the Father!” he screamed, and Monaghan’s world went black.

--

                I never thought I would feel this way again. That murderous rage. That seething red fire in my belly that made me want to snap necks with my bare hands. But I am old. And weak. And, if not broken, then I am certainly bent. My back is sore. My very bones ache with exhaustion. I have spent nearly my entire life fighting some force or other, be it personal or organized. And I am so very tired. So tired of fighting. Tired of resisting. I am tired of wrath. And pride and fear? I’m tired of those too. But Joseph’s old followers have brought their wrath upon me, upon my own, for a second time. I had hoped that exiling those who continued to follow Joseph’s original teachings would have put a stop to their hatred, but it did not.

                Their betrayal was an arrow in my breast. I had guarded them when Joseph left them, had kept them safe for years after the bombs. I tempered the insanity of the Father. But that insanity did not die with him. I am not surprised. Insanity of the kind he traded in is like a disease, viral. It spreads from mind to mind with little care for purpose or reason. So I am not surprised. But I will bring my judgment upon them now that they have harmed others yet again. Intolerance cannot be tolerated.

                My love, my captain. My Corbin. “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Her face is red and bloody. There are pieces of shrapnel buried there, marring sun-browned skin. Her left arm looks shattered, dangles like a hangnail as I hold her. I tied a tourniquet around it, but I fear she will lose it. I don’t know the extent of her other injuries, but she has slept in my arms the entire way back to Prosperity. I am worried. I am angry. But I will be strong. And I will fight again. One last time.

--

                Monaghan awakened feeling like a bomb went off inside her skull, which, to be fair, was not far from the truth. Groggy, mouth feeling full of sand, she coughed, swallowed, choked, grasping at her throat. She wondered momentarily if she was going to be mute as well, wondered if her learning American Sign Language in college was some kind of odd, fate-driven, self-fulfilling prophecy before she realized that was probably the pain medication thinking for her. She knew there was pain medication because she cannot feel her legs, or her left arm. There was a patch taped over her left eye, she found, bumping it gently with her right hand.

                “Here,” said a kind voice. “Drink. Slowly.”

                “Rook?” Monaghan rasped out, voice nearly absent, throat burning.

                “Drink, Captain.”

                “Kim?” Monaghan took the glass of water, still dazed and waking up from her stupor.

                “Yeah. Come on. Drink. You’ve been out for a while. Selene patched you up, got you started on an IV, but we need to made sure you can swallow on your own okay. The fact that you’re talking is a good sign.” Monaghan’s heart was pounding now that she was fully conscious. She could see sadness in Kim’s eyes.

                “Where is Rook?” she asked, voice hoarse, grating, a near simulacrum of Rook’s voice when she tried to talk, but with greater volume. “Kim? Kim?! Where the fuck is my wife?” Kim avoided her eyes.

                “We don’t know. She dropped you off and left immediately after you were stabilized. She signed something about judgment before she left.”

                “I have to go,” Monaghan said, grabbing the edges of the bed to turn herself and stand, but her left arm did not successfully grab the bed. She collapsed to the floor hard, her legs limp and numb beneath her. Confused, she looked at where her left arm should be, but her brain refused to see it, processed only static and a pins-and-needles sensation. “Kim?” she asked, voice shaking.

                “I’ll get Nick and Selene,” Kim said, leaving the room, avoiding Monaghan’s panicked, questioning gaze. Monaghan grabbed her thighs, her calves, her feet, pinched them, twisted flesh viciously with her right hand. Her left hand was still a staticky blank in the corner of her eye. She commanded her toes to wiggle, her ankles to rotate, her calves to flex. She sent raging, screaming demands from her brain to her legs, willing them to move, to work, but the message was stopped somewhere.

                Shuddering, Monaghan grabbed the side of the bedframe, again with just her right arm, tried to pull herself to her feet, but they stayed limp beneath her, refusing to cooperate, ignoring those interrupted orders. It would be easier, more doable to force herself to stand if her left arm would just cooperate, she thought stubbornly, if her left hand would just…grab…if her fingers would close around the edge of the mattress. Why did her body not want to work for her? Furious, she forced the fingers of her left hand into a fist, stared at it.

                Shocking, shivering pain tore through her arm and her hand. Her left forearm blazed bright orange, cooled to gray and then white, disintegrating into ashes and falling away. She screamed, a tearing, burning sensation in her throat. Selene rushed in, holding gauze to where Monaghan’s frantic movements had caused the end of the stump to start bleeding.

                “Woah, my dude, you gotta chill,” Selene said as she, Nick and Kim rush in. “You should be in like a neck brace and the whole nine yards but I was worried you wouldn’t be able to breath, which is, you know, hella important for staying alive. Come on. Let’s get you back in bed, yo.” They lifted her gently and slowly back onto the mattress. She went limp, unable to help, unable to fight, unable to feel anything from the waist down, unable to process that her left arm from just below the elbow was gone.

                “What is this?” she grated out, angry now.

                “You have what we hope is temporary paraplegia. One of Joseph’s Angels suicide bombed himself close to you like a freakin’ terrorist or something. Rook said she was able to push you mostly out of the way, but you were still too close when the bomb went off. Well, she didn’t say it, but she signed it, you know. Anyways, like I said, from the swelling in your spine, my guess is that the leg paralysis is temporary, especially with those crazy super-hero level healing abilities of yours, but I really don’t want to get your hopes up. Even if you do walk again, you’ll probably have balance issues, maybe some nerve pain, my dude. So you gotta stay in bed, Cap, no freakin’ doubt. Enjoy the drugs. Be chill,” Selene urged, sighing.

                “Your guess?” Monaghan muttered nastily, processing. “Are you really not going to mention the fact that my fucking arm is gone?” she ground out. They stand there, looking at her awkwardly.

                “It’s…It’s not just your arm, Cap,” Selena squeaked out, tugging at one of her dreads uncomfortably. “Your eye. It’s gone too.” Nick was fiddling with the ends of his shirt tail, shifting his weight from side to side. Kim had covered her mouth with her hand. Her left hand, Monaghan realized bitterly.

                “My eye is gone. Well, that’s just great,” Monaghan snapped hoarsely, staring at each of them in turn with her good eye…with her remaining eye. Selene just stared at her, mouth opening and closing like a fish pulled out of water. Rolling her eyes in annoyance, bending her left elbow with a sudden excruciating pain, watching the bloody, bandaged nub move as she did so, Monaghan changed the subject. “Was Rook okay when she left here?”

                “She has some shrapnel wounds, some burns and some bruising, probably also a broken arm, but she refused to let me x-ray it, so I just set it as is. She looked fucking scary when she left, though. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her pick up a weapon that was not a bow and arrow.”

                “Oh Christ,” Monaghan whispered. “What did she take?”

                “A flamethrower.” The captain tried again to lift herself, with one arm and one eye and no legs. But then the drugs overcame her and darkness surrounded her again.

--

                I have burned every effigy, every painting, every picture of Joseph I could find, both in New Eden and elsewhere. It was something I should have done long ago. My people are not all guilty. Those who still live in New Eden, in fact, are all entirely clean of this sin, had agreed with my proclamation that Joseph’s Angels had to leave. I burned all of mine and Joseph’s writings in the center of New Eden to make a point. I burned Ethan’s cabin to the ground just because it felt right. He had been part of the problem. These were all things I should have done long ago. But I was tired. And foolish. My people understand. My people will help me root out this new evil. I nailed my theses to the gates and left.

                They read thus:

                “Any of Joseph’s Angels seen attempting to enter New Eden will be killed on sight.

                Any New Edener who trades or harbors an Angel will be exiled.

                Any of Joseph’s Angels who wish to redeem themselves must first bring the Judge the remainder               of their group, dead or alive.”

                 My people have agreed to this. They know to tell me where the new cult is staying if they discover this information. I will find these Angels, and I will destroy them, and I will do so with my wife by my side.

--

                Monaghan held Rook’s limp hand gently, running her finger slowly over her wedding ring. All good things come to an end still echoing through her mind. Her back tingled and she was not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Rook snored gently next to her, body at the very edge of the bed to give Monaghan room. Monaghan wished she were closer. Her head ached. She gently moved her right hand, her only hand, over the cloth cast on Rook’s left arm, slowly stroked up her arm, to her neck, past ancient rope scars and onto her cheek. Rook’s eyelids fluttered and she awakened, lifting her head gingerly off the blanket. Monaghan gasped softly. The side of Rook’s head was red and burnt and would almost certainly be scarred once it had healed. Her once long hair was abbreviated on that side, the ends charred. Rooks eyes sought Monaghan’s face immediately as she awakened.

                “How are you?” she asked. Monaghan chuckled roughly, regretted it, took a proffered glass of water.

                “Been better,” she responded with a broken sign. The sign for “been” required both hands. Fighting back tears, she massaged her throat.

                “Your voice?” Rook asked, hesitant.

                “Still present and accounted for. No pipes, just burns in my throat.” Monaghan gave a facial shrug, wincing. Rook sighed.

                “Can you move your toes?” Rook asked. Monaghan tried. She shook her head, looking away and swallowing, wiping at tears gathering in her eyes, no, eye, she reminded herself when she bumped the bandage and winced. Just one eye.

                “Selene said it’s probably temporary,” she rasped out, deciding that using her voice was easier than trying to sign clearly one-handed. “The missing eye and arm are probably permanent though,” she joked, but Rook did not laugh. “What happened to you? Where did you go?”

                “New Eden. Destroyed some things. Asked some questions. We have more work to do.”

                “There’s always work to do. Can’t others do it this time?” Monaghan asked wearily, her head tilting to watch her arm disintegrate again. She watched it fall to ash, felt that piercing, burning pain like her brain was insisting that there’s still supposed to be an arm there and that pain was the only reasonable response otherwise. She knew she should tell someone about the hallucinations, knew there was help for this, but the wound, the pain, the loss was too fresh.

                “No,” Rook signed emphatically. “Not this time.”

                “And how do you suggest I fight?” Monaghan snarled, throat burning. She held up the remains of her arm, staring at Rook hard with one tired, bloodshot eye. The reasonable part of Monaghan wanted to embrace her wife. Wanted to tell her she was glad they’re both alive. But hot anger flowed through her at the sight of Rook’s left arm, the sight of an injury left untended out of stubbornness and pride. She thought what she would give to have her arm back and fury overflowed. Her temper snapped. “Answer me! How do you suggest I fight with only one arm, Rook? Huh?” Rook’s eyes watered and she looked away, got off the bed, paced to the other side of the room, then back toward Monaghan.

                “We will find a way. There is always a way. There is always hope.” Monaghan chuckled bitterly.

                “When did you become an optimist?”

                “The very instant I laid eyes on you,” Rook signed, leaning over the bed to bump her forehead against Monaghan’s. She rubbed a gentle thumb over Monaghan’s lower lip and then leaned down to kiss her. Monaghan did not return the affection. Rook looked hurt, but at the moment, Monaghan cannot bring herself to care. “You’ll be alright. We’ll be alright,” Rook gestured, reaching for Monaghan’s right hand. She jerked it away, refusing to look at Rook. Monaghan could see her wife’s shoulders drop out of the corner of her remaining eye. Her voice was flat and cold when next she spoke.

                “Who decided it was okay to amputate my arm?” Rook waited for her to look so she could sign an answer, but she did not. Gasping, choking, Rook tried to speak.

                “Seeeelllennneee,” she hissed painfully, rasping, choking again on her own saliva. Monaghan did not care. She turned a cold eye to Rook.

                “Did Selene say it had to be amputated?”

                “Yes,” Rook nodded her fist and her head emphatically. She sighed, and her shoulders dropped even lower, making her look like she had a ton of bricks on her back. She looked utterly defeated, as though a gentle shove would push her over and she would shatter when she hit the floor. Monaghan did not care. Anger was all she could feel. Rage. Wrath. Especially when Rook signed again. “No.” Rook closed her eyes tightly, swallowing. “She said she could try to save it, but that doing so with the limited resources she had could have killed you.”

                “So you took my arm.”

                “I made a choice!” Rook signed largely, the equivalent of yelling and tears fluttered out of her eyes.

                “That bomb, do you think it was meant for you, or for me?” Monaghan asked.

                “I think regardless, they wanted to hurt us both. I wish it would have been me. I do. If I could give you my arm, I would. If I could give you my eye, I would. If I could give you my spine, I would. But I cannot. But I can offer you the blood of our enemies. I can offer judgment.” Rook went just as cold as Monaghan. “I will burn all of New Eden for you if that’s what it takes, not just this new branch of fanatics. I’ll burn this whole county to the ground and destroy every person that’s ever hurt you, but it still will not bring back what you’ve lost. Violence does not bring peace, it only brings more violence. Have we not learned that lesson yet? But still, I will speak violence once again if you ask me to. For you. Please. C.O.R.B.I.N., I was trying to save your life. I was trying to save the love of my life.” She tilted her head to the side, eyes eternally sad. “Don’t make me lose the last good thing God ever gave me.” Monaghan jerked where she laid on the mattress, snarling.

                “Don’t you think your God had done enough?!” Rook sighed with a rough hiss, shaking her head and just looking at Monaghan, looking with two good eyes, so green Monaghan wanted to rip them out of her head.

                “I will not apologize for saving your life, C.O.R.B.I.N.,” Rook signed, small. A whisper of hands. “You’re still my wife.

                “Well. All good things come to an end,” Monaghan murmured. Rook’s face went deathly white. She looked like she might vomit. Her arms hung limp at her sides for a moment before she raised them and began to sign again.

                “C.O.R.B.I.N….

                “Get out of my room.”

                “C.O…

                “Get. OUT. OF. MY! ROOM! NOW!!” Face shattering, tears streaking down her face, Rook turned away, limping painfully out of the room.

--

                “It’s grief,” Kim told me, her hand on my shoulder.

                “Give her time,” Carmina whispered, handing me a beer.

                “I don’t know, man. It’s hard,” Nick muttered, not meeting my eye.

                “Let’s get shitfaced, Dep,” Sharky advised, picking up a shot glass that I decline.

                I sit, silent, as always, that ancient burn in my throat reminding me that anything worth loving was worth fighting for. Was worth resisting for. Joseph’s Angel’s could wait. My wife needed me.

                Kim was not wrong. What Charity was going through was grief. Raw, and hard and as universal as darkness and light. In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. Grief followed shortly after.

                I am ashamed to admit that I did not visit my wife through the “bargaining” stage. I needed to recover from “anger,” and from my own wounds. Recognizing the stages of grief did not made them easier to endure. When next I step into her room, she had moved on to “depression;” it hurts as bone-deep as “anger” ever did. The depression stage of grief was a long and winding tunnel. But as with most tunnels, there was a light at its ending, shining steadily against the darkness.

--

                Monaghan had not eaten in three days. She could feel her strength waning. Could hear her heart beating sluggishly through her temple, her eye and the end of her stump aching with every pump of the muscle to keep her alive. Her hand rested limp in her lap. Rook comes into her room for the first time in two weeks. She sat, silent. Her hair had been shaved into an undercut style that revealed a tattoo of a flower on the unburnt side of her head, previously unnoticed and not visible when her hair was long and thick. Monaghan’s uneaten lunch sat on the bedside table, a turkey sandwich with fresh dandelion lettuce and sliced ground cherries.

                “Are you going to eat that?” Rook signed, wiping a strand of short hair out of her face. Monaghan just stared at her hand where it sat in her lap, alone. She only had one hand now. No more two-handed tasks, no more playing guitar, no more archery, no more braiding her own hair. She felt numb, and sad, somehow wanting to cry and wanting to sleep at the same time, but doing neither.

                Rook shrugged at Monaghan’s lack of response, took the sandwich, eating it hungrily. She finished, taking a deep drink of tea. “I had been starved enough in my life. You can choose it now. I will not miss a meal again. Could you wiggle your toes?” Monaghan was silent, her eye lifeless. The bandage over her missing eye had been changed and it no longer wept blood or oozed plasma anymore. The end of her stump no longer stained red after an hour. She was healing, or at least her body was.

                Rook crawled gently into the bed with Monaghan that night, gentle, and wary. Her rasping breaths were slow, cautious. Monaghan ignored her, let her stay. She ignored gentle hands caressing her cheek. She ignored gentle lips pressing against her own. She cried softly, a deep ache in her chest. Her arm was gone. Gone as though it was never there. She could still see it, burning, flaking away to ash, crumbling. Her eye socket still ached, but the pain had lessened to a burrowing itch like an insect trying to crawl into her brain. Logically, she knew it was the stitches keeping the socket closed, but she still wanted to scratch that insect out, to snatch it by long, thorny legs and smash it between her fingers.

                The pain of her loss hitting her again like a freight train, Monaghan shuddered, and then began to weep, tears streaming from only one eye. Her head ached. Her arm burned. Her back tingled. She cried, hard, the tears racking her body, making worse the flaring pains that seem to have replaced most of her body. Rook held her, gentle. Patient.

                “I’ve got you, C.O.R.,” she signed, an echoed promise. “You know you’re wrong when you say “All good things come to an end.” The original phrase is ‘There is an end to everything, to good things as well.’ Historians believe the proverb was first written by Chaucer in the thirteen hundreds. Things may change, but you and I? What we have will always be good. You are still my wife, and I will love you for the rest of my days.” Monaghan did not respond, just laid, vacant, hurting. Rook wiped a tear from her face gently, leaned forward, kissed another tear away with her lips, eyes eternally sad as they look at Monaghan.

                The crying made Monaghan even more exhausted. She drank water, but accepted nothing else, not even pain medications. From the bitter taste and odd hue of the water, she knew Selene had ground her antibiotics into it. She stopped resisting and just drank it. She looked down at her ashen hand disintegrating, realized her wedding ring was gone, probably destroyed and cried some more.

                Monaghan did not eat for another two days. She was pale. Weak. At each meal, Rook ate her food after offering it first to her, refusing to waste it. Finally, on the sixth day of Monaghan’s chosen fast, Rook grabbed her chin and turned her to look at her, expression hard and angry.

