Maybe the first moments of all the biggest disasters are quiet enough to just whimper by. A stray spark in the hydrogen. Icewater slipping into one bulkhead too many.
Joseph’s too busy preparing for fire and fury and government agents at the door. Dutch is preoccupied, so is Eli and his crew, all the Resistance focused on the criss-crossing cause-and-effect of the Seed clan, with no time to consider anything that isn’t their doing, any new threat easily drowned out by all the old noise.
Obviously at the time, Rook had his own, flaming helicopter-shaped concerns.
So maybe it’s justifiable, that the end of days somehow snuck in when they weren’t looking. An irony there, after how many times Rook’s heard the story of how no one noticed what was happening with Eden’s Gate until it was too late.
He ponders all that, later on, flicking at the thought like a light switch in his head, on and off and on again. Rook wonders how much everyone’s always missing, all the time, all the things that nobody knows they really should know. It must be endlessly entertaining, if there’s anyone out there watching.
It’s quiet. Still. The wind stirring the leaves. Amazing how silent it can get in the aftermath, how fast. Rook just sits down for a minute, heels in the grass, elbows on his knees and the sun still warm enough to lean a little pressure on his shoulders.
He winces slightly, at the sound of his plane crashing into something in the distance that hopefully wasn’t anything a plane shouldn’t crash into. Stupid, Rook, you could have at least aimed for the damn statue.
“You know,” he says, “you’re pretty good company when you’re unconscious.” John agreeably continues to be knocked the fuck out, though not bleeding much more than Rook is himself. He’ll stay alive, as long as no one decides otherwise. It’s as peaceful as it’s probably gonna get for a while. Rook leans over, liberates one last bit of official Seed property, and presses the button.
“I got a lightly dented Herald up here, if there’s any buyers.”
Rook breathes in and out again, waiting. Wondering what he’s supposed to do when there’s no an-
Joseph’s voice is perfectly steady, as if the outcome doesn’t matter. Or maybe he’s already accepting what he assumes must be true, that this is Rook calling to brag over the body. Hope County’s changing him, smashing down and building up and sharpening edges he never meant to have and most of it isn’t exactly comfortable but Rook’s still just trying to react, not act - and god, he doesn’t ever want to be that much of a prick, to want to hurt someone like that.
Ending this here might be fair, might even be just - but killing John would move it onto a whole new level, a place there isn’t any coming back from. He’d gotten right up to edge of it, too - toes out in empty air… but Rook had stepped back, is stepping back. For the moment, at least. Maybe it won’t matter, maybe this is a terrible mistake - but for today, he’s not going to push it. For all the pain the man had been so willing to inflict, the thought of killing John Seed comes with no particular sense of victory attached.
Everyone meet Rook, the dipshit who cried at seven when he couldn’t save the bird with the busted wing.
“Scuffed his shoes, mussed his hair.” Not nearly enough wrinkles in that shirt. Who wears Supima cotton to a dogfight? “Probably going to be real pissed about the plane. He’s flat on his back near the bridge - I’m sure someone’s paying attention to which one. I’m not responsible if one of your idiots drives over him first.”
Joseph, for once, doesn’t seem to have anything to add. Rook sighs, gets to his feet, hefting the weight of one more dumb mistake before he lets it fly.
“We came in and tried to split you apart. I’m not saying it wasn’t without cause, you’re a real piece of work - but from what I hear, the world never gave any of you a ton of reasons to give a shit about the social contract.” Rook isn’t exactly eloquent on a good day, wonders if even a single word of this is getting through, or if he’s just talking to himself. Common ground with Joseph Seed - just how dumb are you, deputy? You think all this wasn’t a choice, that all of this isn’t exactly what they wanted? If the apocalypse won’t show up as planned - improvise.
“There’s… there’s a lot of people standing between us right now, Joseph.” Rook says. “A whole lot.”
As if the ‘Father’ gives a shit, underneath all his talk. None of this about family because it’s never really about that. Nobody ever actually cares, even when they’re not crazy. Everyone just wants what they want when they want it, and the rest of the world can go hang. Damn, he really should have taken some sort of hostage negotiation training when he’d had the chance, at least the basics. He needs to stop talking and get going, before the Peggies arrive.
“It’s your move.” Rook says, and takes off down the hill.
Life until now has been a series of mostly shitty, cheap basement apartments - pressboard furniture, end-table spool, posters taped to the walls - so the small flood a year or so back cost Rook his official college diploma - but it hadn’t bothered with the details anyway. Only his transcript to give him away - Minor in Musical Arts. Voice. Rook doesn’t perform, doesn’t like being singled out - and hell followed with him - but he did the choir thing for a while, anonymous in that crowd, and he still enjoys singing in the kitchen, cooking dinner - any chore that requires more muscle than brain.
Dutch caught him at it once while he’d been cleaning a fish - “She said, that ain't the way to have fun, son. That ain't the way to have fun, no” - and had given him such a look when Rook asked if he had any requests.
No one’s ever asked him, but in Rook’s opinion if God’s anything at all, he’s a harmony - the minor chord where the major’s supposed to be, that opening up of something sublime and transcendent. Music demands nothing and gives beauty freely - a grace unexpected and undeserved. If there’s God in anything, it’s there, easily the best thing humanity’s ever bothered with. Which doesn’t absolve him at all of singing along with a few of the Peggies’ catchier hymns, harmonizing along, but he only does it when there’s no one else around, and if God’s noticed that there’s a few other things Rook would really like to draw his attention to.
“I got men coming down from the ridge. Three of ‘em.”
Hope County has quickly instilled the habit in Rook of tamping down on anything resembling optimism, just to keep it in line with current trends - and so he thinks Peggies because obviously, and let’s find out just what they’re-
“It’s Jacob’s people, and they got someone with them. Bag over his head.”
It’s been quiet, ever since John was swept up and carried off. Rook’s been keeping himself occupied with lesser tasks in freshly liberated Holland Valley, even though there’s been talk from all corners, wanting to keep the pressure on and the momentum strong, wondering why he didn’t put several rounds in at least one Seed when the chance presented itself. But it’s been calm, no Peggies gathering near the borders, and even if it doesn’t mean anything, even if they’re just collecting strength for another push, it seems wrong to be the one to break this fragile détente.
Rook swallows hard now, and he thinks public execution and he thinks this, this is Joseph’s move and he thinks Hope County’s going to look like Flanders fucking Fields by the time this is over and where’s the backup, where’s the SWAT teams or the National Guard or at least the goddamn news vans? They’ve had to make more noise by now than even fucking Nancy can keep under her fucking hat.
Rook can believe it, that help isn’t coming, but at least someone should be by to see if there’s any money to be made in pointing a camera at the chaos. Isn’t that how they all got here in the first place?
“Shit, I think it’s that cop. It’s Pratt.”
“Staci?” Rook sits up, reaches for the radio, and he thinks suicide bomber and he thinks sniper in the trees and he thinks they’ll shoot him because of course they will. Jacob will let them hold out hope, will give them this and walk away and leave Staci alive right up until it seems like he’s safe and then - bam. Rook forces himself to remember that Jacob Seed is a monster, and that Staci’s dead, he’s already dead and gone and don’t even hope for more, even as he starts walking, breaks into a cautious jog because he’s not that far away from the drop point, like Jacob has a general idea of where he’s at, if he wants to drop off a present.
Rook’s looking for the ambush as he closes the distance - there are sniper rifles that work for miles, and John was clearly writing blank checks for Jacob’s armory - but Pratt’s sitting out in the open, still hooded, almost deliberately in a place where there’s no clear trap to be seen. Jacob’s men are already long gone, and the Resistance has a few of its own in the tree line, though no one’s brave enough to walk into the open. All waiting on him.
Fuck it. Rook thinks, for approximately the hundred-thousandth time since all this began.
Staci’s so still, sitting on a stump, curled in a little on himself as if cradling some hidden injury. Pale and thin, clothes and skin all carrying the same flat sheen of filth, nowhere to hide anything strapped to him, but suicide bomber stays in his thoughts, the memory of those cages and that room and maybe there’s a gun or a knife hidden somewhere. Maybe he does it in an hour, or tomorrow, or next week.
“Pratt? Staci? It’s Rook. You’re all right now. I’m here.”
He doesn’t move, and Rook reaches for the hood, pulling it back slow and thinking dead, dead, dead thinking idiot, that there’s anything in these people but attrition thinking I will feed Jacob Seed face-fucking first to his own fucking wolves with the rage shaking through him you want wrath I will show you wrath, I will show you -
Staci’s eyes are open, trying to focus on his face, wincing against the light.
“Hey.” Rook says, a whisper of sound, a prayer as much as anything. One more alive. One more he didn’t fuck up and lose for good.
“No.” Pratt says, trying to stand up, to move away, though his hands are still tied and he’s anything but steady. “No, don’t. Stay away. You can’t, don’t, don’t” He stumbles back, nearly falling. “I don’t know if I’m s-safe. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Rook doesn’t hesitate, drags him in for the hug, cuts his hands free a moment later because fuck Jacob fucking Seed - yeah, it’s a worry, it’s going to be a problem, but Staci needs this now more than he needs his fear. Boomer’s finished his perimeter sweep for interesting smells and/or frogs, quickly circles them with his tail wagging and his happiest bark of welcome, even though Pratt keeps his arms crossed, hands pinned against his sides like he’s freezing - keeps himself standing on the opposite side from where Rook’s holster is.
It’s still the best day since that first day. Staci’s not much for company, obviously - the gregarious type, and now he can’t even look Rook in the eye - but they get him a shower, a fresh set of clothes and a casual look-over to make sure he’s just bruised and not broken. Half a conversation with Joey over the radio, half a homemade blackberry pie, though Staci only manages a few bites before he pushes the tin away. The conversation starts and stops a half-dozen times, and then they just sit there, in silence, Boomer’s head pressed against Pratt’s thigh like he knows. Rook’s going to let him borrow the dog for a while.
“He just let you go?” He finally asks, because he has to. Staci nods, although the hollow confusion in his eyes holds no answers.
“Didn’t say anything, just put.. just put the hood on. I figured…” His voice trembles slightly. “I figured maybe he got bored with me, and it was time for the wolves.” Even though everyone’s been giving them their space, even with music playing on the other side of the room his voice still goes so low Rook can barely hear it. “… was weak. I was weak, and I deserve…”
Rook’s never been a particularly physical person, but there’s no fighting monsters with half measures, and he’s reaching out again, one hand around the back of Staci's neck, mouth close to his ear so there’s no space between them, no question of whether or not he’s all in. If Jacob’s going to put all that effort throwing him into hell, Rook can at least fight as hard to get him back out again.
“Don’t you dare. Don’t you fucking dare. He was going to hurt you, and you knew it, and you still gave a shit about me. You put yourself on the line for my sake, and there’s more strength in that than a thing like Jacob Seed will ever understand.” Rook has to remind himself to breathe, has to think to keep his grip from going too tight, like he could reach in, find whatever it was that made Pratt small and afraid and rip it out, crush it. “You think it takes some kind of brilliant insight, to hurt people until they break? It happens all the fucking time. Anyone can do that. He had a goddamn army behind him, and you were alone - and you’re here, you’re still alive.”
Jacob sent him back. Rook thinks and Trojan horse and could have killed him, could have killed him without blinking twice and Is this for John? Is this the trade?
Like he knows what to do with that, even if it’s true.
Grace is looking in from the doorway, and he finally draws back, gets to his feet.
“Listen, I gotta go for a minute…”
“Yeah.” Staci waves him away, looking tired. “Look, I don’t expect… I don’t expect you to-”
“I’m here.” Rook says, taps the radio. “You need me? Night. Day. Awake. Asleep. Whatever. Whenever. You got that?”
Staci stops, eyes narrowing. Clearing, maybe, a little. “… are you really the same deputy who almost forgot his gun on the way out here?” The tiniest, evil smirk on his face, one that Rook has never been so happy to see. “Do these guys even know who you are? That time with the emergency call, when you nearly zipped your dick-”
They haven’t known each other long, but Staci’s already been witness to a few impressive mishaps. The zipper. That thing with the raccoon. That other thing with the other raccoon. His track record with wildlife is somewhat... uneven.
“Fuck off, Pratt.”
A smile. Half a laugh. Small, but real, and Rook will take it. Bruised, not broken. Not something that can't heal.
So that’s the day, and then the night just as quiet. In the morning, there’s more of a fog than usual hanging down through the valley, and it takes its time dispersing even under a full sun.
Nobody pays much attention, but they will.
1. *arc welding the details out of Stephen King’s The Mist* I’m just going to… borrow this for a bit.
2. Title from Alison Krauss - ‘The Scarlet Tide.’
3. Entire fic predicated on a slightly-less nihilistic version of the story/characters. Anything useful here is inspired heavily by Dunamis and Littlebiscuits and their awesome and inspiring reads.
The sad thing was, Rook had actually liked the job, those handful of months of normal, learning the ropes before he’d been re-assigned. The weeks that followed, until they’d all packed up for the big, important showdown at Eden’s Gate. He’d liked meeting people, liked checking in with his community, as bullshit as that sounded. Rook liked that they’d given him the nickname. His actual name hadn’t ever been of much use to anyone, and after a few days of the lightest sort of hazing, it had really felt like he’d been welcomed onto the team. He’d liked them. Even goddamn Nancy. Rook had considered picking up a side gig in the county - volunteer firefighting on the weekends, who knew - and boy, wouldn’t that have been the better career choice all along? Something safe and sane, a thousand miles from here - smokejumping, maybe.
“I got something strange up here.” Which is not good, coming from Jess, who always seems on the edge of even remembering she can call in, that there’s anyone who might like to hear from her from time to time.
“Strange like a rock that looks like Elvis or strange like Angels making out with the trees again?” Nick drawls, not that there’s a response.
“On my way.” Rook says.
The Whitetail Militia has not officially hewn to any kind of cease-fire, although if they’re even trading half as many bullets with Jacob’s men it’s close enough to doves and olive branches. It’s always hard to tell with Jess, if her near-silence is tactical or if she just forgets about useless things like words and conversations. They have a few agreed-upon terms - rock, river, tree - that mean specific meet-up spots otherwise unmarked and unknown, and if Jess says nothing at all Rook still knows which bit of unremarkable land she’ll be half-blended in with.
The moment he steps into view, Jess turns without a word, leading them quick down a side trail. Rook appreciates her quiet, self-contained ways, a restful change when he’s spent a while in town, with too many eyes expecting him to have too many answers.
Where they end up today, though, is anything but peaceful. The clearing is quiet, but the only word that really fits is ‘aftermath’ and Rook’s eyes survey the scene once, and again, and again. A whole lot of what his job was supposed to be about has nothing to do with what his life’s become, and this is no different.
What it looks like, more than anything, is that someone had been making a tomato smoothie in the world’s largest blender, and accidentally left the lid off. Nearly all the ground he can see - stones, leaves, soil - is painted a solid reddish-brown, the trees spattered above what he can even reach on tiptoe.
He crouches down, carefully picks up what is, on closer inspection, definitely a human fingertip, a long, diagonal strip of flesh. He keeps looking, but it’s the only piece large enough to even be identifiable. Rook guesses there was more than one body - whoever they were - and maybe some animals too, judging by what might be matted bits of fur, too small and too soaked through to make out whatever animal they might have come from. Even by the standards of Hope County, this is all still a bit beyond the pale.
“What am I seeing here?”
“I don’t know what did this.”
Rook would say hand grenade, at least. High-powered heavy munitions of some kind - but there’s no damage to the trees, or the bushes. No burn marks or craters. Everything’s just… soaked through. He searches a bit, finally finds a gun abandoned in the underbrush - still a round in the chamber. Whatever happened here, they didn’t get off a shot.
“So… what, then? Angels? Judges?”
“I don’t know what did this.” Jess says, slower, like he’s deliberately being dense because he kind of is.
Usually, this is about the time there’d be a message, one self-satisfied Seed or another happy to tell him what it all means - judgement sin prophecy rinse lather etc. More than once lately, Rook’s found his hand actually drifting toward the radio - Hey John, on a scale of one to public flaying, how pissed are you about the plane? - and what the fuck, Rook, really? Don’t poke American Psycho about his business cards. Just don’t.
Rook doesn’t miss the one-sided conversations, exactly, but John was pretty terrible with his monologues - he cared too much, didn’t seem to realize how open he left himself, all of his emotions in the same hard, unforgiving script as his tattoos - Wrath, Pride. Other words, Rook thinks, that didn’t quite make the cut for the top seven - Arrogance and Spite and Fear. Need, maybe, though for exactly what Rook has no idea.
It must have been exhausting, living his life in all caps like that all the damn time. It could get exhausting just listening to him. Rook can’t help but wonder what was left, when there wasn’t anyone to righteously judge or absolve or any audience to play to. Who was John Seed when he only had himself for company? Maybe that’s why he stayed on the radio.
“The animals have been spooked lately.” Jess’ low voice draws him out of his thoughts. “Big ones, too. Can’t tell what they know that we don’t.”
He hasn’t noticed anything strange from Peaches or Cheeseburger, apart from the bear’s new habit of tearing the bumpers off trucks when he gets bored. Still, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on. Rook thinks that maybe whatever this is was a one-off, just one of those things that happen in Hope County because everything seems to happen in Hope County - and then he wonders when in hell he thought optimism was even an option.
“Thank you for showing me.” Rook says. “Keep me in the loop, if you find out anything more.”
He turns away, figures they’re done here. Jess lets him take three steps before she speaks again.
“You didn’t kill him. When you had the chance.”
Rook doesn’t turn around.
“No. No, I did not.”
By the time he glances back, Jess is already gone.
God’s always been a patchwork. Moments loaded with symbolism and lacking context, loosely woven into the rest of his life. A Catholic baptism, at the behest of a grandmother who died well before he could remember her. Sunday school for one blur of a summer, just around the time he started building actual memories, though the only thing Rook remembers was sitting on a carpet square, eating cookies while a nice high-school girl sang nice songs about the Lord on a borrowed guitar. How sweet the sound. Ye who are weary, come home.
… and the horse and the rider fall into the sea.
Rook’s got better things to do than be scared of the fucking Platters for the rest of his life and fuck Jacob Seed, for thinking he could take anything he wanted on a whim, especially this. Rook’s had plenty of men who've wanted to talk at him about strength, and weakness, and how he just didn’t measure up and it’s never been anything but a lie, never for anything but their own benefit. Never anything ‘for his own good’ that ended up being any good at all.
So a few days after that last round up in the hills, when even the sky felt claustrophobic and he’d felt ready to rip through his own skin, Rook had taken a day off and staged himself a little DIY immersion therapy. Asking around Hope County, until he found someone’s iPod with the right classic tunes. He’d cranked the song up on repeat, slapping the headphones on before locking himself in the nearest abandoned basement with nothing else to do but face it down, head on, until the battery ran out and his head hurt so bad he couldn’t see.
Rook had staggered out near sunset, threw up in the bushes and then for some reason it seemed best to just dive into the lake. He’d grabbed on to the weeds at the bottom and sang it to himself, as loud as he could in a half-drowned scream until he had to come up for air. Again, and again, and again.
It’s still not out all the way, but Rook thinks he might have jostled it a bit. The way everything in him feels like it’s been jostled a little bit. Enough that he could at least eat the bullet himself, before he’d be Jacob’s little pull-toy. Asshole.
“What in the hell are you on about?” Dutch said, when Rook had showed up dripping, dropped into a tattered lawn chair he’d left there just for the purpose of having somewhere to drag himself back to.
“It really could have been worse, I guess.” Rook replied. “At least he didn’t fuck up the Clash.”
It’s not like he ever gave Dutch any reasons to expect much sense from him.
Never Confirmed, of course. Not even close, and Rook doesn’t know where exactly that leaves the state of his immortal soul, hadn’t bothered to ever find out. The older he got, the more religion filtered out of the day to day - truncated Thanksgiving prayers, hands held by distant cousins he rarely saw twice. Arguing with a Mormon boy over lunch one day, over which one of them was certainly bound for hell. Rook lost that fight pretty quick, destined for the lake of fire - but the kid had shared his M&M’s anyway, so he’d felt they’d come out even. Vague memories of a Mennonite girl in his sixth-grade class, who’d worn long skirts with her hair pinned back and mostly looked worried all the time, though as far as he knew no one had ever bothered her.
A lot of moments that Rook hasn’t thought of in years, all coming back now in the face of Eden’s Gate, now that he’s sat through one of Pastor Jerome’s actual sermons because he couldn’t think of a polite way to get out of it. Not that the man isn’t good at his work, but Rook’s never really thought much of so many words, never needed the repetition. He can’t imagine what there is to say that needs an entire year’s worth of Sundays, let alone a lifetime.
‘Don’t be an asshole. Just don’t be a total asshole all of the time.' And then nobody listens anyway.
It’s still a beautiful little building, something restful in the simplicity of it, the clean stoicism of so much bare wood. It had been scrubbed down fast - walls repainted, bullet-holes repaired, all signs of John Seed wiped away. Rook wonders just how long it’s been standing, who helped put it together. He imagines solemn men, farmers and ranchers who probably scraped together whatever they could from what the land would provide, and then came here to give thanks - out of gratitude, or out of fear? He wonders about the people who were there before that, before there was a building at all - the gods they must have worshipped, the spasms of violence that had driven them away and were repeating now and almost certainly would come again, and again, and again.
Rook just doesn’t see the comfort in making it part of some larger story - he can’t imagine most of history as a part of any God’s plan, more like the drunken scribbles on the back of napkin, half-sentences too blurred to read and all crowding right off the edges.
“You made the sign of the cross, on your way in the door.” Pastor Jerome’s voice echoes a little in the otherwise empty space. “I saw that.”
Because why the fuck not, right? Any port in a storm.
“Sorry, it only gets disappointing from here on out.” Rook says. “I’m whatever comes after ‘aggressively lapsed’”
It makes Pastor Jerome laugh, but eventually they’re talking shop, because after all this time under siege conditions the man is hungry to talk about the work of his faith, and even Rook’s feral heathen status is good enough. The same way Grace had spoken quietly at length one night about watching her grandmother lattice-top a peach pie, and of all the heirloom recipes she has carefully collected, even if she’s sure she’ll never make them the way they live in her memories. Or how all Rook had to do was ask Sharky and Hurk… about practically anything, and three hours later they’d still be debating the finer points of… whatever the hell they were on about. It’s almost avant-garde - Rook isn’t sure he’s ever managed to follow a conversation between them from one end to the other.
Everyone needs to unwind once in a while, to think about something other than siege conditions. So Rook lends an ear to everything that’s been going on, to Pastor Jerome’s favorite parts of the work before, and the kind of sermons he plans on telling when all this is done with.
Rook doesn’t figure there’s much he can contribute to the conversation, but when it’s his turn to offer something up, the memory he wants is waiting for him.
“I knew a couple of priests once. The kind that really… you know, lived it. Did it right. Jesuits, I think.” Rook says. “It was the first time I thought about it, that being a man of God was a thing people could choose to do.”
Father Mark and Father Christopher. The first adults who’d known things that Rook didn’t, and hadn’t punished him for it. Instead, they’d shared anything they knew that they thought might be useful. Time and patience and understanding, along with the charity work. Two birds with one stone - how to knock a few nails into what would become a house, or passing Rook the car keys to make a grocery delivery to a few housebound parishioners, when no one else would have ever trusted him with a car. A fishing trip, one of those childhood memories everyone was supposed to have - and he has one, because of them.
Father Mark had talked about Buddhism, and shown him tourist shots of the Sagrada Família, and wondered if he’d considered college, like it was thing people like Rook could do. Father Christopher had been the one to introduce him to Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits, and had given him the key to the back office of the church, an ugly, lumpy couch next to the copy machine where Rook had ended up for that half a year when there hadn’t been a home to go back to.
They’d believed in him, they’d shown him the world was so much bigger than his shitty little corner of it and they’d probably even forgiven him for not really appreciating it all until much, much later. If Rook survives this, he’ll really have to try and track them down.
“I wasn’t gonna… not exactly cut out for the priesthood.” Understatement of the century, there. “but they probably had something to do with me joining the force, eventually.” Rook sighs. “For whatever that’s worth.”
“The appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Pastor Jerome says, as if the quote is well-worn, a personal comfort. “I’m glad you got your friend back.”
Nearly the full set, now - Whitehorse and Hudson and Pratt. Burke’s still a prisoner, but he’s Faith’s, so at least she’s not cutting pieces off of him or slowly torturing him into a new shape. Hell, he’s having the sort of trip that some of Rook’s ex-acquaintances and distant relations spent a lot of time and money chasing down. Which is not a nice thought, but Rook’s been facing a lot of introspection about the moral failings of not quite liking the Marshal enough to make it worth breaking the truce. Not that anyone else has been quick to object. Rook’s trying not to be resentful, well aware that someone else should be in charge, that everyone’s more than happy to warn him that Walking Manbun Joseph Seed’s taken too keen an interest in him, but they’re not exactly giving him anything else to focus on.
“The question’s come up - if they couldn’t stop you from taking back the valley, can they really stop you from leaving?”
Rook raises an eyebrow, because this is the first he’s heard of it - and there’s a tension in Pastor Jerome’s gaze, deep down. Rook’s got his people back now, the ones he came here with, if not the one who might have gotten them all into this in the first place - and if he wanted to, there’s an argument to be made for just cutting bait, for leaving this whole pile of flaming crazy behind them.
“It would be… no.” Rook says. “It would take time, just to convince anyone to believe it, let alone to send anything that would help, and by that time the Peggies would probably realize that I’d gotten free and…”
Trying to drag Joseph away from Eden’s Gate had pulled the pin on the whole grenade of Hope County. If he knew that Rook was coming back, and bringing the cavalry with him? None of them seem like the type for mass suicide - they’d take absolutely everyone they could with them on the way out. And what are the chances the Feds would even bother to figure out the difference between - say - Eden’s Gate and the Whitetails? Between the angry, armed preppers who hated the government and the other angry, armed preppers who hated the government?
It’s the other, quieter question in this, the part Rook hasn’t had much time to think about what with all the casual bloodsport and indoctrination to keep him occupied. It’s a real good story, Eden’s Gate sweeping in, seemingly weird if innocuous right up until the moment they weren’t - but Rook has never known any situation to be that one-sided. The Peggies may be mostly batshit, but there’s people in Hope County who wouldn’t have much use for his badge and his gun either, under the usual circumstances.
At least a couple of those ‘sinners’ who’d been dealt with so publicly? No one had been real sorry to see them gone. Guilty of the sort of crimes no one in a polite community liked to speak about out loud, the kinds where a bit of holy smiting seemed downright appropriate. Rook wonders what other stories that have been lost, conveniently or otherwise, in the build-up to this little bootleg ground war. Emotions were running high on both sides, even before things went to shit. At least a few of those shots were probably fired from the Resistance first, and not in warning.
It doesn’t matter much now - not after Jacob - but it’s still important to keep in mind. There’s no perfect rescue out there, just waiting for Rook to send up the flare. Running away and dumping this mess in the hands of other men would not absolve him of what came after.
“What John did to you,” Pastor Jerome says. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
Joey’s alive, banged up and pissed off but not half as hard done by as Pratt was. Rook would trade a lot more than a shitty tattoo and a round of semi-professional dunk tank torture for that. For a lawyer, John really did not have a good grasp of the kinds of bargains he might have made. God, of course he was a lawyer. It’s amazing they all weren’t lawyers.
“We survived.” Rook says. “And hey, I’m still wearing mine. I think that counts as a bonus.”
Pastor Jerome gives him that look, the one Rook gets now and again, that a healthier person would probably be making fewer jokes. Eventually, all this is going to hit him, and that’s probably not going to be the greatest day of his life, but if he’s going to have a nervous breakdown Rook would rather have it with access to - say - a hot tub and at least basic cable and maybe one of those big pails of margarita mix and a spoon, so there’s no point in doing it now.
A voice calls from outside, and the Pastor gives him a smile and a nod, and then Rook’s alone. His hand traces lightly over his shirt, the letters he knows are underneath.
John wasn’t exactly wrong, either, with his choice of sins. Whatever Jacob did, it’s knocked something free in him. Not what it was supposed to, not what Jacob wanted but it’s there anyway - wild and sharp and very, very angry. Furious in a way Rook hasn’t bothered to be in a long time - outraged against the spiteful, unnecessary cheapness of it all, against being made to feel small and only as good as he was being used by someone else. He thought he’d learned to live with that a long time ago, because there was nothing else to do, because that was life. Everything a little smaller and shabbier than what the world kept telling him it was trying to sell - a dime-store, gumball machine version of itself.
No more. We’re fucking done.
Is this the insane thing that saved John Seed? Is this why Rook didn’t cut his problems by a quarter when he had the chance, because in that moment he just didn’t want to?
Do you have a better reason?
If only he thought he was hearing things. Rook is pretty sure he could ignore marching orders from the Almighty - but not this feeling, not his own voice, adamant and clear. Not the rush of it, intoxicating and manic, how satisfying it is to do what feels right and damn the logic and the consequences. It’s just crazy people behavior, right? Rook’s just having his fair share of batshit. What’s the ratio of ‘awfulness of situation’ to ‘duration of situation’, before he can just blame this all on some misguided traumatic stress? How many minutes, combined, with what proportion of Seed brothers is required until it shows up in the DSM-V?
No half-measures. Not anymore. We do what we want.
Jerusalem syndrome, Hope County flavor. Take a few steps in, mingle with the local flavor and you too will consider yourself important, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary.
“I want you to think about everything we’ve lost, when we did what we wanted.”
The feeling Rook’s looking for is not the curl of contented amusement and pride - pricks had it coming, you know they did - and hell, they were pricks, probably every last one, but too many of them had been bosses or supervisors and Rook could have at least had the sense to wait until after he’d had the paycheck in his hands to let them know it. Things had kept on that way for far too long, even when he was trying. Fuck, he’d been trying this time - this was going to be the job that got him back on target, at least got him back to zero.
The rookie officer a little long in the tooth to be just getting started, with a badge and a gun and a history of poor impulse control and problems with authority, who’d be a hell of a lot further along if he just stopped getting in his own way.
What are the odds this job’s not next on the block, if he lives that long? “… and then I fired the rocket launcher at the really big YES but it didn’t quite do the trick,” is a thing he’ll actually have to write at some point. No one who writes sentences like that gets to stay employed.
“We can’t do this. Whatever the hell it is, whatever the hell you think you want.” He murmurs. At least with his head down, it looks more like prayer than crazy from a distance, to anyone checking in. “It’s not how the world works, and you know it.”
This is not peace, it’s not - it’s just a momentary lull in momentum, and the only thing that’s going to make any of it right is careful aiming and probably way too many Molotovs.
I don’t care.
It really doesn’t, either, completely capable of believing impossible, contradictory things, and changing it’s mind on a whim. Wherever it was napping, wherever he’d managed to shove it, to make his best attempt yet at a sensible, stable life - well, Rook, maybe this is God trying to tell you something. Maybe this is all there is for him. Or this thing that Jacob let out of its cage will be the thing that kills him. At least that would be funny and ironic.
Except it didn’t kill John, now did it?
“You remember when this started? All those years ago? You like the way that turned out?”
It had never been the Bliss to make him smile at Faith Seed the way he did, that had made it so easy to follow her. He’d loved it, he’d loved it, her hands guiding his, the gentleness there, the way the drug had almost made it real, nostalgia slapped down thick across the present, all mistakes taken back like they never were. Thank fuck she’d had her own agenda, too busy walking him down her path to think about asking him any questions, wondering just how Rook had come to be where he was. What in hell is he supposed to do about her? About any of this? Nothing’s changed, nothing’s different - there’s still no getting out of this except through - and whatever Rook wants or thinks or wishes is, in the end, going to amount to the usual huge pile of fuck all.
I don’t care. His own voice repeats back to him. No more.
1. Apologies for glaring errors. Unbetaed.
2. This one's ambling slowly down the road to Seed Multiball, but since it's going slow I didn't want to bother with pairings until I had something to show for it.
“Wake up, Rook. We got a problem.”
This is news how?
“Yeah, ‘m up. ‘M up.” It’s a lie, Rook’s body firmly rejecting the idea, eyes gritty, mouth sour - morning jobs his entire life and Rook still wakes up hard every damn time, wondering what could possibly be worth the effort. Unlike Grace, who sounds as smooth as silk at five-fifteen a.m. as at times when existence isn’t a hypothetical at best.
It takes a moment to center himself on his vague mental map of the county - Rook still writes notes on real maps, scrap pieces of paper, or even on his hands - where he is, where he’s going, shit that might be worth blowing up along the way, or doubling back to when he can. He’s in an abandoned home - this one just abandoned, no signs of violence - and far enough inside Resistance territory that it even seemed safe to crash on the couch, especially with Boomer flopped over his legs. The dog’s unbeatable for keeping watch, a soft little woof of alarm that warns no one but him, though now Rook snaps awake if Boomer so much as twitches wrong. He’s already listening for the sound of gunfire, of rough voices. That’s a habit now, too.
“Rook? You there?”
“I’m here.” He’s up for real, moving toward the kitchen in the dark, a splash of ice-cold water between the eyes an unnecessary reminder that no good can come of being alive at this hour, the click of Boomer’s nails on the floor as he circles and wags and hopes for treats. “Everyone all right?”
He’d been too tired to check last night, sweeping the kitchen now in the hopes of breakfast. Spoiled milk and wilted lettuce in the fridge, a quick survey of the pantry serving a little better - beef jerky, peanut butter, tins of beans. Dog biscuits. He hands one off to Boomer, pocketing the rest and anything else that can travel light. It’s easier to carry a decent pack at least in the valley, now that there aren’t Peggies shooting at him every five minutes.
He’s doing his best to ignore the strange feeling that hasn’t lessened in his entire time here, of picking through the bones of someone else’s life, that he shouldn’t just be wandering though the wreckage. The more that everything’s been kicked over and strewn around, the more it feels like home - but surreal, too. Unnatural and foreboding, like Joseph’s Collapse has already come and gone - but thankfully there’s a wet nose to nudge him out of those thoughts, Boomer hopeful for an extra treat for Hope County’s best boy.
Yeah, of course there is.
“We got word, there’s some fresh bodies up near Gardenview. Maybe some of ours.”
Rook tries not to sigh. It wasn’t a truce. It wasn’t ever meant to last.
“Maybe?” Rook says. “The fuck the Peggies do now?”
It’s never good, that little pause before the answer. It’s never, ever good.
He walks over. Rook’s been in the habit of staying on foot since he arrived - easier to avoid running into any unexpected Peggies, easier than letting everyone in the valley know when he’s coming or going, and it wasn’t like he was working on a real strict time frame, stealth better than speed. He’d stayed away from the roads entirely on that first week, picking his own paths through the backcountry. So it doesn’t take all that long to hill-and-dale his way to the orchard. Bad weather for driving anyway, the fog so thick it could double for a wall and just as heavy on the ground, nearly curling around his ankles. Fading everything past the middle distance behind a blue-white curtain that prickles at a prehistoric wariness in the back of his mind. It’s unnerving to have so much open ground suddenly turn so unfamiliar.