                “You have to eat. You need food. I will not let you kill yourself this way. Eat. Now.” Monaghan turned her head away, despondent. Rook grabbed her chin again, rammed scrambled egg into her mouth and clamped her nose shut until she was forced to swallow. Weak as she was after so little food, the treatment still made her furious. Monaghan struck at Rook with a hand made of ash, screamed in futile anger and then swung her legs over the side of the bed to bring Rook back into range to try hitting her with her right hand this time. Rook’s eyes went wide with delight, only to scowl, growling furiously when Monaghan plowed her right fist into her nose, snapping it. Annoyed, she staggered back, holding her bloody nose and letting a little nasal growl of fury out. She stepped to the far corner of the room and then signed, “Come do that again,” a taunt, but Monaghan laughed. Rook laughed roughly, dabbing a cloth to her nose.

                The laughing ceased when Monaghan tried to put weight on her legs and she collapsed, Rook rushing to her to help lift her back onto the bed. “Eat,” Rook signed, setting the plate of eggs on her lap and handing her the fork. “You’re not helpless, you can feed yourself.” With regained purpose, Monaghan complied, piling eggs into her mouth and chewing thoughtfully and wiggling her toes until the muscles were sore with the effort. “I kept this safe for you, provided you still want it,” Rook signed finally, once Monaghan had eaten and drained three full glasses of water. She held out her hand once she finished signing. Sitting brightly in her palm was Monaghan’s wedding ring, a raven and a rook, wingtips touching in an unlikely embrace. Tears burned again in Monaghan’s eyes, brightly. She tilted her head, her one eye meeting Rook’s gaze.

                “Of course I do,” she choked out, her voice much improved after nearly three weeks of healing with little talking to keep it raw from its injury. “Of course I do. I’m sorry.” Rook cut off any further apology and pushed the ring onto the ring finger of her right hand. It was a little tight, but still fit well enough. “I love you, Rook.” Rook kissed her gently and this time she kissed back.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan relearned how to walk over the course of the next month. Rook journeyed in and out of Prosperity, arranging both New Edener and Scavenger patrols. She heard rumors of the Joseph Angel camp, but had not yet found it. Uneasy, she accepted the security of Prosperity as good enough for now, but she did not allow anyone to enter Prosperity’s gates wearing heavy clothing, jackets or bags. For now, the best offense was a good defense. Monaghan was frustrated at slow progress, though everyone was delighted that she was walking again.

                Monaghan did not have balance issues related to her spinal injury at all, to their great relief, but she did struggle with the loss of her arm and her eye, the two new handicaps making her feel awkward and panicky. People moving in her blind spots threw her off, made her nervous, edgy and frustrated, but with time she worked through it, made a habit of standing on people’s left side so she could look at them with her right eye. Her empty eye socket, mostly healed, was covered with a custom leather patch made for her by Carmina. Rook insisted that an embroidered depiction of Yggdrasil be sewed at its center to go with her Huginn and Muninn tattoo, a devilish prank that made Monaghan laugh when they had first handed her the patch. Leave it to Rook to find a reference to troll her with.

                “If you start calling me ‘Odin’ I’ll break your nose again,” Monaghan threatened her, though she still felt bad about the slight crook to the bridge of Rook’s nose once it had healed.

                “You lost your eye, did you gain any wisdom?” Rook teased her, leaping back with her usual grace when Monaghan threw a mock punch. Monaghan practiced with her side arm, relearning yet another skill, one she had previously done with two arms now adjusted to one. Sniping was still possible in the prone position. Willing to remake bullets if it meant keeping her abilities honed, Monaghan carried her heavy rifle on her left shoulder, set up targets. She had Sharky weld a modified bipod for her and set it up, her belly flat to the ground. It was still painful putting weight on the blunt end of her stump, but fortunately her elbow was still present. She used the remains of her arm to balance just as she had always done in prone position, with small adjustments. Fortunately, she always viewed her scope with her right eye, so nothing had changed with this ability, to her great relief. But holding a rifle while upright or sitting? Out of the question.

                Bitterly, Monaghan tried to balance the barrel of one of her lighter, shorter rifles on her stump, but it kicked back, muzzle jumping, missing the target wildly and nearly falling to the ground, yanking her right wrist hard. Swearing, she nearly threw the gun to the ground, but she regained her control, took a deep breath and held the rifle out crisply for Carmina to take from her.

                It was not without frustration that she noticed Rook’s frequent absence from dinners, her late nights spent up working on finding Joseph’s Angels obsessively, to the exclusion of spending time with Monaghan. She snapped at Rook one night when she came to bed, informing her that she was not welcome in their bed tonight. Without a sign, Rook walked downstairs and slept on the sofa. She awakened before dawn the next day, bringing Monaghan a cup of coffee, an expensive commodity given that coffee beans were flown by Roger into Hope County from Florida and Texas, where they were obtained from contacts in Mexico and Costa Rica. To say that Monaghan felt like a jackass was an understatement, and she ended up sharing most of the steaming cup with Rook. The captain’s shame at her anger grew when Rook revealed the real reason for her absence.

                Monaghan was trying for the hundredth time to find a way to hold or prop her bow against the tip of her stump. Crying out in frustration and pain as the bow clattered around to smack her in the side from her grip on its string for what felt like the thousandth time that day, she sat with a huff, wiping her hand over her face.

                “Cor,” Rook rasped out to get her attention, coughing for a moment at the effort. Monaghan looked up at her, face screaming her frustration as loudly as if she were yelling. Her expression softened when she saw genuine excitement on Rook’s face. “I made this for you, with some help. I don’t know if it will work. We can modify it once we know what changes will need to be made, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Here.” Monaghan accepted the bow with curiosity. For the most part, it looked like a regular recurve bow, but at its grip was a singularly unique modification. There was a ratchet around the riser’s grip attached to a curved tube. The design was intricate, but also simple to understand. Monaghan stuck the stump of her arm into the tube, feeling soft wool and leather padding where it terminated, a relief against the sore end of her arm. Taking the string in her right hand, she pulled back with her right arm while she pushed the bow forward with what was left of her left. The ratchet clicked as her elbow moved, locking the bow in place once her arm had straightened. She bent her elbow and the rachet released, allowing the tube to move freely as she relaxed the string.

                Accepting an arrow from Rook with her right hand, Monaghan noted that the tube was deep enough to allow her to “grip” the bow handle without assistance from her right hand. She sat the arrow on the arrow rest and she again drew the bow. She aimed at the target, sighting down the turkey feather arrow. She released. The arrow struck just below the center. Rook handed her another and she adjusted, took a breath, aimed, released. The arrow struck nearly true. A wide smile broke across Monaghan’s face and she turned to see Rook smiling gently, clearly proud of her work. “I cannot take all the credit,” she signed. “I had a lot of help. Dr. L.A.U., the engineer from Maine helped, as did H.U.R.K., of all people. Do you like it?” Trying very hard to be cool and not lose her shit and start crying from joy, Monaghan swallowed, rearranging her face into a skeptical frown as she surveyed her gift.

                “The arm rest needs some adjustment. It’s a little too long,” she said critically, making herself sound gruff so Rook cannot hear the tears of happiness in her voice. Rook seemed to be trying not to look disappointed, so Monaghan grinned again. “This is amazing. You’re amazing. Thank you.” Rook reddened and looked away, smiling that small, secret smile that made Monaghan’s chest feel too warm. Monaghan wrapped her arms around Rook, using the bow’s arm tube as a makeshift arm. Monaghan realized with a start that Rook was weeping. “Hey, hey, It’s okay. It’s okay, Rook. It’s alright. What’s wrong?”

                “It’s nothing. It’s stupid.” Rook looked away, wiping a tear from her cheek roughly, an angry huff stuttering from her throat. “It’s so much more of a loss for you than me, so I feel selfish even mentioning it, but…It’s just…I’ll never feel your arms wrapped around me again. And it’s my fault.”

                Fuuuuuuuuuuck. Not this song and dance again. She set the custom bow down gently, jaw working in frustration. Collecting herself, Monaghan put her hand on Rook’s shoulder and shook it. There was no response. Rook was still staring mournfully at the ground.

                “Hey,” Monaghan said sharply, the eyebrow of her missing left eye lowered in a vicious argumentative expression. She popped Rook gently on the cheek, just enough of a slap to sting and get her attention, distracting her from her spiral of guilt. “None of that shit. Stop blaming yourself for things outside your control. I’m not doing this co-dependency nonsense with you. We’re in this together. We are not victims. Got it?” Rook gave a small smile and nodded, collecting herself. “Besides. It’s just an arm. That’s why God gave me two,” she teased, jabbing Rook in the side. The two roughhouse, Rook relentlessly targeting every ticklish spot she knew of until the two were giggling and writhing on the ground in a way one might consider immature for two grown-ass women in their forties.

                “Hurk, get the camera, there’s a chick fight!” Monaghan heard Sharky yell, his voice an octave higher than usual.

                “Fuck off, Sharky,” she giggled as Rook went for the back of her neck, and then her armpit. The two froze suddenly when Rook accidentally bumped the end of her stump, hard. Monaghan hissed in pain and held the end of her left arm delicately in her right hand. Rook’s face went paper white and she began hacking, coughing, hissing, breathing hard and panicking. “If you make yourself have a stroke over an accident, I’ll kick your ass,” Monaghan snapped, taking deep steadying breaths as the pain shot wildly down her arm. Once more she saw a burning, disintegrating forearm and hand that flowed to ash until only her right hand resting on the end of the stump remained. She closed her eyes, breathed deeply again, trying to calm herself.

                “Are you O.K.?” Rook signed once her breathing had returned to normal and she helped Monaghan to her feet. Monaghan met her eyes, her own watering with profound pain in a part of her arm that no longer existed.

                “I think I really need some help, Rook.”

--

                Monaghan had hoped that just admitting she needed help to her wife would get her farther. It had taken her years to admit that talking about trauma could help heal it. She had talked to one of the psychologists who had settled in the valley about her time as a soldier before her arm had been blown off and had found it helpful, but after this new traumatic injury, it was as though she had taken fifty steps back. Her nightmares, largely a thing of the past after hours of talk therapy and a break from killing Highwaymen, had returned with a vengeance after the attack, her memories of seeing her friends’ limbs blown off in the Middle East emphasized and revisited with new, graphic detail now that she had experienced it firsthand.

                It took waking up screaming next to Rook for her to admit that she again needed to talk to an expert, not just Rook. The burden was too much for Rook and her to bear alone. Monaghan had been thrashing violently, kicking Rook hard in the leg and nearly pushing her out of the bed. Her wife had scrambled away, afraid, Monaghan could see it in her eyes, could see her remembering the time Monaghan had clamped a hand around her throat with the intent of killing her. So she talked to the psychologist again, gruffly at first, especially when they asked her to put her right hand in a mirrored box, claiming that it would help. Sticking her remaining arm into a mirrored box to appear as though she was whole again seemed futile and stupid. Until suddenly, two months into the therapy, it was not. There was a sudden moment of clarity, and as though someone had flipped a light switch, her brain and her nerves accepted what they previously could not. The burning stopped. The ashes vanished. Her arm was gone, yes, but so was the pain.

Chapter Text

                “I need one more thing before we confront Joseph’s Angels,” Monaghan said, wiping sweat from her forehead with the wooden prosthetic Rook had carved for her.

                Rook cocked her head, signed, “What?” Monaghan looked up at her wife, grinning.

                “A sword, and a shield.”

--

                In Hope County Montana post-Collapse there were only two seasons. This did not used to be the case, of course, but global nuclear war had a tendency to change a place. At any rate, summer had begun. Realistically, summer began in what was once February, stayed until December and brought scorching hot days with bitterly cold nights. The exception was March. In March, summer brought scorching hot days with scorching hot nights, a singularly miserable experience for everyone. One of the meteorologists that had made her way through the county had explained why this was, but Monaghan did not really care. All she knew was that it was hot. Too hot.

                Monaghan laid in the bed next to Rook tossing and turning, sweat gathering uncomfortably on her. She was bare-ass naked, having just had slow, lazy sex, but the activity had increased her heart rate and her body temperature. Rook laid beside her and gave a little annoyed hiss at her movements, reminding her the of the first time they’d slept in the same room so long ago, when Rook, then the Judge, had thrown her a leather pad to made her stop tossing on the uncomfortable cot in New Eden before her journey to meet Joseph.

                “Sorry,” Monaghan muttered. “It’s hot.” Eyes mischievous, Rook rolled over closer, wrapped Monaghan in her arms, tucked her skinny legs up tight behind Monaghan’s, bear-hugging her so she could not escape. “Goddammit, get off, Rook,” Monaghan snapped, impatient and tired now. Rook gave an apologetic, rustling hiss and released her, getting up and opening a window, the silhouette of her lithe, naked body eerily beautiful. A cool breeze flickered through their room bringing some relief.

                “We need to get some sleep before tomorrow. We don’t know what to expect. I can bring you a glass of water if you think it would help you cool off,” Rook offered by the light of the full moon trickling in from outside.

                “I’m not going to be able to get good sleep anyway,” Monaghan admitted. “Who knows how they’ll react?” The thought of their planned confrontation with Joseph’s Angels sent a wary chill through Monaghan that did nothing to help the heat, only set her more on edge. She sighed and settled her head on her pillow again. Rook climbed back into bed and faced her, moonlight illuminating her features and her hands just enough so she could be understood.

                “Their choices are limited. They will submit to my judgment,” Rook signed simply, “or they will die.”

--

                Monaghan tried very, very hard to pretend that she did not feel like an absolute badass when she stepped into the courtyard of Prosperity, a custom metal shield strapped to her stump in place of her wooden prosthetic. In her right hand was a sword, forged for her by a recent immigrant to Hope County named Lewis, a history nut who had owned and run a hobby forge before the Collapse. Its grip was comfortable in her hand, the weight and the length of the sword perfect for her, specially designed for her as a gladiatorial-style weapon. The shield was made of a strong, but relatively light carbon steel alloy, adorned with two welded birds, a raven and rook, gripping a banner while their wingtips touched at the center of the shield. On the banner were the words “May my mercy prevail over my wrath.” She tried very hard not to raise her chin, looking over her people, tried not to look so much like a conquering king, but damn was it hard when her wife was looking at her like that, with terrible burning admiration and love.

                “I know you have all dealt with this before. I know that it was worse, spread all throughout this county. I know you lost friends and family to Joseph’s followers.” She met the eyes of several New Edeners who had immigrated to Prosperity, paused, waited until each of them, one by one, looked away, ashamed. “I know some of you participated. Some of you helped kidnap people. And I know some of you were forced into the cult as young children. You all already know that there has always been a choice for you to stay in New Eden, or to leave, especially now. You all know my stance on religion. But you also know that I believe that each and every one of you has the right to your own beliefs, your own opinions. Provided…provided you don’t hurt anyone,” she emphasized, shifting her shield on her stump.

                “If there is one thing I cannot abide it is those who try to force their beliefs on others, who hurt those who do not or will not believe. So Rook and I are going to go do a job that needs doing. A job one of us started and that we both are going to finish. Rook and I are going up there to have some words with Joseph’s Angels. We’re going to try to make peace first, to show mercy. If that don’t work, we’re going to show them the real meaning of wrath. And if that don’t work?” She met Nick’s eyes, and Kim’s and Sharky’s and every one of her friends in turn. “Well, then I expect you to rain hellfire and let them find out what both God and man thinks of what they’ve done.” She met all of their eyes again, smiling a little. “Now, I know not all of you agree with what we’re doing. I know that some of y’all want to start with the hellfire and maybe asked questions later if anyone survives it. But I have learned personally that sometimes,” she glanced over at Rook and her heart ached remembering what was done to her wife before they met. “Sometimes people just need another chance to made the right choice. Sometimes, when offered the option to resist or walk away, people make the wrong choice. We’re going to give them one more chance to change their minds.”

                Monaghan turned to Rook, who was back in full Judge garb, including a new carved mask similar to her old one.

                “Let’s go.”

--

                The village, or rather the camp that Joseph’s Angels was living in was slum-like, only bare minimum resources available. It quickly became clear why. There were only about ten of them left. Monaghan stepped into the cleared area where they had made their home, most of them working on patching tents, or digging the earth for planting crops.

                Now that they were here, looking upon their enemies, Monaghan was nervous, fidgety. She had her shield strapped on her arm, but her bow was slung across her back, easy to grab if needed. Her sword was in its sheath on her left hip. Even still, she felt foolish, felt almost like laughing. There were so few of them, and they were pathetic, clinging to belief in a leader who had been proven false and died with regrets. These people were now gaunt, thin, pallid, having been cut off from their community so long ago. For a moment, Monaghan felt more pity than anger, but remembered that the first time she heard about this group, she had underestimated them, and that had lost her an arm and an eye. She adjusted her shoulder where it carried most of the weight of her shield and all pity was gone. No amount of hardship was justification for hatred and violence.

                “Sinners,” one of Joseph’s Angels commented hatefully as Rook and Monaghan step forward, clearly intending the epithet as an insult, not a statement. The rest of the group looked at one another and at the captain and the Judge nervously. The one who spoke was the only one who looked confident, the only one standing with shoulders back and one hand on their bow. Rook stepped forward slowly, pure anger rolling off her.

                “Say that again, Holly,” she signed and Monaghan translated, voice flat, tight.

                “You are sinners. You have forsaken the teachings. You embrace technology, you allow yourself to be corrupted by the beliefs of other sinners. You stand here before us as much a sinner as you once were and will always be. You were an abomination and Joseph should have left you to die with the other deputies, and your sheriff.” Before Monaghan could react, Rook’s long strap knife was out and the cultist’s head was on the ground.

                “Who else believes your bigotry is worth dying for?” the Judge demanded with Monaghan translating quickly. “Who else still thinks that torture, kidnapping, drugging those he wanted to save was in line with God’s will? I welcome them to step forward and face their judgment.” Rook was breathing hard, shoulders heaving as she signed. She pulled her knife back out of its sheath once she had finished signing, prepared to met out fatal punishment again.

                Monaghan wanted to stop her, wanted to argue that if she killed all these people, she would not be able to live with herself, but she did not have to. Taking a deep breath, the Judge put her knife back in its sheath and stood before them, shoulders slouched wearily. She unclipped her mask, throwing it to the ground in a sudden fit of violent energy. They all jumped. Rook gazed at each of them, meeting their eyes.

                “All of you were part of the cult before the collapse. Ethan Minkler, I tried to save your father from the foolishness and cruelty of Joseph’s siblings. I failed him. He died trying to save you, trying to bring down the cult that had brainwashed you. He died thinking you were dead too. Jose Benítez, I used to date your sister. She went back to the cult to try to save you and you killed her in front of me to spite me, and yet still here you stand, twenty years later, alive, because I allowed it, because I offered you forgiveness.

                “Cassandra Rutledge, I found you wandering in a field of Bliss flowers, lost and high and well on your way to brain death. I saved you. I got you help, and you still returned to the cult. Olivia Weir, you killed three Scavengers when they tried to save me from Joseph when I was too broken to think for myself, and yet here you stand, alive, though you killed my friends, though you were responsible for my continued captivity. All of you fought me. All of you helped Joseph and his siblings steal, murder and kill indiscriminately because you felt you should have control of who lived and who died. Joseph could have saved everyone in Hope County, but instead he picked those he thought were worthy. He could have saved my family. He convinced me that all his evils were my wrongdoing. He drove me to madness, and shame,” she signed, pausing for a moment to recollect herself as Monaghan caught up with translating aloud. Monaghan could see a tear streaking down Rook’s face, but Rook wiped it away with a flick of her hand between words.

                “He could have done so many things differently, but for all he taught of cleansing sin, he committed every one of them. He lusted for power, and took it. He gluttoned himself upon the suffering and fear of others. His greed stole the resources others could have used to survive the Fall. His envy raged through him and made him take family members, made him destroy what he could not have. His pride kept him from sharing his gift of prophecy with everyone, not just those who agreed with his insanity. His wrath broke me, and tortured me. His wrath killed those I called ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ and ‘father.’ His wrath lead to his ruin. It lead to the death of his brothers, and his sister, and finally his son. His wrath nearly destroyed me, and yet still I stand here before you offering you forgiveness that you don’t deserve. Forgiveness takes more strength than wrath, and yet I offer it to you. Will you accept it, or will I rain my righteous judgment upon you?”

                They stood, silent, shifting uncomfortably.

                “How can we go on without his teachings? How can we go on without his wisdom?” One of them asked, voice breaking. Some of the others gave the speaker a nasty look.

                “Child,” the Judge signed and Monaghan said, “He gave you guidance. He told you he was wrong. You can go home. You can move on without Joseph’s hate, you can live your life without vengeance. I am too old, and too tired now to wipe you all from this earth for the sake of wrath. I would rather you saw the truth. You all have an opportunity to see the truth with better clarity. ‘To attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing the Darkness. It cannot be.’” There was a long, heavy pause in her signing as they murmured to one another. In the break in her monologue, Monaghan leaned close.

                “Did you just fucking quote Frank Herbert to a group of bloodthirsty cultists?” Monaghan whispered so only Rook could hear her question. Rook ignored her, but flicked a look in her direction that was one of slight amusement.

                “Was that from the Bible?” one of the cultists asked. A huff of bitter laughter from Rook.

                “No,” the Judge admitted. “It’s from Dune. More evidence that wisdom is not only found in one book.” The nine remaining cultists continue muttering to one another, nervous, unsure. “What is this?” she asked, plucking a sapling from the ground. Monaghan’s blood went cold, but in an instant the Judge snapped the plant in two, and tossed it into a nearby cooking fire, putting an end to it. “Eating the fruit would have destroyed you all,” she signed matter-of-factly, “I’m not surprised you still seek its power, but it hardly matters. The fruit cannot be produced away from the Bliss, and it has all been burnt away.” She paused for a moment, surveying their sad camp, surveying their lost expressions, realizing something. “Whose idea was the attack?” she asked, brooking no nonsense.

                “Wyatt decided to do that on his own,” Ethan Minkler answered quickly and firmly. “You know we don’t approve of explosives or guns. He acted selfishly, brought your wrath, deserved though it might be, down upon the rest of us. We wish no violence upon you, Judge. But we are lost without Joseph.” Monaghan frowned. His voice was flat, odd. She did not trust him, but said nothing, waited for Rook to sign.

                “So long as your family remains, you are not lost. I’m not going to kill you, though some of you sorely deserve it. But I want you out of this county. Exiling you from New Eden was not enough. Pack your things and leave. I don’t care where you go, but you cannot stay here. I am going to mark each of you. Any of you caught alive with this mark by any member of New Eden or any citizen of Prosperity will be killed on sight. I have no more mercy to spare.” They don’t argue. One by one, the Judge gestured for them to come forward. She carved a doubled cross into their foreheads with a hot knife, face resolute as she did so. They lined up obediently, too afraid of Rook to try to fight it. Monaghan grew nervous, seeing a few of them glancing at one another with subtle nods. Something was happening here. Rook finished marking the last of them and stood with her hands on her hips, observing the group as they gathered their things, folding their ratty tents and carrying their meager possessions. “Get out of my sight,” she signed very clearly with Monaghan interpreting, “or I will change my mind and kill you all without hesitation.

                Without warning, one of stepped forward aggressively, blood from his mark running from his forehead to his nose.

                “Only the Father could judge me,” he snarled, and he opened a music box he had hidden in his pack. Warped, tinkling music tripped forth and Monaghan recognized the song, recognized the sudden response to it. Rook growled, pulling her long knife from its sheath mechanically.

                In seconds, it was over.

                Eleven bodies lay on the ground.

                The one body still alive, the one body that hit the deck before Rook lost her shit crawled forward, snapped the music box shut and then crushed it with her boot heel. It made little difference. Monaghan felt her heart in her throat as Rook turned toward her, her green eyes devoid of any emotion other than cold fury. She flipped her long knife in her hand expertly and stepped toward Monaghan.

                “Oh fuck,” Monaghan whispered, scrambling backward. “Rook. Rook, it’s me, it’s me, stop!” Rook leapt forward, snarling like a rabid animal. Desperate, Monaghan raised the shield she had insisted be made for her, a shield that, behind closed doors, Rook had teased her about, called unnecessary and a waste of resources. Rook’s knife sank through the metal with a hard thunking sound as Monaghan jerked her head to the side.

                Monaghan cried out in pain as the end of Rook’s knife protruded through her shield, the blade skittering down her temple and slicing off her left ear raggedly. Panting, she jerked the shield to the side, jerking Rook with it since her grip was still on the machete-like knife’s handle. “Rook. Rook, you have to stop, it’s me. It’s your wife, goddammit, stop!” Rook tried to tug the knife out of the shield but could not, growled and kicked at Monaghan. Monaghan rolled out of the way, left shoulder aching at the torque as she did so, the wound from her absent ear flinging dark, hot blood across the sandy soil.

                Ignoring the throbbing pain from the side of her head, Monaghan scrambled to her feet and yanked the knife out of the shield, tossing it away and drawing her sword. Rook retrieved the knife, furious and wild. Monaghan grunted with effort as her blade rang against Rook’s, arm shaking as she struggled, staring into blank, dead green eyes that no longer look like Rook’s. “Rook, please,” Monaghan begged. They were evenly matched, both supernaturally strong from the fruit, both shaking with effort. “Rook, it’s me. It’s Corbin…” With a snarl, using her distraction against her, Rook whipped Monaghan’s sword down and away, slicing the end of her blade up the length of Monaghan’s right thigh from knee to pelvis and then jabbing the tip into Monaghan’s side with a grunt. Monaghan cried out in pain and fear, going down, landing awkwardly on her back with her right leg bent at the knee, ankle strained, her left leg folded under her. She scuttled backward as Rook bore down on her, teeth clenched, panting with hard, murderous growls. Monaghan waited for Rook to charge and lunged upwards, smacking Rook hard over the top of the head with the flat of her sword, praying the strength of the blow did not kill her.

                Rook dropped to the ground, clutching at her head and shaking it. She was covered in blood, panting wildly, eyes reddened, face and hair splattered with gore. Monaghan looked at her wife, heart pounding, not knowing if she was finally going to stop, not knowing if she was about to have to kill the love of her life to save herself. Rook had told her about this sleeper-style training, had told her why she avoided the song, but mentioned that the original trigger was a music box, that its particular strain of “Only You” was the strongest she’d ever felt that sudden loss of autonomy.

                “Rook?” Monaghan said softly, terrified. Her wife’s hand was gripped tightly around the handle of her knife, her other hand was fisted hard in the dirt, knuckles white. She was shaking, face still wild, teeth clenched and bared, lips pulled back in a terrifying snarl. “Rook. Put the knife down.” Rook blinked, looked at Monaghan, dropped the knife woodenly. She looked around her, mouth dropping open, taking a ragged breath. She was mouthing something, destroyed voice impossible to understand. Staggering, Rook stood, surveying the splattered violence all around them. She whipped toward Monaghan, holding her head in both hands and now Monaghan could see what she was mouthing.

                “What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?”

Chapter Text

                “Stop! Stop, calm down, goddammit, you have to calm down,” Monaghan snapped, her hand over her bloody ear. Rook was breathing hard, gasping for breath, hands shaking wildly. “Fuck! My ear! Ah! My leg! Stop touching me! Fuck!” Blood was pouring from Monaghan’s missing ear, warm and sticky and making her feel lightheaded. Her leg half-collapsed under her weight as the effects of adrenaline started to dull and her pants saturated with blood from the gash. “Just get me back to Prosperity.” Rook stuttered in her movements awkwardly, face anguished, but she brought around the four-wheeler they had used to get here. Monaghan picked up the shattered music box while she was waiting, found a note inside of it and pocketed it. It was unimportant right now. Pulling herself onto the vehicle behind Rook, Monaghan felt hot pain in her side, realized it was a deep wound, and that it was oozing blood nastily. Biting her lip hard, she held her hand over it, her left arm nub pressed against Rook’s tight shoulder for balance as Rook raced them toward Prosperity madly, nearly crashing into the gates before they could be opened.

                It was, in Monaghan’s opinion, the best possible solution. Not exactly how she would have planned it, no, but really, what else could you do with belligerent, hateful cultists who almost certainly would have returned for revenge? Sure, they could have locked them all up, kept them fed and clothed and taken care of, but it would have been a huge drain of resources. The other option, the option Rook had been trying to take, was ostracizing them further away, out of the county. But then, what was stopping them from gathering followers, building up the Scavengers as enemies and coming back for revenge? The elimination of the remaining Joseph’s Angels certainly made Monaghan feel better, but the few minutes of fighting for her life, of fighting to prevent her wife from murdering her, had shifted something inside of her. Rook put her hand on Monaghan’s shoulder as they rushed toward the clinic and Monaghan shifted away, recoiling from the touch, which was removed immediately.

                Selene cleaned, packed and bandaged her ear and her abdomen, stitched her leg. Rook stood at Monaghan’s left side, her vulnerable side, and when the captain caught a glimpse of Rook in her remaining eye, she froze like a rabbit that had spotted a hawk. Monaghan, her heart beating wildly with sudden fear, did not have pity to spare for the aggrieved look on Rook’s face. The whole side of her head was throbbing, her leg was achy and sore from the massive gash Rook had put in it. Her side was leaking blood through the bandage, but the pain medication Selene had just forced her to take was already helping, as were her healing abilities. In pain, and shocky from the experience of nearly being killed, Monaghan had to yell at Rook to get her to leave her side, to get her to stop jostling her, stop wringing her hands next to her, to stop signing ‘sorry’ over and over again. Rook slunk from the room, looking singularly miserable, like a beaten dog.

                That evening, Monaghan sat at the bar next to Sharky, taking a drink of a tall, golden beer that was weeping condensation down the side of its glass in the sweltering heat.

                “I don’t know how to come back from this, Sharky,” Monaghan admitted, hand trembling as she wiped her upper lip. “We just keep hurting each other. It’s the only constant we’ve ever had in our relationship,” she slurred.

                “I ain’t the person to ask how to deal with that sort of thing, Cap,” he told her honestly, rubbing a hand over a crescent-shaped scar on his arm. “Where’s Rook?”

                “I don’t know. I don’t really care right now, either. I don’t think I can be in the same room with her right now. I can’t get it out of my head, the look on her face, those dead eyes. I know it wasn’t her fault…”

                “I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to need time to recover after someone you love nearly manages to kill you,” Kim commented, walking up. Monaghan jumped, having not seen nor heard her approach since she walked up from her left side. Automatically, she grabbed Kim’s wrist in an iron grip, prepared to attack before she realized it was not an enemy and released her.

                “Sorry. I…just…please don’t touch me,” Monaghan said flatly, on edge. Kim nodded, walked around to her right side, but respected her space, sat on the other side of Sharky, who slid Kim a beer.

                “Carmina said Rook was hanging around the dock. She’s not talking to anyone.”

                “I can’t try to talk to her right now, Kim. I’m…I hate myself for this, but goddammit, I’m afraid. I need a day, or three, or ten.” It hurt for her to admit it, but regardless of what Rook was feeling, Monaghan needed to collect her thoughts, to come to terms with what had happened before she tried to help Rook.

                Monaghan went to their usual room in Prosperity that night, but locked the door behind her after a painful moment of consideration. She couldn’t sleep, just tossed and turned, every sound, every creak of the building had her on edge. She heard the rattling of the door knob and a soft hiss and involuntarily shivered with fear. After a long, long moment, she heard soft foot steps moving away and she relaxed a bit. She spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling, trying to stop replaying the afternoon’s events in her mind, trying to stop thinking of Rook standing over her, covered in blood, panting, growling like a wild animal. She got no sleep and drug herself out of bed at the first light of the sun, exhausted, but still on edge, nervous and feeling the beginnings of a panic attack trying to fight its way to the surface. Stubbornly, Monaghan pushed the feeling away, clenched her jaw so hard her teeth squeaked. She would not break down. She would not allow fear of her own wife to control her.

                Stumbling tiredly into the clinic, Monaghan was patient, eerily still as Selene tended her wounds, changed bandages, the doctor uncharacteristically quiet as she dressed the wounds. The captain thanked Selene and left, feeling groggy and irritable after a night of no sleep. She went in search of her wife, limping heavily, wincing at the pull of new stitches.

                Monaghan found Rook at the dock just south of Prosperity, a fishing rod in her hand, slowly reeling her hook to shore. Carmina was sitting next to her, but left when she saw Monaghan, touching her gently on the shoulder as she passed. Monaghan willed herself not to cringe at the touch. The day was already wickedly hot and sunny, casting Rook’s shadow across the water, so it was unsurprising that nothing took the bait. Regardless, Rook reeled her line in and cast again, ignoring Monaghan’s presence as wholly as she had been ignoring Carmina’s. The captain stood with Rook on her right side so she could see her out of the corner of her eye, and so that the gauze covering her missing ear was not so evident.

                If she kept getting parts loped off her left side, eventually she’d be alright, Monaghan thought, wincing at her internal bad joke.

                “Did you sleep last night?” Monaghan asked, feeling a little guilty about locking Rook out. Rook shrugged, a non-answer. Monaghan took it as a no. “It’s not your fault,” she said, but she found her voice was trembling slightly. Rook reeled the line slowly, silent. “There’s literally no way you could have known that one of them had that music box. There’s no way you could have known that they had agreed to a suicide pact.” She handed Rook a sheet of paper. Rook took it, glanced over it – wordless – dropped it in the water. While Monaghan had waited for Rook to pull the four-wheeler around, she had noticed the note in the crushed music box. It was a scrawled, angry declaration written by Ethan Minkler and signed by the others stating that they would rather die than live under Rook and Monaghan’s leadership. Good riddance, was Monaghan’s opinion, but Rook was suffering. They had forced her hand in the most literal way. It made Monaghan sick. Monaghan herself was, frankly, traumatized, a little afraid of standing next to her wife though she knew Rook did not mean to attack her.

                Talking about this, talking through it seemed the only way forward. “Rook. Talk to me.” Rook turned to face her, expressionless. Monaghan sat and Rook fished until the sun had sunk deep into the mountains. Monaghan became hyperaware of the skin on the back of her shoulders, stiff and burnt from spending the whole day in the sun. Her stomach growled and she heard Rook’s do the same. Monaghan followed Rook to Prosperity when she finally gave up fishing for the day, sat awkwardly next to her as they ate in uncomfortable silence. She made her way up the stairs, stepped into their usual room. Rook stopped in the doorway, unsure. Gesturing her inside, Monaghan ignored the pounding of her heart and the sweat breaking out on her forehead at the thought of being locked in a small room with her would-be murderer. No. This was her wife, goddammit. She would not let the cult take Rook away from her, would not let them hurt her from beyond the grave.

                It was hot in the room.

                Since summer had come to Hope County the nights were miserably hot, leaving everything warm and sticky. Oppressive. Monaghan opened the window to let a breeze in, a habit now that nights spent indoors felt like sleeping in an oven. Still looking numb, Rook laid down on the bed woodenly. Monaghan stripped off her clothing and laid next to her wife, trying not to feel afraid.

                “I wish I could help you, Rook. I wish you would talk to me. Charity. Talk to me, please,” she asked, cursing the shaking of her voice. Instead of signing anything, Rook reached toward her abruptly. The movement that Monaghan made was involuntary. She flinched. She actually flinched from her wife’s touch, her subconscious terrified of sudden violence, the throbbing of her wounds a reminder that Rook could easily have killed her yesterday. The look on Rook’s face was deeply pained and Monaghan reached out her own hand to assure her wife that she wanted to be touched, that she was not actually afraid, but she knew it was not true. She was afraid, and that fact made her angry with herself, but not at Rook. “I…I made Bean delete any backups he had of…of the song. The music box is crushed. We have to put it behind us,” Monaghan forced out. Rook nodded. There had been an oddly high number of The Platters records left in Hope County after the Collapse, and Monaghan suspected she knew why. It had something to do with Joseph Seed’s brother Jacob and his trained army of brainwashed soldiers Rook had told her about. Monaghan had ordered that any of the records that were found be destroyed immediately.

                Timidly, Rook reached her hand out again, pushed Monaghan onto her back, kissing along the side of her jaw, cradling her neck, scratching trimmed and filed nails down her side softly, raising goosebumps as she touched Monaghan. They were not goosebumps of pleasure, they were a tell tale sign of fear shuddering in waves across her skin.