The straight-backed figure of the fisherman is a familiar silhouette at the shore, line cast and bobbing. Rook’s seen him all over, now and then - every territory, every time of day - but never in town, or at the jail, never away from the water. Nondescript in cap and vest and all the usual accoutrements, happy to chat about anything as long as it’s about fishing. Rook had asked him his name, the first that they’d met, and he’s embarrassed to say he can’t remember it now, even more embarrassed if this isn’t the same man. He’s suggested a little more caution, in some of those less-than-safe places, but it seems the Peggies aren’t interested enough in fishing to bother with rounding up fishermen.
Boomer wags once, but he’s been trained well enough not to bother other sportsmen without an invitation.
“Mornin’.” Rook says. “Fish biting?”
“Eventually.” The man says, never taking his eyes off the lake. “I’ve got a spare pole, if you like.”
He always offers, and Rook’s always too busy to stop. It’s strange, only short and random encounters and yet he’s still familiar. Still a connection, even if it doesn’t mean anything in particular, and every meeting might be their last purely by circumstance. It’s good to see him out here, alive and well.
“Can’t today. But thanks for the offer. Maybe next time.”
“Strange fog out there, hm?” The man says. “Best be careful. Don’t get lost.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Rook says, and leaves him to it.
The fog is strange, laying heavy throughout the orchard even as the land rises, trees looming out from the pale like the skeletons of giants, and Rook tries to ignore the prickle up the back of his spine. At least he’s on the sane side of the Henbane. It’s a little cold and a little drizzly, and Rook’s glad now to see the truck parked at the top of the dirt road, looking forward to a bit of a thaw-out inside after dealing with… whatever this is.
Jacob’s men, he’s guessing, big brother's turn now that John’s been booted out. Maybe it’s guerrilla tactics, and they’ll push forward until they can tighten around Fall’s End like a noose. It’s not an ideal situation. John, at least, had some personal interest in keeping people alive - the dead don’t tend to confess much, aren't impressed by bad infomercials about sin and smugness - but Rook thinks Jacob would have zero problem razing the entirety of Holland Valley to bare, smoking earth and apologizing to Joseph after the fact. He probably wouldn’t even bother to mean it.
The Resistance waits for him at the top of the hill - though it’s still hard to think of them that way, when it’s just a couple of guys in flannel shirts, thermals and hunting rifles who mostly look like him - two cups of coffee away from anything useful.
The first man nods in greeting, the second staring off down a row of trees, and once again Rook’s not entirely sure why he’s the one who’s up here now, what the hell difference his opinion is supposed to make. How he’d gone from lucky escapee to de facto leader when obviously, the Sheriff had authority, ought to have stepped up long ago. He wasn’t going to put it on Hudson or Pratt, they had their own shit to deal with, but Rook didn’t know what the fuck he was doing, that seemed to be fairly obvious to even most disinterested observers. Sure, it’s all worked so far here - somehow - but there’s got to be a point where they stop leaving shit up to the rookie, right?
You know better. Rook had glared up at the sky, more than once now. I’m not even omniscient and I know this is all a terrible goddamn idea.
As always, silence from heaven.
“Grace told me you found a couple of bodies up here. Said they were… mutilated.”
Neither man answers him, just starts moving, and Rook follows them a few trees into the orchard, and then they don’t need to explain. The stench hits him first, raw and deep and nauseating, a torn-open kind of smell, but there’s no bodies on the ground, only splashes of blood. A puddle of vomit off to the side, probably from one of the men standing next to him, and Rook glances up, but everything’s wet and it’s still just barely better than dark. It takes him a moment to realize what he’s really seeing, suspended ropelike between the branches of the trees, like someone unfurled a ball of yarn and left it hanging.
Mutilated. That’s one word for it.
“Okay. Fuck.” Rook breathes. “Fuck me. Okay.”
“Goddamn Peggies.” The man standing next to him says. “Sick fuckin’-”
“No.” Rook says. Yeah, they’re bastards, but this isn’t… okay, maybe that one super-sadistic son-of-a-bitch in the mountains, but he and Jess had finished that up with extreme prejudice, enough post-victory cremation to keep an entire decade’s worth of movie monsters in their graves. Rook would have sown the ground with salt if she’d asked him to. “No, I’ve seen this before, something like it…”
I don’t know what did this. Jess’ voice in his head, from the other side of the county and a clearing painted with blood, and Rook’s hand flexes toward his radio again, wondering. One of Jacob’s. It has to be, some particularly volatile fuck he’s been keeping in a cage somewhere, maybe someone who didn’t break quite right or broke too much, and now they’re out free and roaming the countryside. Oh, this is going to be fun, this -
The whine makes him jump, high and frantic and as sharp as if the dog had been kicked. Boomer’s curled in on his own hunched shoulders, ears flat and tail under his body, making soft little whimpering noises and pressed hard against Rook’s leg. He feels something hot and wet trickle toward his shoe - Boomer peeing like a puppy, reduced to abject terror and looking to Rook to make it stop. Bears don’t scare him like this. Judges don’t.
He’s got the rifle up and ready but there’s nothing to fire at and that’s real, real bad because Boomer’s so much better than him at this, if he thinks there’s a problem then Rook’s just not seen it yet and if the problem’s that bad… He strains to hear anything in the silence, trying to make anything out past the outlines of the trees in the mist.
“That dog okay?”
Rook blinks. “Where’s your friend?”
He was standing there, wasn’t he? Maybe fifteen feet away, no more. He was right there.
“Bill?” The other man calls out, taking a few steps forward. “Where the hell did you get to?”
I’ve seen this movie before. Rook thinks. I know what happens next.
He forces himself to breathe steady, to focus - if he’s not careful, what’s going to happen next is that he puts a round in Bill himself when he comes stumbling too fast out of the gloom. That’s what happens in most of these movies - friendly fire and jumping the -
A curl of movement out of the corner of his eye, but it doesn’t make sense and it keeps not making sense because whatever Rook thought he saw, gliding between the trees, was thin and long - spider - and damn near the height of the damn tree - giant fucking spider, Rook - and that can’t, that doesn’t -
A scream, wild and high and ripped free, and Rook’s running in the direction it came from, the direction the other man had gone in and he hadn’t stepped more than a few feet, had he? Hadn't been gone more than a few - so where the fuck -
The other man bursts out of the fog toward him - bloody, staggering, one hand outstretched - and Rook reaches back. Grabs him, but there’s something else that’s got hold, pulling in the opposite direction and Rook digs his heels in, reaches back to try and grab for a tree, to brace himself. The man lets out a choked, strangled wail, eyes wild and wide and looking at nothing, looking through him - and then he’s yanked out of Rook’s grip, back into the mist.
Rook scrambles up, plunges forward, maybe half a dozen steps more before the realization hits, freezing him in place, of just how vulnerable he is. How many bullets he’s got in his gun. He can’t see a damn thing, he doesn’t know what’s out there, doesn’t know if it has any problems looking back. All alone, surrounded by half-swallowed, identical trees barely solid in the mist, and a single turn in any direction will leave him completely lost. It feels like everything’s vanished, just empty space and God knows what in every direction, behind him in the dark, and there are sounds rising up all around him. Clicks and whistles and hisses - tick tick tick, metronome sharp - all around him, screeching and crying and every hair on his body is on end.
Rook breathes silently, open-mouthed, keeps the rifle up and moves slowly and carefully backward, one step and another and another, grateful that there’s more dirt on the path than gravel, that he’s been practicing with Jess, and his footsteps are nearly silent. He reaches the edge of the orchard, the edge of the fog, and even then Rook doesn’t turn around, eyes fixed on the wall of white that ought to be sliding down into the nooks and crannies of the lower valley, that shouldn’t be where it is at all.
His heel hits something, and Rook bites down on a shout, just steps around it and keeps moving backward until there’s another twenty feet between him and the mist and his back is against the truck that Boomer’s hidden himself under, and he can see that what he nearly tripped over was Bill’s head, the cut unclean, trailing a few spare vertebrae.
The real panic’s safely in a box - that all started on that first day, when he’d ran and ran and thrown himself down into a ditch, face-first in the dirt as he’d listened to a truck full of Peggies pass by, when he’d finally had enough time to really imagine what they’d do if they found him. Jacob definitely had a hand in further renovations, stripping everything in him down into what was needed, this minute, to survive. Rook’s even partitioned out some soundproof glass, so now that screaming part of him only twitches now and then, out of the corner of his eye, something that won’t get in his way, that he can ignore. It’s just not useful, the fear is just not useful and will not keep him or anyone else alive.
He will get through this. He will survive, and then Rook will rob a fucking bank if he has to for the cash to get the hell out of Montana and he will go south. Keep driving until he reaches somewhere that never gets cold, until he’s got his feet in the ocean, a sea breeze at his back and a drink in each hand, and then he can lose his shit to his heart’s content.
He’s in the truck. The head’s in the back. Boomer’s pressed up against him, panting furiously and all but trying to crawl inside his coat.
“It’s all right. It’s all right. Shh.” Rook soothes him, trying to soothe himself. He feels frozen, but doesn’t turn the engine over until the sun starts to rise and the fog begins to dissipate, until he can see straight through to the other side of the orchard, nothing there but trees.
Rook turns the car on, cranks the heater to high. Shudders hard, all over, heartbeat thudding in his ears.
The radio’s only static. He turns the dial, catches the Peggies’ station - "Look out at the world on fire, Look at the people frozen in fear" - and turns it to where the other station should be, needs something decent to catch his attention on, to sing along with and remind himself he still can, that he’s still breathing. Rook stops when he reaches the far end, turns the dial back to the very start, and slowly works his way to the other side.
Other than Eden’s Gate, there’s nothing else to hear.
“They'll be begging for forgiveness, ‘Cause the world is gonna end tonight.”
1. I'm going to be taking some liberties with general locations, bunkers, that sort of thing.
Rook needs the Spread Eagle as much as he’s ever needed anything in his life. Vulgar and open and friendly, loud and well-worn and normal, with the arcade machine already chattering away and the jukebox running and all he has to do is step outside and there’s a clear enough view from the meadows all the way to the mountains.
He needs the double whiskey too, and Mary May pours without comment, only the slightest look of concern to remind him that it is, in fact, nine-thirty in the goddamn morning. Rook fights the urge to throw it back, taking it slow, tracing out the smooth lines of the woodgrain on the bar with a fingertip. He was just getting used to his life as some sort of discount, grindhouse Coen Brothers film - No Country for Old Men with more bullshit religion, bull testicles and way fewer Oscars.
Rook can already feel his thoughts trying to double-back and rationalize what he saw, to figure out a way to lie to him. It wasn’t clear, he’d barely seen anything, so how the hell could it have been - what, monsters? Bullshit, Rook. It must have been a cougar, right? Silent and deadly, to drag that man into the fog and spit parts back out again - and his friend, and what was his name? Why didn’t you ask, Rook? Or it was some Judge packed with too much Bliss, sick and wandering out way past its territory - or another Peggie experiment, and the surprise of it is what rattled Boomer the way it did.
Leftovers from the Bliss, just hitting him now? God knows he’s dunked himself in it often enough. Or maybe remnants of Jacob’s fuckery putting him on edge, making him see shit that just wasn’t there? It’s kind of been a time - knocked out of the sky, watching his fellow officers get dragged off into the night. Hudson on the TV, grainy and gagged and weeping, like one of those execution videos they’d apologize for before showing stills of on the news. Or sitting in a cage himself, with his hands covered in blood and not knowing how he’d got there or when it happened or who’s blood it was. Listening to distant screams that went on and on and on, longer than anyone should have been able to scream.
Rook doesn’t feel so confident anymore, that he’d know reality if it waved as it passed by.
“No one is coming to save you.”
No shit, Joseph. Was that supposed to be some kind of surprise? All Rook’s ever known is keeping his own ass alive because no one else was going to be bothered. Fuck, Burke had left him to die twice - and the helicopter, sure, that was fair - but he’d swam out of that truck and away without a single glance back and thanks for that, man. A real solid gesture of camaraderie.
It’s strange to think that maybe here, maybe Fall’s End is the first time there’ve been people who might give half a shit if something does happen to him, that they’re actually in this together. The Pastor had certainly saved his ass - but that probably had more to do with what Rook was than who, a piece on the board with more value out of John Seed’s hands. Capture the flag. Rook wouldn’t blame him for that, tries not to think too badly about anyone, Burke included. Most people only have the time and resources to look out for the people they’re closest to. Everyone has to prioritize. It isn’t mean, it’s just life, just the way things are.
Or maybe he’s being uncharitable. Jerome had saved him. Staci had saved him. Mary May’s cleaning at the other end of the bar and pretending she’s not still watching him, as Rook wraps and unwraps the tape on his his right hand. He really should just switch to gloves, impossible to keep the wrappings clean out here, but anything else doesn’t work as well and even with the pressure half his fingers still ache down to the bone, tingling and protesting. Easy enough to ignore, except when he doesn’t want to ignore it, when it’s easier than thinking about what’s going to happen next. How Rook can sit back and pretend he saw something else, something sane, and then maybe it’ll be one of them out there next. Who do you want to see pieces of, Rook? Up in the trees?
He rubs a hand over his eyes.
“Mary May, you mind turning on the radio?”
Dispatches from the real world haven’t been too good lately - are they ever? - all those bits and pieces he’s overheard on his way from place to place. War and corruption and waste, same as always, but Rook sure could go for some of that now. The reminder of the big world outside, untouched by all of this. Instead there’s only static, the same as it was in the truck, as she frowns and twists the dial, makes a face when she hits the Project’s channel and sighs.
“Sorry, Dep. Looks like technical difficulties. Maybe later?”
It could be nothing. It could be the Peggies jamming shit again - God knows there was little love in Eden’s Gate for the rock-and-or-roll. It could be a temporary hitch in the system. It could be nothing.
Rook’s fingers dig into his arm.
He hears boots, a soft but steady tread over the threshold. Grace leans against the bar next to him, glancing down at his empty glass. Looking worried, but in her usual grim and distant way that means no matter what news he brings, it won’t earn more than the same, slow blink. She makes him think of epic poetry, of men and women quietly walking the world in broad strides. Grace makes Rook want to carry her shield into war.
“That good, huh? What’d they find up there?”
“Either of them have family?” Rook says quietly - and Grace rolls with it, like he knew she would, eyes only narrowing a little as she shakes her head. “I’ve got what’s left of Bill in the cooler across the street. Pastor Jerome can give him a proper funeral.” Rook had made himself leave the truck, once the sun was a little higher, forced himself to go look - but there was nothing, no bodies, no… pieces, no tracks.
“An ambush? Peggies?”
“I… don’t think so.”
Rook wonders how many times he’s going to answer that question - how long it takes before he has anything like an actual answer. If anyone’s going to believe it. He’s still kind of hoping to hear from anyone in the Project - even fucking Jacob - ready to brag about some new breed of bullshit, some hybrid of the Bliss. Anything to bring this mystery back down to the real, to put it within what he knows of what Eden's Gate is and how they work, give it rational boundaries.
Rational boundaries. From Joseph Seed. That is a thing he just thought.
“Do you think we can get together some kind of town hall meeting? There’s something… I think there might be something different happening out there, and I want to keep on top of it. I need to get the whole county on the same page, fast. Can we make that happen?”
“Sure.” Mary May nods. “It might take a little while to put the call out, get set up on the radio and get everyone in town together. Not sure how secure we can make it.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Rook says. The phrase ‘not if they were my worst enemy’ has shuffled its way into his deck - even as he’d been driving back Rook thought about being the one to make that call, half to hear if one of them wanted to brag about it and half to let them know. Yeah, maybe even to warn them. Hey Joseph, that Voice of yours ever mention any giant goddamn spiders? You suffering from any unplanned decapitations lately?
First seal, his ass. The Book of Revelations is a metaphor, Joseph. Something to do with Rome. Or something. Rook really could have paid attention to at least one history class.
“I’ll get Dutch on it.” Mary May says. “It’ll take less time that way. He might have heard something already.”
Would it be better if he has, or worse? What’s the best case scenario look like here? Why even think that’s in the realm of possibilities?
Rook looks up again, and Staci’s standing in the doorway, backlit by the sun. The Pastor’s been looking after him, giving him a place to sleep and time to himself. He looks a little better - fed and clean, the bruises looking worse in that way that means they’re doing better, but there are dark shadows under his eyes and he only gives a little jerk of his chin in welcome. Still with his hands tucked under his arms, like that’s just how he lives now. Rook - not at all for the first time - thinks about killing Jacob Seed in the absolute slowest way possible. God, he misses the Internet. He could do some research on that, check his options. Or just order some fire ants in bulk.
“Breakfast of champions.” Staci says, eyes on the glass in Rook’s hand, finally relaxing enough to reach out and give Boomer a scratch, glancing from him to Grace and back again. “What’s the problem?”
“Nothing you need to worry about, if you don’t want to.”
Hudson’s with the Sheriff up by the Henbane, and Staci’s here in Fall’s End, everyone shuffling around whose bullshit they might have to deal with. Which leaves Rook to handle Jacob alone, if it breaks that way, but he’s been doing a marvelous job of just not thinking about things like that. It might be a handicap they can ill afford, but Rook’s not forcing anyone back into the fight, if they just can’t do it anymore. If Staci would rather wait out the rest of this nonsense trying to top the local fishing records, Rook will give him a beer and a pole and wish him the best of luck.
“I want to.” Staci says, and there’s something brittle in his expression, but steady too. Surprisingly so. “I don’t have much to do around here except think, and I don’t - I’d rather stay busy. I want to help.”
Grace nods, and it’s not like Rook can argue, not like he’s paused long enough yet to d much more than adjust his aim.
“If you go out there, we’re gonna need you armed. You good with that?”
Staci’s quiet for a long moment, teeth in his lower lip, gaze turned inward and Rook can’t say with the slightest confidence just where it is he’s gone.
“Okay.” He says. “Get back on the horse and ride, right?” He meets Rook’s eyes, unblinking. “If anything happens - if I go wrong out there, you put me down. Do not let me… just end it fast. Deal?”
“Deal.” Rook lies. Whatever hits Staci has a good chance of hitting him too, despite all his half-assed efforts to the contrary, and even then, even if Rook could…
No. Fuck it. No more.
“Dutch?” He’s been paying half-attention to Mary May starting up her initial round of calls across the county, and he was the first one she called, and there still hasn’t been a reply. “Dutch, you copy?”
He’s always there. Usually the first voice Rook hears in the morning, checking in throughout the day, keeping tabs and providing a lay of the land. Funny how much he knew, how many people looked to him for a guy who kept so carefully to himself on his own damn island. Rook’s not really sure they’re friends - Dutch doesn’t seem to do friends, but he’d talked Rook through those first days of hell, given him something to focus on and anchor to when nothing else was making any goddamn sense. Rook has not had a particularly large group of role models to choose from in his life, and it’s pretty much too late to start, but still. He liked Dutch. Everyone liked Dutch.
It could be nothing. Busted radio. Sleeping in late. Nothing at all.
“When’s the last time anyone heard from him?” Rook says, and realizes he can’t answer that question himself.
It was supposed to be a standard arrest. The thing cops like Rook got paid to do. Get in with the warrant, cuff the crazy cultist, hand him over to the feds and watch the story follow them off into the sunset, with Rook barely even a footnote in some higher-up’s bid for promotion. No, it hadn’t felt right - the whole fucking thing had started as a terrible idea and only got worse from there - but if Rook had backed off, it would have meant giving up on Hope County and everyone in it and it sure as shit would have meant getting fired. Burke would have been vindictive, Whitehorse too close to retirement to risk getting involved - and Rook was so new, not a local, not at all worth the effort of defending. Walking away would have branded him for the rest of his nonexistent career.
Once again in his life, all his choices were made for him before he ever showed up. Rook wonders what Joseph would think of that - that this whole portentous, epic apocalyptic standoff he’s cooked up in his head comes down to Rook really not wanting to get his fucking car repoed again. The thought of dealing with a compound full of furious cultists versus another year of scrambling to keep his head above water - which one was worse, really? Running as fast as he can just to end up in exactly the same place. Rook’s honestly not sure how much more of that he can take.
“Dutch, you there? Dutch, this is Grace, over?”
It’s good that she’s here. Neither of them feel the need to cut the tension with small talk, to make up excuses when there’s no response. Mary May needed time to get things together - it sounded like the Whitetails were busy with some sort of reconnaissance, scattered all across the range, and Hurk was… Rook did not need to know what Hurk was doing. Possibly ever. Which left them plenty of time for a drive across the valley just to stay current, see if there was any new movement from Eden’s Gate, and swing by Dutch’s on the way through. He’d probably be pissed to see them, to know that they were worried, wasting all that time for nothing - but he wouldn’t bitch for too long, not with Grace there. Maybe they’d catch something for lunch, watch Boomer chase minnows up and down the narrow bit of shoreline.
Grace is in the passenger seat, Staci back in the truck bed with Boomer, everyone quietly alert for any signs of Peggies, any planes or roadside bombs. Rook’s got the radio on, low enough just to hear the static where the FM station still isn’t. It could be a problem with the airwaves - solar flares, or something. Rook tries to ignore anything approaching dread - half the time it feels like his emotions have been downgraded to the basic eight-pack of crayons, Blue and Yellow and Grim Foreboding and Running Like Hell and Watching Sharky Make Bad Choices with Bottle Rockets Again. It’s stupid, it shouldn’t feel wrong that they make it all the way out to the island without a single new roadblock, without any gunshots or John making blandly malicious pronouncements over the radio.
It shouldn’t feel like they’re wasting too much good luck on nothing, as Rook parks the car and they walk over the slight rise, Boomer’s ears pricked and alert in the stillness.
No sign of Dutch - and the bunker door’s wide open.
Rook wonders if anyone else feels it, like a punch to the gut. Grace steps up cautiously to the threshold, raises her voice slightly. “Dutch? It’s us. You in there?”
Nothing. Just the wind in the trees.
“We’re coming down.”
An ambush? Booby traps? Maybe some Bliss thing. Some fucking Jacob thing. Why didn’t Rook notice sooner, when Dutch had gone radio silent? Why hadn’t he been paying attention? He takes point, because there’s nothing else to do, Grace behind him and Staci keeping near the door with Boomer. No telling how long it’s been open, but as they sweep the bunker there’s no sign that anything’s been touched. Unless Jacob rigged the entire place to blow, there’s nothing waiting for them in here. No Peggies, no traps or signs of struggle or any violence - and if Jacob was intending to turn things into a fireball, he’d probably have done it by now.
They move through the corridors in silence - checking thoroughly, just in case it’s a medical issue, that he might have collapsed in a back corner. Some impossible turn of events that would leave the door open at one end and Dutch at the other. Rook knows he’s grasping at straws there, because the alternative is piling on more evidence that his morning wasn’t some bizarre, singular phenomenon.
The alternative is that Dutch is… gone.
It doesn’t take that long to check everywhere, even with so many rooms - they’re all empty. Back up top, Staci is still standing watch with Boomer at his feet, and they circle around up over the rise.
“We need to sweep the island.” Grace says.
“Yeah.” Rook says, already moving. “We’ll start from the shore and work-
“Rook.” Staci says, his voice oddly toneless. “Where’s the truck?”
Even from the other side of the small hill, Staci would have heard the engine turning over, and anyone trying to push it away wouldn’t have gotten that far. Rook glances to Grace, just as confused and worried as he is, no one quite with their guns raised yet but they all want to.
There’s a soft little splash from out in the lake - and the cab of the truck rises into view, bobbing for a moment before slipping back down beneath the water. It makes sense - well, that’s why they couldn’t find the truck - and at the same time, no sense at all.
“What in the fuck.” Staci breathes. Boomer whines, a little broken-off keen that makes Rook’s hands tighten around his gun.
You’ve seen this movie. Rook thinks again. Go ahead. Say something stupid and obvious.
“I think we should stay away from the water.”
The next sound is just as quiet, a whisper-soft hiss across the ground, a slight movement from the corner of his eye and Rook thinks for a moment that his mind’s playing tricks, that there’s nothing moving at all near the fallen tree that’s stretched across the road, a dozen feet away - but there was no tree blocking their drive in, and it’s moving. It’s not - not a tree at all, but something that ripples, shifting like a snake and yeah, they’ve finally got something to point guns at, backing quickly away, but if it’s a snake where’s the damn head and-
Rook never sees it, the tight grip that crushes his ankle, winding up around his leg like a snare and he’s yanked up off the ground, breath slammed out of him when he crashes into the dirt. Grace is shouting, already firing and Staci lunges for him but misses because Rook’s being dragged backward, branches snapping and whipping against his skin, bouncing off rocks and saplings and he can’t turn, can’t do anything but think to take a breath as he hits the water hard - oh god, Dutch, oh god this is how you-
It’s dark - he’s flailing and fighting, the panic churning up the lake bed around him and using the gun underwater is a terrible idea but not using it isn’t much better, the crushing pain in his leg intensifying and Rook bites back the scream, the urge to inhale, points the barrel down past where his leg’s being held and fires - there’s pain, the gun crumbling in his hands and Rook’s not sure if he even hit anything, if there’s anything to hit and he sees the green line of Grace’s sight glittering in the water, penetrating better than any of her bullets can and he keeps his eyes on it even as he’s dragged down, down, his chest already burning, oh fuck oh fuck-
Movement on his left, a flash of what looks like a hand, a foot - someone swimming down and then it’s Staci’s hand around his arm, up under his shoulder and Rook wants him to go, needs him to leave, no way he can do anything against the pull of the thing that’s still got him -
The world explodes. Rook’s ears are ringing, skin tingling, everything light and dark and light again, and the pressure eases up on his leg. Rook makes a weak attempt to assist as he’s lifted up, dragged back, and somehow his head breaks the surface, choking and gasping. He can hear Boomer barking, Grace’s voice urgent even though he can’t make out her words, as she grabs the back of his shirt and pulls him onto the shore and further, the three of them moving in one uncoordinated, stumbling, gasping sprint up and away from the water, up and over to where Dutch’s door still stands, wide open.
Rook collapses on his back, Staci laid out beside him, Boomer dancing between them in a messy panic, whining, licking at their faces. Grace is still on her feet, rifle up and scanning for further dangers now that there’s no telling just what those dangers are supposed to look like.
“Thanks, Pratt.” Rook gasps. “Fuck, fucking shit, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me too much.” Staci says, panting. “I didn’t think that would work.”
The grenade probably had even odds of killing them as it did on falling into the right position, to put the… whatever the fuck it was between them and the force of the blast. Rook certainly preferred the thought of being blown up to whatever that thing had planned on doing with him.
“You’re bleeding.” Grace says, tapping his foot with her own. He looks down, somewhat relieved that it’s still attached.
His head is ringing, he feels sick and beaten half to hell and the entire world is wavering at the edges but this is Hope County - absolutely zero of it is new, anything he hasn’t fought through before. Rook’s nearly been blown up and nearly lost fingers to wolverines and had fights in Bliss fields that left him shooting almost entirely blind, with the perfect clarity of knowing he absolutely shouldn't be using firearms, but being too high to care.
Rook lifts his head slightly, brings his hand around to the inside of his thigh, just above the knee - his pants torn, and what he’d thought was just the lingering pain of a nearly-crushed limb is actually his fingertips dipped in red. Puncture wounds - barbed teeth, razor sharp on the thing that had grabbed him, just to make sure he wouldn’t escape.
Oh god, Dutch. Oh hell.
Grace’s mouth is compressed in a thin line - probably thinking the exact same thing, and Rook can almost see her break the grief down into manageable pieces even as it arrives, slotting them all away to be dealt with later, like canned goods on a bunker shelf. God, what the hell’s going to be left of any of them when this is over?
If. If this ends. If there’s anyone left to see it end.
“We need to get you patched up fast, then we find a truck and go back to Fall’s End.” Grace says, taking all her comfort in the planning, in strategy and the next step. “Everybody ought to be gathered by now. They’re all going to need to hear this, and I don’t really want to say it more than once.”
“What.” Staci says quietly, to no one. “What in the fuck just happened.”
“Guns.” Rook says. “We need to bring all the guns.”
Twenty-four hours prior to dangling upside-down in a flaming helicopter, Rook had been standing in his kitchen, cursing-out half a torn box of Rice-a-Roni, the contents scattered around him like confetti, a few pieces already threatening to set off the smoke alarm where they’d fallen in range of the burner.
A week before he’d accepted the job that had rolled into the job that had left him upside-down in a flaming helicopter, Rook had been kicking in the flimsy door of a trailer home, listening to a lanky waste of space fall off a couch and try to scramble away from him and where the hell is he, where do you think you’re going, I swear to God if I don’t get my money I am gonna bury you under this fucking thing do you hear me are you fucking listening you junkie fuck-
It’s not a surprise, when life doesn’t turn out right, when there’s nothing but a plan-shaped hole where the plan should be. It’s not a surprise, when people lie, when they don’t care, when they get away with it. When everything, big and small, is just that little bit harder than it should have to be, for no good goddamn reason. Rook’s been there, he’s lived it before, where the start of the day and the end of it have nothing in common, and the only thing to do is hold on tight and brace for impact.
“No one is coming to save you.”
No shit, Joseph. No shit.
It’s a full house at the Spread Eagle by the time they make it back - a little past noon, the sky crowding up with thick swirls of gray and white. Grace had sent out one message while they’d been loading everything they could carry of Dutch’s arsenal into duffel bags, until they could find another car - stay away from the water, any water - but they hadn’t broadcast the news about Dutch, or what they’d found. Only a general call-out, to see if anyone else had gone missing, or wasn’t calling in. It’s pretty much an impossible ask, with how scattered everyone is in general, how self-sufficient most of the county preferred to be before this started.
Rook limps his way into the Eagle, still damp, all the adrenaline burned out and only the aches left behind. He’s been checking the puncture just above his ankle again and again, because maybe the fucked-up thing that grabbed him had poisoned him, or his leg was gonna fall off or he’d turn into a zombie or who knows, give him superpowers. So many possibilities, none of them too great, but thankfully it just keeps being a goddamn set of holes punched out of his leg, not quite bad enough for stitches. Which hasn’t stopped Rook from looking every five minutes or so, just to be sure.
“What the hell happened to you?” Mary May says, queuing up the beers at the sight of them. “I got the Whitetails on the line with their people. Addie’s gathered everyone in range in at the marina, and I just heard back from the Sheriff. You get ahold of Dutch?”
Rook can’t keep it off his face, not for a second, and he hears one of the bottles thud when it falls from her hand to the floor. The chatter in the room slowly dies, as everyone realizes something has changed.
“How?” She says, familiar enough with loss now that there’s not even a token protest, a gasp of denial. “When?”
“What’s that about Dutch?” Nick says. “What happened?”
“Is Kim at home?” Rook says, and there’s something of the day in his voice that makes Nick frown.
“Nah, man.” He jerks a thumb toward the opposite side of the building. “She’s just around back, getting some air.”
Rook goes to the radio. “Jess, you out there? Jess, you copy?”
“I asked her to take care of something for me, Deputy.” It’s Eli that answers. “Unlikely you’re going to hear from her today.”
“I need you to find her, Eli.”
“I’d like to know what this is about first.” He says. “We’re burning daylight here. I’ve got people I’d rather have moving.”
It’s not that they don’t get along. Eli’s a good man who knows his shit, but he’s been dealing with the worst of any of them for the longest - total war, brutal and efficient and nightmarish in a way that didn’t quite trickle down into the valley even when John was feeling inspired. Eli’s a man used to giving orders, to having those orders followed without question, for the good of everyone. Rook’s an outsider - a useful one, but not one of them, no matter what gets said - and even when he agrees to help, it’s not quite the same as deference. Rook’s never been very good at that.
“Dutch is gone. Dead.” Rook hears the shock of it rustle behind him, through the Eagle. “I need Jess to hear it from a person, from a friend, and not some radio in the middle of the woods.”
He’d go himself, if his leg hurt any less, if there was any chance of finding her before the news did. Jess has already fucked off from the world about as far as she can go, and Rook’s pretty sure most days she regrets not fucking off completely. Losing Dutch will be a knife in a wound that hasn’t had any kind of chance to heal. The only thing worse than telling her is telling her how it happened.
“Which one got him?” Eli says in a steady voice that promises retribution, maybe something a little less calculated and more purely spiteful, like the answer doesn’t matter all that much. All answers lead to the same place.
“It’s not like that.”
So Rook explains as best he can what it is like, or at least what he thinks it’s like - what he and Jess saw, what happened at the orchard, and out on Dutch’s island. He hates the way it sounds, saying it aloud, useless in this sunny room full of people to try and explain what he’d seen out there alone before dawn. The lake was terrifying, but it’s the morning that still lingers in the back of his mind. How he’d felt in that fog, like the whole world had vanished, like he was the only man left alive.
“So you never saw the body.” Eli says. “Anyone could have him.”
“Sounds like a real bad Bliss trip to me, kid.” Sheriff Whitehorse says. “We haven’t seen much beyond the random angel around here lately. Faith’s got to be up to something out there.”
“You ever see a Bliss trip eat a truck?” Staci says.
The Bliss makes you want to stay. Sure, it’s rotting your soul out from the inside, like wet tissue paper, but in the meantime the little green sparkles are nice. Rook had not wanted to stay with the giant fucking squid.
“We were attacked.” Grace agrees. “All three of us. By something that I’ve never seen before.”
Rook has the suspicion it’s a good thing she was there with them - not that they aren’t appreciated, but everyone knows about their turn in Jacob’s little fun house, and Whitehorse has been the one to aim Rook right at some of the nastier corners of Faith’s sanctuary. Grace is the voice of reason, and when reason starts estimating size and strength and speed, the monsters start seeming a lot less imaginary.
“No flowers anywhere nearby, and we weren’t close enough to the water up until I got dragged in, if that was the source.” Rook says. “We would have heard something by now, anyway. If they had some new plan, some new drug, John couldn’t have stopped himself from telling us all about it.”
“Not if you’d killed him like you were supposed to.” Tammy says.
It’s not all that surprising, that she’s the one to finally call him out on it, and in front of goddamn everyone, of course. Her tolerance of him has always been purely conditional, and never really mellowed into respect, or even understanding. Rook’s a useful tool, for the things she needs to get done. It doesn’t go beyond that - and he is sorry for what she’s lost, what she’s been through, but there’s an expectation in her - a demand for his obedience that puts his back right up. As bad as Rook is at deference, he is downright awful at being taken for granted, his subservience assumed.
Cull the herd. Get infinitely fucked, Jacob.
“Funny, I must have forgot the part where I agreed to be your on-call executioner.”