                Rook kissed Monaghan gently, pressing her tongue between Monaghan’s lips. “Wait. Wait,” Monaghan insisted, stopping Rook’s wandering hands with her own, pulling away from her kisses when she realized Rook was crying. “Stop, Rook. Stop. Hey,” Monaghan said, frowning. Rook sat back, looking angry, anguished. She was suffering and Monaghan did not know how to help, needed help herself. There were tears trickling from Rook’s eyes. She looked down at Monaghan, her face pained.

                “Please. Please, I need this. I need you.” At least she had finally signed something.

                “I can’t tonight, Rook. I can’t. It’s not your fault, and I know that, but you tried to kill me yesterday. I need time,” Monaghan whispered, feeling guilty, but knowing that she needed to recover from the trauma of the attack. Laying back, Monaghan could see tears continuing to streak down Rook’s face, but did not comment, was too exhausted, too numb to say anything to help.

                Rook took a deep breath, gently put an arm and a leg over Monaghan, careful of her bandages, pulled her closer with a little stifled whimper. The captain wanted to tell her to get off, that it was entirely too hot to cuddle, or be in any kind of contact with one another while trying to sleep, but she did not want to hurt Rook anymore than she already had. Monaghan turned to her, frowning a little. “It’s okay to not be okay, Rook. I’m not okay. I don’t think you’re okay. Hey. Talk to me, Rook,” she murmured, caressing Rook’s cheek.

                “I love you,” Rook signed.

                “Rook, please. Talk to me.” Rook looked at her for a long time, then switched the lamp off and rolled over, no part of her in contact with Monaghan. Taking a deep breath, Monaghan rolled over as well, facing away from Rook and falling asleep. She startled awake with a yelp just minutes after she had drifted off, drenched in sweat, the memory of Rook’s violent face bearing down on her sending a thrill of terror through her. She loved her wife, she did. But she needed time to recover from this trauma. “Rook. Are you awake?” Rook purred softly. “I…I think I need some time. Away. Away from you. I love you, but…” Rook pulled a blanket off the bed, laid down on the floor next to it before Monaghan could object. Monaghan pressed her eyes closed, hot tears welling up. “We’ll talk about it in the morning,” she whispered, voice thick. “I love you.”

                Once Rook was certain Monaghan was asleep, she wrote a note, left it on the bedside table. She did not notice when the breeze from the window blew it off the bedside table, did not notice when it glided under the bookcase as she clicked their door shut. She made her way out of Prosperity, hoping against hope that she could fix herself, and that Monaghan would have her back once she had done so.

                In the morning, Monaghan looked for her wife, but she was nowhere to be found.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan snatched Sharky roughly out of his bed by his beard, ignoring his state of complete undress.

                “Did she tell you where she was going?” Monaghan demanded, terrified, furious.

                “Jesus Christ, let go!” Sharky yelped, cupping his groin and turning groggy eyes on Monaghan. She released his beard but was seething, shoulders pumping up and down with every hard breath.

                “Did she tell you were she was going?” Monaghan repeated. Sharky looked at her blankly.

                “Who?” he asked, still trying to wake up. Monaghan got a full, unwanted view of his pale backside as he bent over and pulled on a pair of dull gray underwear that probably used to be white at some point before he started wearing them. He turned to her, looking like he was struggling to keep a grip on his temper. The two of them were so similar in personality that they had always clashed, always butted heads and been jealous over Rook’s attention. Monaghan could always tell that Sharky resented her for taking Rook from him, both as a friend and a lover. Never mind that Rook would never have been interested in Sharky that way given the thing dangling between his legs. More laid back, and older than Monaghan by a decade and a half, Sharky took a patient breath and ground his hands into his eyes, recovering from the rude awakening.

                “Rook is gone, Sharky. I want to know where to. I know if she told anyone other than me, it would be you. I know there’s a lot of things she told you that she did not tell me,” Monaghan said, voice aching and hurt. Rook’s relationship with Sharky was a complicated thing, not unlike the relationship Monaghan had once had with Rush. Sharky was unmistakably, irreparably in love with Monaghan’s wife, had been for years, long before Monaghan had ever met her. It did not matter that Rook would never love him that way, it was what he felt and it rubbed Monaghan the wrong way, regardless how she tried not to let it bother her. Sharky let out a massive yawn and glared at her with crisp blue eyes, the same color as her own she realized with a start, jaw ticking in annoyance and impatience.

                “Alright. I’m awake. Ugh. Alright, fer starters you ever come in my room snatchin’ me by my bomb ass beard again I’ll kick your ass, Cap. Secondly, what do you mean ‘Rook is gone’? Doesn’t she do this shit all the time?”

                “Not like this. She was acting odd…off. She was not okay. That music box incident with Joseph’s Angels, it was bad, Sharky. She wouldn’t talk to me and I…I told her I needed time away from her,” Monaghan said, voice breaking. Sharky’s eyes had gone a little unfocused and she resisted the urge to slap him. “Sharky!”

                “Yeah, sorry, hoss, just…thinkin’,” Sharky said, shaking himself, a slightly judgmental look drifting across his face as he surveyed Monaghan. She could imagine what he was thinking. That he never would have pushed Rook away. That he would have held her close and ignored his own pain. That he wouldn’t have told her he didn’t want to make love to her when she clearly need to. Guilt welled up in her chest, sickening. She clenched her jaw and spoke again.

                “Did she, or did she not tell you where she was going? Did she say anything to you? I know she is the only person you’ll keep a secret for, and Sharky, I know you’ve got an intense sense of loyalty to my wife, but if she told you where she was going, I have to know. I have to made sure she doesn’t do anything stupid or rash. I know you and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I need you to tell me if you know, Sharky, please,” Monaghan begged. Sharky wiped a hand over his eyes, massaging at his forehead for a moment.

                “Dep didn’t say anything to me, Cap, I swear to God. If I had known it was bothering her that much…”

                “You really think you could have done anything for her that her wife couldn’t have?” Monaghan snapped. Sharky met her eyes, relentless, angry now, jabbing an angry finger into Monaghan’s chest.

                “You’re the one who told her you needed ‘time away from her,’ how the fuck did you think she would take that? Look, I get that you and I got off on the wrong foot about Dep, but she was my friend, Cap. Has been for years. I ain’t a psycholatrist or nothin’, but I know that she probly needed space from you too. If she was hurting that bad, she would not have told you. And, yeah, if she was gonna tell anyone about what she was feeling or planning, it would probably be me.” He stopped, sighed deeply, looked away from Monaghan guiltily before he continued. “She tells me things she doesn’t tell you because she doesn’t have to worry about breaking my heart. That’s already done,” he said softly, going still. “When we hang out she does tell me shit, but she has never kept anything important from you, Cap. I promise. Sometimes she just needs someone else to talk to. But she didn’t tell me about this.” He heaved another massive sigh. “Now that that’s said, I hope you’ll pull your head out of your ass and let me help you,” he griped. Monaghan sighed as well.

                “You’re right. You’re right, Sharky. Sorry.” He nodded a little, sitting down on his bed. “I don’t suppose I could persuade you to put on some pants?”

                “No you cannot,” he answered. “Did Rook have her radio with her?”

                “As far as I know she still has that new one that clips inside her jacket pocket.”

                “Well, then wait until sundown. If we don’t hear from her by then, then we’ll panic.”

                No radio click came at sundown.

                It did not come the next day, or the next, or the next, or the next. Days melted together. Sympathetic, well-meaning people from both New Eden and Prosperity pestered Monaghan, making her feel victimized, making her feel like either a widow, or a jilted woman. Her heart ached and she tortured herself with her guilt. Surprisingly, one good thing came of Rook’s disappearance – she became fast friends with Sharky. He did not offer judgment or condemnation after their initial conversation, did not ask how she was feeling, did not suggest new places to look or new things to try, did not blame her. She had tried reaching Rook by radio. She had sent out search parties. She had interrogated every member of New Eden, including Jake. No one knew what happened to Rook.

                More than a month passed. A month and nothing. No sign of her. Monaghan had searched everywhere, and now she was searching everywhere again, heart in her throat at every set of tracks she found. She went to the bunker again, walked to the tall reeds at the end of the lake. Saw the familiar brown jacket caught there, water-logged and half rotten. Feeling nauseated, she picked it up with shaking hands. The soft material had decayed, but it was unmistakably the Judge’s jacket. There was a hard lump in the front pocket – a ruined radio. Bile rose in her throat. Monaghan dropped to her knees, heart aching. Why? Why would she leave without a note? Did she drown? If so, did she do it on purpose? Monaghan sobbed, assuming the worst. Rook could swim, but often struggled if water got into her mouth, the damage to her throat made it hard to keep unexpected water from going down the wrong pipe into her lungs. Monaghan remembered a day that seemed like decades ago when she had playfully pushed Rook into the river, to nearly disastrous consequences. Was that what happened this time?

                Monaghan threw the jacket into her truck, searched the edges of the lake for more evidence, for any indication of what had happened. She found nothing else. Blank, broken, she drove back to Prosperity.

                “Any sign of her?” Sharky asked. Monaghan tossed him the wet jacket, wordless. “Shit.”

Chapter Text

                Four months passed. A Prosperity resident caught a devilfish whose stomach contained the remains of a human foot and it was concluded by the Hope County community that it must have belonged to Rook. The size of the bones fit. Monaghan accepted that her wife was dead, heart shattering.

                Six months passed. New Eden, without a clear leader, began to dissolve and blend in with the rest of Hope county, no longer separating themselves, and Monaghan found it made her happy for the first time in months, knew it was what Rook would have wanted.

                A year passed. Monaghan cannot take it anymore. Cannot take the pitying looks, cannot take the lingering sadness that sprouted onto people’s faces when they came near her, could hardly bear the weight of her own guilt. The general consensus amongst the public was that Rook walked out into the lake to die, and Monaghan would be lying if she said that kind of behavior would be completely out of character for Rook. She was reckless and self-harming when she spiraled out. Whether it was suicide, or accident, Rook was dead, and as far as Monaghan was concerned, it was her fault.

                Monaghan picked up the bottle sitting next to her, her constant companion these days, and took a deep, burning drink. She and Sharky had been drinking for hours, they’re both three sheets to the wind, a regular pastime recently, but especially today, the anniversary of Rook’s disappearance. Monaghan had refused to have a funeral, refused to acknowledge her wife’s death publicly. Around Sharky, however, she could grieve openly.

                “D’you…d’you…why do you think she did it?” Sharky asked, melancholy.

                “I dunno,” Monaghan slurred, swilling the liquor bottle hazily. She saw it in triplicate, knew she was approaching black-out levels of drunk, did not care. “She dint even bother to tell me sshe was leaving, Sharky. Who doeshh that? I dunno. I told her we were gonna talk about it…m-maybe she was jus’ goin’ for a walk and then…and then drowned…” She expelled a sob, violent and harsh, feeling liquor and bile rising in her throat. She took another drink of liquor to wash it down, wiping her arm stump over her nose and mouth roughly, knocking her eyepatch aside and exposing the sensitive white scar tissue underneath it.

                “Lemme help you, Cap’n,” Sharky said, eyes bleary. He reached out and gently pushed the patch back into place, staring into Monaghan’s one eye intensely for a minute before looking away. Monaghan looked over at Sharky, felt something she had not felt in a while, did not want to quantify it, did not want to acknowledge it, knew it was wrong, knew it was the alcohol and the loneliness talking. She set the mostly empty liquor bottle down gently, but it slammed into the counter hard, her hand-eye coordination shot by the amount of alcohol in her bloodstream.

                “’M gonna go upstairs and go…go bed,” she told Sharky shortly, slurring her words together before falling backwards off her stool. She laid there for a moment, stunned, looking up at the night sky and processing the lingering pain in her backside from the tumble.

                Monaghan tried again, this time successfully getting upright. She drug herself up the stairs, away from Sharky, away from the temptation of friendly blue eyes and a familiarity that had bred not contempt but friendly affection. She tripped, stumbled and fell down the stairs, feeling a rib bruise badly. Sharky caught her – barely and stood her back upright.

                “C’mon,” Sharky said, lifting her up. “You can sleep downstairs or you’re gonna fuckin’ kill yourself.” They both went still for a moment, cold. Shaking the moment away, Sharky grumbled, “Fuckin’ stairs.”

                Sharky slung Monaghan onto his bed and started to walk away to find somewhere else to sleep.

                “‘S okay,” Monaghan muttered. “You can sleep here. I won’t try anything,” she joked. Sharky hummed and laid down next to her, scratching his belly absently and closing his eyes. Monaghan’s world was swimming and she felt her hurt and her pain and her loneliness with sudden clarity. The demons she had been trying to drown had surfaced. Turned out they were good at swimming. They were better at it than Rook anyway, she thought with a sob, the dark humor in her mind just reinforcing the aching loneliness, her piercing guilt. She slung her arm across Sharky’s chest and he took her hand gently, not looking at her.

                “Night, Dep,” he murmured. “Love you.” Shock poured through Monaghan, but it was not enough to sober her up.

                “Sharky. ‘S me. ‘S the captain. Dep’s gone.” He turned to her now, blue eyes so sad. He reached out a hand and stroked the side of her head gently, met her eye. Her lips parted, loneliness pouring through her. Sharky leaned in, pressed his lips to hers. Monaghan felt his beard tickling her face. She started a little, but did not pull away immediately. Sharky deepened the kiss, rolling on top of her. Monaghan let out a little gasp as his big hands caressed her, enveloping half her waist as they slid down, the calloused palms gentle but so unlike Rook’s touch.

                Men and women were just so very different, Monaghan thought, marveling at the size of his hands, the simultaneous coarseness and softness of his beard, the rougher texture of his skin against hers. She froze. This was not Rook. This was not her wife. No. This was not Rook. Rook was gone. Head still swimming, pushing away grief and pain and replacing it with arousal, she scraped her right hand down Sharky’s hard-muscled belly to the front of his pants, felt the silky steel hardness of him through his jeans and let out a little moan of need. Right now, with her veins filled with more liquor than blood, this seemed like a good idea. Two friends comforting each other. She had done it before, with Rush. What was the harm?

                Sharky framed Monaghan’s face, met her gaze hazily. With rough fingers, he grasped at the button of her jeans, pressing kisses down the side of her neck. She could feel him tipping his hips forward to rub himself against her front, motions urgent, needy. Reaching down his pants, she grasped him, squeezing him gently and a little choked out groan poured from his parted lips.

                “Dep, I need you,” he mumbled as Monaghan grasped him in her hand, rubbing her hand up and down his length. She stopped, removed her hand from him.

                “Sharky, no. Dep is dead. Rook is dead,” Monaghan managed to gasp out, a half sob. Sharky stopped moving too, looked her in the eyes, took a breath, composed himself.

                “I know. I know she’s dead,” Sharky said, grief in his tone, sobering, shaking his head as though to clear it.

                “Do you want this?” Monaghan asked, unsure.

                “Do you?” Sharky asked, blue eyes less hazy than they were before.

                “Just this once,” she whispered. “Just tonight.”

                “Alright, then,” he murmured, leaning down to kiss her again. With frantic movements, they stripped, touching, fondling, kissing. Sharky pressed Monaghan’s legs apart roughly, urgently and thrusted home, both of them moaning in pleasure. Monaghan reached up and clawed her nails down his back, feeling herself clamp down on him as he thrusted hard into her. He leaned down, nuzzled his face into the space where her neck met her shoulder, pressed gentle kisses there, moved his head down to show the same treatment to her breasts. He slowed his rhythm, stroking deep inside her almost reverently as she moved beneath him, pulling him closer, a respite, a break from her grief. His hand cupped her face and he kissed her sweetly, murmuring, “It’s alright, it’s alright, Cap, don’t cry.” Before she could argue, she realized he was right, she was crying softly beneath him. Sharky stopped moving completely. “Am I hurting you?” Monaghan cried harder. “Do you want me to stop?” he asked, pulling partially out.

                “No, please don’t stop. Please, don’t leave me,” she found herself weeping, embarrassed and hurting. Sharky pulled her close, pressed a kiss to the top of her head, shushing her gently until she quit crying. Not wanting the night to end, not ready to acknowledge her guilt and her pain again, she flipped them, riding him confidently, pushing aside her emotions. Her friend was here, was with her in her loss, understood the pain in a way no one else could. Monaghan moved over him, caressing and comforting him too until at last they collapsed over the edge of pleasure away from pain and came, panting, holding one another. Monaghan slid off him and laid next to him, unsure of what to do next. Sharky filled the awkward silence for her.

                “I knew Dep would never…Dep could never love me the way I loved her. But, for the record, I’m glad she had you for the time that she did. I know it was hard. And I know it’s a hell of a lot easier to focus on the bad than the good, but, you were able to pull her out of herself and bring her back to us. To me. Only you were able to get her to stop being the Judge, if only for a while. Your time with her wasn’t long, but I know she was happy with you. And I’m sorry it ended the way…” his voice broke, “the way it did. I’m so sorry, Cap.”

                At last, with a shuddering sigh that was just barely not a sob, Monaghan said, “I just…I’m just so lost without her, Sharky,” Monaghan admitted in a whisper. “I’m so lonely. Everything is so empty without her. And it’s my fault.”

                Instead of saying anything, Sharky reached over, enveloped her, pulled her close. He smelled like gunpowder and oak leaves and sweat, so unlike her usual bedmate that it was jarring, but his closeness was comforting. They fell asleep in one another’s arms, two friends seeking shelter in one another’s embrace.

--

                Monaghan awoke next to a snoring Sharky, her head pounding.

                “Oh fuck,” she murmured, covering her face with her hands. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Careful, she grabbed her clothes and snuck out of Sharky’s bedroom and into his workshop to change quickly. She couldn’t talk to him about this. She knew she had taken advantage of him, or he had taken advantage of her. Regardless, it had been a terrible thing to do. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Her mind was made up. She did not want to be here anymore, in Prosperity, hell, in Hope county. She packed her bag differently this time, focused on reusable weapons, throwing knives, arrows. She left guns behind. She would not have any way to make new bullets. She gathered iodine tablets for cleaning water, added a bundle of rope, warm clothing. She did not bother with a flare gun. If she died, she died, she thought. Better than continuing to live this half life wondering what had happened to Rook. Tears pricked in her eye again and she crushed the heel of her hand into it, rubbing away the moisture roughly.