“She didn’t mean it like that, kid.” Sheriff Whitehorse cuts in - and she damn well did, but the Sheriff’s doing what he always does, trying to mediate and keep things calm, and Rook’s going to let him because there’s no point in squabbling when they’ve got new problems. Who in the hell decided they needed new problems?
“All this is only happening in the valley?” Eli says.
“Yeah. The first time, with Jess, that was right on the border.” Rook says. “Has anyone else noticed anything?”
“Nothing up here, honey.” Adelaide says. “Thank God for that. Not my kind of tentacles, that’s for sure.”
Someone had to say it eventually. God, he loves these people.
“Ain’t seen nothing back up near the house neither, Dep.” Hurk chimes in, probably over her shoulder. “Kinda want to. Sounds pretty badass.” The soft scuff of static is almost certainly him getting slapped upside the back of the head. Rook thinks he might hear the word ‘chupacabra,’ followed by another scuff.
“All present and accounted for.” The Sheriff says. “Nothing around here we can’t blame on the usual.”
“Unless the Peggies are like, breeding aliens now or some shit.” Sharky interjects from the bench behind them, taking a long drag on his beer.
It says something about the current state of Hope County, that everyone pauses, just for a moment, to consider the possibility.
The meeting goes on for a little while longer - nobody’s talking real strategy, of course, not over the airwaves, but there’s general check-ins and promises to tighten up borders and somebody owes somebody a new set of front tires the next time they head east. Underneath and threaded through it all is the absence of the voice that ought to be there, and they all feel it and there’s nothing to say. Dutch is gone, but there’s no body, no proof, which means a vigil with no clear end and at least half the county unconvinced. The Pastor’s not going to give a sermon for an empty casket, not for a while anyway.
It means that everyone knows now, that there might be something out there that they don’t understand, and no one knows if Eden’s Gate has a hand in it, or what in the hell they’re supposed to do about it, either way. Rook makes some vague promises to the Sheriff to drop by soon, ignores some vague insinuations from the Whitetails that this is all well and good but he’s still got a job to do, if he’d just stop dragging his heels about it. But Rook’s heels hurt right now, along with the rest of him, and he’s hit the point of just staring into space, waiting for the next crisis to announce itself and choose his next move for him.
“Hey man,” Nick says, a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you come home with me and Kim for the night? You can get your clothes washed up, and crash in the spare room.”
It’s the best idea he’s ever heard. Rook doesn’t have it in him to put up even the illusion of a protest.
When he was young and angry - all the time, all the time - Rook used to be bitter, so jealous of other people’s good luck. It seemed like the whole world had all the things he wanted - money, prestige, love - while he was out there spinning his wheels. Fortunately, Rook grew the fuck up, got out there and started working and living and paying attention, and even in his little corner of nowhere with nothing, he saw how things were. He paid attention long enough to see some of those good fortunes sour, with no one to blame. All those people he was so jealous of - their lives weren’t perfect, or didn’t stay that way long. Sick kids, sick parents, house repairs and car repairs and never enough money. Accidents and tragedies and loss. Take it to the global perspective, and it was war and famine and devastation by the truckload, and being stuck, broke and alone in the middle of nowhere didn’t seem quite so bad.
It was the catering that gave him some personal perspective, working pick-up jobs for when someone less dependable had pissed off for the night. Rook standing smart and fancy in the black pants, shoes and shirt that he only wore for the occasional funeral or jobs like this, ferried out to stupidly oversized ranches for people with too much money who didn’t keep animals, to hold plates of hors d'oeuvres and smile politely and breathe that rarefied air. The first time he’d gone, he’d been curious and intimidated and half-certain he’d be exposed, thrown out on his ear for being too low to even serve them. But the woman at the head of the team had just rolled her eyes when he’d said he was nervous - said he’d be less impressed soon enough, and she was right.
Listening in on their conversations as he smiled blandly and passed out flutes of champagne and little toasts topped with whatever - yes, sir, I believe that’s the guest bathroom, no m’am I don’t know where they moved the coats - and Rook soon realized it was mostly just everything he already knew, with nicer wallpaper and the biggest of big-ass TV’s. The same conversations with a few more zeroes on the end - who screwed who out of a contract, this marriage going down the drain, that one just for show. Sons not having a good freshman year - fucking up all over the place - and daughters doing all right but the baby’s sick all the time, and they can’t figure out why, all the tests are inconclusive and yeah, rich people have more options, more chances to fuck up and softer places to land when they do but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to them. Nobody happy now, but everybody sure they’ll be happy soon.
He’d walked in once, on the hostess of one of those parties weeping on her own fancy back porch, and neither of them had known what to do.
Life is suffering. Father Mark had said once, with a wry and gentle sort of smile.
The grief is sharp and sudden and unexpected, enough to take his breath away. Rook lets it happen because there’s nothing else to do, just sits there and lets it hit. Dutch was kind to him, and now he’s dead and gone and it probably wasn’t quick, or painless. The terrible, cruel capriciousness of all of it, and there is no protection. No context and no preparation and no bunker deep enough, no plan good enough. No amount of brutality or cruelty or ‘sacrificing the weak’ that could make any difference at all.
Dutch was strong, wasn’t he? Strong enough to defend against Eden’s Gate, strong enough to annoy the shit out of them. A prepared and focused military man, determined and driven and still taken out by the impossible, the ultimate ‘not-know-the-day-or-the-hour’ and where was the fucking lesson there? How far would you have to grind a man down, Jacob, before that was something anyone had any chance of standing up against?
There’s no winning. If the world wanted you fucked, you were fucked, and that was it.
So what remained? Maybe only this. After all the fighting and all the struggle and every fucked-up plan, for all that Rook had his own grand ambitions, his determination to rise above, he thinks there’s not a whole lot of it that actually matters, that maybe where he is right now is all anyone ever really gets. Sitting in the backseat of a car with an afternoon rain coming down hard - being warm and cozy when the world is cold, watching Nick put an arm around Kim as she leans against him. Being privileged enough to bear witness to two good people and their love, and hoping it lasts for as long as it can.
The hot shower’s pretty great too, he’s not going to lie. Rook checks his leg again, carefully, but it looks like he’s still not threatening to grow any new monster parts, and everything’s healing up. He’d asked, of course, how the Ryes were doing for fuel and power but Nick had waved off his concerns, warned him there’d be consequences if the water wasn’t running cold by the time Rook had finished. So he takes his time, unwraps his hands, scours himself clean of at least a good week of Hope County, thought there’d been attempts to mitigate the worst of it here and there. Rook’s actually fussy when it comes to staying tidy, even with current evidence to the contrary. A reason he never lets his hair go longer than he can cut back himself - two on the top, one on the sides - and it’s not an accident that after all this time, he’s still clean shaven, that a razor’s always at the top of his list of necessities. It’s just easier not to take a step down that road, to letting himself go, starting that slow slide into being the second generation of a waste of fucking space.
“You need anything?” Nick calls through the door.
“Just living the dream.” Rook says, reaching out over the toilet to open up the window, letting in a gust of cold, wet air. A precaution - if he’s not careful, he usually showers hot enough to set off the smoke detectors. He’s wearing some of Nick’s clothes, while his own are in the machine, not quite a perfect fit but close enough, and dry. He steps out of the bathroom to see Nick looking in the mirror over his dresser, fingers just brushing against his shirt, against the scar underneath.
“How’s that healing up, Butch?”
Nick grins. “Fine, Sundance. Itches like a bitch. How you doing? I saw Pratt went out there with you, how’s he holding up?”
“Saved my life. Again.” Rook says. “You ever need somebody and I’m not around, he’d do just as well. If not better.”
Nick doesn’t respond to that, because they both know that what Rook’s really saying is - if I die, give Staci first pick of all my guns. If I die, you slot him in my place and keep going. The same way they’ve already had half a conversation, a while ago now, where nothing of much consequence was said but it pretty much boiled down to Rook stepping in for Nick if something happened to him - taking care of Kim, keeping her safe. Although if Nick’s ever in that kind of danger and he's doing his fucking job right, Rook won’t be around long enough to do much of anything.
It’s funny, to think that this time last year Rook really wasn’t into giving much of a shit about anyone - hoping to avoid the possibility, probably forever. Now here he is, ride-or-die with what feels like half of Hope County. Life is so fucking weird.
“Listen… about what Tammy said, about John. I don’t care what she thinks is tactical - but I fucked up, I know I fucked up.” Rook says. “I didn’t - I know I should have ended it there. I should have killed him. I probably didn’t do anything but keep us all in danger, and I owed you better, for him hurting you the way he did.”
Nick looks at him, almost like he’s insulted.
“Shit, Rook. You got my plane back for me, and I didn’t even know you then. You did your best to drop that slippery fucker right there in the church, I remember that.” Nick sighs. “You think I’m going to yell at you, for not killing on my behalf? Even a son of a bitch like John Seed? Shit, man. I’m not a general, this ain’t an army, at least not here. I drop shit from airplanes. You’re the one down in the middle of it all the damn time. I’m ready to do what I have to, to protect my family but… look,” he sighs, “maybe I don’t understand why you did it, but I can’t ask you for more than you’ve done. I don’t have the right, and neither do the Whitetails. If we start acting like that, thinking like that, we’re no different than the Peggies.”
It’s good to hear him say that. Rook’s already heard a couple other conversations in the opposite direction, that once Eden’s Gate are at their mercy it would be so much easier not to have any. He’s almost glad John had kept the bunker, that there hadn’t been time to do more than get Hudson and a few others free. It’s not that Rook hasn’t done his share of killing, not that there weren’t times - fuck you, Jacob - that he’d been downright glad to do it, but even with everything he’d seen and done, there’d been something terrible about standing there, listening to the Resistance talk about wholesale slaughter, planning it as if it were something to look forward to.
Give a man a reason to feel justified, and maybe that was all it took, maybe there was nothing he couldn’t be capable of.
“So… Dutch, huh?” Nick says. “You really think he’s gone? You really think it was, I don’t know…”
“I do. I don’t want to, and I sure as shit don’t know what it means, but I do.” Rook says. “I swear, I’m not going to let anything happen to Kim, to either of you.”
“Yeah, man.” Nick chuckles. “I kinda noticed.”
“Boys!” Kim’s voice comes from below, “I’m only gonna be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen for so long, and you’re both missing out!”
It’s a good dinner they throw together, the first hot meal Rook’s had in a while - goddamn buttered Ritz cracker crumbs on the casserole, praise all the saints and angels. Fall’s End’s been redistributing what they snatched back from the cult, and while there’s still going to be long-term problems, no one wants to be the one to bring up that long-term problems mean they expect to still be fighting in three months, six months, longer. It can’t be possible, this just can’t keep going on forever - but Rook asked the Whitetails about the radio, and the Jail, and they weren’t getting a signal either and no one knew if the Peggies were jamming anything but that seemed most likely. Rook’s going to look into it, wants the news even if it isn’t particularly good or useful. At the very least, he wants the music back.
“When’s the last time you took the plane up?” Rook asks between mouthfuls, doing his best not to wolf the food, to attempt at least a hint of decent table manners. Kim’s already throwing a second helping on his plate because she knows better.
“It’s been a couple of days. I had to tune up the engine, and things seemed quiet enough.” Nick says. “It’s ready now. Why? You need something?”
“No, not right away.” Rook says, not wanting to do anything to disrupt the quiet sense of calm, the peace at the table with his worrying. There’s warm brownies for dessert. He hugs Kim tightly enough to make her laugh, tries and fails to keep from eating half the pan himself.
They don’t even let him help with the dishes - “It’s nothing, man, why don’t you just go sit down” and Rook, with all the boxes for creature comforts checked off and accounted for, passes out on the couch in minutes.
“Hey Rook - hey man, you there?”
He wakes up - no gunfire, no dog, a well-worn afghan draped over him instead. Boomer’s not here - back at Falls End, with Staci, because the Ryes’ place has been distant and safe for a while now, no Peggies coming near ever since they took John Seed’s lodge away from him. God, had he been pissed about that. Rook honestly wonders if he’d have done half the shit he had, if John hadn’t been so damned easy to wind up.
His rifles’s not on the floor - propped up near the door instead, but the radio’s where it usually is, resting on his chest with his hand around it, like a teddy bear for when shit goes sideways.
“Hey Sharky. Everything all right?”
The room’s dim, all the lights off - Kim and Nick must be upstairs, and Rook checks the time what’s at least the fifth or sixth watch he’s picked up along the way - this one’s nice, the entire face lights up, and it’d be great if whoever ambushes him the next time doesn’t pocket it once he’s unconscious. Assholes. It’s a little after six - should have been a slow sunset if not for the clouds and the rain, and at least that sounds like it’s let up. He should probably go find that guest bed. In a minute. Damn, the Ryes have a comfy couch.
“I was just thinking about all this crazy new shit, man. I figured I should do some like, research.”
Sharky had believed him right from the start, always ready and eager no matter what he was going to be dragged into. Prevailing opinion is that he can problem-solve about as well as a block of processed cheese, but Rook feels touched, nonetheless.
“Yeah, man. I, uh, started going through my library. I’m gonna, you know, compile some materials that may be of a strategic value.”
When Sharky says library he means DVD’s, and when he says DVD’s what he means is terabytes upon terabytes of bootlegged shows, concerts, disco music and porn. Far more porn than any human can possibly watch in a lifetime, even without snack or bathroom breaks.
Rook’s entertained himself on occasion with the notion of Joseph Seed winning, somehow getting everything he wanted. Of the world ending and all his little lambs wandering joyous and cleansed into that new Eden until one of them would inevitably trip over Sharky Boshaw’s Hidden Temple of Unimaginable Sin, Perversity and KC and the Sunshine Band. The holy innocence of the new world vaporizing like napalm on a Bliss field. It’s a pretty good thought.
“All right, Sharky. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.”
“I was already thinking, it’s kinda like that zombie show, you know? Shit’s super popular, and that one guy’s a total badass. You’re even, like, the police.”
“You mean the one where the cop goes increasingly nuts and pretty much everyone dies horribly?” Rook says. He only watched a few scattered episodes from the first season, can’t really remember if there were any pregnant women in that show, and has less than zero desire to find out.
“Okay, uh, yeah… Good point, man.” He says. “Maybe I’ll just walk that one back, okay? If that’s cool with you?”
“That is very cool with me, Sharky.” Rook says. “Any other reason you called?”
“Naw, I mean… shit’s fucked, right, with Dutch and all? He was a good guy. Everybody thought so. And I figure he probably helped you out a whole bunch. So I just wanted you to know, if you needed somebody to pick up that radio slack - you can count on me, man. I’m here for you and shit.”
Ride-or-die, and for Boshaw that’s probably fairly literal. Rook lets himself think about the alternate, no-Seeds no-bullshit version of the universe that ought to be playing out right now, where approximately 100 percent of his time would likely be spent trying to figure out how to not arrest Sharky on a rotating list of felony charges while also keeping him from burning down an entire national wildlife refuge.
“Thanks for that, Sharky. I appreciate it.”
“Anytime man. Boshaw, over and out.”
Well, he’s awake now, at least for a bit, and if Rook makes a pit stop for the kitchen before he hits the other room there’s probably some leftovers in the fridge, maybe even a spare brownie.
He stands up, stretches - and then Rook freezes, every drop of warmth bleeding out of him as he stares through the window at the front of the house, down to the end of the yard and across the road, to where he can sometimes even see a glint of the river through the trees - except there’s only the wall of fog, just past the road and stretching out in both directions, opaque and impermeable and as final as the edge of a cliff, the end of the world.
Here there be dragons.
1. Thanks for any comments and kudos. I never know what to say to comments, so I've pretty much given up on writing responses, but I'm really happy if this fic is at all entertaining, and I hope it continues to be enjoyable.
2. Damn I did not expect it to take this long for the Seeds to arrive but this always happens when I think I know what I'm doing. I have the first scene with them already written - I think it'll show up three or four chapters from now. I'll be changing the tags once the pairings show up.
3. Buttered Ritz cracker crumbs can salvage almost any day.
4. Me: you know this is polyseed, right?
Rook: yeah so
Me: So that's John and Joseph...
Me: and... I mean, most likely...
Maybe Staci's right, maybe they did die in that crash after all. Joseph could have died too, easy enough, and so maybe they’re going to be doing this forever, chasing each other through an endless Montana-shaped Purgatory. It seems a little like overkill, and Rook’s not sure exactly what the point’s supposed to be, but when has that mattered? Why would being dead have to make any more sense than being alive?
“Nick!” He’s knocking on the bedroom door - okay, pounding - and Rook’s aware he’s got to rein it in, that he’s acting like a crazy person but for just a second there he’s right back at the start, sprinting through the dark with no idea where he’s going, being hunted by god knows how many lunatics and it’s not a matter of if he’s going to die but when and that’s a difference of minutes at best.
The door opens - it’s Kim, Nick behind her and a gun in his hands - already at the window, looking for the threat. Kim’s in sweats, her hair sticking slightly against her neck - Rook wonders if she was exercising, remembers a pregnant co-worker talking once about aches in her back, endless stretches to relieve the tension. So many things in the world he knows next to nothing about.
“Rook?” Kim’s hand on his arm, steadying him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“We can’t be here.” Rook says. “We have to go. The fog… it’s not… we have to go now.”
“It was raining.” Nick says, eyes narrowing as he studies the view a bit more carefully. “Things can get pretty hazy out there.”
“No, it’s not right.” Rook says. “Kim, please. I know how it sounds, I know - but I am begging you-”
“Hey. Okay. It’s okay.” She rubs his arm a little, soothing him. It’s amazing how well it works - she’s gonna be a great mom. “You don’t need to convince us. We trust you. If you say we need to go, then we go. Right, Nick?”
“Yeah, man.” Nick nods, and Rook feels the relief nearly knock him over.
“We’ll stay in Falls End tonight.” Kim says. “I’m sure there’s a spare bed we can borrow. Just let us get a couple of things together, and we’ll meet you downstairs.”
He’d give just about anything to have Boomer around right now, as Rook goes back down the stairs and - with one second’s hesitation - out the front door, trying to make as little noise as possible. The lights are all off outside, of course, no reason to give any airborne Peggies a target - everything wet and gleaming in the aftermath of the rain and Rook does a careful sweep of the front and the sides of the house, listening to the night noises. Crickets and frogs, and that’s probably a good sign for the moment, the lack of silence. There’s nothing else to see, just the blank expanse across the river, and Rook stands on the porch and scans the emptiness and waits for something terrible to happen.
“Hey, McMansion. I need to know how things are looking over there. You copy?” Call it anything but the former Seed Ranch, a decent location on high ground, a good anchor for that corner of the valley - and Rook listens to the quiet hiss of static with a terrible feeling that this is going to quickly become a very familiar sound, replacing everything that ought to be there. He can’t remember how many men were stationed in the place, but it’s not a small number. “This is the Deputy to the Resistance in the big-ass house on the hill. Please respond.”
“No.” Rook says, softly. “No, no, no.”
“All right, man. We’re ready.” Nick is through the front door, a bag in each hand and one on his shoulder - Rook’s half certain he never actually unpacked, from that first time they were on their way out, and God but he wishes they’d gone, that he could at least know they were safe.
“You got what you need, in case this takes a couple days?” Rook takes the bags from him, throws them in the back of the truck instead of their car - the truck rides higher, there’s maybe a little more protection. “In case you can’t get back right away?”
“A couple days…” Nick trails off, because this is his land, and leaving feels too much like retreating even without any Peggies in sight. “Yeah, we’re good. Pre-natal vitamins, heat packs and extra ammunition. Listen, I think I’m going to take the plane up, have a quick look around. I can put her down near Fall’s End for the night.”
“Good plan.” Rook says. “We’ll meet you there.”
He stands outside the car with the gun at the ready, trying to pretend he’s not bracing himself as Nick turns on the hanger lights, fires up the engine and taxis out and Rook watches the fog, waiting for it, for whatever is out there - starts the car up a moment later and then they’re on the road as Nick lifts up into the sky. It’s an easy shot into town, and Rook only has to brace himself for that little while they’re running parallel to the mist, little wisps of it stretching out to brush against the river. Kim watches it silently - Rook’s glad to turn, to have her away from it, put it in the rearview mirror.
“How long do you have before the baby comes?”
He should know. She’s told him before. He might have it written down, on a corner of his map somewhere.
“We’re not leaving.” Kim says. “You were there when we decided.”
Rook doesn’t answer, and after a moment she sighs.
“Two weeks, as of yesterday.”
“How much worse is this than what we’re already dealing with? What do you even think is out there?”
Rook’s going to have to go to the lodge in the morning, and it doesn’t matter that he’d rather do absolutely anything else. His leg still aches, a spiral of bruises from ankle to hip and it had been nothing to that creature, no effort at all to drag him all the way down.
“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.”
Falls End is lit up, business as usual, because they have an anti-aircraft gun on the roof of and plenty of room in the fields for more Eden’s Gate wreckage, if they’re looking to pick a fight. Rook parks next to the church, Pastor Jerome already out and walking their way as Rook moves to the other side of the cab to help Kim down.
“I didn’t expect to see you back here before morning. Problems?”
“The fog rolled in, near the river.” Kim says. “Rook didn’t like the look of it, and thought we should come here for the night. Nick’s gone up with the plane, getting the lay of the land. I don’t suppose you have a bed we can borrow?”
“I’ve got space.” Mary May says - anything out of the ordinary, and the whole town notices. Rook’s seen a few other people peering out into the street, gauging how imminent the threat might be, turning back to their own business when it seems like things will be quiet for at least the next five minutes. ”C’mon. I’ll get you squared away.”
“You go on.” Rook says. “I’ll bring the bags up later.”
He waits, until Kim is well out of earshot. The Pastor’s still watching him - and Staci’s stepping out of the church, Boomer right behind and then in front and Rook takes a knee, spends a minute trying to find his composure in the ruff of the dog’s brindled fur.
“I can’t get hold of the ranch.” Rook says, quietly. “No one’s answering down there.”
Staci frowns, tenses slightly. “What does that mean? You think… you think it’s him?”
Rook shrugs slightly. “I don’t know. It’d make sense to play it quiet, use the cover - but would he bother?” The ranch wasn’t tactical, not enough to waste the time, or risk giving away his position. If Jacob was going to hit them, why not just go for frontal assault, straight up the middle - crash a few trucks full of explosives into Falls End, push forward in the chaos for everything they could take. The town’s got decent defenses, but it’s not exactly a fortress. “The fog was like a wall, stretched out as far as I could see. Anything could have been in there.”
“You mean like these… creatures you saw.” Pastor Jerome says, carefully. “You think they… attacked the ranch somehow?”
“You think there’s more coming.” Staci says. “A lot more.” It’s not really a question.
“I think we need to be ready for anything.” Rook says, looking up, the sky fully dark and the buzz of the plane just audible in the distance, getting closer. Nick could have beat them here, easily. Which meant he’d been taking his time. Which meant there was a reason to take his time.
The plane comes down smooth on the road, the straight-shot into town, and by the time the plane’s gone quiet most everyone is gathered around, Mary May and Kim back from setting up in one of the houses behind the Spread Eagle. Nick steps out, and just stands there for a moment - rubs his beard, takes his hat off, looks down at the ground, up out into the field, not at any of them.
“Nick?” Kim says, moving closer. “Baby, what is it? What’s wrong?”
Rook has the terrible feeling he already knows. It’s in the way he’s moving, like something’s pressing down on him, so heavy that it’s a fight not to stagger. How he reaches out for Kim like a blind man, and holds her as close as he can and doesn’t say a word.
“What did you see?” Rook finally says, because there’s nothing left to do but hear it, and it’s probably easier for Nick to talk from the haven of Kim’s arms.
“Nothing.” He says, voice rough. “There wasn’t anything there. I should be able to see the next town over, their lights coming on - it’s not much, but it’s there. I figured maybe with the weather, or I made a mistake so I kept looking but… there was no glow on the horizon - not in the west or the south, not at all. I couldn’t - it was empty. I should have seen…. there’s just the mountains, sticking up out of the fog. It’s everywhere. Hope County’s clear, right up to the river, but past that… everything just ends. Nothing on the radio. I tried. I listened. I can always hear the chatter from… I kept looking but I couldn’t… I don’t understand.”
Rook wonders if he does. It’s not that complicated. Just consider the absolute worst possible explanation, and stop.
“Look, the weather’s not the best. It’s late now, and dark, and we’re all on edge.” Pastor Jerome says, in his Reasonable Preacher voice. Rook notices a few heads turning his way, and he nods in agreement, because what the truth is or not isn’t going to change their options in the short-term, and the secret of all this is that it’s so much easier to be brave for other people. Jacob mocked him for trying to be a hero - that he thought Rook thought he was a hero, when that word had never even crossed his mind. Nick and Kim and the town all need him to be strong, need Rook to be their ace in the hole and the fact that he isn’t that guy at all, that there’s nothing special about him but that he’s not dead yet just does not fucking matter.
“It’s been a day, even by our standards.” Rook says. “Why don’t you both go inside. Sit down and warm up.”
The only weapon against the world that Rook’s ever known - coffee and beers and neon lights. All the small comforts, spackling up the nail holes while the walls cave in. He’s lucky - Nick nods, less because he believes it, and more because he doesn’t want to hold on to the revelation, just too heavy, and Rook’s offered to take the weight for a while.
He can do that, so he does.
No one’s going to the lodge, not tonight, not in the dark. In the morning, they’ll take two trucks out and go out and see… whatever’s waiting, whatever’s left. Nick promises to go back up in the plane as soon as the sun rises, daylight providing a better view and he’d probably just freaked out, it was stupid and he was sorry and in the morning, with the light it would be better.
Sure, that had to be right. Let’s all just hold on until the morning for a second opinion. No need for alarm.
So Rook waits until there’s no one on the street to watch as he drags himself, the .50 cal, and a duffel bag full of as much ammunition as he can physically haul up to the top of the water tower. It just seems like the prudent move, which would be funny if this weren’t Hope County - and there’s a little comfort at the sight of Grace on the roof of the Eagle, just enough light that he can see her wave back - no need to radio over, nothing to say. It’s just… in case, and they both know it. It’s not like Rook plans on sleeping anytime soon anyway.
“Rook to the ranch. Rook to John Seed’s former big-ass, fancy-pants party palace. Somebody answer me. Somebody be alive out there. Please.”
Oh, yeah, this is all gonna work out fine.
Rook settles himself in before fishing around for dinner - backpack surprise - a snack can of tuna, a bag of Skittles, three condiment packs of relish and… score, fruit cocktail. A well-balanced meal. He eats fast as a habit - dinners at home never inspired much need to linger, and in Hope County he’s learned to go even faster, no idea how long he’ll get before there’s the next mission or the next explosion or the next fuckup. It doesn’t even matter if he’s hungry, with no idea how long before he’d get the chance to eat again - seven days, seven days and then fed from a dog bowl because good lord, Jacob, cliche much?
The hunger hadn’t been so bad, after the third day or so. The thirst had been worse - unbearable, it had been unbearable, how in the fuck did make it through - and Rook remembers digging little slivers of wood out from the boards underneath him, just to try and keep track of the days, just to keep something locked in place. Remembers halfway through day two, when something dinged slightly against the bars and Pratt was already moving away, like he’d never been there at all and it was just a pebble, nothing special, just happenstance. Rook had slipped it under his tongue, and fuck if he knew if it really worked, made the thirst any less all-consuming - but Pratt had done that for him, and the gesture itself had been enough to live off of for a while.
The sky’s patchy above him, but clearing here and there, little bits of moon and stars peeking through, the water tower away from the center of town enough to dim the light. It’s beautiful, that's the really unfair part of this. Everything that isn’t actively trying to kill him or break him or eat him is absolutely stunning. It’s almost infuriating - Rook wasn’t born that far away, but the difference between the flat, gray industrial nothing he’d come from and this place is like a whole different world.
He’d been making that rare car trip out from the Whitetails into Faith’s territory - one of those moments Rook couldn’t help himself, sneaking into the driver’s seat while the Peggie had been busy relieving himself in the bushes and it had been so worth it, watching him in the rearview mirror as he kicked his gun and tripped over his own pants and probably landed dick-first, by the way he’d just curled up on the ground. Rook was still wary of driving, of being seen, but he’d wanted to get out of the mountains before dark, the river region more open, Faith’s people slightly easier to engage or ignore.
He’d come up over the hill, with a mountain in the distance and the sun going down, spilling across the edge of it like molten gold, and Rook hadn’t changed the channel so it was still Peggie hymnals hitting those high chorus notes - now he’s our shepherd - and he’d had to stop, just pulled the car to the side of the road and sat in awe of the beauty of it, stretched out like it had been waiting for him all along.
Rook should have been shot at, but there hadn’t been a sound, not one other person on the road the entire time he’d been there, honored and humbled and one more time that he’d nearly made the call - Joseph. Get up to the top of your dumb-ass statue and look. Just look at it. That Eden you’re waiting for, it’s here, we’re already living it and we’re doing it all wrong.
It stopped being a job, a while back. Rook’s not entirely sure if it happened the moment they fell from the sky, or when John had him under the water, or when Faith said leap and he’d thought yeah, sure, why the hell not - but it seems a lot bigger and a lot more personal than just cleaning up this mess and going home. Even before… whatever the hell is happening now, however this decides to play out.
The problem with the whole ‘religious’ part of religious cult, or of having bits and pieces of his head swapped around on a whim - it’s hard not to reconsider who he really is, and what kind of person he wants to leave Hope County as. What kind of person Rook wants to be, if this is it, that there's a bullet out there with his name on it - or worse, now - and he won’t ever get to leave.
“If there’s anything you’d like to share with the rest of the class, now’d be a real good time.” Rook says, eyes up and searching for the brightest star he can find, and waiting, watching it until it vanishes again behind the clouds.
“Yeah, why am I not surprised.”
“Hark the voice of Jesus calling, come and work for Him today.”
Eventually, Rook starts singing, because it’s been a while since he’s had the chance, and he’s alone and there’s nothing else to do but try not to think about what he might be waiting for. He should have picked a different song, though. This one sounds better with a partner, stronger with the callback.
“The fields are white and the harvest falling, come and work for Him today.”
It’s a gift from God, little brother, that voice of yours. Rook remembers her laugh, the way it made him feel - like dappled light through leaves, like peace. A feeling he has never had again - Faith had come close, and it only took an uncanny resemblance - something in her hands, the way they moved through the air - and a couple kilos of heavy-duty hallucinogens to bridge that gap. If he’d known when he was young, if he’d had any idea how rare it was all going to be… it wouldn’t have changed anything in the end, but he would have tried to pay more attention, to engrave every memory, every moment on the inside of his eyes, in his heart and his bones.
“You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley. You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”
It’s how you know He’s watching out for you. That’s how special you are. She’d always tried to shore him up, hadn’t she? Protect him in ways Rook didn’t realize he even needed to be, not until much later on. Was she still glad she’d bothered? Did she regret it? Or had every bit of him already vanished for her, not worth the remembering?
“There’s no one here that can go there with you. You’ve got to walk-”
“That’s not the radio.” Noise on the ladder beneath him, and Rook stops singing and looks down to see Staci making his way up, with a couple of guns of his own and another bag packed with ammunition. It seems there’s a trend.
Pratt tips his head, studying him.
“Shit, the probie’s got talent. Who said you could sing like that?”
Rook shrugs. He does like it, though, that moment when he’s caught out, the reconsidering look that always comes because Rook doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who has anything like that in him to offer. It’s nice to think he can be a surprise - that there’s something good in him worth sharing, even that little bit.
He helps Pratt up, gets him settled, everything unpacked and stacked for easy reload next to his own supply. It’s a little more advanced than standard police procedure, but they’ve been learning fast.
“So what are you thinking is gonna happen now?” Staci asks. Considering the firepower he’s brought with him, it seems that he’s come to his own conclusions, although there’s still the look in his eye - worried, hopeful - like maybe Rook is up here because he knows something else, something to make this okay. Wouldn’t it be great if that were true?
“Hopefully a numb ass and an apology to Nick and Kim in the morning.” Maybe the ranch is fine. Maybe somebody dropped a beer in the radio. Maybe Nick didn't see what he thought he saw. Maybe maybe maybe. “Where’s Boomer?”
“With the Pastor. Therapy for the congregation.” Staci says. “He’s been sneaking him canned salmon when he thinks no one’s looking.”
“Pretty underhanded for a man of the cloth.” Rook says. “I’ll have to keep a closer eye on my dog.”
“What do you mean, ‘your dog’?” Staci says, and there it is again, the hint of that smug, cocky little grin, like a sprig of green through the asphalt. Stacy ‘the Fucking Prat’ Pratt, and it’s so good to see it. Rook hopes they have enough time in all this to find out if they can still be friends.
“Hudson wants to come down, in the next couple of days.” Staci says, after a moment of silence. “Says she wants to see me.”
“I bet.” Rook says. Pratt doesn’t look very happy about it, and he waits to find out why.
“I know that I probably shouldn’t put it off - especially now, but I figure the more this all heals up,” he waves a hand in front of his face, “the better. I just… I don’t want to see her look at me the way I know she’s going to look at me. Fuck, and the Sheriff…”
“Hudson went through her own shit. Whitehorse, too.” Rook says. “It’s not like either one of them are gonna…”
Staci shakes his head.
“it’s not the same. You know that bastard had to keep her tied to a damn chair or she would have ripped his balls off. She didn’t, she never… and I could have…”
“Staci, you don’t have to do this.” Rook had never gone into any details about what he’d seen, where he’d been - just that his team were still alive and he’d do his best to get them back - and no one had been stupid enough to gossip about it around him, either. “If you want to talk, then talk, but there’s nothing you need to prove to anyone.”
“It’s bullshit. I’m bullshit. You saw me. I could have slit his goddamn throat then and there. I could have, and instead I… goddamn it…”
He remembers hearing Pratt that first time at the FANG center, reading that apology they’d forced on him, the pain and weariness in his voice as he fumbled over the words. Rook remembers the relief he’d felt, that Staci was still alive, and then seeing Jacob parading him around like the favored lackey, seeing Staci smart enough to keep his head down and stand at parade rest and do what he was damn well told - humiliation and fear and pain maybe, but not fire and razor wire and fucking crucifixion.
“… and if it went wrong, he would have murdered you. After he tortured you.” Rook says. “I thought you were dead, Pratt. I thought for sure he killed you for saving my stupid ass.” Rook shakes his head. “I’m not asking you to justify yourself. You don’t need to, not ever, not to me. I don’t care how you got through it - you got through it. What matters is that you’re still alive, that is absolutely all I give a shit about.”
“Why do you give a shit?” He whispers, almost an accusation, and if Rook put an ear to Staci’s chest he thinks he’d hear it, that hurt, ugly thing scrabbling around inside of him, trying to keep itself alive, trying to make Rook give up.