                She walked into the kitchen, grabbing a small tin of salt. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Kim spoke, previously unnoticed. She must have slipped in after Monaghan walked into the kitchen.

                “I don’t suppose there’s any way I could talk you out of going wherever it is you’re going?” Kim asked, looking at Monaghan’s pack sadly.

                “I cannot be here anymore, Kim. I’m sorry. I just…I can’t be here. I don’t think I can stay in this county. You and Rebecca and the others can handle the California Company’s mission. I have faith in all of you. But…I don’t know how to be here without her. I don’t know how to be without her.” Kim rested a gentle hand on Monaghan’s shoulder where her leather arm brace sat holding her prosthetic weapon base in place over her stump.

                “It has been wonderful knowing you, Captain. I’m sorry Hope county has brought you so much grief.” Monaghan smiled sadly, tears gathering in her eyes as she pulled Kim in for a sudden embrace.

                “It has brought me a lot of joy too,” she whispered. She released Kim, swallowed, nodded, and was gone.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan had been gone for a week. Carmina had not been able to bring herself to clean out her room yet, but had to. There was another group of scientists visiting and they needed the space. The room was painful to be in, smelling of cinnamon, leather, peppermint, and pine trees, the collective scent of both of them. Monaghan and Rook had become a second set of parents, people to go to for advice and training. Their loss was incredibly painful. She dusted the tops of the bookshelves in their room, pulled the bedding off to be washed, ran a thumb over a framed polaroid picture she had taken for them. They were arm in arm, looking at one another fondly, expressions of pure love. It had been taken just weeks before Monaghan had lost her arm and eye. Sighing, Carmina rearranged the furniture. Now that neither of them were likely to return, they might as well put a second bed in the room for the visiting groups of scientists and strategists who used Hope county as a base of contact with the rest of the Midwest. She called to Travis, her fiancé, and he helped her remove books off the shelf in stacks before they shifted the shelves over the wood floor, making better use of the space.

                “What’s this?” he asked, bending over and picking up a folded piece of paper.

                “Probably just trash,” Carmina said, grabbing a handful of books to put back on the shelf, wanting this task over and done with as quickly as possible.

                “I don’t think so,” he mused. “This is the Judge’s handwriting. I’d recognize it anywhere from the writings I studied when I was younger.” Carmina dropped the stack of books on the bed, dashing over to him.

                “What?! Let me see that.” Carmina’s eyes flicked over the note quickly and she looked up at Travis, face pale. “We have to find the captain.”

--

                Monaghan ran a hand, or at least tried to run a hand, through her tangled hair. She had not bothered to brush it, had found self-care exhausting recently as the anniversary of Rook’s disappearance stabbed a new hole in her heart. It was the not knowing that was the worst. Her mind ran through all the usual questions for the thousandth time:

                Had Rook left without telling her and walked into the lake to die intentionally? Or had she gone for a hike to clear her head and drowned accidentally? Either alternative was painful, but not knowing, the being unsure whether she had caused Rook to kill herself was what made the pain linger, a burning sting deep in her chest. Deep circles were carved beneath her eyes. Monaghan had lost weight, eating just enough to stay alive. The skin beneath her prosthetic harness had thickened and scarred from chafing since she did not bother to remove it, did not bother to care for her skin or the old stich marks at the end of her stump. What did it matter anymore? The light had gone out of her life, no matter the reason for it, no matter the outcome. Rook was gone.

                Initially, Monaghan had tried to be brave, had distracted herself with tasks, had pretended that she was not as deeply hurt by Rook’s absence as she actually was, but her armor had taken too many blows. Waking up next to Sharky had just been the last straw, the push she had needed to know she couldn’t stay in Hope County anymore. As it was, every waking second was spent wondering what might have prompted Rook to go into the lake, whether it was an accident or purposeful, because of what she had told Rook before she had disappeared. All of it was why she was here, lying in their bed in the last place she had been truly happy. The cabin that had once been Rook’s, that had been made both of theirs working together. It reeked of Rook even a year later, leather and cinnamon and something else that Monaghan had never been able to put her finger on. But the cabin was just Monaghan’s last stop before she headed north, her plan to leave the county, to venture into Canada and just exist until she did not have to, or could not anymore.

                But then again… she found another bottle of the whiskey they had shared so long ago in a game  of “never have I ever” and uncorked it, trying again to drown her sorrow. The taste of the whiskey was heady and sharp, a stark reminder of a night spent with her best friend, the woman who would become her spouse. The woman who would die, without explanation or warning, leaving Monaghan alone in her sorrow. She opened an old familiar drawer, pulled out the old, poorly-maintained Magnum .44 L pistol after she has downed half a bottle of the liquor on an empty stomach. She checked the chamber, a little surprised to find a bullet there. After all, she thought, spinning the chamber, after all what use was living in this world without Rook? She had killed the Twins, had brought Joseph to justice. Her job was finished. She spun the chamber again, considered.

                “ONLY YOU,” came the Voice that had not spoken to her since Joseph’s demise. “ONLY YOU,” it whispered, gentle and aching. Monaghan laughed a bitter laugh, touching the barrel of her wife’s gun to her temple.

                “So you finally speak, huh?” Monaghan asked, the tip of her finger trailing across the trigger. Her training officer’s voice joined the cacophony in her mind, unbidden.

                “Keep your booger hook off the kill switch until you’re ready to bring the heat.” A sob wrenched out of Monaghan and she moved her finger, uncertain. She remembered Rook’s words from long ago.

                “I don’t want to die, it’s just that sometimes I don’t want to exist anymore.” Existence. Existence without Rook, without answers, without knowing what had happened.

                “ONLY YOU,” the Voice spoke and Monaghan aimed the gun upwards, letting out a shriek of anger.

                “I don’t know what that means!!!!!!! What the fuck do you want from me?!” There was no answer this time and, determined now, Monaghan brought the gun again to her temple, jaw clenched, finger slipping over the trigger.

                “ONLY YOU,” the Voice whispered and, suddenly very tired, Monaghan’s grip on the pistol faltered. She slumped back and felt the gun slip out of her hand. She struggled, but it did not matter, consciousness fled and she collapsed, insensible.

--

                A crow cawed loudly just outside the cabin, its voice grating. Monaghan opened one eye, head spinning and she sat up very slowly, letting reality gradually settle back over her. It was morning. She was still alive. Regretfully, she set her wife’s gun aside, her earlier resolve gone with the rising sun. Perhaps tonight, she thought, a stab of loneliness and pain spearing her. There was the sound of an engine, a car door closing, and a horn honking outside the cabin.

                This was exactly why she was leaving. She could not take the meddling anymore, even if she did not have the nerve to end her life permanently.

                “Fuck off!” she yelled to whoever it might be.

                “No!” Carmina argued, stepping in.

                “Go away, Carmina,” Monaghan snapped. Carmina clenched her jaw and held out a wrinkled sheet of paper.

                “No. Not until you read this.” Monaghan stared at her for a long moment, contemplating. “I found it under the bookcase. You need to read it, Cap.” Hesitant, Monaghan took the paper, which was covered in a familiar writing and a hand-traced map.

 

My dear Corbin,

My entire life I have spent in the presence of others. As a child, with my parents, who raised me. As a young law enforcement officer, with my superiors, who guided me. As the Judge, with Joseph, who tormented me. And as your wife, with you, who loved me. Somehow I have managed to fail all of you.

I am sorry. I am so sorry that I hurt you.

I find myself replaying it over and over in my mind. When I am not in control, when that song is playing, I am still there, I am still present, an unwilling observer to violence being done with my body against my wishes.

I nearly leaned down and plunged my knife into your heart. I murdered almost a dozen people in front of you and then nearly killed you and it broke me once again, as so many things have done.

I understand that you need time to come to terms with my crime against you. If you cannot forgive me, I understand. If you can forgive me, come to the place I have drawn on the map. If you never come, I will understand that you don’t want me back, and will stay away.

With all of my love,

Charity Hellen Rook

 

                There was a high pitched squeal tearing through Monaghan’s hearing. It overwhelmed everything, overwhelmed Carmina’s voice until the girl shook her shoulder hard.

                “Captain? Corbin? Did you hear me? Rook’s okay. She has to be.”

                “Can you hear that?” Monaghan asked, frowning, putting a hand to her left ear, its mostly missing shell blotched pink and white from the attack that now seemed so long ago. “What is that?” she wondered as the squeal continues. “I think…I think I need to sit dow–”

--

                “Hey, hey, easy. Slowly. You’re alright. You passed out. Here, have some water,” Carmina instructed. Monaghan shook herself.

                “I’m gonna kill her. I’m gonna fucking kill her when I see her,” she snapped, grabbing the water bottle from Carmina. “How dare she leave me without asking me? Without talking to me?”

                “We should put together another search party now that we know for sure where she is.”

                “Nope. I’m going after her alone.” Monaghan stood, snatched up her pack and walked toward the nearest dock to get a boat.

                “Captain, you need to rest. You’ll need help,” Carmina argued, trotting after her.

                “Kid,” Monaghan said, turning with a wry look, “I’d really rather not have any witnesses there when I murder my wife with my bare hands. I’ll be fine. And, thank you for finding this, and bringing it.” Carmina looked unhappy, but let her go.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan worked her way up the Moccasin River to where it met Cedar Lake at the now-repaired and functional dam that provided the valley with much of its electricity. Joseph’s bamboo haunt was still there and Monaghan found signs of repairs done within the year. Undoubtedly Rook had stopped here before heading further north. Monaghan climbed up to the burnt out remains of the apple tree, dragging a canoe from Joseph’s home with her, paddling upstream until she got sick of fighting the current and went on foot next to the river’s edge, following the clear blue water north. She paused for a moment, looking at a ragged map of Hope County from years ago. There. Sheriff’s Hollow, the map said. It was handwritten, had never been the official name, but it was where Rook had indicated she would be.

                It should be just two week’s hike northwest of where she was standing. Monaghan adjusted her pack on her shoulders, favoring her left one a little. The hike gave her time to think, time to process. She had spent a year thinking that her wife was dead. To find that this was all part of a plan, that Rook had intended to leave a note did not made her any less angry. Even tempered with relief, she was furious. Why the fuck would Rook vanish without talking to her first? If she had disappeared for a day, a week? Fine, that was par for the course, it was just a part of being married to Rook. But to give Monaghan an ultimatum via a note? Rage flooded through her at the thought, but then relief poured on top of it again like oil on water. But the thought, the incredible, delightful thought stayed with her through every swing of her mood: Rook was alive.

                With a massive sigh, Monaghan surveyed her surroundings. As with most of the country, the wildlife and native plants had taken the area back over in the absence of people, growing thick and populous. Monaghan had to watch her step, had to use a walking stick she modified to fit in her simple prosthetic to allow her to push reeds and tall grasses and bushes aside. The rest she used her sword on, the sharp blade cutting a swath through the thick plants. Occasionally she encountered a snake and they eyed one another warily before the snake slithered off and Monaghan proceeded.

                As Monaghan hiked, she thought. She tried to decide. Was she going to find Rook to kill her, to bring her home, or to ask her for a divorce? Her heart sank at the thought of the last one, but, oddly, not at the first one. She was just so fucking angry with Rook, and even more at herself. While Monaghan could certainly understand needing time after slaughtering nine people against your will and then nearly killing your wife, she could not fully come to terms with why Rook thought that leaving was the best solution to their problems. So Rook had tried to kill her, shit happened. They could have talked about it, could have worked things out. But no, melodramatic as usual, Rook had vanished into the wilderness, as much a wild animal as she had been when Monaghan had first met her.

                Monaghan’s mind was racing, flickering back and forth between anger, excitement, rage, relief, fury, over and over like she was stuck on a Ferris wheel made out of emotions and it would not stop so she could get off. She tossed a grappling hook up to an ancient-looking anchor point and gave it a hard tug. It would not do any good for her to get herself killed before she got to either punch Rook or kiss her, she still had not decided which she was going to do first. It was a challenge, climbing the steep paths up to her destination, her stump aching against the grasping prosthetic Sharky had made for her when she had first lost her arm. It was made of a light metal alloy, but it was still heavier than her actual arm had ever been and required manual adjustments to grip things. With a grunt, she pulled on the rope with the prosthetic, using her right hand to slide the rope behind her so she did not get tangled. Finally reaching the top of this latest crag, she scrambled up and sat for a minute, panting.

                When, at last, she made it to the crevasse, she scanned the pond’s edge with her binoculars.

                It had once been a part of a state park, a deep crevasse left behind millennia ago by icebergs relentlessly crushing through stone. At its center was a deep, cold pond, not quite big enough to be called a lake, fed by snowmelt and rain.  A thin line marked on the map, Rattlesnake Trail, once lead partially there before one had to climb to get into the dish between three mountains where the actual pond was located. Monaghan did not see anyone standing along the sides of the pond fishing, but that did not mean anything. It had been a year. Anything could have happened, she thought, belly filling with dread. Climbing down carefully, she searched the area, stubbornly refusing to call out for Rook. She had not decided what she wanted her first words to her wife to be, but she would be damned if they were begging for Rook to show herself. She found no fresh prints around the muddy sides of the pond, found no evidence at all that Rook had been here any time recently. Discouraged and swinging back toward “absolutely furious” and “deeply guilty” again now that she still had not found her estranged spouse, Monaghan was nearly about to give up when she noticed a run-down cabin, barely standing. She approached, hands shaking a little.

                Inside were remains.

                Little rabbit bones, tiny fish bones, and large deer bones were piled in one corner, but there was nothing fresh. There was a metal box with a badly damaged graphite pencil next to it. She opened it and found a strip of dried and bleached rabbit skin with familiar handwriting on it.

Dear Corbin,

If you decided to come after me, if you have forgiven me finally, then you have found this place. It’s special to me. Always has been.

The mountains around this little lake are so tall, the light here is special, it hits like nowhere else in the county. And when the morning light shines in…well, I’ve never seen a thing of greater beauty other than you.

If you’ve come this far, I’m at the veteran’s center. It’s three clicks east of here as the crow flies, but you will have to walk, so five clicks east of here after a one click detour south. Please be careful when you approach. I love you.

Charity

                “You motherfucker,” Monaghan muttered under her breath, closing her eyes to rein in her temper, but a breath of relief punched out of her amidst the roil of emotions. Frustrated with herself, with Rook, with the entire universe, rage flowed through her and she punched out with her right hand, knuckles stinging. The whole cabin groaned from the strike, so Monaghan darted out of the building. She looked at her map. There. The veteran’s center.

--

                Monaghan approached the massive building with reservation. So much time had elapsed that she was not even sure that Rook would still be here either. The massive building was rundown, stained by years of acidic rain and toxic fumes, partially collapsed on one side. The remains of the burgundy orange roof had faded to an eerie orange yellow. The yellowy plaster of the walls was chipped, revealing chicken wire and grey cement beneath it. There was a remnant of framed gates left, though they are badly rusted and most of the letters identifying the place were missing. All that remained were “RANCIS ETER CENT” in bent metal over the wrought iron frame. In severely faded but still legible spray paint on the white brick walls around the massive building were the words “Cull the Herd.” A chill ran through Monaghan as she heard a familiar song warbling out of a somehow miraculously intact speaker system. There was a system of solar panels that were obviously still working to provide power to the place. Stepping forward carefully, as instructed in Rook’s second note, she unstrapped her shield from her back and awkwardly attached it to its supporting frame with her orphaned right hand, the nub of her left arm fitting tightly into the leather belt on the back of it once she manhandled it into place.

“… For it’s true, you are my destiny! When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do, you're my dream come true, my one and only you…”

                The music trailed off and Monaghan took a step forward, cautious, only to hear the song start up again. There was nothing to be done for it; whatever Rook might be up to, Monaghan had to see, had to find out what was going on, even if it put her in danger. Swallowing, remembering an enraged face and a knife slamming through her shield, she put one foot in front of the other, bending over in a crouch to stay quiet. There were rusted and destroyed cages scattered around the building. Rook never talked about her time here, refused to speak about anything more than the music box’s effect, but would not explain how she had been conditioned to respond to it. Goosebumps fluttered over Monaghan’s skin, following a chill the ran down her spine, hair standing on end.

                Slowly, Monaghan reached for one of the huge paired doors at the front of the building, thought better of it and approached a shattered window instead. She stepped in gingerly, trying to remain silent, thankful at least that the music assisted her in being undetected. In the room was a lumpy sleeping bag and hundreds of papers tacked to the walls, all of them in Rook’s handwriting. Monaghan narrowed her eyes, reading a few.

“We will be blessed in accordance to our actions. Mankind cannot rely on the inherent goodness that is assumed when our basest, most overwhelming instincts are selfishness and sin. Only through actions of peace, and of justice and of…”

                Monaghan forced herself to walk away from the scribbled sheets full of page upon page of philosophy and concourse, frowning. As she stepped out of the dank little room and into the main lobby, she heard a grunting, thrashing rasp.

                “Hnt, hnt, hnt, ggrrrraaaahhh!” More trashing, something being knocked over. Crouching low, Monaghan saw finally the radio that was attached to all the speakers. There was a bright red light and a timer attached to it. It had less than a minute left on it. Frowning, she spotted one black and one red power cord running toward where she heard the thrashing and realized she could hear the arcing of electricity and smelled burnt hair and skin. Goosebumps raising across the back of her neck again, Monaghan scooted around the cabinet where the radio sat, approaching the thrashing figure. Any relief she felt at finding Rook alive vanished as her one eye took in the horrifying sight before her.

                Rook’s spine was snapped back hard, abdominal muscles taut and trembling under her thin shirt. Her fists were balled hard against her sides and her legs kick out spasmodically. Her face was blank, but her eyes were wide, the whites of them rolling in panic and pain. Frothy foam was flying out in stringy jets through hard-clenched teeth. Monaghan could see the muscles of her jaw like two hard knots, winced at the thought of the damage this was probably doing to Rook’s teeth, among other things, like her heart, she realized with a nauseated turn of her stomach. A long, hard spasm rolled through Rook and she came partially off the ground with the force of it, like a massive grand mal seizure.

                Monaghan was terrified both for herself and her wife. Should she approach? Should she just destroy the radio and the solar generator it was attached to? What the fuck was going on here?

                With a startling scratch of speakers, the song stopped as the timer began to beep incessantly. Rook’s body relaxed and she laid on the floor face down, panting, in a puddle of her own saliva. She took a deep, shuddering breath, gasping and coughing, a harsh growl in her throat. She pushed herself up on her hands, body trembling. Monaghan realized with horror that the red and black lead were attached to her upper arms and saw burns and scars there that suggested that this activity was a regular occurrence.

                Turning slowly, painfully, Rook surveyed Monaghan for a moment, and Monaghan did the same to her. Rook’s golden-brown hair was several inches longer than the last time she saw her. It was tangled and frizzy, no doubt from the current that had just been passing through her body. Her face was gaunt and the space around her eyes was hollow. She had not been eating much. Nevertheless, when she smiled, she was Rook again. She was Monaghan’s wife. Monaghan swallowed back a sob, more conflicted now than ever.

                “I thought you were never coming for me,” Rook signed, sniffing and then wiping at a small trickle of blood dripping from her nose with the back of her arm, leaving a coppery red smudge there. “I never meant for you to see this.” Monaghan was silent. What could she say to that? ‘You didn’t mean a lot of things?’ ‘Good to see you?’ ‘I want a divorce?’ How the fuck could she possibly find the right words to say when they were a jumbled mess in her mind?

                Rook stood slowly, letting out a little growl of effort and wobbling in place. She was wearing a ratty pair of tac pants and a tank top that read “Rye Aviation” with the words “and Son’s” scratched out, replaced with “and Daughter’s” in Nick’s handwriting. The silent figure removed the metal clips from her biceps with a hiss of pain. There were over a hundred burn marks in the shape of alligator clip teeth all over the skin there.

                “I thought I’d never see you again. I thought you did not want me to come back.” She stopped signing as she looked at Monaghan, face faltering. “Are you okay?” Monaghan said nothing, just looked at her, impassive, arm and shield hanging limply at her side. “C.O.R.B.I.N.?”

                Monaghan said nothing. She turned calmly and walked out of the big doors of the building.

Chapter Text

                Rook came and sat next to Monaghan a few minutes later. Monaghan’s legs were dangling in the water of the pond just outside the center’s brick and metal fence, pant legs meticulously rolled up. She had removed her shield and her nub was red and blistered from carrying it.

                Several times Rook started to touch her, but stopped herself. Monaghan was utterly silent. Rook signed something, but Monaghan did not see it, just stared out at the water, at the insects flying above it. A little distressed hiss issued from Rook, but Monaghan ignored it. Swallows darted down, taking little scoops of water and fluttering away with pleasant cheeps. Day turned into night. Night turned into day. The sun rose over the mountains, lightening their faces with orange and pink light. Clouds build above them. A rainstorm was on its way. The air smelled like petrichor and ozone. Thunder rumbled through the sky, reverberating off the mountains eerily. Rook shifted and squirmed in place with a little growl, joints creaking from being still for so long. Monaghan had taken her feet out of the water, but had not moved otherwise. At some point in the night, sitting cross legged, Rook had slumped forward, sleeping for a few fitful hours. Her back must have been killing her. Monaghan had not slept.

                Finally, as thunder cracked overhead and rain began to pour, Monaghan turned to face Rook. Immediately, her wife started to sign.

                “C.O.R.B.I.N., I–”

                “How dare you?” Monaghan cut her off. Rook’s face crumpled, but before she could sign anything else, Monaghan continued. “How dare you do this to me? I could have helped you. I could have come with you. I…I didn’t even know about your note until a month ago. I came as soon as it was found.” The look of horror on Rook’s face could not be adequately described, but it only made Monaghan angrier.

                “I put the note–”

                “It doesn’t matter,” Monaghan snapped, but then she sighed and gentled her tone a bit. “It doesn’t matter. I had no idea where you went or what happened to you. I found your jacket and your radio at the lake and a few months later we found a foot in a Devilfish. I thought you had killed yourself because of me, because of what I said, because I pushed you away,” she told Rook wearily.

                “C.O.R.B.I.N.–”

                “Shut up!” Monaghan yelled, anger flaring up again at Rook’s pathetic apologetic expression. “Shut up. You don’t get to defend yourself yet, I’m not done.” Rook’s hands fluttered again and Monaghan stood, furious. “If you sign one more thing before I’ve had my say, we’re done.” Rook’s face went white. Her hair was pasted to her head with rain now, the fat drops soaking both of them as heavy gray-black clouds rolled overhead, blocking out the morning sun.

                Monaghan took a deep breath, closing her eyes, feeling water accumulating on her lashes. “I am just…so…fucking…angry at you!” she bit out, opening her eyes and glaring at Rook. “Even if I had found the note, I would be angry. I am your wife,” she spat, but her voice broke. “I’m your wife and you’re supposed to trust me. You’re supposed to come to me when you’re struggling, not hide from me. You’re supposed to talk to me so I can help you, the way I told you I needed help, and that I was not okay. Did you honestly think that I would want you to exile yourself over what happened? Do you think so little of me?” she sobbed, cramming the heel of her right hand into her one eye roughly, throat burning with the hard weeps that were pouring out of her now. Hot tears and cold rain streaked down Monaghan’s face as she cried, shuddering hard. Rook pushed herself up, stood, face devastated, guilty. She listened to the torrent of frustration from Monaghan with her shoulders rounded, her head partly bowed.

                “I love you!” Monaghan shouted, but right now it sounded more like a curse than a comfort. “I’ve loved you almost since the moment I met you and I wanted to help you, I wanted to take you out of this misery that everyone else put you in, but you still manage to wallow in misery. I was here to help you and you wouldn’t let me. Rook,” Monaghan sobbed. “Why won’t you let me help you? Why did you do this to me? Why are you doing this to yourself?” she gestured to the burns on Rook’s arms. She forced a breath out of her nose, shoulders slumping as she stared at her wife. “You can talk now,” she said miserably, throat rough, chest burning.

                Rook stepped slowly forward, approaching timidly, as though she was afraid Monaghan was going to punch her, or as though she was afraid she was going to hurt Monaghan more than she already had by coming too close.

                “I don’t want to hurt you anymore. I did not mean to hurt you by trying not to,” she signed, face agonized. “I’ve been trying to break the programming. I thought that if I left, it would give you the time you needed, and that it would give me the time to fix myself. I was afraid that somehow that song would be played and I’d hurt you again,” Rook signed miserably. “And when I didn’t hear from you, I thought you didn’t want me to come back. C.O.R.B.I.N., I love you, and I did not want to hurt you, ever. I did not mean to shut you out. But what I was doing here, it’s dangerous. I’m dangerous. I needed to know that I could control that part of myself. I wanted to give you a choice–” Like clockwork came the interruption and Monaghan would have been furious if she were not instead afraid.

                “Only you,” crooned The Platters over the ancient speakers, “can make all this world seem right…

                Grabbing at her head, Rook dropped to her knees, teeth bared in agony. Thunder rumbled overhead, the rain beating down on them. Rook looked up at Monaghan but there was no indication of malicious intent pasted on her features, no murderous expression of rage and animalistic fury, just pain.

                “Don’t come any closer,” Rook mouthed, trembling, head wobbling as she fought her conditioning. Shaking just as much as Rook, Monaghan stepped toward her wife, a sudden idea occurring to her as she stooped down to be on Rook’s level. In her clear, strong voice, Monaghan began to sing along with the warped recording of the song, caressing the side of Rook’s face as she did so, meeting her eyes the entire time she sang.

                Monaghan cupped Rook’s cheek with her hand, felt her wife quivering, saw tears streaming down her face as she struggled for control, struggled to maintain her autonomy.

                “You’re my dream come true, my one, and only you,” Monaghan sang softly, meeting her eyes and Rook relaxed suddenly, as though she was never conditioned at all. “See there?” Monaghan whispered, running the pad of her thumb along Rook’s bottom lip tenderly. “You didn’t have to be afraid.”

Chapter Text

                Monaghan was not done being mad, that was for fucking sure, but her anger was tempered by Rook’s honest-to-god attempt to break her brainwashing for Monaghan’s own safety. Had the note not been lost, this would have all been different, would have been less traumatic, but what could you do? Sometimes the universe was a real bitch, and that’s all there was to it.

                Monaghan had taken her sword and shield to the sadistic setup Rook had made to torture herself, obliterating the radio, shattering the record of the song, slamming her shield through everything, slicing cords with her sword, swearing and screaming at an uncaring universe, cursing the Seeds, cursing the cult, cursing herself. Rook stayed out of her way, looking a little afraid as Monaghan raged.

                “What is this?” Monaghan had asked finally, flipping through some of the pages of text Rook had written. Rook shrugged.

                “Something that kept my mind busy when I was missing you. The Voice…”

                “You’re still hearing the Voice?” Monaghan frowned. Rook swallowed.

                “Nothing. It’s nothing. Just scribbles.” Monaghan nodded, walked away quietly, worried.

                That night, with stars visible overhead through the destroyed roof, they laid down next to one another. Rook pressed warm kisses to the side of her face, ran her hand down Monaghan’s side, but the captain had pushed away the touch, telling Rook honestly, “I’m not ready for that yet. I’m not…completely ready to forgive you for essentially abandoning me.” Rook looked crestfallen, but Monaghan stood by her statement. “Are you done being here? Do you want to go home with me?” Rook’s eyes flickered up to the wall where her writings were hung, but she looked back to Monaghan almost immediately.

                “Yes, now that you’re here, now that I know you want me back,” Rook signed. “I was planning on testing if the conditioning was broken first, but clearly I was mistaken in how I went about this. I’m sorry.”

                “Stop saying you’re sorry,” Monaghan griped. “Show me you’re sorry by not doing something like this again.” Rook stared at her for a long moment, searching for words.

                “My note…if I had known...”

                “Yeah, the note you left instead of just talking to me,” Monaghan muttered again, sounding more tired than angry. Rook started to made the motion for “sorry,” but stopped herself at Monaghan’s look.

                “I don’t know how to fix this, C.O.R.B.I.N.. I don’t know how to make you forgive me for failing you again.” Monaghan looked up, sighed.

                “You can’t make someone forgive you, Rook. It’s going to take time. Time you should have given both of us before you just took off into the wilderness. And stop being so melodramatic. It’s how we got into this mess in the first place.” Rook nodded, looking a little affronted.

                “May I touch you?” Rook asked, hesitant. Monaghan shrugged. Going all in, Rook tugged Monaghan into her front on the ratty bed that they were sharing, and for a half moment, Monaghan was pulled back to the beginnings of their relationship, when cold nights pressed them together and the warmth between them grew into love. She could feel hot wetness at her neck, knew Rook was breathing slowly to try to hide that she was crying. Rook’s arms were wrapped around her, holding her in place as the night began to cool in the creaky old building. Swallowing her pride, and her anger, Monaghan placed her hand over Rook’s and squeezed.

                “I love you,” she said softly, and raised one of Rook’s hands to kiss it. With a shock, she noticed the now-obvious lack of a ring on Rook’s left hand. “Where’s your ring?” Rook fumbled with a pocket, pulled it out and put it back on, showing Monaghan. Monaghan sat up, moving away so Rook could sign.

                “Metal and electricity don’t mix,” Rook signed shortly, looking ashamed again.

                “I’m just glad you didn’t manage to kill yourself,” Monaghan admitted with a sigh of relief, taking Rook’s hand back. They curled back together, Rook pressing her body against Monaghan’s like she was trying to melt them together.

                It was the best night’s sleep Monaghan had gotten in over a year.

--

                “I’m leaving. Today,” Monaghan told Rook the next morning. “Are you coming with me?”

                “Of course,” Rook signed. Monaghan surveyed her for a moment, and then lead the way without another word. Rook was not right behind her and scrambled to catch up a while later, panting and jamming a handful of paper into her pack haphazardly. She had not packed her things before Monaghan took off.

                The two hiked in less-then-companionable silence, Monaghan still processing the fact that Rook actually had left for a good reason, but that she had spent the past several months inflicting torture on herself that could have killed her. Monaghan could easily have come here just to find her as dead as she had thought she was when she found the jacket in the lake. Monaghan set a hard, fast pace, murmuring, “Keep up,” when Rook stopped to cough and take a drink of water. Monaghan could see Rook sign something out of the corner of her eye, ignored it, kept her fast pace. She heard a rasp, then a purring growl. Finally, a few minutes later, rough breathing and a whimpered, barely understandable,

                “Cor!” and then coughing. Monaghan stopped, turned to her wife, who was struggling for breath, hands on her knees. Rook sat heavily, taking in air with big, open-mouthed gasps. “If you don’t want me to come back with you, tell me, don’t try to kill me for fuck’s sake,” Rook signed, sweat breaking out on her face. She leaned her head back against the tree she was propped up against.

                The truth was Monaghan was not trying to hurt Rook, was not trying to made any point. She was running away from her subconsciously. The feeling of hard, calloused hands running down her waist returned, as did the memory of a rough kiss, her lip bitten gently by teeth that are not Rook’s…she remembered feeling hard need pressed against her pelvis, remembered his hands tugging at her pants, trying to unbutton them. Remembered the hot, wet plunge of flesh and desperate, aching movements, remembered shared grief and ecstasy. Even though she had thought Rook dead, it complicated things. She had no idea what Sharky might think, had left before he had awoken. And now how could she tell Rook? ‘Hey, by the way, while I thought you were dead I celebrated the anniversary of your disappearance by climbing in bed with your best friend and we fucked because I was so sad and lonely?’ Monaghan clamped her eyes shut, sighed.

                “Sorry,” she muttered, helping Rook back to her feet. Rook met her eyes, the space between her eyebrows crinkling as she frowned, searching Monaghan’s face.

                “O.K.?” Monaghan forced a closed-mouth smile.

                “All good. Come on. I’ll slow down.”

--

                Each night, they laid down together, cuddled close, but it was as though they had reversed roles to the start of their relationship. Rook was affectionate, and wanted to touch, to kiss. Monaghan was recalcitrant, tolerating the closeness for warmth and to assure herself Rook was there, but allowing nothing else. Rook did not push, did not pressure her into doing anything she did not want to do, just pulled her close at night and wobbled her hand with her thumb, index finger and pinkie out with an earnest look on her face whenever Monaghan glanced at her.

                “I love you too,” Monaghan would respond, but it just made the guilt and the conflict and the anger roiling in her concentrate into a ball in her stomach that made her nauseated. They reached their home three and a half weeks after leaving the veteran’s center, setting their things down. Rook shook out the bedding, got fresh drinking water from the pond. They bathed, wiping grime and sweat off their bodies. Rook touched Monaghan tenderly, using her bar of soap to gently clean and sooth the thickened skin on Monaghan’s left shoulder and the end of her abbreviated left arm. She passed her hand up Monaghan’s side, bringing her cupped palm to the back of Monaghan’s neck, pulling her in for a kiss. Monaghan did not resist, allowed the soft press of lips, opened her mouth to give Rook’s velvety tongue entrance. Rook’s other hand searched down, down, down Monaghan’s body, slid a finger gently inside, stroking, rubbing until Monaghan was gasping into Rook’s mouth, a whimper on her breath, and she was almost there, almost there and…the feeling of calloused hands running down her sides, of fumbling fingers on her pants button, of a coarse beard hair…Monaghan jerked away.

                “Stop. Stop, Rook, stop.” Rook removed her hand instantly, paddled backwards. She did not sign anything, just gave a tiny nod, that bunching of wrinkles between her eyebrows showing that she wanted to asked what was wrong. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I need more time,” she said, not looking at Rook. It was complicated. And it was hard. It was not just what happened with Sharky, it was everything. She was not ready for that kind of intimacy yet. “We need to go to Prosperity,” she said, changing the subject and lunging out of the pond, grabbing a cloth to dry off with and handing Rook one. “We need to have Selene listen to your heart, make sure you didn’t damage it.” Rook nodded slowly, face carefully unreadable.

                “Alright,” she signed and mouthed. “We’ll leave in the morning.

--

                When the two weary women walked back into Prosperity’s gates, they were bombarded by familiar faces. Kim hugged Monaghan tightly, calling Selene over when she saw the captain wince and noticed the callousing and rub marks on her shoulder and stump. Rook was nervous and flighty, but greeted her friends, chatting in basic ASL with those who learned it. The excitement over their arrival slowly died down, but Jerome decided that it was the perfect excuse for a barbecue cookout, so suddenly there was a flurry of activity to get things started. Amidst all of this, Sharky made his appearance, bearhugging both Monaghan and Rook. Everything was going swimmingly, Monaghan thought, until Sharky opened his fat mouth, an inevitability that she should had seen coming.

                “I’m real sorry about what happened, Dep. We didn’t know you were alive,” he said, looking ashamed.

                “What?” Rook signed, head whipping to look at Monaghan, who had frozen.

                “I’m gonna go ahead and guess Cap didn’t mention what happened,” Sharky blurted, the parts of his face not covered by beard going very red. Rook stared at Monaghan for a long, unsettling moment.

                “What happened?” Monaghan opened her mouth to speak, searched for the words. “What happened?!” Rook demanded.

                “Can we walk about this later?” Monaghan murmured, seeing the crowd around them. Rook gave an angry, tearing growl and stormed off. “Thanks, Sharky,” Monaghan said flatly. He looked genuinely sorry, so she said nothing else, but followed Rook.

                The thin figure stepped out of Prosperity and Monaghan swore under her breath. The same old song and dance, get angry and disappear, a coping mechanism only marginally healthier than getting angry and hitting someone like Monaghan usually did. Surprisingly, Rook stopped at the doors and held one open for Monaghan to follow. She did. Rook walked down to the spring just northwest of Prosperity, still in sight of the walls. She sat heavily on the large boulder under the big oak tree there, wiping a hand tiredly across her face. Standing just to the side guiltily, Monaghan chewed on her bottom lip. She had an old Nirvana song wafting through her mind, an ear bug she couldn’t seem to rid herself of as she tried composing a variety of apologies in her mind, all of them inadequate.