“Because Jacob’s an asshole, and thinks it takes effort. He thinks that punching down is some genius innovation nobody’s ever thought of before.” Rook says. “You hurt people that can’t fight back, that piss you off because they’re not broken like you are, and then wonder why you’re so fucking ‘strong’ and so goddamn miserable you can only live in a world where everyone’s afraid of you.” Rook scoffs. “If the only way to survive in this world is to be like that - what in the hell are you even surviving for? Why bother?”
A world full of Jacob Seeds? Jesus, Rook would duct tape the red button down and wait for Armageddon with a song in his heart.
“Fuck him, Pratt. Fuck him and everyone like him. You don’t have to logic it out any more than that. He does not deserve your consideration. War will bring us life? That has got to be the fucking dumbest fucking… ‘War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength’.” Rook blinks. “Holy shit, was that high-school? I don’t even remember high-school.”
“Doubleplusungood.” Staci murmurs. “… you know, I’m not even sure how much he actually knows about wolves.”
“Yeah.” Rook says. “I guess Jacobland isn’t too big on nature documentaries that aren’t done in-house.”
“Jacobland.” Staci mutters. “Jesus. The crappiest place on Earth.”
“Sure,” Rook says, “the ride lines are short, but they only ever play the one song.”
“Jesus fuck.” Staci barks out a laugh, slaps at his arm. “Christ, that’s not funny. That’s not funny, Rook.”
It’s funny enough, and if their laughter has a few too many sharp edges, it still counts. The mockery counts - you can always tell an asshole, because more than anything they hate to be laughed at, to be reminded how much of their power only exists in their head, and he’ll be goddamned if Jacob’s earned the right to be a dividing line in his life - in either of their lives. There’s not going to be a before and after. Jacob hurt, he hurt a lot - but that doesn’t mean he gets to be meaningful or important or remembered. Asshole.
“It should have been me up there, dealing with that.” Rook says. “I should have figured something out. Never should have left you there.”
He’s pretty sure of it now, that Staci comes from a good home and a normal life. Parents and junior varsity and pretty girls at the prom, a fridge full of food and and a resume with great references. All that nice stuff, the stuff worth having. Rook wonders what the worst thing that ever happened to him was, before this. It’s not like he would have done any better in there - Rook broke like everyone broke - but at least it wouldn’t have been the same kind of surprise.
“No.” Pratt says. “No, it was… it was okay, that it was me. You’re the rookie, 'Rook'. It’s supposed to be my job to take the shit.”
As if senior officer in this case meant more than a year or two, tops. Rook’s pretty sure he might even be older, at least by a little.
“Bullshit. Nobody’s supposed to take that kind of-”
“He asked me, you know. “ Staci says. “The first time you were there. If… if I wanted you to take my place. He said… that he’d let me go.”
“He was toying with you. It wouldn’t have mattered what you said.” If Staci had said yes, Jacob probably would have killed him then and there, let the Judges run him down before he got anywhere near the border. It is goddamn amazing that Pratt survived, that he’d managed to run the gauntlet of those insane demands, when Jacob was no doubt just waiting for him to fall. Men like that, they were always happiest when someone failed to live up to expectations. The only thing they really cared about was the punishment.
“I wanted to say yes.” Staci says, staring out into the dark. “A big part of me wanted to leave you there.”
“No, you just didn’t want to stay.” Rook says. “I would have thought the same. Anyone would have. ‘People don’t really like being tortured, it makes them want to not be.’ Wow, fucking epiphany there, Jacob. Come up with that all on your own, or did Joseph help with the big words?”
Wrath. Rook thinks, feels it coiling hot and cold along his muscles, demanding vengeance and hell yes, wrath. If not now, when? He couldn’t imagine a more deserving target. If it had been Jacob and not John that day, if Rook had the chance? Eden’s Gate would have been scooping up what was left of their Herald in buckets.
“Rook…” Staci says. “The way you talk about this sometimes…”
He makes a dismissive noise, waving the concern away. “Nothing like this. I’d like to hope nobody’s dealt with shit like this before - but yeah, I’ve known a few fuckers like him, little half-ass versions. If they could have put people in cages and gotten away with it? Oh, you bet.”
A lack of opportunity, not desire - everything in Jacob was cranked well past eleven - the details spectacular and gruesome, but none of it all that original. Not the strength or the weakness or the poor bastards who got fed into the machine, to keep someone else's needs afloat.
“A lot of times, I couldn’t change shit. Either I didn’t fight, or I did and it didn’t make any goddamn difference - it wasn’t even symbolic. I want to fight for you, Staci, the best that I can. I can say that I shouldn’t pry, that we don’t know each other that well - but that’s all bullshit. That’s weakness. I don’t want to pretend I think you’re okay, because you’ll let me. You can tell me to fuck off anytime you want, but until then it’s easier for me to try and help, than tell myself I can ignore it. I don’t think I can do that anymore. I don’t want to.”
“Okay.” Staci says. “Yeah. And I’m okay. I am. It’s really… it’s better. Just… it gets loud, in my head sometimes. You know?”
“Yeah.” Rook says. “I know.”
Staci sighs, tips his head back against the cool metal of the tower. “… so what are we gonna do now?”
“Well, I am kinda wishing I hadn’t sent Larry Parker into outer space.” Rook says. “I really don’t think it’d help any, but he might have an entertaining perspective on all this.”
“You… space?” Staci just stares, waiting for the explanation that Rook really can’t give him, before letting out an exasperated sigh. “… okay, fuck. So when this is all over, it’s gonna be bulk therapy at discount rates?”
“Sure.” He says. “Hudson can come too. It’ll be better than trivia night.” Rook sucks at trivia night.
It’s quiet - cricket quiet, not impending doom quiet, maybe he really did panic for nothing - and after a few minutes Rook stands up, stretching, taking in a better view of Fall’s End at rest, the blinking stoplight that shorthands for places to drive through, places on the way to other places, but yeah - he kind of likes it here. It really has been worth all the effort.
“I had a nap earlier. If you want to catch a few, I’ve got a decent sleeping bag in the pack. I can take first watch and….”
At first, Rook doesn’t understand what he’s looking at, or that it’s moving - a wide, pale line like the crest of a wave surging toward them, what Rook figures a tsunami must look like, the moon illuminating the roiling edge of it as it eats up the land and he’s not sure what noise he makes but whatever it is has Staci scrambling up against the railing next to him, letting out a strangled sound of his own, half a dozen swear words fighting for dominance.
“Grace!” Rook says. “It’s coming! Look south!”
The hand-crank alarm had been in the back of some storeroom - kept at the Eagle but not in much demand, usually the sound of gunfire was all the warning any of them got or needed. It wails away now - Grace has seen what’s coming - and Rook can see a few doors opening, a few people scrambling toward the rooftops and the mounted guns. A few others stunned motionless, when they finally see what’s on its way.
“Stay inside!” Rook roars over the radio. “Stay away from the windows. Second floors or in basements, and lock the doors!”
Like he knows. Like Rook has any idea what the fuck is going on. All he knows is that something that can’t exist did it’s damned best to drown him this morning, that he stepped into the mist and didn’t die in the first five seconds, so it’s probably okay to breathe. Maybe.
There are things in the fog. Things that live there. Things you can’t see. But they see you.
“Okay.” Staci has his rifle at the ready, murmuring to himself. “Okay. Fuck. Okay. Okay.”
It rolls over them with an almost shocking gentleness - Rook still flinching from the lack of impact - and then Falls End is instantly submerged, everything up to the first floor of every building in town reduced all at once to a faint haze of light, or nothing at all in the dark. Rook takes a sharp breath in as it rolls over the struts of the water tower, rising up like floodwaters, the leaves underneath crackling and rustling with the rush of air and then - silence. Not the cricket silence. The other kind.
He’s got his own rifle up and waiting, can see Grace and others on the rooftops, guns pointed down toward the impenetrable, shifting fog.
“Anyone outside?” Rook says, waits a moment in the static for a reply. “Everyone, stay where you are. Get down low if you can. We can’t see for shit, we don’t want to shoot you by accident.”
“You’re firing into a high-population area, people.” Grace says, and the reminder is as important as her voice - calm and steady. Just another problem to be dealt with. “If your bullets don’t hit their target, they’ll hit whoever’s behind it. Keep it frosty. Rook, you tell me what I’m looking for.”
“I don’t know.” Rook says, and for a life that mostly feels out of his control, when he’s barely cobbled together a half-decent response against the challenges ahead, this moment just might beat out all the rest. Sorry Joseph, but to be fair, you had a hell of a run. “I don’t know. I didn’t see-”
Then he does. Then Rook sees them, and Staci sees them, and Grace does too, and nobody needs to give further instructions.
Shoot, and keep shooting, and hope to fuck it makes any difference at all.
1. The song is '(You've got to Walk that) Lonesome Valley,' particularly as performed by the Bedquilt Ramblers for the game Kentucky Route Zero, which was easily one of my top five gaming moments, ever. Can't rec it highly enough.
2. I should probably care more how radios work.
Always a bigger dog out there. Always. Until this moment, it’s been one of Rook’s most comforting thoughts - no matter who had their boot on his neck or was kicking his ass in the moment, it’d be their turn to get stomped down, sooner or later. Whether or not Rook was still around to see it, there would be a reckoning.
This thing now is probably big enough to chew a hole right through Eden’s Gate and not even notice. The counterpoint to even Jacob’s grandest declarations. Behold Leviathan - destruction like a force of nature, a judgement that doesn’t even know it’s judging and doesn’t care, strength and weakness of equal and meaningless worth as it devours everything in its path.
It’s supposed to be less scary, when the unknown becomes known. That’s the deal, that’s how it works. A lifetime of sci-fi and horror shows with increasingly realistic CGI ought to act as some kind of a buffer - as I’ve seen this, I've seen this movie before keeps skipping, over and over again in his head.
He’s still only getting glimpses through the mist - they’re fast, they’re goddamn fast - and what Rook can see are jaws and powerful limbs and massive, writhing forms - creatures that ought to be at the bottom of the sea, the kinds of things twisted by unbearable pressures, nothing that size that should be able to look like that, but here they are.
There’s someone out there, on the street, lost only a few steps from shelter. Rook only catches the briefest glimpse, obscured by the fog and cast by the town lights into a distorted silhouette, turned to run - and one of the creatures reaches out - lashes out like it’s got a second neck attached to its jaw - and just takes his head clean off, the body arched, tipped out of the light and gone, covered in shadows before Rook can see it fall.
“Stay off the fucking streets!” He yells into the radio, but who knows if it matters, maybe these things are already inside all the buildings, already hunting - Nick and Kim, Sharky, Jerome, Boomer - and Rook’s guessing they can climb too because why not. The mounted guns are firing steadily and he can hear Grace her shouting her own orders, the line of her scope aimed down into the swirling dark.
Staci’s muttering under his breath in a steady stream, a Hail Mary delivered at the speed of sound, but his hands are calm and he doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t flinch as he lines up his shots, and Rook wonders where he is right now in his head, what he’s leaning on to keep the world at bay.
He talked a big game, hating Jacob Seed and everything he stood for, but here Rook is in the middle of it and a part of him is desperate to walk that red maze and find that empty place, the thing Jacob carved into him, time and repetition and pressure wearing away a simple pattern, like those rosary beads that never left Joseph’s hand. Fire and fire and reload, hunt and kill and nothing else matters and right now it’s a refuge against this greater madness. Instructions he can follow and orders that make sense and no place for the fear or the confusion or having to be a person trying to understand - just aim at the monsters and make them go away.
Rook hears shouts and screams, breaking glass and splintering wood - fire, reload, fire, reload - aim small and hold his breath like Grace taught him, try to make them all count and hope to God he’s not hitting anything that isn’t monster and what the fuck are these things and are the bullets even working, it’s hard to tell. One of the mounted guns goes quiet, and Rook hopes they’re just reloading, because if it’s not…
A burst of flame, out there in the chaos, the terrible shrieking sound of something inhuman that might have just learned how to scream - Sharky in the middle of it, doing what he does best and oh fuck, please let him survive. Please let whatever’s been looking out for him all this time stay in his corner, and if he could not burn down whatever’s left of Falls End when this is over, that’d be one hell of a bonus.
Pratt’s warning cry snaps his attention to the bottom of the tower - yes, the fuckers can climb - ting-ting-ting of claws against the metal, practically leaping up to close the distance - and Rook drops the rifle, reaches for the shotgun as the first of them lifts its head over the railing - teeth, he thinks, teeth and more teeth and no eyes and there’s a sharp burst of pain, a claw like a sickle digging into his arm as Rook fires point blank and thank fuck the thing sways, topples backward. More on the ground, dodging out of the way as the body hits the dirt, looking up and letting out a cry that has Rook’s entire body fighting not to lock up, just to not have to see or fight these things anymore but his finger’s steady on the trigger, he does not look away until the body falls, and only to find the next target - cull the fucking herd.
Back-to-back with Staci, reloading in each other’s cover fire so that there’s never a moment where there isn’t something to stem the tide, when they aren’t shooting at the base of the tower or at the creatures still prowling through town, and Rook looks for Grace’s sight and doesn’t see it, can’t tell if the fire’s still from Sharky or whatever kept burning in his wake, and it doesn’t really matter, nothing to do but raise the rifle and look and wait and fire, and then find the next, and the next.
“Gentlemen, you still with me?”
Rook blinks, realizes it has been some unknown period of time with his finger on the trigger but nothing in the sights, that even the distant pops of gunfire are finally dying down. The first deliberate breath he takes is slow, shaky, adrenaline shifting its grip on his throat, if not quite ready to let go. He glances over his shoulder - and Staci looks back, a shell-shocked mirror. The words come slow, a few seconds for Rook to remember how they’re supposed to work.
“Copy that, Grace. You okay?”
“Alive.” Which is all any of them can ask for, right now. “I don’t want to speak too soon, but this might be clearing out.”
Rook’s watch says it’s coming up on half-three - still the middle of the damn night, but the fog does seem to be rolling back, peeling away from the buildings and the corpses of the creatures they’ve killed, slumped along the main street in odd, misshapen piles.
“Get down there, or stay up here?” Rook says, and he could make the argument either way - if the fog comes back, if there’s people down there who need help…
“We could… split up.” Staci shakes his head immediately. “No, no, fuck that. Forget I said anything.”
Rock, paper, scissors then, in lieu of better ideas - and three seconds later they’re sliding down the ladder, carefully maneuvering around the corpse of the creature at the bottom.
The skin looks leathery beneath a mesh of dark, shiny carapace - six spindly, sinewy arms and a segmented, twisted body - half insect and half nothing so recognizable - and Rook doesn’t want to get any closer, will not bother to double-check what he’d thought were at least two rows of teeth and his brain’s just picking up and discarding descriptions from the grab bag of nature’s predators and shit he once saw on TV at three a.m, getting nowhere fast. It looks like a monster, it looks like something designed to kill in the most efficient, hideous way possible, and the one next to it has what looks like fur, and that shiny mosaic might be eyes, not armor - fuck, is that supposed to be a face?!
“This is real, right?” Staci says softly. “This is… this is all actually happening.”
“Would it be better if I said yes or no.”
“We’re on the ground, coming up from the church.” Rook has the radio out, as they cautiously move down the hill. “Everybody hold your fire.”
“Unless there’s another one of those things.” Staci says, under his breath. “Then you shoot the shit out of it. We’ll deal.”
“Rook. Is that you?” Nick says. “You all right?”
“Fine. Are you safe? Where’s Kim?”
“Right here, we’re fine. You know if those bastards get anywhere near my plane? Hold tight, I’m going to-”
“Stay right where you are.” Rook says. “There’s no telling what’s still on the ground. We’ll come to you.”
The door to the church creaks open slightly, Pastor Jerome leaning out with his weapon drawn, lowering it as they approach.
“They tried to get in through the windows. I think Boshaw drove them away, but I didn’t see if he-”
“Sharky?!” Rook calls out, turning in a wide circle as he does, waiting to see if making that much noise might flush anything out of hiding. “You still out there, bud?”
“Rock and roll! Fuck!” The call comes from the roof of the building across the street, Sharky waving, untouched and unaffected as any indestructible action hero. “Is that like the thing that tried to eat you, man? This shit is extremely fucked up!”
“You're not wrong!” The more Rook looks, the more that most of these things seem to only vaguely resemble each other, let alone the creature in the lake. It’s like bits and pieces from the nightmare toolbox, all slapped together at random and shoved out the door. Rook doesn’t really know shit about biology, but he’s pretty sure it’s not supposed to look like any of this.
“Is Boomer okay?”
“Still behind the altar, I think.” Jerome says. “He saved us all in there. If he hadn’t been so upset, we might not have seen-” The Pastor’s looking around Fall’s End, with the same expression Rook figures is on all their faces, trying to make it make any kind of sense. “… my God. No offense, Deputy, but I really wanted you to be wrong.”
“Me too.” Rook can still hear Sharky in the distance, something about first and Hurk and bragging rights. At least somebody’s getting something out of this. “We need to take stock, set a watch. Get ready in case these… things come back tonight. Ammunition, supplies, tend to the wounded, find out who’s not where they should be. I think I saw someone get taken down out there, but I couldn’t say who for sure.” Rook says. “We do a short sweep of the town to make sure nothing’s still prowling around, and then everyone meets up at the Eagle?”
Staci nods. “Everyone should pair up - no one goes out there alone. If something seems off, if anyone isn’t where they were a minute ago - call it in right away. Just play it cautious, and we’ll hold off on anything more until dawn.”
Rook wants to get to the Eagle, he wants the radios and to check up on everybody and make sure they’re all right - what if this came in from more than one direction, what if the Jail got hit, and what if - don’t think about it, just do not think about it - and Rook wants it for stupid reasons, too. It’s magical thinking, because the bar feels safe, or close enough, because the Spread Eagle’s the nearest thing there’s been in forever to something like sanity, and a part of Rook just wants to run in there and never leave, a kid throwing a blanket over his head so the things under the bed can’t find him.
Except it’s just a building, just wood and wires, and a barred front door, but when Rook cuts around the back, carefully double-checking every corner - he finds the rear door torn half off its hinges, and yeah, blood and more blood and even more blood, the whole room in tatters, equipment scattered, the arcade machine nearly split in two against the far wall and it’s quiet, that terrible quiet - so quiet he can hear the thing that’s feeding on Mary May, the almost delicate way it bends down, snapping her collarbone in its teeth.
Add it to the pile of technicolor nightmares in the increasingly packed file in his head called Hope County, another stretch of time Rook has to have told back to him later. How he and Staci unloaded several rounds into the thing, how it flailed and screeched and started to fall - and then how Rook just rushed it, picked up a goddam pool cue and tackled the thing, so that it at least toppled back into the wall instead of crushing Mary May. Apparently, Rook had the cue over his head with both hands - the world’s most ineffective harpoon, the thing already mostly dead - but he’d brought it down, again and again, on anything that seemed like it might want to go squish - and eventually he must have aimed well enough, because it sunk in deep and didn’t come out, and the creature finally stopped moving.
Rook doesn’t remember it, not really. He doesn’t remember screaming, though it carried all the way through town. He only remembers the aftermath - on his knees, already feeling the blood soaking through his pants as he tore off his coat and the flannel underneath, anything that could be used to stop the bleeding even though he wasn’t sure it mattered anymore, didn’t think Mary May - she didn’t look alive, pale like bone, with his hands already coated red as she bled out on the floor of her father’s bar.
The sky gets lighter. The sun actually decides to rise.
So, there’s that.
Staci finds a pulse, kneeling down next to him on the floor. The Pastor’s gotten pretty handy with makeshift stretchers, and Mary May doesn’t die right there in his arms, though Rook feels the weight of her hand in his long after he’s let it go. It takes time to set up triage for the wounded, and there’s plenty of damage but this is Falls End so anyone’s who’s still on their feet seems determined to stay there.
It takes more time to set up a perimeter, to make sure they’re safe. Time to pick out the bits of radio from the wreckage, to get something that works again - and the jail’s fine and the marina’s fine and everyone else is still alive. The fog never moved past the valley. Not yet.
One of the scouts, a good wheelman and the strongest set of binoculars they’ve got all head out for the radio tower, to see what they can see.
Someone finds a piece of notebook paper and leaves it on the bar, so that anyone with information can start writing down the names of people who ought to be in town that they can’t find - or the ones they do.
Nick’s plane took enough damage in the fighting to keep it on the ground - he can get more parts, but of course they’re back at the hangar, at the house. It’s clear he wants to go back, wants to see what’s happened, like if it’s still there none of this can be as bad as it is. He can get another bag, another full truck of supplies, now that this extended trip no longer has any kind of end date.
The call comes back from the tower - the fog’s rolled back, what looks like over the river, but no further. It might as well be made of stone, the sun doing nothing to burn it away.
No one’s headed for the ranch. It’s just that little bit too far, too much like pressing their luck, and everyone agrees without anyone having to say exactly what it means - there’s no one there who could still be alive.
Rook needs to get to the clinic - Fall’s End was low on supplies before this, and they need everything now.
It means splitting up - there’s no way not to, if they want to save daylight. Rook hopes it’ll be enough protection if they go in teams, two trucks and armed to the teeth, but it’s still hard to watch Nick and Staci drive off, fucking impossible to watch Kim see him go. Grace has taken up his position on the water tower. At the base, a few people have started gathering up spare barbed wire, figuring out the best way to wind it around the struts.
Mary May’s still alive. Rook checks, just before they leave. He wishes he had something to give her, that his sheriff’s badge had any kind of sentimental value, and wasn’t somewhere at the bottom of the lake.
The clinic’s a smoldering ruin. Rook thinks about flare-ups and whether or not the place might have oxygen tanks or if the roof could cave in and well, fuck it. A few of the Resistance join him and nobody ends up dying but there’s not much they can salvage. A body, burned past recognition, lies in the middle of the room and another nearby - not human, with long, clawed feet and a longer tail with a barbed tip nearly the length of Rook’s arm and at least the doctor took the fucker with him on his way out.
When they get back to town, Rook draws a double-line down the middle of the missing persons page, and starts the official count of the dead. ‘Hope County Clinic - Doctor’, and he shuts his eyes and sends a silent prayer, an apology for not having a name to give. He pauses for moment, can’t quite bring himself to write Dutch’s name above it.
A Resistance member mans the radio, and takes the paper back when Rook’s done with it, adding more names to the list of the missing, more question marks from people in the valley, holdouts and preppers who ought to be picking up and aren’t.
A few more men and women in heavy gloves and masks drag the bodies of the creatures into a pile on the edge of town to be burned. It’s sloppy work - the creatures seem to be disintegrating under the sunlight, which might be an advantage somehow, even if Rook doesn’t want to think about this in terms of an extended conflict, doesn’t want to think about them coming back. Sharky nominates himself as pit master for the ‘hell-b-que,’ and nobody raises an argument.
Rook wonders if he’s the only one thinking there are far fewer corpses than the number of creatures they’d been shooting at, that it took a lot of firepower to bring even one down. It seems an impossible fear - if there’s one thing they’ve got in Hope County it’s ammunition, but there’s no way of telling how many of these things there are, how many nights like this there are going to be.
Addie arrives in the helicopter, with Whitehorse and Hudson in tow. The nice thing about facing untold horrors, it makes all that ‘having feelings’ business just not mean much. All that talk on the water tower, and Staci barely blinks when Hudson hugs him, trades talk with the Sheriff like it’s nothing - they’re alive, they’re reinforcements. Nothing else really matters.
Yeah, Whitehorse says, they’d taken the chance to see past the mountains while they were up in the air. No, the clear skies hadn’t given them a better view of anything but more fog. No, there wasn’t any chatter on the airwaves, not even an emergency signal. Addie’s usual, indomitable bluster is a pale, nervous version of itself.
Nick and the others return, and he launches straight out of the truck, almost before it stops, strides across the dirt and grabs Rook tight, voice rough in his ear - “There were claw marks everywhere - on my porch, at my fucking front door. You saved us. You saved my family again, Rook.” - and yeah, of course he would. If it’s up to him, that's a given - like it’s anything Nick even has to be grateful for.
Anyone with nothing else to do is busy boarding over the windows, scrounging for anything that might provide more protection from what they understand of the new threat. The borders of Falls End are already shrinking and warping, abandoned homes that had already been ransacked torn through again for raw materials. Cars and buses moved into positions that weren’t about blocking incoming Peggie trucks. Arguments have come up, about where and how and whether or not to try and booby-trap the fields. Sharky wonders about the silos, and it’s not the first that Rook wishes he’d been a little less thorough in cleaning up the valley.
Mary May’s still alive. Stable, Pastor Jerome says, but with his mouth fixed in a quiet, grim line and Rook knows - there isn’t anything they can do, if and when that changes. When she wakes up - if she - don’t think about it - there’s not much they can even do for the pain. The clinic was their only real resource - the Cougars and the Whitetails have little to offer, what they do have tied up with their own people, and a veterinarian who readily admits he’s not the man for the job.
The lunch hour comes, with everyone packed in at the Eagle, eating middle-of-the-siege chili, which makes up for lack of quality ingredients by nobody being hungry anyway. The news keeps coming in, a few people checking in on friends who lived nearby - a few names crossed off the missing list, or added to the deceased, though it’s mostly arrows crossing over line in a sort of limbo - probably gone, but even after all this time, all this fighting, it’s hard to be the one to make the call, to make it real.
Rook can see the look in some of their eyes, a little like fear and a little like rage. People who’d probably been consoling themselves over the long, grinding conflict with Eden’s Gate that hey - at least it couldn’t get any worse, right?
The question now, calm but unavoidable - do they evacuate? Leave Fall’s End? Abandon the valley altogether? Where will they go? Will the fog follow? What do they do, if the next time it comes in, it stays? The jail can only house so many, and the rest of the Henbane is riddled with Angels and Bliss. Rook can hardly blame them, that no one really wants to step over the border into the mountains and try their luck.
Kim glares daggers at Nick and Rook and anyone else who dares suggest that whatever happens, she ought to be first on that helicopter when Addie takes off, that when the night comes, she shouldn’t be here.
What’s the option, then? March into the Henbane like an army, set up a larger camp somewhere they’ve already made a foothold, and try to build it up? Attempt to - what, infiltrate an Eden’s Gate bunker, take it for their own? Rook can only imagine several thousand things that could go wrong with that plan - and even if it worked, they’d be facing heavy retaliation, systems they didn’t know how to use, run by people the Resistance didn’t have, and the monsters still at their back. A war on two fronts - and Rook isn’t too up on the names and dates of most major conflicts in history, but he still doesn’t think that tends to end well.
Underneath it all, another question, one that keeps peeking out from the edges of conversations, little whispers here and there, but never quite spoken aloud. How no one could have seen this coming, no one could have predicted - except, well. Yeah.
So what if Eden’s Gate - don’t say it, don’t you even think it - and there’s a reason they’ve got all those supplies, how long have they been saying exactly - a stopped clock still’s fucking right twice a day, and still, and still…
Joseph Seed might be crazy. Nothing in this world says a man can’t be crazy and still be right.
“… anyway, how’s it going down there, man?” Hurk says. “I got Sharky calling me up with all kinds of crazy shit - says you’re fighting some kind of alien zombie velociraptors?”
“Close enough.” Rook says. “Say, Hurk - if we need a place to put people, how many do you think your dad would be willing to take on?”
“Oh man.” Hurk says, and even through the radio Rook can tell from his tone what the answer’s going to be. He’s only heard it a hundred thousand times before from most everyone who’s ever said they owe him a favor. “Uh, it’s not - I mean I don’t have a problem, but it's the old man, you know? He’s got this… uh, thing about people hanging out on his property? I know you’re good for it, but I mean it can get kind of complicated and I wouldn’t want anyone’s feelings getting hurt. It’s kind of a mutual protection issue too, man, ‘cause sometimes he sits on the toilet and leaves that door just, just wide open and…”
“Hurk. Can you give me an estimate? How many for how long? If it comes down to it, I’ll be the one to ask your father.”
If it comes down to it, Rook won’t really be asking. He wants Kim out of the valley, at the very least, and having a pregnant woman or a newborn baby anywhere soaked in Bliss is just not going to happen - not that having her even one inch closer on the planet to Jacob fucking Seed is anything he wants to do. Goddamn, what he wouldn’t give for one good option.
“Uh, I figure we could manage about… fifteen or twenty, maybe? Shit, man, I got room - maybe I could double up with Hudson! You think… uh… I went down by the jail once, to hand off some supplies. She seemed… you know. Nice. She ever talk about me?” Hurk says. “Yeah, we’ve got enough food and shit here for at least a couple of months, but I don’t think they’d want to stay that long. I wasn’t kidding about that bathroom thing.”
Rook can think of a dozen highly complimentary words to describe Joey and ‘nice’ is nowhere in the conversation. He wonders how she’d brush him off - gay, or dating him, or Staci, or both. Rook’s fairly sure no answer would stop Hurk from trying. Maybe pepper spray. Probably not. “Thanks, Hurk. It’s good to know.”
“Yeah, man. Of course. Oh hey, Sharkster said he was trying to help you with a… uh, database of useful information or some shit, and I wanted to tell you that this all made me think of this story I heard once. I had this long drive on account of I had to go talk this guy who had a half-pallet of high-grade - ok you know what, that part of the story is really not the important part. The important part is I let Sharky borrow my phone the night before, and that little shit seriously fucked up my playlist again, and the stereo was… uh… missing, so all I had to work with was-”
Rook turns down the volume, just for a moment, because sometimes he needs to. He can hear hammering in the distance - it’s a race against the clock, to see how much they can shore up the town before sunset. Whitehorse and Hudson are staying in town, but Addie’s gone back, if only to keep the copter out of harm’s way. Nick still doesn’t have the plane fixed, and of course Kim refused to leave without him, although at least they convinced her to get underground for the night, a storm cellar under the best-fortified building on offer.
A little more than a third of the town is packing up, splitting up between the Jail and the upper end of the valley, and more have gone out during the day to try and find their friends and allies, to bring as many people back into Fall’s End as possible. If things finish up the way they’re hoping, there ought to be at least a few buildings that can withstand a second night’s fight. Unless too many more show up, or some new kind that spits acid or breathes fire or who the fuck knows.
It’s going to take more than one night, to make the Resistance give up on Fall’s End. Rook’s not sure, though, how much more. He doesn’t know if the napalm or Molotov contingent finally won the argument of fastest effective prep option, since at least the monsters are courteous enough to not like being set on fire.
He turns the radio back up, to stop thinking about it.
“- seriously messed-up story, though, man. Something rips this hole in like, reality, and all these creatures pour through. Anyone who looks at them goes fucking bugnuts, just starts murdering and killing, throwing themselves out windows. Shit like that. There’s this really fucked up part at the end, with this pregnant lady-”
“Hurk, if this doesn’t end with everyone eating ice cream in the park, I’m not sure I need to hear it right now.”
“Uh, nope.” Hurk says, sounding confused and maybe a little chastised. “Definitely no ice cream.”
“Thanks, Hurk. That really sounds… like something. Listen, I’ve got to go pretend I don’t regret every decision I’ve ever made, and all the ones on the way. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”
The nice thing about Hurk, is if you talk fast enough in a cheerful tone, he doesn’t tend to pay that much attention to the words.
“Right on, man! Don’t be a stranger!”
Rook leans his head back, rubbing at his eyes. It’s very slowly sliding from midday to late afternoon, and there’d finally been a changing of the guard, the recognition that a few of them might need to get some sleep before the next all-nighter. Rook doesn’t know where everyone else has gone, but he doubts they’re finding it any easier to nod off than he is.
If they’re thinking along the same lines that he is - that this is probably going to get worse, there’s no reason to think it won’t, and even if it only happens by degrees - eventually, they’ll be overrun. Even if their little homebrew fortress stands, the bullets will run out, or the food, and Rook’s made note of more prepper shelters than he’s dropped into but almost none were built like Dutch’s, meant for any real defense, for more than a month or two of protection while world shook itself into pieces - glorified panic rooms. Very few of them are meant for long-term survival, and who knows how many of those doors could really withstand it, if the monsters took a direct approach.
The only ones with a substantial enough stockpile, with bunkers like actual goddamn fortresses and guns and food and plans…
Attacking Eden’s Gate won’t do anything, except eat up supplies on both sides and weaken the same defenses they’re trying to hide behind. All it’ll do is cost them everything they can’t afford to lose, fighting each other as the fog comes, until what's out there takes advantage of the chaos.
Either Rook comes up with a better answer, or he might as well walk back into the church right now, put a bullet in Mary May’s head and call it mercy.
Like you don’t know says that voice in his head. What have you got, do you think, that Joseph Seed might be at all interested in? What might cut a deal, while you figure out how to survive this?
So Rook lets John play Etch-a-Sketch on his spine for a while, in exchange for a real doctor for Mary May, to be there for Kim when the baby comes, just in case? A pound of flesh, or two, in exchange for his friends?
He needs to sleep. At least a few hours, before this all starts up again. Rook can save the thinking for after.
Not gonna change what is.
“There you are.”
He’s never seen Tammy outside of the Wolf’s Den before, in anything but the bunker’s ominous mood lighting, usually with a jumper cable in one hand. For a moment, he almost doesn’t recognize her.
“Here I am.” Rook says, and they stare at each other for a moment. He knows the kind of thing he’s supposed to say, some kind of warm welcome, or astonished surprise that she’s here at all.
“You should have sent Jess. I like Jess.”
Yeah, that was not it. Tammy, to her credit, doesn’t give a shit.
“Eli wanted to come himself, but that’s just fucking nonsense.”
“You told her, right? Jess knows about Dutch? Is she okay?” Rook has a hard time believing that was just yesterday, but that’s the fun of Hope County - time ends up kind of like that painting where the clocks are melting down the walls. Rook keeps a watch for the sanity check, but sometimes even then he has to stare a while at the numbers before they remind him of what they’re supposed to mean.
“She knows.” Tammy says. “She got the news, she took off, we haven’t seen her since. I don’t know why you’d expect any different.”
He hadn’t expected any different. Even if he’d been the one to tell her, Rook thinks Jess would have vanished before he was done speaking. The mountains are… well, not safe, but still better than here. Jess is a survivor - but god, this time he didn’t want her to have to be.
“You wouldn’t have happened to hear anything about Cheeseburger?”
Peaches hasn’t been around any of her usual spots, or sunning herself on the high wall of the jail. Rook just hopes she got out, wherever out might be - that she’s found somewhere safe.
“I didn’t really come here to talk about your pets.”
Unlikely that she brought any backup or supplies with her either - she’s not here to help. The Whitetails don't think of themselves like the Cougars or the Resistance. An island, cut off even further from the rest of them by secrecy, location and having Jacob’s fucking people littering the space between them like land mines. A bit of their own pride there too, knowing they’re fighting the hardest fight. Until yesterday, Rook would have absolutely agreed with them.
“Why did Eli want to be here?”
“Where’s that one of yours? Pratt?” Tammy says, with a glance around, but Rook deliberately put himself at the edge of town, a little space between himself and everyone else, a little quiet. No one to bother him until he wanted to be bothered.
“You don’t need to worry about it. Just trust him as much as you trust me.” Which is, he supposes, why she still hasn’t answered his first question. Tammy regards him for a moment, and Rook thinks she might just turn around and walk out the way she came. A long way to go, just to confirm what she must have already heard from more reliable sources. So this must be something they didn’t want to broadcast over the radio.
“We have some fresh intel. Jacob’s been moving his men around - even with John still alive, you opened up the valley, and he’s now got a bigger border to keep track of. Same with the Henbane - he’s stretched his people pretty thin. We have the advantage now, and whatever the hell’s happening here, we can’t let that change things. So you’re gonna come with me, and we’re going to end this.”
Rook doesn’t like the Chosen, obviously - they’re quiet and efficient and infinitely more dangerous. Not nearly as many panicked shouts or war cries as John’s Peggies - these are professionals. Hell, most of them might have even volunteered to be there. But Rook knows something about the work that goes into that, Jacob’s personal time and attention - and just imagine the effort Tammy had to put in as a counter, the hours of steadily increasing voltages necessary to secure that kind of intel.
Here’s the thing about Jacob Seed, about going to war with what he is. Go into the room, or not - go into the cage, run the 50’s ballad gauntlet or not - you still turn into him, eventually. Play by his rules, and agree to his terms until you can’t recognize yourself anymore, or don’t even bother to look. Until everything becomes a tactical advantage, no matter how brutal or vicious or cruel, and anything left just gets discarded. Join him or fight him, and it’s the same relentless scouring of everything you used to be, abandoned for the simple utility of weakness and ruthlessness and sacrifice.
They will become carriers of your sin. They will spread that sin to others. Fuck Joseph, for actually saying something that made fucking sense.
“You haven’t gotten near Jacob before, what makes you think you can do it now?”
“It’s not about Jacob.” Tammy says. “This time, we’re going right to the source.”
Rook blinks. “You want to kill Joseph Seed. You want me to kill Joseph Seed.”
That explains why they didn’t want to mention this over a radio.
Tammy doesn’t blink, doesn’t move. “It’s the same job you’ve been doing all along. We’re just moving up the timetable.”
“I mean, I haven’t been paid for a while now, so technically this is all pro bono.”
The only question is, whether or not they’d taken the car back and slapped an eviction notice on his apartment before this monster shit hit town and, who knew, everyone there might already be - Don’t think about it. Don’t.
She frowns. “Is this funny to you?”
“Right now? Everything’s funny to me.”
Maybe it’s the teacher thing. Maybe Tammy knows Rook would have been the one walking in late, sleeping in the back, not coming in at all.
So that’s their plan - quit dicking around and just start at the top. A certain simplicity to it, and if there was anything left in this world that could hurt Jacob, Rook thinks it’s a decent bet. Kill his brothers first, execute Joseph while he could do nothing to stop it. Yeah, Rook thinks, that might just do the trick.
Is this it, then? Is this the thing you want to be in the world?
It’s different than a firefight, where Rook’s just trying to save captives or stay alive - and of course the instant rebuttal is that no, it’s all the same - this is just proactive, striking down Joseph before he can make any more captives or start any more battles. It’s better this way, it’s justice, and Rook’s killed enough people now that one or two more can’t possibly be any kind of tipping point, no matter who they are. He can hear all those arguments piling up - that this was just more of the same, that he was right to do it, that the Seeds deserved anything he could do to them and worse -
John, glancing over his shoulder as he ran, as he staggered for safety he knew was too far to reach. Searching for Rook, knowing he was being hunted and looking in all the wrong places and for one moment there had been such fear in his eyes…
Is this really all he was made for?
“What if I can’t do it?” Rook says. “I couldn’t kill John. What makes you think I can kill Joseph?”
“What in the hell is wrong with you?” Tammy says. “You’ve been there - you’ve seen everything that they do, everything they’re capable of. Hesitation doesn’t exist, ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist, not with these fucks. You need to stop thinking that taking the valley actually means anything, and finish what you started.”
Rook tries to imagine Jacob Seed as the last man standing, with his brothers gone and all the kingdom fallen and not a single, nominal check left on anything he might consider retaliation.
“If you don’t kill Jacob right away, put him the fuck down fast and for good, you are looking at a world of hurt.”
Not to mention the Peggies. All of them - they’ll go fucking ballistic with the Father gone and their Heralds dead. Who knows what might happen with the bunkers, if there are any dead man’s switches or other nasty surprises. Jacob seems like the kind to only grant pyrrhic victories.
“We’re ready for that. For him.” Tammy says. “We have a plan. You come back with me now and we will end this.”
Rook wonders if this plan of theirs involves him getting out alive, if that’s one of the parts they’ll just quietly omit. It’s not the most crucial detail at the moment, but he can’t help but wonder.
“I can’t leave Fall’s End, not tonight.” He shakes his head. “I can’t just… it’ll look like I’m abandoning them. Everyone here is already on edge. I need to be here now. Mary May is-”
“You think she wouldn’t want you to do this? That it wouldn’t be worth it?”
Rook wants Jacob to die. He wants it to be slow, and painful and ideally humiliating, in some deeply personal way. It’s been a long time, since he let himself hate someone else so completely, just piled on every injustice, large or small, petty and mean and let Jacob be responsible for it all - and yeah, it feels great.
So he knows where the look in Tammy’s eyes comes from, the perfect stillness of that kind of justification. The vindication of a sacrifice. Jacob Seed has to die - he has to suffer - and for her there’s nothing that isn’t worth putting on the other side of those scales, to make it happen.
“If it came down to a choice, between saving us or killing him?”
Tammy sighs, as if he’s talking nonsense, a question with no answer - or maybe just the obvious one. “You want the bunkers. You need the supplies. This is how you get them. It’s the only way, and you know it, and we have a short goddamn window to work with.”
“I’m not leaving tonight.” Rook says. “I could… maybe I could come in the morning.” If they survive to the morning. “We could really fucking use another gun. If you want to stick around, you could tell the Whitetails exactly…”
“I can’t stay.”
This doesn’t matter is what she means. Not like the mountains. Not like Eli. Not like revenge.
Rook knows a little bit about her, the way he knows a little bit about everybody, even the dead. Side comments, overheard in passing. Notes on tables or in the backs of cabinets, nailed to walls or spattered in blood. Enough to guess that this isn’t entirely about what the Peggies have done to the county, or even what Jacob’s done to her. That’s the fun thing about pain, about hate - it can hit you seven different ways with a single strike.
“ You know…” He says. “I had somebody in my life, a while back. Not that long ago, I suppose.”
“Deputy,” Tammy sighs, and it’s the first flicker that there’s a person in there, even if that person doesn’t like him much either. “I don’t really care about-”
“It was the first time that I ever thought… yeah, maybe?” Rook pushes forward, ignoring her. “That I really wanted ‘maybe’. So I tried. I was the best for him that I’d ever been, I gave it my all - and it didn’t work out. It wasn’t enough. He… chose something else. I know what it feels like, to love someone as hard as you can, and not be good enough to make them choose you.”
Rook’s been held at gunpoint a few times by now. It ought to be a little more familiar, less alarming, at least compared some of the other shit. It’s really not, even if he mostly thinks Tammy won’t pull the trigger. He didn’t mean to hurt her like this, but it’s clear that she does about as much sharing about this kind of thing as he does.
“You’re the only person in Hope County who knows.” He says, in lieu of an apology.
“You’re going to stop talking. You’re going to stop, and I’m going to leave.”
“Do you understand what’s happening here? What’s going on?” Rook says, carefully. “Because I don’t. At all. It’s not just the fucking monsters, that’s the least - we can’t get anything anymore from outside the valley. No… no signs of life. Nothing. It’s like the whole goddamn world’s just disappeared.”
It’s dizzying, to actually say the words aloud, to finally let some of that fear out into the world. The thing Rook can’t say to anyone in Fall’s End because everyone’s already scared enough, and they’re looking to him to keep it together.
“What if we’re it, Tammy?” Rook says. “What if this thing, whatever it is - what if it’s us, and Eden’s Gate, and that’s all that’s left?”
Tammy’s eyes are cold and hard - she’s already lowered the gun, but it doesn’t feel like it.
“Then I’d say we still have work to do.”
One of theirs finally dies just as the sun's going down, one of the Resistance Rook didn’t know, the worst off of the injured. Mary May is still alive, but… it’s not good, not getting better. She’s had trouble breathing, pulse is wobbly, there’s been a few moments - and there’s no point discussing the risk of infection, as if anything around here could be anything close to sterile. The Pastor’s been on the radio talking to Lindsey for most of the afternoon, for whatever good that’s going to do.
Everyone prepared to stick it out in Fall’s End is back inside, with curfew an hour before dark. A perimeter line of mines has been marked out in the field five hundred feet out or so from the furthest house, as much an early warning system as anything. Grace is back on her perch near the mounted guns, protected now by metal cages and barbed wire.
The lights are on in the street, wherever the people aren’t. The Spread Eagle’s been boarded back up, fortified with bits and pieces of the junkers that had been around town, the rest of the carcasses piled up in what hopefully prove to be strategic locations. The church is much the same - blackout curtains behind whatever could be pushed against the windows, and everyone keeping quiet, in case these things hunt by light and sound.
At least now Rook has a few things to think about, back up on the tower, to keep himself occupied. It’s been fortified too, metal spikes and barbed wire on the legs, and wire mesh panels across the walkway up top. It narrows the usable space they’ve got to work with down to a sliver, but lowers the risk of anything sneaking up on them.
The fog seems different so far, with the sun finally down and the moon out. It’s patchy, rising in scattered clumps, nothing like the tidal wave of before. Which does nothing to change the feeling of rising dread inside of him, just shy of a cold sweat. Rook’s got his binoculars out, scanning for any sign of movement.
“That was one of the Whitetails you were talking with?” Staci says, voice low and attention also fixed on the distance. Rook thinks the fog is slowly getting thicker, but it’s hard to tell. Might be seeing movement, but it could just as easily be his mind playing tricks. The other lookouts have already called out half a dozen false alarms, but no one complains. No one wants to be the one to say ‘I guess it was nothing' and be wrong.
“Yeah.” Rook says.
“What’d she tell you?”
“Nothing much.” Rook lies. “Wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”
“Sure wish she’d felt like sticking around.”
“Yeah.” Rook says. “I might need to go out once the sun’s back up, there’s some things they… want me to look at. Before I go, I’ll give you - I wrote down a list, some locations of stashes I never had the time to go through. I think we need to start emptying them out, consolidating resources. I put down everything I could think of, for now.”
“If you’re thinking about dying to get out of having to deal with this shit, I already called dibs.” Staci says. "It's my plan and you can't have it."
“I just want you to be prepared, for when I decide I’d rather be fishing.” Rook says. "No takebacks."
“We’ve got contact.” One of the scouts says, just as a mine trips. Rook can see the plume of dirt and smoke rising in the moonlight, catches a flash of motion, darting off to the right, loping along on some unnatural number of legs. He raises his rifle, hears Grace take a shot, which means there’s more coming on the left. No screaming over the radios tonight, the panic all an undertone with the violence still at a distance, and maybe they can keep it there. Maybe Mary May will wake up, maybe Rook will wake up, this entire Hope County debacle one of those dreams brought on by too many two-for-one convenience store burritos, and he’ll never have to find out what came of his pick of equally terrible options.
Or maybe he’ll just get eaten, and Rook can stop worrying about all of it.
1. The book Hurk mentions is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. Didn't watch the movie so I'm not sure if the ending is the same. Also, if you’re looking for amazingly creepy apocalypses, The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch opens with a spectacular one.
“If you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.” - Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
Rook’s chock full of important life lessons. Don’t eat the bug for a quarter. Don’t eat the bee for a dollar. Don’t try to BMX bike off the garage roof into the above-ground swimming pool. Especially when it’s not your bike or your pool. Don’t piledrive the kid who won’t stop talking shit into his locker so hard he ends up at the doctor’s. Luckily, just a mild concussion. Luckily, even by then, nobody was all that shocked, nobody expected any better.
Yeah, there are people out there whose biggest problem would be believing that Rook is the cop in this whole doomsday cult apocalypse scenario. He’s the what? Him?
Don’t be twelve, at least not for the summer. Don’t ever be fourteen.
Don’t take the bet to chug an entire Costco-sized bottle of dealer’s choice condiments in under a minute - there will be no winners. Don’t co-sign on a loan because you’re nineteen and he’s twenty-five with a nice car and he says he loves you and you believe it. Don’t have an accident, even a relatively minor one, in a machine shop before your health insurance has a chance to kick in, and definitely don’t let them call an ambulance. Don’t spend all your off time at the bar, young and dumb and tired and broke as fuck, trying to ignore the feeling like there’s something already slipping out of your grasp, that whatever it was you might have been is already long gone. Don’t sleep with that guy. Or that guy. Or his friends. Don’t do any of the shit that happened during that eight months between actual gainful employment.
Don’t fall in love, not when it’s punching well above your weight and you know it. Dumbass. Don’t buy new clothes, new shoes, try to act casual, as if you’re around nice things all the time, like you’ve got nothing to lose. For fuck’s sake, never meet his parents. Don’t lie to his father about who your father was, how he was, where you came from. Don’t smile at his mother and be charming and gracious and do absolutely everything right - and fail anyway.
Don’t rebound like falling off a cliff, deliberately aiming for the jagged rocks, the worst choices, because at least that way there won’t be any more disappointment. Don’t stick your dick in anybody who knows anybody named ‘Vegas’ anything. Don’t keep all your savings - seven-thousand, six-hundred eighty-six dollars and fifty-four cents - hidden at home instead of in a bank, because you’re tired of being fucked in all directions by surprise service charges. Don’t let him grab your keys while you’re sleeping and cut a spare.
Don’t think about it, at least twice a minute for the next several weeks, after you’ve had to play lightning round scavenger hunt with his fucking friends and acquaintances across half the goddamn state, for barely a fraction of what was lost. Seven-thousand, six-hundred, eighty-six dollars and fifty four cents. Don’t dream about California State Route One, or scroll obsessively through the image search. One more life that doesn’t get to belong to you. Don’t be grateful about being able to find something local on such short notice - hey, at least it’s a real job this time. Don’t think that this is it. Finally.
Don’t agree with the transfer to Hope County. Don’t smile at Hudson, or make sure your uniform looks neat for the Sheriff, don’t, don’t, don’t give Nancy half your fucking muffin because her alarm didn’t go off, and she rushed out without breakfast.
Don’t agree to the change in schedule, because its important, because the Feds are involved, because you really don’t have a choice. Don’t ignore that feeling, those instincts that all know better, from a life poorly lived. Don’t get in the helicopter. Don’t get in the helicopter.
Don’t. Just… don’t.
The thing is, Rook really shouldn’t have read the fucking book. It was kind of inevitable, because there were copies spread out everywhere in the county and even his near-illiterate ass had enough downtime to finally pick one up and flip through - and he couldn’t quite kill the hope that maybe if he kept reading long enough he’d find the clause or the detail or whatever it was that would let him save Hudson and Pratt, that might calm things down long enough to at least let the blood start drying.
Rook shouldn’t have done it, though - and he absolutely shouldn’t have pressed that blinking button on the machine in the lodge, shouldn’t have stood there and listened to a message from Joseph to John that sounded entirely too sane, full of hope and fear - "I’ve seen you die young" - and love. Until that moment, Joseph’s love hadn’t existed as anything beyond the most destructive weapon in his arsenal, to be wielded through the unquestioning loyalty of his faithful or denied to lash the whip or whatever else would get him what he wanted.
But there’d been no threat in that message, no demand - just acknowledgement that John’s fate was beyond even the Father’s control, and Joseph hoped anyway and feared the hurt of that hope, because he knew better. He knew what the world was.
“You’re destined to be slain by your own sin.”
Rook didn’t want to be John’s judgement, to be the hand that delivered the merciless, impartial justice of the world. He still doesn’t. He doesn’t want to be the next chapter in the book, maybe the last chapter - ‘and then I got my brothers back and then they all died, and then everyone died and it all meant nothing. The End.’
Which is insane. Rook knows that. Blue sky thinking about how he wants things to be, how he wishes they were, doesn’t change a thing about what is, what he’s seen or how much damage Eden’s Gate has already done or how little they give a shit about the bodies piling up on their way to paradise.
He’s hanging far too much on one gesture of what he wants to believe is understanding, on the tit-for-tat of Staci for John that might still have strings attached, might have never been meant as a concession. Rook’s gambling with everyone’s life, on a few glancing encounters with Joseph, when he’d been so Blissed out he couldn’t say they’d happened at all - John’s mid-dogfight rambling, about how Rook should have been working alongside them, Joseph so certain that he meant something, that Rook was special, that he could be made to see the method in the madness, that he’d been sent here for a purpose.
Even crazy as fuck people ought to be able to take one look at Rook and know better than that.
Tammy’s surely not wrong. Men never set up their own little empires to be beneficent, not even to their own, which means the sane and sensible route is to follow along with Eli’s plan, to do what he’s told and strike first this time, as fast and hard as he can.
He thinks about it all night, on the tower, in the dark, in between sightings, with Grace calling out targets and the night erupting here and there in bursts of flame - they went with the Molotovs after all.
If he goes along with the plan, it’s total war on both sides - not just retaliation and defense and taking back. A Reaping all their own - and even in the best case scenario - what? Rook would kill Joseph, and likely John, and then every single Peggie he could find, too much of a risk to leave any of them alive. The Whitetails would deal with Jacob - if they were infinitely more lucky than they’d been so far - and they’d probably hunt down Faith last of all.
Rook imagines her scared and alone, with her Angels scattered and dead and all the fields burning. The flash of her white dress through the trees, bare feet on the banks of the Henbane - a fox hunt, and they’d run her to ground and tear her apart and then smile and laugh and pop the fireworks.
None but the righteous.
“You wanna wake up now, Mary May? I promise if you do, I will sing your choice of disco tunes in the center of town.” Rook says, his hand on hers. “Sharky will back me up. It’ll be so unspeakably awful the cult will beg to give up, just to make us stop. The monsters will all run away.”
He strokes her fingers, practically the only part of her that isn’t bandaged up, with bruise shadows under her eyes and a little crease of pain, of tension on her brow, even now. Not resting comfortably, and her skin is pale but she’s too hot to the touch, her breathing fast and shallow.
“We fought them back again, kept them the hell away from the Eagle this time.” Rook says. “Didn’t even lose anybody, but they didn’t hit us as hard as before, either. We’re trying to figure out if there’s any way of telling what’s going to happen next, predict it. Mostly just throwing shit at the wall to see what feels like sticking. Nobody's been behind the bar much - it feels wrong, without you there.”
Of course she’s blonde, of course it was the first thing he’d noticed - not the right shade, too light, more like cornsilk, but that didn’t make much difference. It was effortless to like Mary May. She was strong, focused and no-nonsense, no bullshit - and friendly, too. A brave and open heart and an open door, even after all this. He likes imagining what her father must have been like - larger-than-life, it seemed. The kind of man who would have walked through fire for his little girl.
Rook sighs. “So… ’I’m either going to do something real stupid, or’… yeah, no - I’m pretty sure this one’s just dumb as fuck.”
She keeps that message around, because it’s the last time she’s ever going to hear her father’s voice. Thankfully, it was one of the things that had only been kicked into a corner in the chaos - a little scratched up but no real damage done. Rook doesn’t know the details of what happened with her and her family, because he never asked and she never offered, and he doesn’t really need to, every story in Hope County always the same in the broad strokes. He shouldn’t need any more than that to make up his mind.
“Tammy says that you’d die happy, for the chance at some real payback. You think she’s right?” He squeezes her hand, willing the world to be something other than it is, just for this. “I wanted to say thank you, for everything. I really wish we could have known each other for like, half a day, before everything went to shit. We would have had a lot of fun. I would have tried real hard, to be a good friend to you.”
Rook leans forward, brushes a kiss against her forehead.
“It’s fine if you hate me for this, okay? I don’t mind. Hate me for as long as I live, just as long as it means you’re there to do it.”
“How high’s the water, momma? Two feet high and rising.”
Johnny Cash is never a bad choice for any apocalypse - impending, vague, self-inflicted or literal - although Rook’s barely more than humming under his breath at the moment, changing his grip on the wheel every few seconds. The sunrise is as pretty as any that he's ever seen, which is either a good omen or an insult - who can say. He made sure to wash up and shave, his clothes are newly scrounged and clean. Rook ate a good breakfast, wrapped his hands up fresh. As put-together as he can manage these days, and, all in all, he could probably handle at least a few days locked in a room or tied to a chair without too much complaint.
“How high’s the water, papa? Three feet high and rising.”
It wasn't quite sneaking out, but Rook didn't bring any attention to himself either. Boomer was a little disappointed not to be riding shotgun, but he'd been up all night like the rest of them, and was nearly as happy for a few head scratches as he went back to sleep. The Resistance doesn’t know where he’s headed, of course, because if they did, they’d cuff him to a toilet in the Spread Eagle until he came to his senses, and they’d probably be right to do it. It's early - he has enough time that things will resolve themselves, one way or another, long before dark.
Still no answer from Jess, no matter how many times he tries. It’s not like it’ll make much difference, hearing it from him directly - and maybe he’s wrong, maybe they aren’t even really friends. Maybe she can cut him free without a backward glance - but still, he wanted to tell her he was sorry. She deserved that much.
“We’ve gotta head for higher ground, can’t come back ’til the water goes down… five feet high and rising.”
He leaves the truck about two miles out from what he figures is the unofficial Eden’s Gate DMZ. No reason to give the Peggies a free ride. Rook should probably leave his rifle, too, but he doesn’t want to be unarmed, even here on an open field under a full sun. Nothing quite feels like an open field under a full sun, not anymore.
It’s wasting time he doesn't have - but if Rook’s going to do this, he needs a little bit of a buffer. The time alone, to take a few breaths, to think of any better ideas, or for divine intervention to finally make itself useful and turn his ass around. Rook pauses for a moment, right where the road splits, easy enough to go back, grab the truck and take the right, follow the road up into the hills. Do the thing that he knows how to do.
“It’s always that we’re too proud to ask for your help, right? To listen to your guidance. That’s why we deserve all this bullshit.” Rook lifts a hand, tracing the edge of the distant mountains with his fingertips, the sky a pure and cloudless blue. “So here’s me, the stupid fucking human, admitting I’m a stupid fucking human with zero good ideas. I will do anything you tell me to. Whatever it is, however hard it is, you tell me right now and I promise I’ll do it.” Nothing. “Tell me this will work. Tell me it won’t work. Tell me there’s no point either way, and we’re not going to win this one, and I might as well find somewhere pretty to sit down with that shit Tweak promised me he didn’t cut with drain cleaner and kick off the End Times in style.”
A bird’s calling, somewhere in the distance. Rook’s heard that bird his whole life and has no idea what it looks like, or what its name might be.
“You can’t bring me here, put me through all of this shit, and then let them get hurt because of me. That’s all I’m asking for. If somebody’s got to pay for this, if I fuck this up, then I pay. That’s only fair. You’re supposed to like fair.”
It’s not even a particularly meaningful silence. Just a day, no different than any other.
“Okay.” Rook says. “Thanks. Good talk.”
He unhooks his radio, starts walking, and just gets on with it.
“This is Rook, for Eden’s Gate. I need to speak with Joseph Seed. Please.”
The Deputy for the Father. One of those really lazy melodramatic plays, where nobody can be bothered to deal with anything but generic proper nouns and everything’s very meaningful for reasons. Rook had been a usher once, for a couple of spare bucks and a change of scenery - and yeah, he hadn’t understood a damn thing. At least everyone else seemed to have a good time.
On some level, he knows he’s terrified - that thing in the box still howling in silence, clawing at the walls - and that it’s been a long time since he’s been anything else, but mostly it’s nice to just be moving forward. It’s his Hail Mary, and either it works, or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t then Rook’s part in this is over and Eli can throw all his weight behind plan B. Rook wonders if it will even matter who wins then, if anyone does.
“Project at Eden’s Gate, this is the Deputy calling. I’d like to leave a message after the beep.”
What in the fuck is he going to do if they’ve already gone to ground, packed up and shuffled in and locked all the -
“Deputy. Now, this is a rare surprise.”
It shouldn’t be that unexpected, that it’s John who picks up, a smile in his voice. What’s interesting is the feeling that rises up inside of Rook - something almost fond, bordering on nostalgia. Finally, a familiar and recognizable danger. No monsters from the nightmare dimension, no increasingly horrifying silences or blank spaces where the outside world should be - just good, old-fashioned threats and violence. It feels kind of like it did, the last time Rook staggered out of the mountains and into the valley and John started bitching about his damn silos, like somebody flipped the switch back to easy mode.
“Good morning, John. It’s been a while. How’s the ear?”
Yeah, just go and poke the bear right out of the gate, Rook. You’re definitely not trying to stay the fuck alive today or anything.
“… fine.” John says, the tangle of barbed wire curled up tight in the word, all warmth gone. “Since we’ve shown you our generosity, I suppose you’re calling to demand the return of the Marshall.”
Oh, if Rook was a better person, than definitely. If Rook was a good person, he wouldn’t have completely forgotten about Burke, and he’d be reminded to care now.
“Uh, no actually. It’s probably… uh, it’s fine if he stays where he is for now. If he’s okay with it.” Rook says. What a goddamn difference a day makes. “Are you still talking to anyone outside the county? Do you have a satellite phone, or a working Internet connection?” Like he really understands how any of that shit works. Cables under the ocean or something.
John’s good cheer returns, crisp and sharp as a paper cut. “Didn’t you hear? The Collapse is upon us, Deputy. The world beyond has nothing left to offer.”
Rook rolls his eyes - an uphill fucking struggle, every time - “You been up in the sky lately? Any of your people called in with anything strange? Does Jacob have eyes on the other side of the mountains?”
“I must say, I’m failing to see the point in this line of questioning.” Pleased, though, that it sounds like Rook needs something from him, that the situation’s tilting in his favor even if John’s not quite sure why. “I assure you, Rook, the outside world has nothing to offer you, either. I think that maybe you’ve started to realize that. I think that might be why you’re calling now.”
He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what’s happened, which means Joseph doesn’t know. It shouldn’t be that surprising, although he sure wouldn’t have minded if the Father had an extra-special ‘In Case of the Demonic Hordes of Hell’ plan all ready to go, but now… this is it, isn’t it? This is the very last conversation he’s ever going to have, free from the new realities of the world. Rook’s going to be the one to bring this to their door.
… and Hell followed with him.
“It’s a beautiful day, don’t you think? I bet you get up with the sun. Sit down with a cup of coffee, take a moment to get everything in order.” It’s a surprisingly pleasant thought, John Seed at rest, though even this early he probably still has that perfect hair and those stupid fancy clothes - is there anything he owns that isn’t fitted? Rook didn’t see it at the ranch, but he’s probably got one of those ridiculous coffee setups that’s made of handblown glass and reclaimed hardwood, or runs on atomic time. “Or are you a night owl? Burning that midnight oil?”
“Rook, are you…” He trails off, before Rook can find out what he is. “It sounds like you may be looking for some guidance, and I think that I could do much more for you if we met face-to-face. Let me know where you are, and I’ll send someone by.”
Ah, John’s almost-normal person voice. It’s a shame to have to know better.
“If any of them are on patrol right now, they can probably see me coming.” Rook says. “I’m about a half-hour out from the compound on the main road, walking in. If you can keep them from shooting me on sight, I’d appreciate it.”
The moment of silence suggests that is not what John expected to hear.
“Just me. I need to talk to your brother. It’s important. There’s been… there’s something he needs to see.” Rook says. “I’ve got a rifle with me, and a small duffel bag. Your men can take the rifle, but I need to show your brother what’s in the bag. They can check it, of course. Dump the contents into a different one, if it makes them more comfortable.”
“It’s a little hard to explain. I’d rather just show him - and you, if you want. The more the merrier.”
Maybe he's real, real lucky, and Jacob is off in the mountains somewhere, reenacting the first ten minutes from Apocalypse Now on a loop.
“John? You still there?”
“I’m here.” Slightly breathless - on the move, and Rook can imagine him walking briskly toward whatever vantage point will let him confirm what Rook’s saying, probably giving orders along the way. “I warn you, if this is some kind of trick, Deputy…”
They want me to kill you. They want me to kill all of you.
“I think it’s a little early for that." Rook says, because it is, like he'd trust himself with any secret plots before noon. "I just need you listen to what I have to say, and then I’ll listen to what you have to say. That’s all.”
No one shows up to chase him down in a truck, no Bliss bullets from unseen angles, which is good because Rook has better shit to do at the moment than be unconscious, even though the break might be nice. He can practically feel the change in the air, when he hits what is still definitely Peggie territory. There have probably been eyes on him for ages already, though Rook doesn’t see any actual signs of life until nearly the moment he hits the edge of Joseph’s compound, the plain white building coming into view.
“Hands in the air, sinner. Slowly.”
Rook does as he’s told. The Peggies come at him from behind, wary and weapons raised, stripping him of his rifle a little rougher than they have to but Rook lets it happen, ignores the pat down for extra guns he didn’t bother to bring. If he has to fight his way out of this, he’s already lost. Of course, they check the bag he’s carrying, frowning in confusion over what’s inside, but it’s not guns or explosives and there’s a quick confirmation on the radio, probably with John, and they let him keep it.
So here he is, escorted up the path in Joseph’s fucking compound to Joseph’s fucking church. The deja vu feels mean and cheap and entirely unfair - all that fighting, all that blood spilled - and other than the daylight, not much else has changed. Quieter this time, as Rook steps through the door - and there he is, the Father with his family behind him, indomitable against all threats, and if their belief doesn’t protect them - well, now Rook knows about all the other options. Feed another ten spares into the blades, maybe.
Jacob’s there - because of course he fucking is - disinterested in a violent sort of way, as always. Ready to kill him and not notice. Faith’s smile is bright and welcoming and confident he’s got no way out - she waves at him, a tiny sweep of her fingers. John’s still carrying a few half-healed bruises, a bandage on his ear and Rook’s expects the usual violence in his eyes, nothing but the promise of merciless payback for what was taken from him - but whatever’s there now, he can’t even read it, and that would be ominous if he weren’t already here for even worse reasons.
Imagine there would ever come a time that he’d wish the Seeds were his biggest problem.
“Deputy. Welcome.” Joseph Seed steps forward, hands raised as if to reach for Rook’s own, all fearless warmth and indulgence if only because there’s at least a dozen guns ready to deal with Rook if he feels so much like blinking in a blasphemous manner. Black vest, white shirt buttoned all the way to the top - it seems everyone’s used the excuse for their formal Sunday best. “I was pleased when John said you were on your way to us. I only regret you hadn’t reached out sooner.”
You never call, you never write. Rook’s humor has always cranked itself up in times of stress and panic - everything’s funnier when it’s terrifying - and there’s a not insignificant part of him that’s found all of this bordering on hilarious since that first moment they landed. The screens are gone from the wall behind where Joseph’s standing, but Rook remembers. Eden’s Gate pretty much had its own hashtag - who does that?
John does that, obviously. Keep the branding consistent, when he’s not making ominous three-color advertisements or posters with blurry pictures of Rook on them. He thinks about John in his fancy jacket with those little planes, standing in front of a copy machine in some Kinko’s at three a.m., and it takes everything he’s got to keep his expression blank.
“I wonder if perhaps you haven’t found yourself walking the path of atonement?” Joseph says and if this were any other time Rook would care more about the way those eyes are searching his, outwardly confident but still - he thinks - looking for the deception, wondering just what part of the plan this is, where the ambush will be coming from. It would take a real goddamn moron to come here alone, without an exit strategy.
It sure would.
All the Peggies in the pews just look like Peggies - a mix of all kinds, every Herald’s flock represented, and most of them definitely wanting to kick his ass, some combination of curious, wary and hostile, but none of them are scared, none of them with the fear that’s practically consumed Fall’s End now and how the fuck is any of this fair. For fuck’s sake.
“Not… exactly.” Rook says carefully, hears even those mild words ripple through the congregation in a soft, disgruntled rumble, until Joseph cuts them a glance, and it all goes silent. “I was hoping to get confirmation from you, and your people - there’s something happening out in the valley, something that isn’t…” It would be easier to find the words without the audience, but Rook can’t be surprised by the setting - the show’s the point. “We’ve had this…. fog that’s rolled in, a couple nights now, and there’s… things that came with it. Big ones, lots of them, and they’re killing people.”
“Big things… in the fog.” John repeats, his voice flat and bored because obviously Rook’s lying, and this is a waste of everyone’s time.
Joseph… it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking, although before now most of his mysterious setbacks could be tacked up to Rook and one of several creative incendiary devices. Rook glances over at Jacob - maybe that infinite well of paranoia wants to throw him one goddamn bone.
“You notice anything different lately, with the wolves?
He sees it, the smallest spark of recognition in Jacob’s gaze - yes, there’s been something. It’s the animals who notice first.
Rook lets the bag fall from his shoulder, upturns it at Joseph’s feet, claws and teeth and all the bits and pieces that remained, from the biggest that he could find. Joseph raises an eyebrow, Faith leans in a little, curious, but it commands Jacob’s attention and he steps in, crouching down to study the pile of fangs and talons. Rook can almost see it, the moment he goes from trying to figure out if it’s Blissed-out cougar or bear, to realizing that neither quite adds up.
“The rest of the bodies decay in a couple of hours, under the sun.” Rook says. “Most of the bones too, they just… fall apart. This wet, mulchy shit that kills all the grass underneath them. We don’t know what they’re made of - but what’s left seems damn near bulletproof.”
Jacob rises slow, with a claw the size of his hand, curved from wrist to fingertip. He turns it thoughtfully, studying it from all angles. A predator weighing the competition.
“How many of these… things am I supposed to be looking at here?”
“That’s one.” Rook says, and watches Jacob recount the number of teeth.
He swallows - Rook’s said it before but it’s always difficult, and each time makes it feel a little more real. “We’ve lost the signal, from the radio station outside the county. They… just stopped broadcasting, or we can’t hear it anymore or… We sent a plane up, too - but there’s no lights out there, no chatter. No… signs of life, all the way to the horizon. It’s just the fog, everywhere else but here - and there’s something in the lake. It’s… uh, real big. Big and hungry.”
“Something in the lake?” Jacob says, and it’s funny, it really is, having the crazy man look at him like he’s the one who’s talking nonsense. It doesn’t matter what he thinks, though, what any of them think - Rook turns his attention back to Joseph. The Father makes the rules, has the final say - if Rook can convince him, the rest of them will have to fall into line.