                “What happened?” Rook signed again after a long moment. Monaghan clenched her jaw.

                “It was a mistake.”

                “What was a mistake? Did you have sex with him?” Rook asked, expression pained.

                “Yes,” Monaghan said softly. Rook growled in disgust and frustration, burying her face in her hands for a moment. She looked up, face unreadable now.

                “How long did you wait before you crawled in bed with the man who spent half his life wanting to fuck me?” Rook asked, hands moving fast and angrily.

                “It’s not…it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t planned.”

                “How long?” she repeated, staring at her own knees, not at Monaghan.

                “You’d been gone…assumed dead…for a year,” Monaghan admitted. An angry, growling scoff.

                “Glad to know you grieved me for so long.

                “Well, what is the right amount of time before moving on when you think the love of your life is dead? A year? Two years? Ten?” Monaghan demanded, her turn to be angry. “Goddammit, Rook, will you just let me tell you what happened? You owe me that much.” Angry green eyes flicked upwards.

                “Do I?”

                “Yes,” Monaghan snapped. “I was going to tell you. I was not hiding it from you. I also did not want to bring it up in the midst of the fucking wilderness where you would disappear into the wide fucking blue yonder like you always do.”

                “Spend years locked in a bunker with your worst enemy and see if you don’t want to walk away when you don’t want to deal with something,” Rook defended herself, expression some mixture of annoyed and chagrined. “Fine. What happened?”

                “Sharky and I became friends while you were gone…”

                “Obviously.”

                “Charity.” Rook threw her hands in the air, then grabbed one of her knees with each hand, waiting for Monaghan to proceed. “I was not trying to hide it from you, when we were hiking back here. I just…I did not know how to tell you.”

                “So then tell me now,” Rook signed, impatient, irritated at the stalling. Monaghan steeled herself, began.

                “Sharky and I became friends. You know how we…clashed…previously. You being gone brought us together. It’s not romantic, Rook. But we were drinking late one night. I was nearly blacked out drunk. Fell backwards off my barstool. Tried to go upstairs to my room, Sharky stopped me from killing myself falling down the stairs. Put me in his bed.” A violent, tearing growl of rage slipped out of Rook’s mouth when she looked up over Monaghan’s shoulder. Monaghan turned. Distantly, she could see Sharky standing on Prosperity’s front wall, scratching the back of his neck with a hand as he looked down at them.

                “I’m going to kill him,” Rook signed, face absolutely furious.

                “You might want to wait until I get to the really incriminating part,” Monaghan advised with a sigh, scratching her chin with the end of her stump. She wanted to get this over with, to tell it as quickly as possible, but with as much detail as she could stand so Rook would not have to asked her to repeat the events. “He was just lying next to me, planning on sleeping. I…I put my arm across Sharky’s chest. I was so lonely, Rook. He…he didn’t realize it was me. He was shitfaced. He thought you were in bed with him,” Monaghan admitted, feeling her own anger rise in her chest, jealousy pouring through her. “He kissed me and…and I let him. He rolled on top of me…” Rook held a hand up suddenly, face pale, looking sick.

                “I need a minute,” she gestured. Rook took a deep, shaking breath and then indicated for Monaghan to proceed.

                “The blame is not entirely on Sharky, Rook. He tried to initiate, but…but I didn’t stop him. We were both really drunk and really sad. We both just wanted to forget our grief. I wanted to forget my guilt. It’s not an excuse, but it’s what happened, and I’m sorry. I swear to God, it only happened the one time, Rook. I left Prosperity the next day.”

                “Do you love him?” Monaghan frowned at the question.

                “Not like that. Not like I love you.” Rook glared at her, fighting back angry tears. Monaghan pressed her lips together hard, turned away from Rook, spun back on her heel, put her hand on her hip. Rook stared at her. Monaghan sighed heavily, looking down at her boots.

                “It was a comfort to both of us, Rook. Nothing more. You know I love you. And you know how he felt…feels about you.”

                “Yes. I do. Doesn’t make it okay to fuck my wife,” Rook signed bitterly.

                “No, it doesn’t.” Monaghan admitted with a sad little smile. “Rook, if I had known you were still alive, it would never have happened. I love you. You. Not Sharky, not anyone else. You. You are…you are wondrous. You’re beautiful, and you’re smart, and you’re brave, and you’ve endured more than anyone I know. Shit that would kill the average person just made you stronger. Sharky loves you. He can’t help it. I can’t help it. When we thought we had lost you, we needed each other. I’m sorry, and I know Sharky is too. Please. Please try to forgive us. Rook?” Rook stood, crossed her arms protectively over her chest, her back to Monaghan for a moment. She turned back to her wife looking shell-shocked.

                “Just…just give me some time, O.K.?” Monaghan nodded, swallowed, understood the feeling.

                “Please don’t leave me again,” Monaghan whispered, trying to keep her voice from breaking. Rook looked at her, sighed, stepped forward. Monaghan found herself wincing a bit at Rook’s approach, expecting…well, expecting a slap, frankly. Instead, Rook put her hands on either side of her face and leaned in, kissed her softly, bumped their foreheads together in an intimate, oddly comforting expression of affection, and then walked toward Prosperity’s gates.

Chapter Text

                Once they stepped inside Prosperity, Sharky walked up to Rook timidly, face unsure. Monaghan wanted to warn him, wanted to point out that this sudden calm was very likely a precursor to a storm of anger, wanted to grab Rook by the shoulder and stop her from confronting Sharky. There were a lot of people in the courtyard and any confrontation was going to be incredibly public.

                “I, uh, sorry, Dep,” he murmured sheepishly. Rook stepped closer to him and Monaghan could see the tense movements like a stalking cougar in her wife’s stance. Monaghan did not have a chance to say anything between the moment she saw Rook’s shoulder muscles bunch and the instant she tackled Sharky to the ground. She mercilessly pummeled him in the face with both hands, growling and hissing as he tried to catch her hands, tried to stop the onslaught of strikes until Nick and Hurk rushed over, yanking Rook off Sharky. She held up a sign using her middle finger and then pointed at Sharky, her intention absolutely clear even if he had not learned any other phrases in ASL. Monaghan stayed out of it, cheeks burning in embarrassment. Everyone was going to know about their relationship drama now.

                “Now, what in the hell is goin’ on here?” Nick demanded, still holding Rook by the scruff. Hurk was checking Sharky over, handing him a rag for his nose, which was pouring blood.

                “It was one time,” Sharky said nasally in his own defense, having the decency to look ashamed. Nick looked stunned, as did many of the others who witnessed the scuffle. Monaghan sighed. It was out now. Nearly twenty set of eyes turned toward Monaghan.

                “We were drunk,” she said to abate the gathering crowd’s curiosity. “We thought Rook was dead. Now can we stop airing our dirty laundry out to everyone, Rook, please?” Rook glared at her for a moment and stormed into the lodge.

                “Uhm,” Carmina started, “the room you were using was…” They heard a crash from inside a few moments later and Monaghan rolled her eyes, looking heavenward. It was not as though she did not have this coming, but it did not make it any less embarrassing with all those eyes staring at her, judging her.

                “I’ll go check on her,” Monaghan mumbled. There was more crashing and she winced, giving an apologetic wave to Kim, who had stepped out into the courtyard with her hands on her hips.

                When Monaghan got to what was once their room, she found the bookcases toppled, books scattered everywhere. There were now two beds crammed into the small room and one of them had been shoved wildly to the side, the familiar lamp was on the floor, shade crumpled. Jesus. So this was why Rook left when she was angry. Rook was sitting on the edge of one of the mattresses, her face in her hands, weeping.

--

                I want to scream. I want to yell until my voice is hoarse. I want to tell them both how much they’ve hurt me, but I cannot. I know, I know that my long absence has broken everything, ruined everything. I was trying to made things better, and as usual just made them worse. Everything I touch breaks. Every good thing I try to do manifests as an evil act. These fucking bookcases! This goddamn lamp! This room! FUCK! My temper gets the best of me and for a moment I’m a whirlwind of wrath and destruction.

                I feel bad for hitting Sharky. I have always struggled with my temper. It is and was something I am deeply ashamed of. Sheriff Whitehorse, my mentor and my father figure after my own died had helped me with it, helped me to control my rage, sharing with me about his abusive father, how he had been beaten, how he had to learn not to repeat his father’s mistakes. It was sobering to hear an authority figure speak of their abuse, made me realize how out-of-control my temper had gotten when my father was killed.

                But then the Seeds had taken over the county and I allowed my wrath to run rampant. After the bunker, after being trapped with my enemy, I found the best way to control my anger was to allow it to dissipate. It’s why I preferred to leave than to argue. But I cannot leave now. Not after what I did to Corbin. But, my god, that feeling of fury rushing through my veins…my best friend taking advantage of and touching my wife…I could not help myself when I saw his face.

                If only I could speak…not sign, actually speak. But I cannot. That privilege was taken from me by my own reckless hand. And so I weep. For myself. For Corbin. For Sharky. For my marriage.

                Everything I touch turned to pain. I want to push Corbin away. I want to shield her from my madness, and anger, and pain. Maybe she would be better off without me. I open my mouth in a silent scream of pain, regretting what I’ve done to us by leaving, regretting my very existence.

--

                “Hey. Hey! Rook. Charity. Look at me. Hey.” Monaghan grabbed Rook by the chin and forced her to look. “We’ll get through this. Whatever you’re thinking, whatever it is you want to do, take a breath. We’ll be okay.” Monaghan clenched her jaw and then leaned forward, kissed Rook gently, wiping her tears away with a thumb. “We are two of the biggest fuck ups, but we need each other, yeah? I love you. Let’s work through all this shit. I’ve got you, Rook. I’ll be back in a minute.”

                It was a rare commodity and Kim guarded it like a hawk. Like, literally had put a lock on the freezer door to protect it from just anyone accessing it. Annoyed, Monaghan turned to her, dreading this conversation. Kim was scrubbing the kitchen counters like they owed her money. That was a bad sign. Kim cleaned when she was angry.

                “I need some ice, Kim.” Kim frowned and looked at her appraisingly.

                “Why?”

                “For Rook’s hands.” Kim scoffed, clearly annoyed with all of them. She did not tolerate nonsense or drama among her people.

                “I’m sure Sharky’s face needs it too,” Kim said dryly. Monaghan closed her eyes, breathed in through her nose.

                “Kim. We’ll get our shit sorted, but if I don’t get ice on Rook’s hands, she won’t be able to communicate at all for days. Please.” Kim stopped wiping the nonexistent spot on the counter with her rag.

                “Alright. Go get a clean cloth.” When Monaghan returned, Kim dumped ice into the cloth, the freezer already locked back tight. Kim grabbed her wrist and looked at her intently with those gorgeous almond-shaped eyes, fury sitting in them. Christ, everyone was angry now. Good job, Monaghan.

                “We don’t hurt one another like this, Cap,” Kim hissed. Monaghan sighed, tugging her arm away.

                “I know. We’re working it out. It’s gonna take time.”

                “I imagine so,” Kim said. “I’ve been there. I should not be judging.” She looked away from Monaghan and then flicks her gaze back. “Nick and I…things were hard when he was gone.”

                “I’m gonna stop you there, Kim. I don’t need more advice, I need to get this ice to my wife,” Monaghan said, frustrated. She stopped on her way out of the room. “Is Sharky alright?”

                “He broke his nose, lost a tooth and hurt his pride, but he’s fine other than that. Pretty upset about Rook, though.”

                “Well. A lot of us have the right to be angry at each other. He spent years angry at her. It’s only fair, I guess.”

                “This eye for an eye thing…” Kim started. Monaghan chuckled wryly.

                “Preaching to the choir,” she said, pointing to her eyepatch with her right hand. “You’re right. We’ve…I’ve gotta start learning how to turn the other cheek.”

                “You better take that to Rook before it melts,” Kim commented, effectively dismissing her. Monaghan stops halfway out of the room, her curiosity, as always, getting the better of her.

                “Kim…when Nick was gone, did you ever…?” Kim met her gaze steadily, mouth twisting in disgust at the question.

                “No.” Monaghan nodded, disheartened, and stepped out of the oppressive judgment that had filled the room, heart aching.

Chapter Text

                Monaghan stepped back into the room, finding Rook cradling her hands in her lap carefully. The knuckles had already begun to bruise and stiffen.

                “Here,” Monaghan whispered, taking her hands gently, holding the icepack to them. She looked into Rook’s eyes, sitting next to her on the bed. The pain she saw in those green eyes nearly choked her. To know that she caused this. They kept hurting each other. It had to stop. There had to come a time when they could just be happy again, be normal. Monaghan gently massaged her wife’s hands with her right one, making Rook hold the icepack where she wanted it. Monaghan added a dab of salve from a little container Selene gave her, working it into Rook’s delicate but strong fingers.

                Monaghan looked at her wife’s hands for the first time in a long time, really looked at them. Strong, muscle-thick fingers, the fingers of an artist, of a warrior. She touched the callouses on the pads, the little mound of thickened skin on the inside of her first two fingers of her right hand, worn from pulling bowstrings for many years. She traced the lifeline, the love line, raised Rook’s left hand to her face, kissed the palm. The fingers curled gently in response. She turned Rook’s hand over, looking at badly scarred knuckles that were beginning to mottle purple and blue. She kissed each one. She saw the web of blue-green veins sitting just under the surface, saw the freckles splattered across these hands, these wonderful hands that could bring pleasure or pain, that had spent too much of their time doing the latter. These hands, these wondrous hands were her partner’s voice, so delicate and so strong.

                With a shuddering breath, Monaghan bumped her forehead to Rook’s.

                “I’m so sorry, Rook. For all of it. For everything. For pushing you away. For being so angry with you. For…for letting my emotions get in the way of my better judgment. I’m sorry.” Wincing with the effort, Rook tugged her hand from Monaghan’s grip.

                “I will need time to forgive you,” she signed, fingers stiff, face blunt. “Do you forgive me?” Rook asked with signs, her face flickering with pain as she bent her fingers.

                “It’s already forgotten. It’s…there was nothing to forgive. You left a note. I wish you had talked to me, that you had told me what you wanted to do but…It’s not your fault the note got blown away. I understand why you wanted to do what you did, and I can’t blame you for it. Your freewill was taken from you, and that is not your fault. The cultists made you have to kill them, and that is not your fault. The world has gone to shit, and that is not your fault. None of this was your fault.” Rook chuffed a little relieved laugh, her eyes full of adoration Monaghan did not feel she deserved.

                “Where were you years ago when I needed to hear that? Thank you. I love you.”

                “I love you too. Now, stop making your fingers work and just hold that icepack. I’ll get the door.” Monaghan swung the door shut, came back to the bed, got on her knees between Rook’s legs. Rook touched Monaghan’s cheek and the captain smirked, pinned her arm to the mattress gently but firmly. “Thought I told you to hold that icepack.” Rook purred and obeyed. Monaghan stripped Rook’s pants and underwear off, pressing her lips to the space where Rook’s leg met her torso, kissing and sucking, eliciting a little growl of pleasure from Rook. Monaghan lapped her wife gently, stroking sensitive tissue with the tip of her tongue, sliding a finger home into tight warm, feeling her eyes dilate, feeling herself grow aroused, but this was not about her. It was about Rook. She massaged tenderly, pleasuring her wife with her tongue and her hand until she felt that tell-tale stiffening of muscles, heard a breathy growl.

                Knees clicking, Monaghan stood, kissed Rook.

                “I don’t expect you’ll get as thorough an apology from Sharky,” she teased, testing the water. Rook frowned at her, but then chuckled roughly.

                The two emerged from their old room and made their way downstairs. There were still people preparing for the barbeque, and Monaghan made a point to talk with her friends, to make it clear that things had been worked out and there was no need for any awkwardness. She was looking for Sharky, but he was currently nowhere to be found and neither, now that some time had passed, was Rook. That explained things. Monaghan climbed to the highest point in Prosperity, atop the Lodge’s roof and found them sitting side by side, each with a beer. They turned to look at her. Sharky’s eye was blackened and puffy, his nose had two pieces of gauze hanging from the nostrils like a walrus’ tusks. Monaghan shifted uncomfortably, but the two looked peaceful enough.

                “We good?” she asked them both. Rook nodded and Sharky said,

                “We’re good, Cap.”

                “We were both in the wrong, Sharky,” Monaghan said apologetically, putting her hand on her wife’s shoulder and massaging gently.

                “Yeah, well, you know what they say: two assholes don’t made a taint,” Sharky said, taking a swig of his beer.

                “Do ‘they’ say that?” Monaghan asked skeptically.

                “Just to be clear,” Rook signed slowly, both so Sharky could understand and because her fingers hurt from pummeling him, “you touch my wife again, I’ll rip your dick off, S.H.A.R.K.Y..”

                “That’s fair.”

Chapter Text

shep·herd /ˈSHepərd/ noun

noun: shepherd; plural noun: shepherds

  1. a person who tends and rears sheep.
  2. a member of the clergy who provides spiritual care and guidance.

--

                The ultrasound made rhythmic noise as Selene drug the probe across Rook’s chest through the slimy gel she had put there.

                “Lungs look okay,” Selene said. “But your heart...” Monaghan’s stomach sank, her face paled. “There’s some scar tissue here…” Selene pointed, “and here. I’m not a heart doctor or whatever, but you need to take it easy. It looks like the murmur I heard is caused by damage to one of the valves.” Rook and Monaghan looked at each other, Monaghan swallowing hard past a lump in her throat.

                “What do we do now? How do we fix it?”

                “You don’t,” Selene said with a sigh. “You’ll have to be careful. Stay in shape, watch your diet. But…you should know that you’re at a greater risk for an arrhythmia, or for a heart attack,” Selene told them, far more grim than she usually was, which scared the shit out of Monaghan. Selene gave Rook a small reassuring smile, grasping her forearm gently, wiping gel off the ultrasound probe and setting it down. “Just take it easy, my dude. You’ll be fine.” Monaghan took a deep breath, met Rook’s eyes. The silent figure shrugged.