“You said you were… told that it was coming. The Collapse. You said it was supposed to be war and fire and… I don’t know, bombs raining down. The usual. Whatever’s happening out there, I can’t tell you if it’s…. but whatever it is, it’s here now, and there’s no reason to think it’s not gonna get worse, and once it’s done with us it’ll come for you and yours.”
Rook pushes back again at the memory of Nick’s face when he landed the plane, and the thought that this might already be much, much bigger than Hope County, or even Montana - that Something Has Happened in the world at large, something bad enough that this cult and its crimes are no longer of any interest to anyone.
There’s an eerie light in Joseph’s already unnerving gaze, hearing his own prophecy confirmed, especially considering the source.
“You need resources. That’s what the Reaping was for, that was the point.” Rook pushes forward, while they’ll let him. “You’ve built as fast as you could manage, but maybe you’re not as ready as you want to be - there’s never such a thing as too prepared. We can’t fight these things off if we’re at war with each other - we’ll both lose. So… we use the daylight while we’ve got it, call a truce, and save everything we can instead. Like you wanted to in the first place. We can retreat by degrees, if we need to at all - we’ll help each other until then, and we’ll stay out of your way, during and after. If this… if it gets real bad, if we need… we’d need permission to shelter in your bunkers, until the worst is over.”
Seven years? Rook doesn’t remember where he heard it, if Joseph said it or it came from John, if he’s even remembering it right, but it sings in his head, mocking him like one of Jacob’s goddamn triggers - seven years, seven years. Fuck, what is he thinking, they’re not going to last seven minutes without tearing each other apart.
“We’ve got a few wounded from the last attack. I’d like to have someone come and take a better look at them.” Rook needs access to better drugs, more supplies, actual fucking medical resources from non-veterinary professionals. He really needs them not to know it’s Mary May for as long as possible because - oh yeah - Peggies definitely hold grudges.
“You’re not talking about joining us. You’re talking about taking what's ours.” John says, pissed and peevish as always. “I’m not sure I see what we’re supposed to get out of all this.” The look on his face, it’s like Rook’s handed him a contract written half-backwards in crayon. The deputy admitting weakness, need - of course he’s going to draw this out as long as he possibly can.
Joseph still hasn’t said a word, just watching, and Rook tries to avoid his gaze without being too obvious about it.
“Food. Supplies. Information.” Rook says. “No more sabotage, no more fighting. You’ll have coverage of the whole valley, without having to risk any of your own. If there’s anything else you need, we’ll come to an arrangement. You keep your people safe, we’ll do the same. All you have to do is do nothing. The more of us are out there fighting, the more of a buffer there is between you and… whatever this is. Maybe we push it back, and none of it ever hits you at all. Minimal insurance for maximum reward.”
You can gloat, you fuck. You can listen to us suffer and die, and feel smug and righteous about it. All you could ever want out of life.
“Or we could just close the door in your face.” John sniffs, cold and bored and vindictive. “Let the monsters and the willfully unrepentant enjoy each other’s company.”
“You want to bet all those sinners won’t manage to breach at least one of your bunkers, when there’s no hope left and nowhere to run?” Don’t think about it. Do not think about what that day will look like. “Out of panic? Out of spite?” Rook grins, can taste the edge on it. “Let’s be honest with ourselves here, John - it’s probably not going to be Jacob’s.”
He’d be dodging that first punch by now, or a knife or a screwdriver, if Joseph wasn't standing there with them. Instead, he’s treated to the rare, extended show of watching John take one step forward before he has to rein himself in, stuff all that violence just barely back behind his eyes, into the hands that want so badly to turn into fists or reach for Rook’s throat.
“You come here, you come here to us and try to make threats again.”
“Threatening you?” Rook says. “Is that what you think this is? If things get that bad, do you think anyone’s going to give a damn what I have to say?”
As if he has any real power now, anything besides that Rook keeps doing what people want him to do, that he’s finally found his calling in being the immovable object. He’s not even sure he can convince the Resistance to fall back now, to consider co-existing with the Peggies on any terms, let alone the Cougars or… Be patient, Rook. Set fire to one bridge at a time.
“What else have you got to offer?” Jacob says, because he’s cruel and likes to twist the screws, and he’s sure there’s nothing left on the table.
Rook drops to his knees.
It’s his trump card. Maybe the only card in his hand, really, one that might keep them batting him around just long enough to make the difference. Maybe they’re all going to die anyway, just a little bit slower even with the best of odds. Maybe it’s futile, it’s all fucking futile - but then Rook thinks about Kim, one hand curled over her waist, and the new life waiting there, the way Nick uses any excuse there is to reach for her and hold her close. He thinks about Grace’s quiet dignity and Sharky’s marvelous lack of the same and Pratt and Hudson, Jerome and Mary May - and how little there is standing between all of them and whatever hell is coming for them now.
When he does die, Rook does not want his last thought to be how he might have saved them, saved anyone, if only he’d been brave enough to try.
Jacob… almost seems surprised. It’s certainly startled Faith - but John’s gaze is wide and dark and bottomless with anticipation and desire, prickling all across Rook’s skin. The sudden opportunity of unlimited time for drawn-out confessions and prey that won’t even try to escape. It hooks sharp and deep in his gut, and Rook swallows back the acid sting of dread - but John is a known quantity. John can be endured.
He’d expected pure satisfaction from Joseph, braced himself for it - but instead he looks only thoughtful behind those tinted lenses, head tilted slightly to the side, as if he’d never actually considered what it might look like when his designated prodigal finally saw the light.
“Father.” Rook says, dropping his eyes, palms up in supplication, loud enough for everyone gathered around to listen in. Selling it for the crowd. His dignity, his stubbornness is something the Seeds have been circling around for a long time now, wanting to feast, their hunger only growing with every time they’re denied. They’re going to gorge on him now, and he’s going to survive it because he has to. There’s a fist around his heart, and Rook lets it squeeze, locks up everything that he can for safekeeping and hopes it will be enough.
Come on, Rook. Time to make your whole stupid life count for something, for once.
“Please, Father. I humble myself before you, and beg for your aid in this time of tribulation. Please, grant us your mercy.”
Rook measured it out just right, so he has to crawl the few remaining steps to bow down to kiss Joseph’s feet - sell it, you fucking sell it - and then there’s nothing to do but lick the dust from those boots off his lips, keep his head low and wait for the answer. Maybe it’ll just be a swift kick to the face. Maybe another endless red hallway and a cage or another chair with a flickering bulb - maybe they’ll remember they don’t really care about any of the things they say, and they can watch him die slowly from a distance and feel just as secure in their salvation.
A light, warm touch ghosts across the back of his head, fingers brushing along the short scruff of his hair, and then Rook knows that he’s won, and that he’s fucked for sure.
“My children. What you bear witness to here is the fruit of our patience. Evidence of the rightness of our cause.”
Rook doesn’t move, doesn’t lift his head as Joseph steps around him to address his flock. It’s time to spike the ball and do a victory dance in the end zone - Eden’s Gate has gone and caught themselves a live one.
“As the world crumbles around us, lashes out against us, we have proven ourselves to be steadfast and unwavering in our devotion. Our strength, our conviction has touched even those who would stand in our path, inspired them to take a deeper look inside themselves for the truth. We gather here now, knowing what they will learn, understanding the power of salvation. In helping others to find their redemption, we are all of us redeemed.”
Rook wishes he didn’t have his back to the room, so that he could see if they’re all buying what Joseph’s selling. Crazy cultists or not, it’s one thing to listen when the Father sanctions some righteous hell-raising on the unclean and unworthy - everyone loves that. It’s another thing to be expected to welcome the man who may or may not have personally clocked them upside the head with a baseball bat - or shot them or at them or ran them off the road or that thing that sure did happen with the boat, the bear and the stick of dynamite. Rook’s not remotely sure who he’s killed or injured or just how many or how bad - and that’s not the best thought to call his own, even if he can’t regret it - and there are probably people in those pews who hate him just that little bit more than they even love the Father.
It’s a hard thing, asking someone to give up their hate. Maybe impossible, even for Joseph fucking Seed.
Rook’s bracing himself for the punchline, for the sermon to suddenly go sideways. Where’s the fun in starting a religion if A and B always end up at C? Any minute now Joseph can heel turn for the ‘but’ or the ‘however’ and the terrible swift sword, whatever clause in the contract that reminds them all that before the warm welcome there’s going to need to be some blood - a lot of blood - or that maybe it is more righteous just to kill Rook after all. Lock his ass up and starve him slow, make sure he suffers and call the problem solved.
Hudson got herself out. Rook could probably manage it, if the conditions were right. But then… what? If he had an answer to that, he wouldn’t be here on his knees.
He’s also operating on something like two hours of sleep in the past thirty-six. It’s far from the worst thing he’s ever done to himself, but it means that it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the floor grinding into his kneecaps, Joseph’s grand pronouncements rising and falling around him like a tide - and yeah, there’s a reason he got himself a following. He sure knows how to work a crowd. Rook keeps an ear out for the right keywords, any sudden, dramatic pauses, but otherwise it’s easier to just let it all flow by, the Father deep in his groove now, moving back and forth at a steady pace with Rook bowed and penitent at center stage. Score one for Eden’s Gate and zero for the Hope County Sheriff’s Department or the Resistance or whatever the fuck team Rook’s supposed to be representing these days.
He keeps his head down, and his eyes low. The Heralds are all marginally less fearsome at boot-height - Jacob’s are scuffed, John’s are polished, and Faith’s feet are bare, of course. Rook watches her shift her weight, one foot lifted until her toes barely brush the ground, gently swinging - she knows he’s watching. If he looked up, she’d be smiling down.
You’re gonna die here. You know that, right?
Yeah. Probably. Rook would hardly the be the first person in history to wind up dead for reasons he only vaguely understands, in a clusterfuck that he never really meant to be a part of.
He flinches slightly, at a creak from the pew just behind him - lost in his thoughts, and so he’s missed it, the moment Joseph’s sermon finally comes to a close. Rook listens to the shuffle of feet, a few murmurs in parting, and then there’s nothing but empty space behind him, the sound of the door at the other end of the chapel swinging shut.
“You can get up now.” Jacob says, like Rook’s the one being overdramatic, like a dog caught piddling on the carpet. He rises slowly, to keep from staggering as his legs protest the movement, and because going slow seems more respectful.
Rook turns, lifts his gaze and wouldn’t you know, there he is again, Joseph fucking Seed with his fucking glasses and his fucking stare and that slow, deliberate way he moves, the way he steps right up past too close and keeps coming. It ought to be intimidating, ought to intend to intimidate but Rook doesn’t think he even means it that way. He’s just… open, ardent and focused in that way only mystics and madmen can sustain for long. It’s hard to imagine he was ever part of the world outside.
“I was certain that you were the harbinger, the peal of Gabriel’s horn. Ignorant of the weight of what you carried, bent on destroying what you refused to understand.”
“Yeah… I do that sometimes.” Rook murmurs, because there’s no point arguing the details and just shutting the fuck up has never been his strong suit. Luckily, Joseph doesn’t seem to care - reaching out instead, cradling his face, the light press of thumbs against Rook’s cheekbones and it would almost be tender except for the way he could shift his grip just slightly, slide his thumbs up and dig in and squeeze. He knows what that would look like, how long it would last, how it would sound. For all Rook knows, he’s standing in the exact same fucking spot.
“And here you are.”
Here I am. Rook thinks. He feels calm enough - a little bit outside of his own body really, just an inch or two enough to be comfortable, but there’s still a weight pressing down on each breath, a taste like cold iron in the back of his throat.
“No matter how you struck at us, it seemed I was not meant to check your path, even as you threw our efforts into chaos, and refused all attempts at guidance. On the very eve of the Collapse, I had reaped myself a whirlwind, and I could not see why you should be the final test, what it was I was meant to….” He stops, looking into Rook’s eyes, quiet and fierce and searching, as if he can examine his soul like some rough stone under a jeweler’s glass.
“You know, don’t you? It’s why you’re here. You’ve seen.”
A smarter man might be able to take advantage of this - something close to vulnerable there, for a moment, in Joseph’s eyes. Rook’s been dealing with this… whatever the fuck it is for barely two days and change, and he can already feel his reality starting to pull at the seams. Joseph’s wrestled with his voices and his visions all his life, seeing a world torn to bleeding shreds and real or not, whatever his Collapse looked like, if it’s half as bad as what’s happening now no wonder he’s the way he is. If Rook was in his place, he’s not sure he could manage anything besides rocking in the corner, gibbering in tongues.
It’s not the same thing, though - not any kind of epiphany or grand visitation, and Rook doesn’t have the smarts or the balls to try to lie to Joseph about anything that lives so close to the bone.
“No. It’s not… I told you, it’s not like that.”
“What is it like, then?” Joseph says, frighteningly gentle, as if he actually wants to know, and he’s not just asking about the monsters, not just about what’s happening now. He still doesn’t understand before - why Rook hesitated, why John is standing there with them instead of in a shallow grave, probably deciding whether to carve Rook’s sins in him by frequency or good old alphabetical order.
It’s not like Rook understands it himself, not really. Only that every time he thinks about it - even now - the logical progression of how things were supposed to go, it makes him feel cheap, and tired, and sad. He was born to be a remainder, he’s always known that. People like Rook, you bought them by the dozen, like discount firewood - lose three, burn through five, let the other two rot at the bottom of the bag. You made use of him, or he wasn’t any use at all.
“I would have had to shoot him in the back.” Rook whispers - confesses, really - and he doesn’t even have to close his eyes to see it, to be there. How bright it all seemed, every step, every snapping twig too loud and then the whole world frozen still and he had won - his finger on the trigger with John not even looking his way, no idea it was already over and this? This was it? This was all he was ever meant for?
“I didn’t want to be that. I couldn’t… I didn’t want to.” He wonders if Joseph understands. If he gives half a shit, besides the fact that it’s given him the advantage. It’s impossible to say, when looking at Joseph is like staring into the sun, the sheer power of his conviction burning away everything else.
He nods, slowly, coming to a decision - and lets his hands fall, but doesn’t step away.
“You will be cleansed. Properly, this time, as you deserve. You will atone, and be forgiven, and be welcome.”
Rook can feel each of those declarations hammer home, the promise of all that new pain on the horizon - this is what you signed up for, dipshit, don’t you dare pretend you’re surprised - and there’s nothing to do but nod. Jacob must move somehow, Joseph’s eyes cutting over his shoulder and he can’t look but Rook desperately wants to see the other half of that silent conversation, if Jacob’s pissed or pleased or already planning.
Three out of the four of them, he can probably survive. Jacob… well, Rook will have to eat that bullet when he gets there.
The radio’s with him, at the ready because Rook doesn’t dare turn it off anymore, because it’s worse to have it replaced by that voice in his head that runs through every possible nightmare, every lurking disaster just waiting for him to be off his guard. That he’ll turn it back on and there will only be silence. So Staci’s voice is clear and strong in the mostly empty space.
“How close to the river was the fog, the night you left?”
You know what’s more fun than fearing cultists or monsters? Being afraid of both at the same time. Rook’s got the radio up before he can wonder if it’s a good idea or not.
“Pratt, tell me you’re not alone.”
“Hi kettle, it’s pot.”
“Staci.” It comes out more like a snarl than he intended, more raw fear than he should show here. Rook glances up, just to see if Joseph’s annoyed with the interruption, but he looks… interested, willing to let this play out because of course, why not, it’s all free information. Rook wonders how much damage he might have done to the Resistance just by coming here, what he might be giving away without even knowing it, and there’s fuck all he can do about that in any case.
“Easy, dep. It’s fine.” Nick says. “I’m with him, and Boomer’s here, too. Bright as hell, anyway - nothing much worth seeing.”
“The fog was past the river, up near the tree line.” Rook says.
“It didn’t touch the water anywhere?”
If life were fair, the sudden surge of fear would be more familiar by now, not so startling every time, the dread like a finger of ice freezing its way up his throat, so that it takes him an extra swallow to reply.
“It’s getting closer?”
“Hard to tell from yesterday.” Nick says. “I should have been payin’ more attention. But yeah, it’s definitely down to the riverbank.”
How high’s the water, momma?
“Okay.” Rook says. Nick’s not going home again, ever. They’ll have to strip the whole damn house, figure out a way to siphon the fuel, get anything and everything of value out before the fog comes in, and from everywhere else down that far in the valley - all that packing up, and it needs to happen now. If the fog doesn’t stop, if it keeps advancing, even if it’s just a few feet a day, it’ll cover the airfield, creep up over the fields… and then… and then… “So, we’ll need to keep an eye on that.”
He’s pretty impressed that his voice doesn’t shake.
“Rook, you near any kind of medical supplies? Antibiotics? F.A.N.G says they’re cleared out, but there might be a ranger station with a backup-”
“Empty. Already hit that one.” Rook says, not looking in Jacob’s direction - that had turned into a shootout, and he’d left at least one person screaming on his way to the strategic retreat. Does Jacob even bother with patching his people back up? Not likely. Asshole. “How bad is she?”
Nick sighs. “Fever’s up again. Jerome’s worried it might be going septic.”
“Motherfuck-” Rook cuts himself off, pacing, and Joseph hasn’t said yes and just because things are worse than they were five minutes ago doesn’t mean he’s ever gonna say yes, doesn’t mean Rook can crawl low enough to do anything past a bare bones ceasefire. There hasn’t been a great precedent with asking for help in his life up to this moment, so it’s a little stupid, expecting that to change just because he’s desperate. “I’ll run past Dutch’s on the way back.”
“No, you’re not.” Staci’s voice is distant, from the other side of the car, but the anger carries through. “You tell him he’s fucking not.”
“It’ll be fine.” Rook says. “Lake’s on the other side from the entrance. I’ll be nowhere near the water, won’t take one step over the hill.”
Unless it can get to him over the hill, unless there’s something already in the bunker waiting. Just because there wasn’t something there before doesn’t mean - don't think, just don’t, just don’t…
“Shit, man. You think we should… I mean…” Nick says.
“It’s what he’d want us to do. Use it and keep going.” Admitting in front of Joseph Seed that one of the more pernicious thorns in the side of Eden’s Gate is dead, that Dutch’s cache is open for the taking is not the smartest thing he’s ever done but hey, maybe if the Peggies do go and check it out they won’t be so careful about the shore.
God, not even them. No more.
“Wheaty called looking for you. He wanted to thank you for some record you picked up.” Flaming Lips, it was the Flaming Lips. “I thought you were headed up that way, it’s why you got up so damn early. Where the hell are you?”
“I had to take a bit of a detour.”
“Shit, man. Detour? Where? The only other thing out that way-”
Nick’s a simple guy, but he’s not stupid. He’s heard people talking. He knows that Mary May’s right up against the brink, and is well aware of what happens when the junior deputy is left up to his own devices.
“Rook… where are you right now?”
Putting on a one-man show for the entire Seed clan, it seems. Rook’s surprised the conversation’s been allowed to go on this long, but Joseph Seed is, among other things, a patient man. He wouldn’t be so damn dangerous otherwise.
“It was gonna come to this, sooner or later.” Rook says. “We could keep talking around it until more people died, or I could just do what needed doing. I have to try, for everyone, for Kim-”
“Kim is gonna kick your ass if she finds out.” Nick says. Staci’s adding his own opinion in the background, Rook can tell by the tone, confused but getting angrier by the moment. “So why don’t you drop that dumbass plan and get back here, pronto.”
Which is when John comes up from behind him and yanks the radio out of his hand.
“If you wouldn’t mind calling back, Rye, we’re in the middle of some rather important business.”
Nick, of course, reacts with the expected level of restraint.
“You Peggie fuck! If you fuckin’ hurt him, I swear-”
Rook snatches the radio back with a glare at a terminally unrepentant John. “I’m fine, Nick. Everything’s fine, and we’ll talk about this later.”
“Fine? Later? I am not getting off this radio until-” Nick cuts off so fast that Rook thinks it must be a technical glitch, the broadcast or the battery, but then he’s back, all the anger drained out of his voice as if it was never there at all. “Jesus Mary mother of God what the fuck.”
“What? What?!” Rook says. “Where are you? Talk to me, Nick. What are you looking at?”
He’s wondered, of course, which would be worse. Being in the middle of it or safe at a distance, listening in on the radio as the worst played out. The being there is a nightmare, he knows that first-hand, the kind of impossible terror he only used to know as make-believe, something to watch on the other side of a screen. He’s not brave, not really - Rook wants all this to be someone else’s problem, to let somebody else be afraid and uncertain on the front lines.
Except now he knows it really is worse, the not being there. Nick and Staci out there in the open with Rook not able to cover their asses or even know what the fuck is going on and this is worse than being terrified, this is approaching unbearable.
“How’s Boomer? He freaking out?”
“Dog’s fine.” Staci’s voice is hollow. “I wanted to check out the ranch. What’s… what’s left of it. See if there was anything we could… if anyone… I needed to see…” He trails off. Oh, that’s a good sign. “You remember when we wondered if these things actually wanted to eat us or were just killing for sport?”
One of those middle-of-the-night discussions, when things had gone quiet for two minutes together and the talking was like a release valve while they were waiting for it to start up again. When Rook let his mouth run and didn’t bother paying attention.
“Don’t get out of the car, Pratt.” Rook says. “Stay inside and keep it in gear.”
“Yeah, that’s not gonna be a problem.” Staci says. “I don’t know what I’m… it’s like a nest, or… uh, the bodies are… there are these vine things just…. twisted them all up, just twisted them into pieces. I can’t… I don’t know if they’re… holy fuck…”
“We gotta bomb it.” Nick says, distantly. “Whole fucking thing. Raze it to the ground.”
John makes a noise of protest somewhere behind him, which in any other circumstance might actually be amusing.
“Get out of there.” Rook says. “Just get out, right now.”
“Yeah, copy th - oh fuck.” Staci says - and then Boomer barks and keeps barking, and Nick shouts and there’s a sound like breaking glass and that can’t be right, that can’t be what he heard because the radio goes dead and that means they’re gone, just like that. It means they’re dying horribly at the other end of the county while he’s standing here completely fucking helpless and that can’t be right, it can’t be.
“Staci? Nick?” Rook says, and waits, and waits. “Don’t. Don’t do this to me. Don’t you dare.”
Silence. Because this is the world. It takes what it wants, when it wants, piece by piece or all at once. Everything, in the blink of an eye. Does Rook really think this is as bad as it can get? After everything he’s been through, does he really think there’s a bottom?
“Rook?” It’s all an act, the way Faith approaches - cautiously, as if there’s anything he could possibly do to her here. Carrot, not stick, the whole reason that she exists at all. The soft sell, because it’s harder to hurt an indirect threat. Difficult to push her away, when all she does is wind a warm arm around his, when she smiles so gently. “It’s okay. It’s just me. You’re here with us now. It’s gonna be okay.”
She doesn’t know that her script is going to need some serious updates, real soon. She has no idea how much he wishes she was right.
“Oh shit.” Nick says, and Rook damn near drops the radio, the relief a painful, heart-stopping kind of thing. “Fuck me, that was close.”
“You okay? What the hell happened?”
“We’re fine.” Staci takes over. Rook thinks maybe he can hear the engine rumble, moving at high speed. “Remember that thing that tried to eat you? I think it’s got a friend. Under the ranch, maybe. I don’t even know if it’s… fuck.” He laughs, no amusement in it, just the lack of anywhere else for the strain to go. “Goddamn, these things really hate trucks.”
Rook’s laughing too - his head spinning, a burn in all his muscles like he’s been running too long.
“Ok, that’s great and all, but really - how’s my dog?”
“You can eat my entire ass, Rook.” Pratt says. “And get back here as soon as you can. We all need to have a conversation.”
It goes quiet. He wonders if Staci’s calling anyone up on a different frequency, letting them know that Rook’s went and done something impressively stupid this time. He wonders if there will be a rescue party, how long they’ll wait if he doesn’t return - and it’s unlikely they could get anything like close enough and he wouldn’t want them to try, not with how far he is behind enemy lines but it’s heartening to think they’d even consider it.
Faith’s still there, her hand on his arm. John’s frowning at him, like he’s a puzzle that lost half its own pieces.
“Something tried to… eat you?”
Rook nods. “The thing in the lake? That’s how we figured it was hungry.”
Jacob looks at Joseph. “You actually believe any of this?”
He knows Jacob’s opinion of him isn’t exactly high, but If he was going to come up with a bullshit story to try and fake out the Seeds, if this was step one in some genius master plan, Rook hopes it’d be a little bit better than something even Hurk would have tossed on the discard pile once the buzz wore off.
It doesn’t matter what Jacob thinks, what he believes or not. Joseph’s still looking at him.
“Two days ago, you won this. You won.” Rook says. “It’s gonna take some time for them to admit to it, but it’s true. I’ll go and tell them how it’s going to be. I just… I need you to tell me first.”
The risk he’s taking, that brought him here, that maybe the Father might want to be magnanimous more than he wants to be vengeful, if the opportunity presents itself. It suits the way he wants to be seen - rising above, deigning to grace even those sinners who’ve repented only in the final hour of blah blah blah…
“You really think we’re just going to let you leave?” John says.
Rook keeps his expression blank and indifferent, keeps his eyes on the Father.
“I need to be out there. We-” He stops, reconsiders, risks it, “they need every gun they can get at night. The slower this bleeds, the more time you have, the more secure things are for you and yours. I’m better off fighting than anything else I can do for you. I’ll come back in the morning. Every morning. I promise. I’ll come back, and then you’ve got me for whatever it is you decide you need to do.”
Don’t focus on John, still in periphery of his vision. Don’t look for Jacob, don’t turn your goddamn head. Rook lets his gaze drop instead, the proper penitent.
Submission. Deference. Obedience. The only thing that anyone ever wants, all a matter of degrees, in how far down he’s expected to bow his head.
The wait is a matter of seconds, and eons, and excruciating.
“It isn’t easy, is it?” Joseph says. “Seeing what others refuse to see?”
Rook has no idea how he’s supposed to answer that, so he doesn’t try.
“I do not believe it is God’s will that I should keep you from this fight.” Joseph says. “Faith, I want you to gather some supplies for Rook to return with. Be generous.”
“Yes, Father.” Faith says, a little squeeze of his hand, taking the empty bag from his shoulder and then she’s gone, bare feet silent against the floorboards.
“But-” John says, silenced at a glance from his brother. Rook expects Jacob to speak up - now’s a real good time to roll out a map and demand he point out the location of the Wolf’s Den, and then everything can go to straight to hell when Rook refuses - but the eldest Seed is silent, and Rook doesn’t dare check to see just what flavor of pissed off he might be. Tomorrow’s problems can wait for him, if he ever gets there.
“… and the doctor?” Rook says, knowing he’s pressing his luck but he has to know.
“It would be safer if you brought the wounded to us.” Joseph says. “We were already making plans to accommodate the Ryes.”
Yeah, Rook remembers.
“That’s gonna… take some time. I understand, you can’t risk anything happening to someone with those skills. Maybe they can call in? We can try to do it over the radio, for now?”
Joseph nods - and there it is, the second part of Rook’s impossible plan squared away. He needs to talk about moving people out of the valley, up into the mountains, but he’s probably gone as far as he can get for one day, and Faith’s already returned with his bag loaded down, little surprise the Father’s compound would be fully stocked.
“Do you need a ride back to town?”
What is it about Joseph Seed, that even the simple offer sounds threatening, that Rook’s accomplished as much as he could hope for and it all still curdles in his gut. John noticeably brightens, and God help him but he really would chauffeur Rook all the way into Fall’s End, wouldn’t he? A big old truck with a big old Eden’s Gate cross on the door, just to rub their noses in it, and he’d probably even have the nerve to feel affronted when it all ended in a shootout.
“I have a car, not too far off.” Rook says. “I can walk.”
“Then we look forward to your return.”
Oh, there’s a smile. There’s a smile to set the world on fire.
Rook turns, and walks away, and focuses everything on keeping each step steady and slow, and when his hand touches the door he braces himself, for this to all be for show, for a bullet to be waiting for him on the other side of the door, a couple of Jacob’s Chosen to drag him off to a place that doesn't exist.
He keeps waiting for Joseph to change his mind, for that bullet, a revving engine or an angry voice, and a few Peggies are scattered here and there, watching him go but nobody stops him, nobody fires and Rook walks, and walks until there’s trees and a hill and a bend in the road and he’s mostly sure he’s unwatched and alone.
He drops, on hands and knees with his face down close to the sweet-smelling earth, and for a moment Rook thinks he might be sick but it eases up, passes him by. He just breathes, panting like he’s just run a marathon, lets his hands dig in for the feel of the soft grass, the breeze against the back of his neck. He’s not honestly sure how the hell he’s going to make the return trip, when even standing up again feels like more than he’s got left to give.
“It’s okay. It’s okay." He murmurs. "You’re still here. It’s okay.”
Rook swings the duffel bag off his shoulder, opens it just to check - it could be a trap, a bomb or some Bliss bullshit or a fucking rattlesnake, for all he knows. Except it’s not, there’s just medicine and more medicine, needles and IV bags, all of it safe and factory sealed - and a copy of Joseph’s book, the Eden’s Gate cross gleaming up at him. Rook wonders if it was the strangest order at the vanity publisher that day - maybe, maybe not - and John sure did spare no expense, hardbound and gold-embossed - and Faith’s written his name on the inside page.
A deal with the devil, but Rook’s sold his soul for less. At least this time there’s no grease traps to clean or time cards to punch out for other people.
The radio crackles to life.
“There’s a scorpion and a frog, and they’re in the middle of the river.”
“… and then everybody drowns.” Rook says. “Hello, Eli.”
He was pretty sure the Whitetails had at least one pair of eyes on Joseph’s compound, that someone had noticed his arrival and certainly watched him leave.
“You want something from this that isn’t going to happen.”
Rook wants to keep everyone alive until tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’ll work on the day after that. Anything more is gravy.
“The Wolf’s Den can’t support a quarter of the people we need to move out of the valley, and neither can the Jail. If the Jail’s even safe for the long term.” Rook says. “We need to get to the mountains, and if we started making those kind of moves, that number of people, Jacob would come down on us like a hammer.”
“You think he won’t now?”
That thing deep inside Rook wails, like it’s being torn in two. He can see it all too clearly, Kim in a truck, caught in an ambush, right in the crossfire. The only thing standing in the way of that is the word of Joseph Seed. What in the hell does he think he’s doing?
“We had a plan.”
“Scorched earth? That was a plan?” Rook says. “Jacob wants the war. He wants this to explode. Trial by combat. Stepping on necks. Another rambling goddamn speech. You really think he’s looking forward to seven years underground? He wants this.”
It’s not until he says it, that Rook realizes how true it might be. There’s no place for Jacob Seed in the new Eden, and he must know it. Does Joseph know? What in the hell was Jacob’s plan, if it went the way he wanted - just sit outside on Judgement Day and watch it roll in? God, Rook can see it. The bastard wouldn’t even bother to look impressed.
“You haven’t seen what these things can do. Some new… thing, some creature they couldn’t describe nearly slaughtered Nick and Staci an hour ago. It's taken the Ranch, it killed everyone there. The fog’s getting worse, we might lose the valley. These things killed Dutch, Eli.”
“So you said.”
It does hurt, more than he expected it to, the insinuation that he can’t be trusted. Even with Grace’s word to back up his own, to be better than his own. It shouldn’t sting, Rook knows better. People get angry, you tell them no, they say anything they damn well want.
There’s a backup, Eli. You know that? If this goes wrong. I figure it’s got just about the same chance of working as whatever you cooked up. All I need is for Joseph to trust me enough to let me in the door once, before anyone double-checks my pockets. All I need is all of them in one room, and four seconds of their inattention, and your own plan gets a hell of a lot easier to pull off.
“I need you to tell Jess I’m sorry. I figure she won’t want to talk to me, and that’s fine, but I need her to know that I’m sorry for hurting her. It’s the last thing I wanted to do. If there were any other way-”
“Is that really true?”
“… Mm.” Rook says, anger flaring, burning through the shreds of his patience like a book of matches set alight, all at once. Like this is fun for him. Like Tammy gave him something other than the worst possible ultimatum and expected no push back. “Why don’t you come out and just say it, Eli? ‘Traitor’. Maybe you can carve it into my back. Hang me up as a warning.”
“Don’t come here again. If we see you in Whitetails territory, Deputy, you will be shot on sight.”
Rook looks at the radio, quiet in his hand. He remembers how the first thing he meant to do was reassure Eli that he wasn’t about to give any information to Jacob. He’s still not, for whatever that’s worth.
Shit, he’s probably going to need to repaint the .50 cal.
Rook sighs, and zips the duffel closed, and slowly gets to his feet. It’s not far to the truck now - even less than he thought, because there’s Grace and Joey driving toward him instead. Nobody looks happy.
Round two. Rook thinks. Ding ding.
Grace calls it in, when they’re close to town, so by the time Rook steps into the Spread Eagle everyone’s already turning to look.
“You don’t need to bother.” He says, hands raised in surrender. “Whatever it is, I promise I already heard it from Hudson.”
“I’m sorry, what was that?” Joey says, right on his heels. “What gave you the impression I was finished?”
At least Boomer’s happy he’s back, tail wagging a steady beat against the legs of a bar stool. It’s easier to bend down and pet him than it is to meet anyone else’s gaze. It’s not that Rook regrets what he’s done, especially since he’s still breathing, but all of this isn’t something he’s used to. Usually if he fucks up, he’s already out the door, never to be seen again, unless whoever he’s fighting with beats him to it. It’s usually not worth the time to stick around and be disappointed with Rook in person, but then again, they’ve got nowhere else to go.
“None of them knew. Eden’s Gate had no idea what was going on until I told them. So whatever this is, the mountains are keeping it away from them, for now.” Rook offers the bag up. “I got supplies, for Mary May and the others. I’m not sure what all they gave me, but there’s a lot of it, and it looks useful. They’re gonna let their doctor get on the radio, you can talk to them, see if they have any advice.”
Pastor Jerome takes the bag off his hands, makes a face at the sight of the book but quickly shuffles through the rest. “Joseph Seed did this for you?”
“What in the hell did you have to give him in return?” Nick says, angry and not bothering to hide it. He’s got a cut on his cheek that wasn’t there before, but otherwise he’s in one piece. Staci too, leaning against the back wall, just watching him quietly.
Rook sighs. “I go back. Bright and early, every day after shit calms down here. They get me for… morning services, or whatever the fuck, and I fight here at night. That’s the deal.”
The exact proportions are going to be a work in progress, for whatever he can negotiate. Rook needs to be out in the valley while the sun’s still in the sky, scouting and gathering supplies. Fall’s End needs every pair of hands it can get - they’re going to have to step it up at the slaughterhouse, get every last piece of fruit off the trees. Strip the houses, too - solar panels, light bulbs, anything useful Eden’s Gate hadn’t already appropriated. Rook hasn’t bothered to slap food or sleep into his genius equation either, but there’s always a few gaps to be found.
“The fuck you are.” Joey says. “You think we’re just gonna… what, offer you up and walk away?”
“You know it’s not a good idea, son.” The Sheriff says, and Rook fights the urge to roll his eyes. Whitehorse is a decent enough man, but at the end of the day there’s nothing he can do but sigh and shake his head and point out the obvious. He feels bad for Rook’s situation - and that’s a nice sentiment, but it won’t change the way things are.
“Joseph wants an audience. He wants to be right, and lord it over someone, how right he is. It’s gotta get boring, surrounded by people who only want to kiss his ass. I’m the big sinner, the one he thinks did the most damage, so I’m the one he wants groveling.” God, if only Joseph knew the concepts of Rook and dignity had parted ways years ago, never to be seen again. “If it makes him happy and keeps him occupied, thinking he’s humiliating me, I’ll take it. We’ve got bigger shit to worry about.”
“You can’t trust him.” Jerome says.
“Oh God, no.” Rook says. “This has nothing to do with trust.”
He looks to Pratt, and Nick.
“You tell them yet?”
Nick glances away. Staci swallows. Rook knows that look - no, Pratt hasn’t, because it’s hard to find the words, hard to be in a room already so full of fear with nothing to say that won’t make it worse.
“The ranch is… overrun. Nobody - nobody’s alive out there… and the fog’s coming closer.” Pratt says. “It’s slow, but we’re pretty sure it’s advancing." The rising tide. "It’ll probably take a few days of watching to know just how fast.”
Rook hears that one land, one more moment of stunned silence. Nick has his arms around Kim’s shoulders, and she reaches a hand back, rubbing his knuckles with her thumb. A few of the Resistance are looking at each other, or the ground. It still doesn’t feel real. Maybe it never will.
“So that’s the choice.” Rook says. “Either we reach a stalemate with Eden’s Gate and hope they keep to it, or we hit a bunker now and hope they don’t torch the supplies or do something else fucking crazy, and that it’s enough to keep us alive, for however long this is gonna last. Hope we have the guns and the ammo, if we end up fighting Peggies on one side, with monsters coming up from behind.”
It’s mean of Rook to turn to it back on Hudson, in front of everybody, but damned if he doesn’t do it anyway. “You were in John’s bunker for a while, Joey. Do you think we could take it?”
Rook watches her hands flex, she wants to say yes, to answer without hesitation, but she also knows the truth.
“I don’t… yeah, I think we could, but it wouldn’t be easy and we’d probably lose people trying.”
Staci said whatever it was that attacked the ranch, it came from below. Has he had the same thought Rook’s had - how much protection even a bunker might be in the long run, if any of these things can burrow? Who knows what’s coming that they haven’t seen yet? Maybe they’ll learn how to fly.
Nope nope nope. Don’t borrow trouble, something else is probably going to kill you long before that becomes a problem.
“It’s a shit sandwich, I get that.” Rook says. “I knew it before I went out there. What Eden’s Gate done, whatever the fuck they say their reasons are - I am not asking anyone here for forgiveness or understanding. This is about survival, pure and simple, and Joseph Seed… he could have killed me, he could have done a lot of things, but he let me come back here with a way to help. Maybe that’s just putting off the consequences for another day, maybe he’s got some fucked-up plan in the works but this might the be the best way we have of even reaching the place where he screws us down the road.”
It’s so uninspirational that Rook is surprised it doesn’t thud when it hits the the floor, because he isn’t that guy and never has been. Doing what people want when they want it is being an errand boy, not a leader.
It really should have been Burke out here, all along. Not the first time Rook’s had that thought, that someone fucked up the roster. He should have ended up with Faith and then Burke could have been the one to wave the flag and make the stand and take it all so damn personally. Joseph would have liked that better too, a proper foil to his theatrics, because sure Rook can get angry - wrathful - but it’s not the same, even with Jacob it burns out too fast, just leaves him feeling like he’s standing at the foot of an insurmountable Everest of bullshit, nothing in front or behind but wasted time and meaningless pain.
Staci’s eyes flick past him, to the open door. “You hear that?”
Yeah. Rook’s lizard brain is pretty well primed now to the sound of engines overhead, no one on lookout duty outside because they spent all last night shooting at monsters instead. Grace leads the cautious move toward the door, out onto the street, ready to take cover just in case but Rook doubts it’s necessary. He wonders if it’s John up there in that plane, wonders how Fall’s End looks different than it did just a few days ago.
“What do we do?” Someone says, and Rook shrugs. Eden’s Gate’s doing a survey run, probably passing by on the way to the ranch, and then maybe even out over that endless sea of mist, until it finally starts to sink in that Rook really wasn’t kidding about the problem at hand.
“If they want to see it, let them see.”
Jacob’s probably enlisted some of his own to go on foot, no doubt sneaking their way down through the valley to the river, maybe even to the ranch. Rook wonders how far they’ll get, if they’ll try to make it through the night, and who will replace them when they don’t come back.
The plane circles around the town once, a low, wide loop, and Nick raises one hand and then the other, and Kim rolls her eyes but follows suit, and then it’s more or less the whole population of Fall’s End coming together to give Peggie reconnaissance a double-bird salute.
Well, at least nobody’s getting shot out of the sky.
The meeting doesn’t reach anything like a resolution, but everyone’s got competing priorities and the ticking clock of the sun overhead. Jerome’s already gone to see to the wounded, and Nick thinks he’ll have the plane up and running before the end of the day, wants to move it out and airlift Mary May with him when he goes. Addie’s coming down again, they’re trying to open up more storage in her copter, see if she can’t manage a few more of the worst off - and Kim, whatever it takes to convince her to leave.
“I’m not done being pissed at you.” Nick says, pointing at him in lieu of goodbye.
“Noted.” Rook says. God, they’re going to have to clear it all out, the whole hangar and the house, too. It’s gonna take people, and trucks, and how in the hell are they gonna get all the gas out and where in the hell are they gonna move it to?
It’s hard to keep his thoughts together, Rook stopping to consider any of the logistics and suddenly it’s all spiraling out into everything else that needs immediate attention - all of it, right now - and how much could go wrong and how many of the particulars he can’t anticipate, let alone control. Suddenly, it’s ten minutes later and Rook’s been staring up the road at nothing while the rest of the Resistance has gone off in ones and twos, probably to have uncharitable conversations about his mental state, leaving Rook to the judgment of his fellow officers. The Hope County Sheriff’s Department was never exactly an intimidating presence before all this - but at least they’re still here. That must count for something.
“We’re gonna need to clear out Dutch’s bunker, sooner rather than later.” Rook says, adding one more emergency to the pile. “I may have let it slip in front of Joseph that it’s all just sitting there, unguarded.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem, should it, now that you’re all such good friends?” Joey snaps back, instant and vicious, only to wince a moment later, one hand half-raised in apology. “Sorry Rook, that was… that was way out of line.”
“We’re all in a pressure cooker right now.” Rook says. “Don’t worry about it.”
“So, what’s your take?” Staci says. “What do you think happens, if we start moving north?”
It’s not really an ‘if’ anymore, not with things looking the way they do, but Rook doesn’t want to say it either.
“Faith won’t do a damn thing without Joseph’s approval, and John won’t challenge him, at least not directly. Jacob… I don’t fucking know. And that’s only if they’ve got as tight a rein on all their people when it’s not time to be fucking crazy.” He sighs. “I figure either we get as much as we can out, while our luck holds, try to fortify someplace else, or he makes his move right out of the gate, and at least then we know how it’s gonna be.”
And then Rook’s life becomes very small, simple and bloody, for however much of it he's got.
“So what happens when they all get bored with you?” Staci says. “What are you gonna do then?”
“… run?” Frankly, running like hell has worked out as good as anything else in keeping Eden’s Gate from taking more than the occasional bite out of him.
“I can’t believe you just left.” Joey says. “You should have said something. We should have put this to a vote.”
“I’m not a democracy, Hudson.” Rook says, and it comes out much sharper, angrier than he intended - pressure cooker - and he winces, just like she did. “Sorry. I know how it could have gone, and it would have been shitty to leave you with it like that - but it’s still my life to spend, and this is the best place I can spend it. There’s nothing important about me except that Joseph Seed thinks there is. You all can do everything else I ever did just as well as I ever did. If it’d been any different up in that copter, it might even be one of you standing where I am now, maybe saying the same damn thing.”
“We can argue all day about could’ve or should’ve, but the simple truth is it’s been done.” The Sheriff says. “Now we figure out what happens next.”
Rook takes a slight step back. “I think there’s certain conversations I should be left out of from here on out.”
That does not, of course, make Joey any happier. “What are you saying?”
“He’s saying if it goes wrong, he won’t be able to tell them anything that could hurt us.” Staci says, a hard, closed-off look in his eyes, because they’ve both been there, Pratt’s seen exactly what happens when it does go wrong.
“You’re still clear of all this, Joey.” Rook says, to take his attention off of Pratt, to yank his mind back from where it had begun to wander down those red, red halls. “I did this dumbass thing all on my own, so you and the Sheriff have nothing to apologize for when you go back to the Cougars and they ask if you told me to go fuck myself. Maybe you can even keep a channel open with the Whitetails - they definitely told me to go fuck myself.”
The ceasefire doesn’t need to be everyone joining hands and singing songs, doesn't need to be all tied up in a neat bow. It just needs to be enough to get those guns pointed away from each other and toward the greater threat.
“You’re an asshole.” Joey says, sad and angry and aware she’s lost this argument. A good cop, someone who wants to protect and serve and Rook can’t figure out how to tell her that he’s not worth this much of her frustration or concern, that he was always going to do something stupid to disappoint her.
“Yeah,” Rook says. “But it’s gonna be okay.”
“Oh, fuck off with that.” At least it almost makes her laugh.
One or two dark looks get aimed in Rook’s direction as the day goes on. A few discussions that go quiet when he passes by, but these are the same people he barely knows who’d congratulated him for things Rook didn't always remember doing, and honestly their scorn means about as much as their approval. What matters is that Kim still smiles when she sees him, calls him a dumbass before tossing him a sandwich of mid-morning leftovers wrapped up and ready to go.
Rook’s always been an easy mark - feed him, and he’ll stay.
The day is long and short all at the same time, too much to do in every direction and too few hands to get it done, and there are people who need help, people who didn’t get hit two nights ago who got hit now and there’s repair work and resources to be gathered and any trepidation Rook has for the path he’s set for himself or what the next day might bring just evaporates against the landslide of the tasks in front of him. Tomorrow? Tomorrow might as well be on the other side of the moon.
So he helps hook up the Widowmaker to the biggest trailer they’ve got, packed full of everyone who isn’t busy fortifying the town and caravans down with an empty fuel truck to the aviation field. Nick plans to come down in a day or two, advise on anything they might have overlooked, but it’s a place to start and they’ve got to start somewhere. Rook doesn’t have enough left in the tank for making plans - he lets the sheriff handle the logistics and naps in the passenger side on the way down, devolving into a pair of useful arms and legs on autopilot for the next several hours, helping dismantle everything he’s told to, staying behind while the first load of materials is carried away.
Nick and Kim had both given him a scavenger hunt list of things they wanted from the house, and it feels a little less ghoulish to be there for a purpose, a little less like their home is just one more empty shell, where all the good things used to be.
The majority of the important stuff’s already with them, the absolute necessities, and with any luck there’ll be plenty of time to strip down the rest, for Nick to come back here himself for a final sweep but there’s no point in taking any chances - and Rook’s still awed, how the Ryes trust him, how easily they’ve just folded him into their lives. So here he is, picking through Kim’s underwear drawer and Nick’s side of the closet, not only for spare clothes and spare supplies but items of sentimental value. A necklace from Kim’s mother, a dutch oven that had been a wedding gift from a friend who’d died years ago. A chess set, hand-carved by Nick’s great-grandfather, and he’d almost seemed embarrassed when he’d asked for it, even though he didn’t know how to play.
Definitely embarassed about the porno stash he wanted Rook to get rid of, the one Kim doesn’t know about.
“… and don’t you dare get rid of that porno stash.” Kim had laughed. “The one he thinks I don’t know about.”
Rook finds the magazines in the back of the hanger, behind a stack of boxes and under a pile of old rugs. Tame enough to be downright endearing, coated in a layer of dust that suggests Nick kept them around for some sort of half-assed bachelor escape hatch he never actually wanted. Rook ties them up in a garbage bag for later delivery to the Boshaw National Archive and Fetish Sanctuary. The Library of Alexandria with centerfolds.
Everyone works quick and quiet - no music, not much chatter. The wall of fog is visible from just beyond the end of the drive, so no one wanders too far in that direction and the gravel crunches much too loud when Rook finally does take a break, and his feet seem to drag him there of their own accord. He stops well shy of anything close to the edge, just far enough to see what he already knows is true - the mist obscuring the bend in the river, erasing the shore with a terrible stillness that seems to muffle every other sound. Boomer isn’t going crazy, but he isn’t roaming either, right at Rook’s side and not a paw further.
He looks down the road, towards where the ranch is… or was. He wonders what John saw from the air - and it was almost certainly him, up in that plane, if Joseph had allowed it - and will it be enough to convince him, and what will it mean if it does?
It’s almost predetermined, when this gets worse there will be a sermon from Joseph casting the whole thing down on them - what’s the point of having sinners otherwise, if you can’t blame them for everything - but then why let Rook leave in the first place? Why bother with playing the line, when he’s already jumped into the fucking net?
Because they can. Because they want to. It’s not about winning, it’s about seeing you break. You know how this works.
Footsteps crackle in the gravel behind him, and Boomer turns, tongue lolling for a moment as Staci scratches him behind the ears, as they both stare out past the edge of the world. Rook’s eyes almost hurt, trying to catch any hint of movement, wondering if it would even matter, if something out there decided to make it worth their time. How does he know this is a safe enough distance, just because it feels like he might have a moment’s warning?
“You want to see it?” Staci says.
“Nope.” Rook shakes his head. “Show me.”
The pictures off the phone aren’t great - it’s an older model, borrowed from somewhere, all their own equipment long gone - and everything’s shot from a distance and mostly off-kilter, more than a few of them just blurs and the rest…
“Jesus God.” Rook murmurs. It shouldn’t look that bad - hazy and ill-defined, even when he zooms in, nothing as clear as it’d be if this were the moment from the movies but that also makes it much worse, much more real. Little bits of skin that could be foam rubber, other shapes that could be anything - it’s like a bad haunted house, a forest of mismatched faces and limbs all pinned to the walls, twisted at odd angles in the creeper vines strangling the trees. As if something saw the bodies hanging from the billboards and took it as a challenge. Hold my beer.
A vine wider across than Rook’s arm, digging under a ribcage - there’s the pattern of a flannel shirt, that’s what's underneath and those are tendrils that have wound their way around…. yeah, that’s a snapped bone and that’s a hand with fingers curled, still white knuckled, helpless against the inevitable and that’s, fuck, he thinks he knows who that is - was - even with the flesh mottled and torn, the vines wrapped around their throat and digging right up inside and through -
Rook turns off the screen, swallowing back bile.
“Any idea how big it is?”
“None.” Staci says. “Sheriff was thinking if it’s got anything like a root system… might not be even much point in trying to burn it down. It’s not like it’ll do anyone there any good, either way.”
“I want it gone.” It’s irrational, Rook knows, but it feels… it feels like he’s leaving them there, abandoning them if nothing’s done. Even if they’re dead. He can’t leave them like that. “Nick can save the explosives, maybe we can rig something up from one of the silos we’ve got left. Give Sharky something to keep him occupied.”
Step one on the not-at-all ironic adventure of being glad he didn’t blow up all of John’s shit right away, and of course the bastard probably won’t take every opportunity to point that out to him, that now they’re just following in his footsteps, picking up on the plan where he left off. Maybe if Rook eats enough crow it’ll cut down on how much he has to bleed.
Staci nods, not arguing as he takes the phone back. “If the fog moves three feet, five feet a day… hell, even ten or more…”
“You know I went to a community college, right?” As if it’s at all their fault that Rook can’t math.
“I’m saying we’ve got some time to plan, if it keeps going like it is.” Staci says, even though it sounds like he’s trying to reassure himself. “… you did?”
“Transferred after two years. Saved some cash.” He left that part off the resume. No one was supposed to know, to decide if they didn’t like it that they’d hired themselves a discount cop. No one had to know anything about just how he got there or where he came from or how hard it was, how he’d worked at the parts that weren’t even supposed to be work, and it didn’t matter because Rook was gonna be different. His whole life was going to be different.
Born again. You dumb shit.
“So where you gonna have them tattoo that cross on you?” Staci says. “Left buttcheek or right?”
God, Pratt really is a dick. One of the only reasons to bother with staying sane.
“Both, maybe?” Rook shrugs. “Kind of a billboard effect.”
“Maximum coverage.” Staci agrees. “If you don’t want to go back, you don’t have to go. I don’t give a shit how much it screws us, and neither does anyone else, and I don’t really care if they do. You can change your mind anytime.”
“I have to do something.” Rook says. “But if you come up with a better plan, I am all-”
The scream makes them both jump, a sudden burst of shouts and cries and the sounds of gunfire across the river, in the mist. Staci and Rook have their guns raised in the same instant, trained on nothing, and Boomer isn’t making a sound but he’s pressed up against Rook’s leg, ears flat and trembling all over.
“The fuck do we do?” Staci yells as the chaos continues, louder now - glass splintering and something exploding and more shouting, the sound of engines roaring and he knows as well as Rook there’s nothing they can do, whoever’s out there is all on their own and it doesn’t make sense, how the fuck did any group that large even get out there and why, even the Peggies couldn’t be that -
The same scream again, twice in quick succession, odd enough to catch his attention even past the thud of his heart and as Rook listens closer the sounds of death and panic echo strangely, out of order and overlapping and that same scream that finally makes sense of what he’s hearing, even if it’s an impossible sort of sense - and then silence, all at once. The bad kind of silence. The whole world holding its breath.
“It’s… not real. Or at least, it’s not happening now. That was the Ranch, I think. When they…” Rook says, when he can manage it. “It’s like those birds, the ones that mimic sounds. It’s not real, it’s just…”
“It’s not real.” Rook’s voice calls back to him, from the fog. Higher then, and lower, a whole chorus of himself. “It’s not real, like those birds, it’s just not real, the ones that mimic, that mimic like birds, like sounds, it’s not, it’s just birds not real not real not real….”
Maybe they should give Sharky a whole silo or two to play with. Make sure it all burns.
“Rook? Hey.“ Staci’s hand on his shoulder, and he startles and oh yeah, that’s breathing, that’s how that works. “… how about we not be here anymore?”
“Yeah.” It takes his legs a few more moments to agree to the idea, as they back away slowly, Boomer behind them and neither of them turning around until they can hear the muted activity from Nick’s place again, until the river and everything beyond disappears from view.
1. So, how about that New Dawn ending.
Rook sets down the crate of ammunition, and then sets himself down on top of it, leaning back against the side of the water tower with a sigh. Hopefully, it’ll be the last of what they’ll need up here for the night, enough of an effort even though they’ve rigged together a couple of boards and a pulley to do the worst of the heavy lifting. The whole tower’s been fortified with another layer of defenses - it looks worse than ever, right out of the generic post-apocalypse discard pile - but it’s solid and sturdy, and they’ve even worked out a couple of quick routes out, just in case.
Nick and Kim are finally gone, Adelaide swooping in as escort, along with Mary May and the worst of the wounded. Hurk Sr. was exactly as happy with the idea as expected, turning ‘Fort Drubman’ into a field hospital, but somewhere along the way the Sheriff and the Mayor and the former Mrs. Drubman had something like a discussion in which he gracefully agreed to support the common good, either because Minkler promised that he’d never have to pay another dime in taxes or Addie had some blackmail that still held sway, even here at the end of the world.
So far, the fog hasn’t made it as far east as Lorna’s, even at high-tide. Still clinging to the valley, but the jail is practically on the river and Rook doesn’t like it, doesn’t trust that at all, how fast things could change. Of course most of Hope County thinks he’s crazy now, thinks Fall’s End’s stuck in the middle of some new kind of Bliss trip - something weaponized, because he didn’t hit Faith as fast or as hard as he was supposed to. Pratt’s got the pictures, which might be evidence if they were any clearer, if any of this was making anything like sense. You really had to see it to even try to believe it, and why would they want to see when they’ve got solid walls and firepower and Rook is consorting with the enemy?
It’s going to take some effort to get anything in the mountains up to the same kind of protection, anyway - they’re digging in at Gardenview first, up past what ought to be the edge of it, a decent fallback for the moment. Rook remembers the mist from that first morning in the trees - it hadn’t hung there by any rational design, a good chance nowhere is really safe, but it’s not like that information is of much use. The only thing they can do is be wary, be careful.
Wait and see who draws the short straw.
It’s quieter up here, but Rook can still hear the work going on in town, with a clear view all around to where nothing’s happening yet. Jerome had finally shooed him away, demanded he rest up a bit, but every time Rook closes his eyes he has his choice of things he’d rather not see, and it’s hard to calm down. He tries to give himself a little mental vacation instead, a few seconds of deliberately focusing on something better.
Rook thinks about the view up north, that cabin by the lake way the hell up, where he’d nearly been pecked off a cliff by a majestic symbol of patriotism. The peaceful little clearing might be his favorite place in the whole county, a place he would have dreamed about having the kind of money to ever call his own. Rook will need to seek out Bo at some point, warn him of everything that’s happened, that he can’t rely on just knowing the mountain to stay safe anymore - but maybe just being up there will still be enough. Nick said he’d seen the whole range, the highest peaks still sticking up out of the fog. Maybe Rook should stash some supplies up there, in case shit gets bad - worse than bad. Give someone half a fighting chance to ride this out.
It’d be nice, if the eagles survived. It really would.
“Daniel in the lion’s den. Is that what you think you are?”
Oh, and here it is, absolutely the last thing in the world Rook wants to deal with. Jacob fucking Seed. Why not.
“Do you think you’ll be rewarded?”
Tell him to go fuck himself. Go on, do it. It’ll be fun.
Yeah. Just get everyone killed. Good plan.
“You really want to keep me waiting, hero?”
What Rook really wants to do is beat Jacob to death with a mailbox post, but that’s more of an aspirational goal. He picks up the radio, already regretting it. “Did John tell you what he saw out there?”
Now here’s a thought - has Rook ever gone as far as a complete sentence with the eldest Seed until now? John got his ‘yes’ as soon as he’d asked for it, and Rook’s sure he must have rambled steadily at Faith, whatever she asked for and whatever he thought might make her smile to hear, the Bliss turning him chatty - but he’d been pretty fucked up the entire time he’d been in Jacob’s company. Most of what he does remember was the dull terror in Staci’s eyes, silently begging him to stay quiet for all those one-way monologues from the world’s shittiest football coach.
Rah rah, team. Fight. Win. Eat the enemy.
“It’s not going to work, this little plan of yours.”
Jacob thinks there’s a plan. That’s adorable.
“How far did your men get, before they stopped calling in?” Rook says. “If you don’t pull whoever’s left out of the valley before dark, you won’t get them back.”
Does he have any kind of night vision tech on hand? Would it even work? Not that they’d ever share but at this point Rook would take anyone being able to see through that shit over no one.
Where’s that little box of yours hiding, I wonder.
Jacob has to have it on him now, probably just itching to put it to work and it’s okay, it’s okay, all Rook has to do is fight back for two, maybe three seconds tops. Either he’ll power through it somehow or it’s a quick roll and drop off the edge of the tower and sorry everybody, hopefully he won’t make too much of a mess.
When he’d woke up there in the mountains with nothing but corpses for company, Rook had wondered if he’d done all that himself, or they hadn’t survived and Jacob had just dumped him out with the rest of the garbage, hoping some passing wildlife might finish the job. Obviously, there’d been a plan for him, but if Rook had felt like dying before he had a chance to be useful, that didn’t seem to bother Jacob too much. Nothing seems to bother Jacob too much.
Rook thought they’d all failed, all those dead men, but who is he to say? Maybe a few of them had hit that same split in the path, knowing they were too far gone, the only choice left one of liberty or death - and so they’d done what they had to. Sometimes strength doesn’t look like strength, and winning doesn’t look like winning. Maybe a lot of the time.
“No grass growing under your feet, hero. I understand there’s already been movement into my territory.” Maybe they’re going to spend this entire conversation just talking past each other. It might be for the best. “Hardly a secure position for so many people, especially when half of them can’t stand up on their own. Was it the right call, offering them up like that?”
It’s been years, since Rook has had to hate this much, but God if it doesn’t feel like yesterday. Nothing in him has forgotten how to do this. He feels cold.
“If you’re going to go out of your way to murder an unarmed pregnant woman, I don’t think anything I can say will change your mind.”
“Unarmed.” Jacob’s voice is measured, toneless and impenetrable. That might have actually been something approaching amusement. “You really think you’re doing them a favor.”
“Do you know how many people it takes to repopulate a world? Anyone up there ever bothered to calculate out the bare minimum?”
Souls, nothing. At a certain point, if they really are all that’s left - they can’t be, they just can’t be - it’s a simple numbers game. How many people have to die before all the raw, unchecked dick-swinging in the world isn’t going to matter? Before even Eden’s Gate dwindles slowly to dust, and the only thing the strong are gonna have left to do is compete to see who digs the last grave?
“Tell me everything you know about what you’ve seen.”
At least this is safe - information Rook doesn’t mind sharing, even if it makes as many questions as it answers. He explains the orchard, the mist, the creature in the lake and what he’d seen of the ranch. The monsters they’ve fought - relative size, capabilities, how fire consistently seems to make them think twice. The speed of the fog - when it comes, how long it stays. What he saw in the mountains, that first hint of something not right - unnatural. Jacob only interrupts to clarify on the details- just one in the lake? Is he sure? How much advance warning do the dogs give them? Does he think the ones who can mimic, is it strategic or just a reflex?
“Are they animals, or do they plan?”
Rook pauses a moment, to imagine the hubris of Jacob actually trying to bring one of these fucking things to heel, and what - if anything - would be left of him afterward. It’s a really good thought. It makes this entire conversation almost worthwhile.
The word’s already gone out - trust nothing that comes from inside the fog. No sounds of panic. No cries for help. Which is gonna be real, real fun when they’re all back in the middle of it, but Rook’s busy enough not thinking about what he’d heard to worry about dealing with it again.
It doesn’t take all that long, to sum up everything that’s happened so far - it’s been what, forty-eight hours? Less? There’s so much they don’t know, and when Rook’s done the line goes quiet for long enough that he thinks that must be it, conversation over. He wonders if he dares to call up to Nick and Hurk and the rest, if a warning would make any difference. They knew the risks, they didn’t trust Joseph, dealing with all of this well before Rook ever showed up. They’ll be fine.
“You were always quiet.” Jacob says, for whatever reason. “Never begged, or tried to bargain, or asked for mercy.”
“I know what you are.” Rook says, before he can stop himself. “It wouldn’t have made any difference.”
“So you know me now, deputy?”
Rook wants to say every massacre and inquisition, every masterpiece lost and book burned and city sacked there’s an identical one of you fuckers there thinking it means you’re the one true king and he wants to say all my life, all my life just the same parade of assholes trying to tell me how little I’m worth, and how I can make it up to them, and you’re supposed to be special? and he really, really wants to say how does it feel knowing you pissed around all this time just to become your fucking father in the end?
Yeah, that’s all gonna stay with the inside voice.
“There’s been chatter from the Whitetails.” That cold, distant amusement again. “I don’t think they approve of you cutting deals. Seems a little ungrateful to me.”
Why doesn’t he just ask where the Wolf’s Den is? Not that he’d asked that second time he’d thrown Rook into a cage either, when it seemed that would have been the most sensible move, certainly ‘enhanced interrogation’ among his many party tricks. Rook’s waiting for it, that Jacob’s sitting somewhere with Nick’s back in the sights of his scope and let’s see you make that choice now, Rook. Let me be smug and sanctimonious while you do it, and maybe I’ll kill everyone you know anyway no matter what, because I feel like it. Because I’m such a fucking big man.
“You think I’m doing this all for my benefit? Indulging in some personal grudge?” Jacob continues. “Palmer knows the bunkers, from the inside. If there’s anything he can exploit, he will. Do you think he’d hesitate now, just because you asked nicely?”
Rook doesn’t know. He doesn’t know very much at all about Eli, except that he dragged Rook out of the stinking hell that Jacob had thrown him into. Tammy, on the other hand - she would have carved straight through him to get a shot at her revenge, and now Rook’s sure she would have done it even before he wadded up her plan and threw it back in her face.
Eventually, something’s gonna give. Striking out against Jacob’s off the table, Rook’s made that call - and he gets it, why the Whitetails would refuse to even think about standing down, no matter what, but it’s not like he can do a thing about that either. There’s no way he can betray - shit, Wheaty’s what? Seventeen? None of this should be his problem, because all the grownups decided to play who’s the biggest dickhead in the forest.
At the moment, maybe the best Rook can hope for is a stalemate - both sides still taking swipes at each other, but neither one with the clear advantage. Hopefully the Sheriff is able to make some apologies, ease things away from the boiling point - sorry about the dumbass probie, he fucks up way above his pay grade.
“Maybe we’ll all just kill each other first, save you the trouble.” Rook says.
“You want to send your little friend back up the mountain before then, I might be in a forgiving mood. Waste not, want not.” Oh, this. This is what they’re going to do now. Rook glances out into town again, wonders where Pratt’s gone to, if he’s finding it hard to sleep when the room’s too quiet, if his thoughts keep chasing themselves, skittish and wild. “You still think he belongs to you, don’t you?”
Staci belongs to himself. Rook has to believe it, that violence can’t just kick down the door and take anything it wants on a whim. Even if Jacob can hurt and force and get his way, crush people down into single-serving victories - it doesn’t mean he understands shit about shit, except how to break it. Pain is easy. A ten-year-old with a cattle prod could do most of what he’s capable of.
The whole time you thought you had Staci under your thumb, he had an eye on the exit, and when it came time, for some fucking reason he took me with him. He put my life in front of his own, and I couldn’t pay that back even before the shit he did for me at the lake. No matter what terrible thing you might do now, to me or him or everyone, no matter how this ends that’s never not gonna be true.
“Did you hurt him?”
He’s wondered. Rook’s thought about torture and humiliation and the usual brutal methods of making someone feel less, how to make sure they know their place - and yeah, Rook’s wondered. There is no way he can think of to ask Staci that question that won’t do some damage, whether it’s true or not, so he might as well go to the source.
A soft, almost laugh. “Oh, hero-”
“You know exactly what I’m fucking asking.” Rook says. “Did you or your people hurt him?”
“My people do what they’re told.”
“Yeah, you had a real short leash on the fucking Cook there. Absolutely under control.” Imagine a thing like that locked in a bunker. Imagine how long before it turned on its own kind.
“Are you finished yet?”
A sigh. It could mean anything. He’s half expecting Jacob to get off the line for real this time, just walk away.
Rook believes him. The man doesn’t respect him enough to bother with lying.
“What do you imagine he was - a victim?” Jacob says, and he can hear the smile there now. Remembers the way the man’s expression never changed, but it lit up in the back of his eyes, distant fires over high hills. “He never told you, did he? Never mentioned how quick he -”
“I don’t care.” It’s a bad idea, pushing back, but Rook can’t help it. It’s not like Jacob would believe it, anyway, if he kept being obedient and agreeable - and this is the bitch of the thing, this is what Rook hates the most about assholes. When you end up spending half your time trying to figure out what they want, to play to their moods when none of it really matters. They only work backward - they want to punish, and so they’ll find a reason to, or make one up.
“Careful, pup. Another man might mistake that bark for a challenge. Might even start thinking about how to respond.”
Jacob has too many cards to play, too much leverage and he knows it and it’s fraying Rook’s temper down to the last thread.
“It’s an easy problem to solve. A knife for each of us and five minutes or so? It’ll sort itself out.” Rook says. “Or can you only get hard if I’m in a cage?”
That, Rook? That was one of those things for the inside voice.
“… I need to prove something to you now, pup?”
I think you talk a lot about strength for a man who never came to get me himself. Hunt. Kill. Supervise? Rook bites his tongue until he tastes blood - be smart, dipshit. Dial it back. Be smarter than you ever are.
“I think you don’t waste effort where you don’t have to. Watching us soak up the damage will give you the best view of the field and what’s on it. Save your resources, save your strength. It’s the path of least resistance.”
“Well, shit.” Jacob says. “Is that supposed to make me not want to kill you?”
“How about you fucking try it then.” Rook snarls. “Maybe stop hiding behind your fucking army and threatening my people and stand in front of me and just try. Maybe you’ll win - but the last one of you that gave me the chance? I put him in a goddamn wheelchair. Whatever happens, I promise you’ll remember me.”
… and which part of that was supposed to be a good idea? Rook has his hands clenched tight, fingers digging against the seams of his jeans and they’re shaking - anger, and more, other things that never should have been a part of this conversation, old bones rising up out of the muck. Hopefully the radio flattens it all out. Hopefully the threat is all that matters. Which… yeah, great fucking idea there, champ. Take a wild swing at the professional brick shithouse and side gig psychopath. This is why you let other people think the important thoughts, Rook. This is why you just let them point you and aim.
“Maybe John was right about you after all.”
Nothing more. Rook waits, and waits. And then he waits for the call, for the panic and the fight, for Jacob to do what he does. Rook wouldn’t hear it from here, if they did attack the house. Sound travels far in the county but not quite that far. The marina would notice, though. Addie would send word.
Unless he hit there, too. Unlikely that those boundary lines meant anything like what they used to - fuck, he hopes Faith has the sense to get someplace safe, that she’s protecting herself with more than Blissed-out junkies with gardening tools.
Who are you trying to save here, Rook? How do you think this will go? I can tell you how it ends, if you really want to know. But you’re not going to like it.
Rook shuts his eyes, inhales and lets it out slow and wishes it made him feel any more calm.
‘Goddamn wheelchair.’ All these years and the first one you’re gonna throw that at is Jacob fucking Seed? You deserve what’s coming, if you let him get to you like that.
He’s tried so hard to get past, let go, put any of it behind him but it never stays gone.
Sacrifice. It wasn’t a slogan, wasn’t a victory, or thing you did to other people to pretend to make yourself strong. It got torn out of you by your own hands - the last thing anyone could ever want to do. Only pain, no story here, no grand design - but it had to be done so you did it, you did it and whatever happened next there was no fucking celebrating.
… and you close your eyes, and there’s the look on her face, because she knows what you are now. What you always must have been, and all that love just vaporizes like it never was. You know what you are - and then you gotta get up and carry it somehow, limp along and make believe, pretend this is still living and you close your eyes and there’s the look on her face-
Rook hears the faintest rustle, little more than a whisper but it still carries. It carries because there’s no other sound, now that he’s learning about all new kinds of quiet and Falls End is silent, it’s hollow.