                “You’re sure there’s nothing that can be done?” Monaghan asked, taking Rook’s hand.

                “Dr. Ramash is supposed to be coming back through next month if it would made you feel better to have an ‘actual’ doctor look at it,” Selene told her.

                “Hmm. No, you know what you’re looking at.” Monaghan sighed, wiping her face with her stump. “You good, Rook?” Her wife nodded, wiping at the slime on her chest in irritation before slipping her shirt back on.

--

                Monaghan decided that the best way to handle the news that her wife had a serious heart condition was to spoil her. She brought her the choicest vegetables, the freshest fruit and gave her massages, which usually led to something else. Wanting to surprise her wife with breakfast in bed, Monaghan barged into their bedroom, carrying a tray of food. Rook leapt as if burnt, already dressed and out of bed. All over their bed were pages and pages of paper, some of them clearly sheets handmade from ground up reeds. Covering them were lines of Rook’s chicken scratch handwriting.

                “What is this?” Monaghan asked, picking up a page before Rook could stop her.

                “…nevertheless, if a man commits an evil act, consideration should be given to its purpose. Evil for the sake of evil cannot be tolerated. Evil for the sake of good presents a deeper issue, the heart of which…”

                Monaghan frowned, picked up another page.

                “Therefore, by letting children live in poverty and fear and yet continuing to insist that all created living beings must be born is paramount to devaluing all life. Do we value flies? Do we cherish ants? No. With a population increase of any species comes a decrease in its essential value due to the callousness of those born without a merciful bone in their body. We must find a balance. Too many, and we find ourselves purposeless, too few and we find ourselves desperate. Life is precious, it should not be created and discharged as though only the creation of that life is important, while giving no concern to the quality that life must endure...”

                “Rook, what the fuck is this?” Monaghan demanded, heart beating hard. Rook stared at her, hands trembling. A page fluttered to the ground.

                “You wouldn’t understand,” she signed slowly.

                “I want to try,” Monaghan told her.

                “The Voice…”

                “Is it still talking to you? Do you still hear it? Rook?” Monaghan stepped forward, shook her wife gently by the shoulders. “Rook, do you still hear the Voice?” Rook turned a miserable face on Monaghan, her eyes half-mad.

                “It hasn’t stopped speaking since the day Joseph died.”

                “Rook,” Monaghan whispered, horrified, remembering the soul-deep sensation of unease she felt when the Voice had talked to her. She stumbled backwards as though struck. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

                “It is my burden to bear,” Rook signed woodenly. Monaghan scowled.

                “Have you learned nothing from our entire relationship? Rook. Please. What is this?”

                “It’s…I don’t know yet. I’ve been trying to interpret what it tells me, what it’s saying. I think it wants mankind to try over, to start again here in the New Eden. It wants to rid the world of evil.” Monaghan’s stomach did a flip flop seeing Joseph’s rhetoric pouring out of her wife’s hands.

                “I think it’s a little too late for that,” Monaghan murmured. “We’re still fighting Highwaymen. There’s still sin, and death, and despair.” Rook met her eyes.

                “The Voice doesn’t want to use war to bring peace. That’s like…” Rook searched for an adequate simile, “that’s like fucking for virginity. We are to be examples. We are to be the castle on the hill.” Monaghan rubbed a hand over her forehead, worried now that Rook had truly lost her mind, for good this time. But she had heard the Voice too. She had blocked It out, blared loud music anytime It began to speak, drank or smoked or otherwise distracted herself to push It away, to distance herself.

                “YOU ARE HER SHEPHERD.”

                “And what if I don’t want to be anyone’s shepherd?!” Monaghan snarled. Rook stared at her, startled.

                “You hear It too, still.” Sighing, Monaghan gathered Rook’s papers so she could flop down heavily on the bed.

                “I thought I’d finally drowned It out.” She looked up. “But I couldn’t this time.”

                “What did It tell you?” Rook asked intently. Monaghan met her gaze, clenched her teeth.

                “The same thing I heard it say years ago when I thought I was just hearing things,” she muttered.

                “What?” Rook asked, stepping forward, her face intent, almost predatory.

                “It just said ‘YOU ARE HER SHEPHERD.’” Rook grabbed Monaghan’s face abruptly, eyes bright with excitement before she released Monaghan so she could use her hands to sign.

                “I think It wants you to help me.”

                “Why on Earth would a god want an atheist to help one of its followers?” Monaghan asked skeptically.

                “Who better to question God than someone who does not believe in Him?” Rook asked, quirking a brow. Monaghan laughed bitterly.

                “‘If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful. If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good. If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?’” Monaghan quoted one of her favorite philosophers. Rook’s shoulders fell in a slump of defeat. They had had this argument many times before, never to a reasonable conclusion.

                “Have you considered that perhaps God is tired of judging His children? Perhaps it is our turn to take responsibility for our choices.” Monaghan nodded slowly.

                “That idea I can get onboard with,” she said hesitantly. “So what is your goal here?” She indicated the papers.

                “I don’t know yet, but I know I have to write the things that are coming to me down. Will you help me?”

                “Will I help you write a new holy book? A bible? Shit no.”

                “I never said it was holy,” Rook pointed out, looking peeved.

                “Alright,” Monaghan muttered, gathering the pages, which were numbered. “We’ll begin at the beginning.”

                “‘In the beginning was the Word…’”

                “I’m not quoting the Bible, dingus, I’m quoting Lewis Carroll,” Monaghan interrupted Rook’s torrent of hand movements. “‘Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.’” Rook huffed a laugh, took Monaghan’s hand and kissed it gently.

                “Thank you,” she signed.

                “Don’t thank me yet,” Monaghan warned. “I’m vicious about correcting people’s grammar.”

                “You’ve used the word ‘y’all’n’t’ve’ three times last week,” Rook pointed out, having to spell out the mishmash of letters that made up the entirely grammatically incorrect word from Monaghan’s Texas twang.

                “Shut up and hand me a pen. You misspelled ‘callousness.’”

Chapter Text

                A year passed and no Highwaymen or other ne’er-do-wells dared to come into Hope county anymore, not with the California Company and their friends guarding it. Rook worked on her book, writing frantically late into the night sometimes as either the Voice, or her own thoughts kept her from sleep. Monaghan worried about her, but the book was surprisingly sane, especially when compared to other religious works. Overwhelmingly it gave a message of hope, and peace and valuing life above all else. The Voice rarely spoke to Monaghan, usually only piping up when she was sleeping. She would awaken to the Voice whispering her name and find Rook in the corner, writing, dark rings under her eyes. In these moments, Monaghan would tug her away from her work, insisting that she give herself a break.

                And Monaghan was her shepherd – she kept her safe, sane and happy. She checked for spelling errors and pointed out questionable philosophies or bad arguments. She gave Rook guidance that Joseph Seed had not had when the Voice spoke to him. With this iteration of mankind speaking with God, Monaghan was the temperance that prevented insanity and pride from destroying the result.

                Amidst breaks in her work, Rook and Monaghan travelled with Roger occasionally to gather materials, but Monaghan insisted that Rook stay behind when they ventured to places where resources were guarded by Highwaymen and other bullies. That said, she felt her heart skip a beat when Rook walked into their house after a visit to Prosperity and told her about the next planned expedition.

                “The International Space Station? As in, Commander Christopher Hadfield, fell around the Earth at seventeen thousand miles per hour, primarily controlled from my hometown of Houston, Texas, but launched from Florida in 1998, that International Space Station?!” Monaghan asked, as excited as a little kid on Christmas.

                “That’s the one,” Rook signed with a toothy grin. “Didn't realize you were such a space nut.”

                “I’m a fuckin’ nerd, you know this. Also I’m from Houston, so I know my space shit, babe. You don’t live spitting distance from NASA and not get fuckin’ pumped about space shit. The real, actual ISS. Well, holy shit, Rook, let’s go!” Monaghan was nearly hopping up and down with excitement.

                “Hold on a minute,” Rook stopped her, chuckling with what she had left of vocal cords, wincing at bit at the familiar sting when she did so. “Roger said there’s still a pretty big population of Highwaymen around it.” Monaghan’s excitement faltered, the smile wiped from her face. She wanted to visit this place with her wife. “Please don’t make me stay behind,” Rook pled, eyes begging.

                “Fuuuuck. Don’t do this to me,” Monaghan said, putting her hand on Rook’s chest, feeling her heart beating there, terrified of feeling it flutter, terrified of too much excitement, or danger. “It’s been years since we did away with the Twins and we still keep encountering fucking Highwaymen,” she mumbled angrily. Rook shrugged.

                “Bullies are bullies. It may take decades to stop them all. It will take even longer to get them to see the light.” Monaghan squirmed a little at that. She still wasn’t a huge fan of starting a new religion or whatever it was the Voice and Rook wanted.

                “So, you got all this information from Roger?” she asked, changing the subject back.

                “C.A.R.M.I.N.A. translated,” Rook explained. Monaghan narrowed her eyes.

                “Why were you asking in the first place?” Rook reddened. “Yeah, I know you, you’ve got something planned. What was it?” Rook flushed. She did not want to tell Monaghan, did not want to get her hopes up in case it did not work, but according to Dr. Hatsopoulos, if she could get the right components from the space station, he could made Monaghan a working robotic prosthetic…just in time for Monaghan’s fiftieth birthday.

                “You know,” she signed shiftily, shrugging in an effort to sound nonchalant. “I’d like to have the internet again one day. Figured tech from the space station would be a good place to start.” The lie was a stretch, but she hoped Monaghan would believe it.

                “You sure you don’t just want the tech so one of the scientists can build me a state-of-the-art vibrator attachment for my arm?” Monaghan joked and Rook blushed, looking away with an embarrassed smirk. “Called it!” Monaghan crowed, jostling her wife playfully. “But what will we name it? The ‘Nimbus two-thousand’? ‘Shai-Hulud’? The ‘USS Enterherprize’? Or something simple like ‘Orgasmatron twelve,’ ooh, or how about ‘Clit Destroyer five-thousand’?” Rook’s eyes were hooded and her lips were pursed in annoyance.

                “Are you done?” she signed.

                “I’ll never be done with you,” Monaghan told her, kissing her gently on the cheek. “But…” Rook growled in her throat, low and deep, her fists clenching at her sides. “But I can’t in good conscience take you with me, love. Too much excitement…”

                “Never hurt anyone,” Rook protested with her hands.

                “I’ll tell you what, I’ll clear out the Highwaymen, we’ll come back and get you?”

                “No,” Rook signed stubbornly.

                “Rook…”

                “No. I’m coming with you. You’re my wife, I hate it when you go on expeditions without me. I worry about you.

                “I’ll take Sharky with me.” Monaghan realized her mistake as soon as it was out of her mouth. Jaw clenching, Rook stormed off. “Goddammit,” Monaghan muttered, already turning to go get a rope so she could climb to the highest point in the forest that surrounded their home, where she knew Rook would be. She made it, huffing and puffing in the hot afternoon sun, and found Rook perched in the huge sycamore that grew next to their pond. “Rook.” A hiss and a fluttering of leaves as Rook ascended higher in the tree. “I am not climbing any higher in this tree after your skinny ass, wife of mine,” Monaghan called, irritated. “I thought we were past this.” Another hiss. “What if I took Hurk instead? Or Gina?” Another hiss, louder and nastier. “Are you going to come down and talk to me, or are you going to keep behaving like an Austin grackle? Why don’t you shit on my truck from up there while you’re at it, then you’ll really fit the part,” Monaghan taunted.

                There was a loud thump of Rook landing less-than-gracefully from her perch. She collected herself, rolling her ankle and hissing softly.

                “For the record, that was my truck first, asshole,” Rook reminded her. “I don’t want you to take Gina, I don’t want you to take Hurk, I sure as shit don’t want you to take Sharky. Not because I don’t trust you, but because I…I don’t really know why. But I want you to take me. Me, C.O.R.B.I.N., not someone else. I’m not some delicate flower. I’m a grown-ass woman who knows how to take care of herself, and others. I’ve spent my entire life keeping those I care about safe. Don’t ask me to stop now. Please.”

                Monaghan stepped forward, cupping Rook’s face with her hand and bumping foreheads with her.

                “Please don’t ask me to put you in danger. I’m…I…” She forced out a breath. “This is my last expedition, Rook. I’m getting older, slower. Hell, I need reading glasses now when I’m looking through inventory lists and component requests. Bad things happen to you and I when we’re in the field together and I can’t take it anymore. I’m asking you not to come with me not because I don’t think you’re competent, but because I don’t want to fulfill some ‘I was just one day from retirement’ tragedy trope.” That clearly struck a nerve. Rook stepped backwards, crossing her arms over her chest. She thought better of it, wanting her hands free to communicate. Face furious, she began to argue, her fingers flying.

                “My old boss – Sheriff Whitehorse was a day away from retirement too. But he still did his duty. We can’t let selfishness and fear keep us from doing what we are called to do.”

                “Oh, and you’re specifically called to go to the ISS crash site, huh?” Monaghan asked skeptically. She realized belatedly how condescending her tone sounded. Rook clenched her jaw, looked like she was considering storming off.

                “The Voice told me I had to go.” Monaghan just barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes. That made the decision for her, as far as she was concerned. Swallowing, she crossed her arms over her chest and raised a brow.

                “You’re not going. That’s final.” She turned away and walked off, hearing Rook hissing and growling furiously after her, trying to communicate with a voice long lost.

--

                That night they laid close to one another, Rook still obviously seething with rage. She did not like being told what to do. Monaghan rolled over on her side, pulling Rook closer. Rook growled a sound that Monaghan had long ago learned translated to “fuck off.”

                “No,” Monaghan whispered. “I’m leaving on an expedition tomorrow, and I want to make love to my wife before I go. So I’m not going to leave you alone.” Rook glared in the light of the torch they left burning outside to discourage mosquitoes.

                Another small sound: “I love you.” A hiss: “Jackass.” Monaghan chuckled, rolling on top of Rook and sliding her spouse’s panties off her thin hips.

                “I love you too,” Monaghan assured her, kissing gently down her neck to her breasts, teeth stuttering across scars. The two moved together, breathing softly into one another’s mouths, moving fingers and pressing hips into one another until they were both gasping. “Will you miss me?” Monaghan asked as they rolled away from one another, spent and satisfied. Rook looked over at her, moved her hands.

                “I miss you constantly, even when you’re right in front of me. Of course I’ll miss you when you’re not by my side.”

                “Roger has finally decided to do some grunt work on the ground, so we’ll be teamed up. He’s going to land the Big Potato five miles from the crash site. We’re going to hike in together. He’ll be watching my six in the field. We’ll be fine, Rook.” Rook sighed, still annoyed.

                “I know. But I’ll still worry.” Monaghan pressed a kiss to her forehead and cuddled against her to sleep.

--

                Monaghan woke up in an extremely good mood, excited about her last expedition.

                “I’ll bring you a souvenir, I promise,” she told Rook as her wife watched her bound around their home excitedly after breakfast. “I gotta get packed. Roger can give me the rest of the intel on the way.” She slapped Rook on the ass as she bounded off and Rook chuckled, rubbing her ass cheek a little at the sting. “I don’t care if it’s a defunct currency, you can still bounce a quarter off that thing, boo,” Monaghan called and Rook laughed, scratching the back of her neck sheepishly. She loved seeing her wife like this, all excitement and anticipation.

                “Want to drive me to Prosperity?” Monaghan asked as she finished cramming jerky and bullets into her backpack. Rook looked deeply apologetic, was preparing arrows and bowstrings where she had sat down at their worktable.

                “I promised Jake I’d go hunting with him, sorry. Honestly, I thought you’d be gone at the crack of dawn.”

                “And miss eating breakfast with my wife?” Monaghan asked, kissing Rook lightly. “Alright. Well, I’ll drive myself then. I gotta go. I love you.”

                “I love you too. Please, please be careful. I’m begging you,” Rook pled with her hands. Monaghan smirked.

                “When have I ever not been careful?” Rook raised a brow and rolled her eyes.

                “You don’t want me to answer that. Be safe. I love you,” Rook repeated, picking up her bow.

                “Hey, uh, get an elk for me if you get the chance. I want to make some jerky.”

                “Sure thing.” Rook glanced at the sun. “It’s getting late. You still going?”

                “Of course, but leaving you is hard.”

                “Then don’t leave me. Let me come.” Monaghan sighed. Rook waved a hand flippantly, shaking her head. “I don’t want to argue anymore. Go on. Have fun. I love you.”

                “I love you too. I’m actually going now,” Monaghan assured her, shouldering her pack and giving Rook a brilliant smile. She stuck her tongue in her cheek and chuckled as she started for the door. She wasn’t fooled for a moment, but Rook didn’t need to know that. “Have fun with Jake,” she encouraged lightly.

--

                “Tu ferais mieux d'être prêt, mes amis,” Roger said over the headset as they neared the gulch where the remnants of the ISS had landed two decades ago.

                “‘Mes amis’?” Monaghan asked dryly.

                “Er, ah, mon ami,” Roger corrected swiftly. “Here we go. Got your stuff?”

                “Good to go,” Monaghan told him, trying to keep the obvious excitement out of her voice.

                Surprising exactly no one, Rook popped out of the storage area, stretching languidly and giving Monaghan a smug look.

                “I knew it! I fucking knew you were gonna pull this shit!” Monaghan yelled over the sound of the chopper’s rotors. She pointed threateningly at Roger, who reddened. “You and I are gonna talk about this later. Here,” she said, tugging something out of her pack that she had put there for exactly this reason. Rook held a hand out, took them.

                “What’s this?” Rook signed with her free hand, curious.

                “I took the liberty of having Sharky make some incendiary arrows for you, you ass. Come on. Let’s go.” Rook smirked and tucked the modified arrow heads in her pack.

                “How’d you know I was going to come?” Rook asked, looking mischievous. Monaghan eyed her with some combination of irritation and admiration fighting for victory over her facial expressions.

                “I was born at night, love, but I wasn’t born last night. Hunting with Jake, my broad white ass. Let’s go so Roger can take off.”