He jerks to his feet, lunging forward - hits the railing hard enough to bruise. Fog everywhere, and beneath that there are only vines twisting around each other, the ground consumed, no signs of life - it’s not possible, it’s not, it’s so fucking quiet - and there’s that whisper again, louder now because he can see the tendrils winding and creeping their way up the struts and through the panels and the rungs in the ladder, twining around the spikes like handholds, weaving their way toward him and there’s nowhere to run and nothing to run to, nothing left for Rook to do except watch the first few wind their way up over his boot, tangling in the laces and-
He wakes up in midair, doesn’t realize he’s fallen off the box until he hits the catwalk and his hands are dug down against the metal to scramble back. It takes everything Rook’s got to swallow back the scream, to do anything other than throw himself off the tower in a panic. He’d been asleep. Who knows for how long. The sun’s nearly set and drops of sweat are falling onto his hands, his injured leg reminding him it’s still injured and there’s no fog and no vines and Rook listens to distant conversations and the clang of tools against metal and the thud of his heartbeat and just breathes.
Now here’s the real fun question - did Jacob even fucking call?
The sound of the warning siren grates along his spine - a notice to everyone in town, anyone working or scavenging nearby, it’s time to call it a day. Time to get ready and see what the night wants to bring.
“Hey.” Staci says, moving quickly up the ladder. “You all right?”
“Fine.” Rook says, standing up to make sure it’s true. He has a not insignificant stockpile of Tweak’s more successful product testing with him, various baggies and bottles with labels sloppily x’d over and new names scrawled in or doodled on. Rook’s avoided most of them since he’d popped one to help deal with a pack of Angels and woke up hours later with grass in his mouth, half a radio in his hands and a deer nibbling on one of the protein bars he’d somehow tied to his remaining shoe, listening to his heart do its best to chainsaw its way through his chest and hitchhike home.
Side effects, Tweak had said. Mild side effects.
With Faith dancing at the edges of too many fields already, he’s tried to limit the number of times he’d purposefully ingested anything in the family of ‘meth’s slightly-more-ambitious cousin,’ but here and now Rook pops the lid and swallows a few pills without hesitation, wonders if Tweak might be able to whip something up so he never, ever has to think about sleeping again.
Prepping the tower is quick and quiet - Staci brought up dinner with him, and Rook takes the bowl he’s handed and polishes it off in less than a minute, barely noticing whatever it was supposed to be. He wonders where Jacob is - he has to be watching this. Maybe Joseph is too, from up on top of his stupid-ass statue. It won’t give him a good view of the town, but he’ll probably still get to see the mist roll in. Rook wonders which Bible verse he’ll pull out for the occasion. There’s one for everything. Of course, the same goes for Simpsons quotes.
“Listen to your mother, kids. Aim low.” Rook murmurs, setting the bowl down, picking up his gun. “Aim so low, no one will even care if you succeed.”
Tweak’s ‘definitely probably won’t make you go blind too much’ kicks in fairly quickly after that. Rook feels sharper, clearer, all the cobwebs and a majority of the thoughts all cleared away, making space for what matters. He’s sure he’ll pay for it later, but later’s not now and now’s what he needs.
Dusk turns to night like the flick of a switch, crickets and stars and no lights along the main drag, not until the fog comes in. The town’s already conserving fuel, already pivoting from “after the cult is gone” to “digging in for the long haul.”
The world that was, and would be again, with all the great works of man fallen into disrepair. It’s what Jacob thinks he wants, what all the Peggies are clamoring for - the return to Vaygue Ye Olde Testymynte Tymes, when men were men and women were interchangeable and all the children were bargaining chips. A perfect paradise that could never disappoint because it never existed, because Rook will eat his fucking flannel if Jacob even paid attention in high-school history, if his overarching narrative is anything more useful than a bitchy bumper sticker about welfare duct-taped to a ‘300’ DVD.
Or maybe he’s right, maybe the world’s fragile and sliding toward broken and maybe it’s always destined to fall to pieces - but the first thing people do when they drag themselves back up out of the ashes is start sticking the Lego bricks back together, start looking up toward the stars - toward literature and hot showers, fluffy pillows and shitty takeout and all those other soft and glorious weaknesses that make it actually worth the effort.
Sitting here right now, Rook’s living life like it was in that pure beginning of man - perched up high and scared as hell of everything on the ground, all those things in the dark that want him dead. So yeah, maybe the world threw more shitty hands than decent ones - throws more, because the world’s not gone, seven billion goddamn people don’t just vanish without a fight - but given the options he’s still gonna have to cast his vote with civilization.
The moon’s risen big and bright, illuminating everything - enough that Rook thinks he can see the shadows pushing just behind the edge of the fog as it comes, the lope of limbs instead of twisting vines that’s almost a relief and he wonders if he sings now, if they’d sing back to him and maybe let’s not, Rook. Just shuffle that thought right to the back of the deck.
What do you think, Joseph? The apocalypse everything you hoped it would be?
“Got a big one headed for the church. Two.” Staci says. Grace is already engaging in the other direction - maybe a war on two fronts tonight. Good times.
Just sit back and enjoy the show. Rook thinks, taking aim.
Another night’s worth of shooting at a big angry pile of fuck knows what. It’s hard to tell if the creatures are getting smarter or tougher or both - fire keeps working, direct hits from the big guns will slow them up, but very few of them seem to fall. At least whatever felt like talking back to him didn’t come over the river - Rook doesn’t hear himself down there, or the ghost of the ranch, though it doesn’t stop him from spending the whole night listening. There’s no relief from the fear, even when the fighting eases up - just waiting for the thing he hadn’t noticed yet to creep up behind him, for the next surprise to spit acid or throw spikes or scream loud enough to explode heads and thanks Sharky for reminding him Scanners was a thing.
It goes on and on and on until it’s over - a quarter of an hour later than the night before, if it means anything. The sun rises, the nightmare tucks itself away for the day. Fall’s End is still standing and it’s been two days since their last decapitation. Rook’s got a Tweak-induced headache pounding behind his right eye and his hands hurt and his back hurts - and there’s an Eden’s Gate truck rolling right up into town, before he’s managed to do much more than get off the ladder. John Seed sits behind the wheel, fresh as a fucking daisy and when he sees Rook he lights up like a kid with a hammer in a china shop, a kid with a magnifying glass who’s just picked out his new favorite anthill.
“That arrogant son-of-a-bitch came alone?“ Staci snarls, and Rook has a hand on his shoulder before he can do anything more, shoving him back toward the church.
“Go check on Jerome. Rest up. For fuck’s sake, don’t let Hudson see him here.” Rook turns away, keeps moving before there can be any argument.
John did indeed come alone, no doubt for some brilliant fucking suicidal reason known only to lawyers and sadists - and Rook’s got to get them both out of here before the entire town wakes up in earnest and takes notice.
“I could shoot him, if you want.” Somehow, Grace is already waiting ahead for him, standing underneath the Eagle’s sign with a pack held out and her eyes fixed on John’s truck. “I don’t need to kill him. I’ll just take a button off that coat. Maybe add that dumbass belt buckle to my trophy wall.”
It makes Rook smile, probably the last time for a long while. “If he needs to preen, let him preen. It costs us nothing.”
“You sure about that?”
Grace fixes him with a look - more concern than he thought there might be. She’d let Hudson do most of the upbraiding, on the way back to town, and they hadn’t talked much since. Rook had been worried that he’d lost her trust, that she might think less of him. Instead, he’s got this - she’s still got his back, and he’s almost grateful that there’s something he can do to return the favor.
“Yeah, I’m sure.” Rook says, taking the pack and looping it over a shoulder. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t let Pratt steal my dog.”
It feels like he’s never gonna reach the other side of town, every step an aching drag - until all at once Rook’s opening the passenger door, swinging in, and there’s the slight breeze from the A/C and the plush bounce of the seats, the scent of cologne not doing a damn thing to help his headache as the truck pivots on the gravel and he watches Fall’s End disappear, getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
“Good morning, Deputy.”
He should be more afraid. Rook still probably doesn’t know all the reasons he should be afraid.
But it’s daylight, the view clear in all directions and John’s stupid truck is stupid comfortable with its stupid heated seats, because of course they are. Rook really hopes somebody bothered to mention that he’s out riding an Eden’s Gate truck through the middle of the valley and if they could not shoot at him or blow it up, that’d be great.
Except there’s nobody out. No early patrols, no one camping rough or looking to take back lost territory. Just empty land for as far as Rook can see.
Rook reaches out, tips one of the vents for the air conditioning so it’s fully open, a blast of cool air. From the corner of his eye, he can see John track the movement. He should be more afraid, he knows that - but John’s different here, alone in the morning light, and Rook’s not tied to anything and there’s no one else in the way, no one to be threatened on his behalf. He’s pretty sure he could take John in a fair fight - or however close to that they’d get. John would fight mean, no question. He probably bites. But Rook can fight plenty mean, too.
He’d never actually killed anyone until he came to Hope County, but Rook wasn’t that surprised when it happened, or that it was easier than it should have been. It didn’t feel like much of a line to cross, and Rook wishes he didn’t have to know that about himself.
“You’re filthy.” John says, lip curled. “And you smell.”
And you’re in the middle of nowhere, fighting a guerrilla war in designer boots… and just how much fucking product did you pack away for the end of the world?
Rook rubs a hand against his chin, irritated by the scrape of stubble. Whatever John thinks, he actually doesn’t enjoy playing disheveled mountain man. “If you wanted presentable, you could have spotted me half an hour.”
“Oh, no.” John says, with that overeager, horror movie smile, fingers splayed against the wheel. “I’ve spent a long time planning this reunion, Deputy. I wouldn’t want to waste a minute. You deserve so much more than that.”
God, Rook needs coffee. If there’s going to be torture, there at least ought to be coffee first. He tries again for some actual fear, but the panic just flops around like a landed fish, gasping and tired and easy enough to ignore. John likes knives, so it’ll be knives, and talking, and more talking, and pain, and it’ll certainly fucking suck but it won’t kill him. No brownie points for the Baptist if he dies.
John’s driving east, toward the bridge - not to Joseph’s then, but the Henbane. Rook’s shoved that thought to the back of the pile more than once already - baptism means water, water means standing in it, which means the chance that there will be something out there, just waiting to swim up and drag him down and - and there’s a real spark of panic at last, but nothing Rook can do with it. He already made the bargain, there’s nothing he can do but trust that they’ll be careful, that Jacob believed even half of what he said, that if Joseph’s anywhere near this they’ll all be on high alert.
Yeah, he’s putting his hopes in the Peggies to stay alive. No, this is not going to get any less dumb anytime soon.
The truck’s radio crackles to life.
“I told you to wait for my people.” It’s Jacob. The last time Rook had heard him sound like that, he’d just finished blowing up Stone Ridge, and very little that had happened afterward is anything Rook wants to remember. Except this morning, he’s not the one Jacob’s pissed at, and John tries to pretend he’s not annoyed, reaching for the radio mic.
“They were late.”
“You left early, and your men are not up for this kind of-.”
“Well, then it’s a good thing I didn’t bring any of them either.”
Rook would have gotten a hell of a lot more out of this whole holy war if he’d known that John and Jacob had been bickering at each other behind the scenes the entire time. The silence from Jacob’s end of the line is telling, and insane as it seems Rook’s fighting back a smile. It’s nice to know John’s just as much of a shit to his close relations as he is to the rest of the world.
“I’m already on my way back. With the deputy. We’ll be there soon.” John hangs up - and then turns the radio off completely.
“He’s not wrong.” Rook says, three words he never could have imagined saying under any circumstances, but here they are. “It’s dangerous to be out here alone.”
Why is he, anyway? It’s a pointless risk, just to grandstand in front of Fall’s End, to rub it in their faces - but John’s carrying the full set of cardinal sins all vying for dominance, and Rook’s seen even rational people do the dumbest shit when their pride had been dinged. Maybe it was a little self-destructive, but no more than Rook had been, really, just waltzing up to Eden’s Gate and hoping for the best. God, they’re not competing, are they? Fuck, that’ll end well.
“Are you worried about me now, deputy?” John smiles, all teeth.
“You were in that plane yesterday.” Rook says, ignoring the question. “You see anything out there? Hear anything on the radio?”
For just one moment, John goes quiet, because even dueling-banjos crazy has its limits, has to at least acknowledge when the shit has hit the fan and gone right past the ceiling and through the roof.
“Joseph knew there would be a reckoning. A great Collapse, to scour the whole world clean, and only those who were ready, who saw the signs and followed the Path would be spared.” He looks at Rook. “You were warned. All of you were warned.”
There are seven years of ‘told-you-so’s’ on their way, at the bare minimum. So there’s really no point in arguing that Joseph’s sermons had been heavy on the vague proclamations and light on any actual monsters.
Rook wishes the radio was on, even if it was just more Peggie hymns. He wonders what kind of face John would make, if he rolled down the window and let some fresh air in, messed up his perfect hair, although knowing him he’s got all the locks set for his side of the car alone.
He looks out the window, gives himself another mini-vacation, three whole seconds of imagining himself behind the wheel instead, Boomer sticking his head out to smell the breeze, cruising down the road on their way to… fuck, whatever people did this early on the weekend when the sky was clear and the world was sane. With something good on the radio, something old and classic for Rook to sing along with - sister golden hair surprise, and I just can’t live without you…-
“Were you a pilot before you became a cop?”
The first thing John’s ever said to him without a knife in his hand, or even sounding like there was a knife in his hand.
“I’ve never been a pilot.” Rook says.
Oh, the look - disbelief and outrage and yeah, maybe Rook could have phrased that differently but maybe it doesn’t matter. He might very well be a machine, constructed for the sole purpose of pissing off John Seed.
“You shot me out of the sky. You stole that plane five minutes after you got here.”
“Nick drew a little diagram on the floor of the garage, and kept up with me on the radio. He teaches people for a living.” Rook shrugs. It’s not like he wandered into Hope County knowing how to use a machine gun, or arm a remote detonator, or herd cows either. “I pick things up fast, sometimes.”
It had all made enough sense, when Nick described it step-by-step - pedals and flaps and throttle, and it wasn’t like Rook hadn’t asked questions the whole way through. A thing that needed doing, and Rook figured he could do it, and Nick had even been there while he was airborne, dealing with the crises as Rook flew through them. He’s walked into enough jobs where not knowing how meant not getting hired and not getting paid and not getting fed - it’s been in Rook’s best interest for a while now to jump in and just learn as he goes and hope his luck holds. It did, it worked, and he kept flying and Nick kept giving him tips - but Rook’s still not going to call himself a pilot.
“And I didn’t steal anything you didn’t steal first.” It’s stupid to pick a fight, but probably just as stupid to let John walk all over him, not push back at all. If this is all going to go to shit the first time Rook mouths off, it’s better to know it now.
“It wasn’t stealing. We made offers on that land for twice what it was worth, the ‘business’ that idiot was so proud of that could barely support himself, let alone a family.” John says. “Rye needed to be shown the consequences of his pride, the error of his ways while there was still the chance to repent. The Lord-”
“Nick took his toys back and it pissed you off - that’s on you.” Rook snaps back, because he’s stupid and tired and fuck does John love listening to himself talk. “Don’t go bringing God into it - he’s got better shit to bother with.”
John lashes out, either to grab him or to punch him or who knows what, but Rook’s not tied to a chair and if John thinks that this is unfamiliar territory, that Rook doesn’t know how to be loud, angry and violent up close he is in for a surprise.
It’s so easy, not to care. It feels good, to stop pretending that he thinks it’s going to get better, that there’s any point in trying to be more.
Rook catches John’s arm halfway, and just holds it, strength matching strength. Retaliation must be rare these days, John must not do this often without guns to back him up and Bliss bullets to give him the edge because he actually startles, staring back. It’s really not fair, for someone who can do so much damage to have eyes that blue. All the Seeds do, even Joseph behind those tinted lenses, because poisonous things can still be beautiful, because nothing in the world plays fair.
Of course, John looking at him means he’s not looking at other things - like the road, and with most of his attention elsewhere the car doesn’t much feel the need to stay there. Thankfully they’re not going fast, and thankfully there’s not much to hit. The car slides as much as it spins out and with one rather ugly bounce that slams Rook against the passenger-side window and rattles him tip to toe they come to a halt, undamaged but at a sharp angle, in a ditch with the road above them and his hand still around John’s arm and those blue, blue eyes.
“What are you gonna do, ‘Rook’?” A mean, knowing smirk. “Kill me?”
He still might. One reprieve wasn’t a permanent stay-out-of-the-grave free card, that ought to have been obvious. Of course, John hasn’t gone for the gun he must be carrying, so maybe he doesn’t want to rush to the end of things, either.
“You hit me, I hit back.” Rook says. “You want to get out of the car and beat the shit out of each other? I’m fine with that. But we’ll still have to get back up on the road afterward, and your brother’s waiting.” Slowly, he opens his hand. “So, how is this gonna go?”
Trying to shove the truck back on the road with John shouting increasingly unhelpful, contradictory instructions as he guns the engine is exactly as much fun as it sounds. Rook treats him like every other boss he’s had - a grunt of agreement every ten words or so and just ignore the rest. At least he’s already filthy, so a little extra mud and grime doesn’t make much difference.
Finally, they manage to get to where they were twenty minutes ago, and when Rook opens the door he notices a bit of creased paper underneath the seat - an aviation magazine. It’s not perfect for getting his hands clean - the tape’s beyond filthy now - but better than nothing. John frowns when he hears the paper tear.
“I’m only using the advertisements” Rook says before he can start bitching - and he’s even nice enough to throw them in the front pocket of his bag rather than on the cab floor. Rook looks at the cover, some small plane that looks like its made for rich people, to take them to rich people places. He wonders if there are any planes left out there - if any of them were flying when the fog came in, and the sun rose and there was nowhere left to land.
It’s a good thirty seconds, before Rook can do anything but stare out the window and make himself stop thinking about it.
“You like to fly, don’t you? Not just when you have to.” He says, as a distraction. “There were a few more issues of this in the bathroom at the ranch, and little models on some of the shelves. You make those?”
John’s room, with plush carpets and an anonymous, high-class hotel kind of feel. A walk-in closet and big-ass ensuite bathroom and one of those little lined drawers full of hundred-dollar cufflinks - and there’d been a set of planes there, too. Rook had wanted to take more time, scour through it all for any useful information, but there’d been another emergency on the radio on the other side of the valley, and another, and he’d never quite found the time and now there’s no going back.
John shoots him a look now so affronted and suspicious, a cat squaring off against a squirt bottle, that Rook raises his hands in surrender. So much for defusing the tension.
“Just making conversation. Won’t happen again.”
Rook’s radio clicks to life - he’d warned them he wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to have it on, but as long as Rook can listen, he will. The Sheriff has suggested more frequent check-ins, some kind of roster to keep track of the whole valley, if he can convince them it’s necessary. As far as Rook knows, he’s headed back up to the Jail today with Hudson. Grace is keeping things moving in town, setting out on another run south - and Nick might be flying down to supervise. Maybe more happening, that Rook’s not aware of, especially if Joseph’s attention is known to be on the Henbane.
Maybe they’ve made a deal with Eli, and Rook’s gonna die today, cut down with the Seeds in whatever ambush he was supposed to be a part of.
“How’re you doing?” It’s Kim, which means the worst of Rook’s nightmare scenarios did not come to pass - and if Jacob didn’t strike on day one, maybe there’s hope for day two. “I heard it was another rough night.”
“We made it through.” Rook says. “You settling in up there?”
“Well enough.” Kim says. “It took Hurk’s father almost an hour to mention ‘Nick’s Oriental wife’ this time, so I think that’s a new record.”
“Just let me know if you’d like me to ship him a cultural sensitivity wolverine.” Hurk Sr. is right at the very edge of people Rook can endure, through a careful mix of not listening to him and keeping the visits to three minutes or less. If he should unexpectedly quit this mortal coil, Rook will mostly feel bad about not feeling bad. “I’m sorry, I know it’s all a real pain in the ass.”
He knows Kim misses her home, her life. He knows she has family out there somewhere, like Joey and Staci and the Sheriff all do, like everyone in Hope County does. Friends and acquaintances and the guys who work the fast-food counter in the town next door. Rook’s had the strangest parade of people file through his head, popping up at random - co-workers from old jobs, one-night stands and drinking buddies and oil-change mechanics. The lady at the library who’d spent nearly an hour convincing an ancient printer to cough up a copy of his resume. Everyone Rook knows, everyone he’s ever met or heard of or seen on TV who isn’t here now, they all might be… it’s too big. Too much. He can’t even finish the thought.
“Grace get that bag to you?” Kim knows where he is, almost certainly, and is just refusing to acknowledge John’s existence. The entire call might be a reminder that whatever deals have been made, Rook’s a time-share.
“You open it yet?”
Rook unzips the main compartment, half-certain he knows what he’s going to find, still a hiss of pure pleasure at the full bottle of water and the carefully wrapped breakfast burrito that’s probably just more leftovers crammed into an unearthed tortilla, liberally sauced in whatever might make it edible - but she did this for him. All her own fears and worries, and Kim still gave him something for the road, and for John to glare at him over, the silent warning clear - don’t you dare eat that in my truck.
“Keep going.” Kim says, the smile in her voice as if aware of his appreciation and Rook reaches underneath, feels the crinkle of plastic and the slight give - oatmeal cream pies. Two of them.
Actual junk food in Hope County started hitting scarcity two weeks ago - the Peggies don’t eat it, and apart from any stashes hanging out in unclaimed bunkers, the great American roving herds of free-range Cheetos are nearly extinct. Rook knows of at least one offer to trade a pick of fully-loaded, freshly-polished weapons for an unopened package of Oreos.
“Holy shit, are these double-layered?” Rook says, turning the package over in his hand, an archeologist with the find of the century. “I didn’t even know they made these.”
“The tail end of my secret cravings stash.” Kim says. “The first time, I drove nearly three hours in the middle of the night to find an open store at that had them in stock. After that, I just ordered in bulk.”
“You sure you don’t need them?” Rook says, like he hasn’t already opened one pack and eaten half of it in one bite, trying not to groan as the sugar hits his empty stomach - God, that’s good. He is really going to miss artificial flavors and artificial colors and… propylene glycol monostearate, whatever the fuck that is.
“Kim, if you ever find yourself in need of a spare husband, I fold away for easy storage.”
Her laugh is quickly becoming one of his favorite sounds. “Yeah, because I don’t have enough fun keeping track of the one I’ve got.” He hears someone behind her, a tinny sound in the speaker, and Kim sighs. “I’ve got to go. You stay sharp out there, okay? I’ll call you again, before the sun goes down.” When you’re safe, away from Eden's Gate.
“Over and out.”
Rook eats the other half of the first pie in three bites, trying to savor it, and considers setting the other one aside for later, or as valuable currency, before thinking the better of it and ripping it open as well. Rook thinks he knows what’s coming, what this day’s gonna look like - but things change, there is always a non-zero chance that he will not be around to see the sun go down, let alone rise. Better carpe all the fucking diems he can.
“You want half?” It’s an honest offer, holding it out to John - one of the last Little Debbies on the planet, he’d be a dick not to share. Rook even makes sure that he’s holding it by the wrapper, no contamination, but his hands are still pretty filthy and it’s not really a surprise the way John nearly recoils in disgust - corn syrup, carbs and dirt. The true end of fucking days. Rook shrugs, polishes it off. Licks his fingers, which doesn’t taste great but might make John wince, which is worth all the effort.
“Does Rye know you’re so familiar with his wife?”
Rook smiles. He can’t help it. John is trying not to sound excited, thinking he’s found a new sin to tug free. Three whole lives for him to ruin all at once.
“Shit, I thought you were supposed to be good at this.” Rook says. “Go on, try again. I’ll give you one for free.”
For a moment, it looks like John’s bit into a lemon - although if he’s going to get violent again Rook is just diving for the wheel, and they can have the rest of this fight after they’ve flipped the truck. It’d be great if it didn’t come to that - he’s getting really sick of crawling out of wreckage. Thankfully, John’s expression shifts from annoyed to surprised, as he finally figures it out.
“… does Mrs. Rye know you’re so familiar with her husband?”
“There you go.” Rook says. “And yes, she does, except I doubt that I’m his type.”
He’s not entirely sure Nick even knows that he’s gay, let alone anyone else. Rook’s told Hurk twice now, but that fact, like so many others, seems to have slid off without leaving a mark. Or it might just be beyond Hurk’s comprehension that there’s anyone or anything with a pulse and a working brain stem that isn’t perpetually longing to drown in boobs.
Even John’s giving him the look. Rook knows that look, he’s seen it before, because he’s never looked ‘like that,’ whatever ‘that’ is supposed to look like. Not that he’s working from a particularly large sample size, but Rook knows there are gay guys who look like him, there are gay guys who look like everybody. Still, if Rook keeps quiet, people seem to come to their own conclusions about where he ought to belong. He’s even had bartenders give him the suspicious once-over, not sure if he was there to cause trouble or that maybe he didn’t realize which club he’d walked into. Even Bryan had… God, B, did you make it out to the coast? Is there even a coast anymore?
“You’re hiding it from them.” John’s suspicion slides cleanly into mean triumph - and yeah, this is probably one of the more popular secrets out there. Hopefully not as devastating as it used to be, but Rook can’t really say who might be surprised, which friends he could still stand to lose. People are tricky that way.
“I haven’t called a town meeting, if that’s what you mean, but I’ve never lied about it either.” Rook says. “I don’t think anybody really wants me waving the flag for the cause.” There are plenty of talented, successful and wholesome role models of all orientations out there, pillars of society with bright futures and high ambitions. Rook just doesn’t happen to be one of them. “Besides, I can’t see how it’s a priority.”
Rook’s dick is not a real huge fan of the apocalypse, or the whole getting-shot-at-in-the woods-by-lunatics that preceded it. Even before that, though, the last great fuckup took all that Rook had to give, more than he even thought he could lose - seven thousand, six-hundred….. - and the one before that had taken everything else. Just the idea of desire, of some new spark - the nervousness, those first-encounter jitters, trying to sell himself in the span of that first drink, the first smile - Rook just feels tired, and bored, like fast-forwarding through a movie he’s already seen too many times. He is just fine with facing the rest of his future with nothing but the occasional, unenthusiastic jerk-off in the shower to keep him company, and that’s hoping regular showers are still a thing that he can count on.
John, unsurprisingly, is unconvinced. “You believe lust is something so easy to set aside?”
It doesn’t matter what Rook thinks, of course. It matters what John thinks, what he believes Rook ought to be punished for. If he’s going to start in on the usual ‘Adam-and-Steve’ bullshit, Rook is more than happy to ignore it, but it’d be even better if they didn’t have to waste the time.
“You keep saying you want the truth? Well, there’s your truth. Sorry it’s not more interesting, but I’m done. I am capital ‘D’ fucking Done with all of it. I was done before I ever got here.”
“Are there any other truths you’d like to share?” John probably thinks he sounds casual. Rook holds back the urge to reach up, to scratch at the letters beneath his shirt.
“Isn’t this a little out of order?”
“Just making conversation.” Oh, and now he’s being clever. “I imagine we’ll have no end of things to talk about, once we start prying up those floorboards, but if there’s anything you want to unburden yourself of now, you have my attention.” John says. “It must be quite the inspiring story, overcoming your base desires so completely. I wonder if you haven’t simply chosen anger instead, as the outlet for those… frustrations. Jealous of those around you, who possess what you lack, who get what you want. I can see how a position of authority could be incredibly tempting to a man like you.”
“Authority?” Rook snorts. “Just how long do you think I’ve been a cop?”
John doesn’t answer, and Rook frowns. “Hudson didn’t tell you, did she?” The full truth of it hits him, then. “She didn’t tell you anything.”
Oh God, John must have asked, threatened and demanded and hurt and Joey still kept quiet? God, why would she have done that? It’s not like she even knew anything worth knowing about him, and even if she had - Jesus, why would she risk anything for his stupid ass? Rook’s not worth that, he’s just not - and whatever expression he’s wearing is more than he particularly wants to share with John, but it’s a little late for that.
“You only said yes because of her.” John says.
“Well, yeah.” Rook admits, because why not. “That’s the whole reason you put her in front of me, to get what you wanted.”
“I brought you both there to bare your sins, to be flayed open and helpless before your failings so you would have no choice left but to face them - to know what you are, and what you have to atone for.”
Like Rook doesn’t already know what he is. Like the mistakes he makes every day aren’t all the more stupid for how much he knows better, how he tells himself he’s going to do better, be better. What the hell kind of people has John been chewing through all this time?
He already knows the answer to that, on some level. Rook remembers what the book said, John with an infinite line for hanging up everyone’s dirty laundry, the rich and the powerful. How long would it take, prying up the plaques and honors and accolades, finding all the ugliness buried beneath before you really would just assume it was everywhere, in everyone? No good people, just secrets you hadn’t found yet. God, he’s going to be disappointed. Rook’s disappointed, and he’s the one who’s actually been living this shitshow. His bank account’s nowhere big enough for any of the really interesting transgressions, he’s not inspired enough for grand misdeeds - just failure on top of failure on top of regret.
“I like my sins, John. We keep each other company.”
Whatever he has to say to that - and it definitely won’t be good - is interrupted by a crackle from Rook’s radio, a voice he wasn’t expecting.
“Deputy, are you there?” Joseph says.
“I’m here. Is there a problem?” Rook’s still not sure exactly how to do this from now on - call him Father for the brownie points, or stick with Joseph in private, so that they all remember who’s doing what for which reasons, and hope that Joseph doesn’t decide to consider it disrespect. Rook’s walking a hell of a minefield here, and there is no telling just when or how he’s going to run out of field.
“We couldn’t reach John on the radio. There was some… concern. I assume everything is all right?”
All mild words, run through with razor wire, heavy with the reminder of all that Rook stands to lose if he stops playing along.
“We hit a little rough pavement, thought it might have popped a tire. It took a few minutes to sort things out. I must have tapped the radio without knowing. I think we’re almost there.”
He holds the receiver out to John, who looks at him for a moment with one of those unreadable expressions that’s probably some form of disdain, before taking it.
“Everything’s fine, Joseph. We should still be on time.”
Is this it? The reason Rook can’t just hate him with both barrels and not give a fuck. The hesitance, the nervous fear in the edge of John's voice, each word treading so lightly. After everything Rook went through, everything he put Hudson through it should be fun, seeing John so easily brought to heel, seeing him shut down - it should be, but it’s not.
Rook wonders if Joseph’s command is still on the table - either bring him in or get out. He wonders if Joseph came to regret it, when he thought John had died trying to fulfill that wish, if the Father’s changed his mind.
It was never fair. Even if they’re all fucking crazy it’s not John’s fault that Joseph’s wrong, that Rook isn’t worth half so much attention. Of all the things to punish his brother for, the fact that Rook is preternaturally gifted at shitting the bed on expectations shouldn’t be one of them. No one should have to tie their soul to that, and if there was any chance Rook would try to explain, to make him understand.
“You’ve been blessed with a beautiful day, John. I hope you appreciate it.”
“I know.” John says, too quick, eager to please. As if Joseph hung the sun in the sky himself. “I do. Thank you.”
There’s something vulnerable there that he not supposed to see, that Rook doesn’t really want to see, so he looks out the window instead. Joseph’s telling the truth, a cloudless sky and the woods and valleys around the river lanced with sunlight, as lush and beautiful as they’ve ever been.
The perfect day for a drive, grass and shrubs quietly giving way to fields of Bliss flowers waving gently in the breeze, in welcome.
Rook assumes John will drive them right up to the edge of the river, especially now that Joseph is waiting, but the truck crunches to a stop in the gravel at what looks like the head of a trail, the Henbane somewhere below them. If Rook was down there, looking up, he’d have a better shot at knowing exactly where they were, the riverbanks generally less patrolled than the roads and his preferred form of travel in the area.
He can taste the Bliss in the air the second he opens the door - the little sparkles in his vision, a waver in the world. Rook can usually manage all right under anything less potent than one of Faith’s personal double-dose hellos. Boomer always did a good job of letting him know which of the cougars were real and which were just rocks. No one tell Whitehorse, but once or twice he had even deliberately skirted the edge of the fields for a buzz, a little drive-by pain management for whatever the hell he’d done to himself last. His headache’s fading, although that could just as easily be the sugar rush. Hooray for shitty last-minute patch jobs and hoping for the best.
“No.” John says, as Rook starts to follow him down the trail, and points to the thick field of flowers at the border. “You walk there.”
Oh, they want him high. Rook remembers the Bliss barrels at the river, the first time they’d dunked him. He’d assumed that was an honor reserved for the unwilling, to kick a bit of the fight out of them, especially with a Herald anywhere within drowning range.
“This isn’t necessary.” It earns him another look - impatience and annoyance and distrust. Fine. Rook agreed not to argue, so here he is not arguing.
He’s worked fucked-up before. Hung-over and wrung-out and just plain sick, night shifts and overnight shifts, NyQuil to DayQuil to a random generous co-worker’s leftover prescription of... whatever, it probably won’t kill him. Rook’s done what he needs to get through it, and usually the Bliss fields aren’t so much different than being half-drunk off his ass, always that little voice in the back of his head saying careful and remember to fucking aim. Except this time it must be knocking up against whatever’s left of Tweak’s lingering chemistry experiment still pooling in his veins, and Rook can feel things starting to slip even as he fights for control, his vision tilting a few more degrees off, something in his chest backfiring like a broken-down car and that’s… yeah, that’s probably not going great places. He focuses on keeping his steps steady - fun consequences, no doubt, if John thinks he’s dragging behind.
Easy enough to ignore the distress signals his body’s sending up, he’s had enough practice at it. Way cheaper than a checkup, for something that would either fix itself, or that he wouldn’t be able to afford taking care of anyway. It was probably a mistake, not wolfing down what Kim had packed away for him, although with the way he’s feeling who knows how long it would have stayed there. Let’s not throw up on any Seeds today, Rook, if we can help it?
So John walks the path and Rook keeps to the field, and it’s quiet except for their footsteps and his thoughts drift off, pondering holy processions - his blue eyes they were shining, and his voice was very cold- and maybe it’s a little too on the nose in this particular moment, Mr. Cohen, but Rook will take it, all golden axes and mirrored lakes and ambiguity. The song’s in the back of his throat - it would be a fine thing, to sing while he walked on a day like this - but not here and now. That’s not for John, sure as shit isn’t for Eden’s Gate.
A butterfly flits ahead, a flash of blue among the white, under a sky tilting to green and oh shit, here we go. Wandering right up to the edge of a Bliss trip that won’t give him back until it’s good and ready - and just what kind of butterflies are those, anyway? Does everybody get the same pretty ones that he does? Rook always means to ask and he always forgets. A wave of nausea makes him stumble, but Rook stays on his feet and keeps moving, even if it feels increasingly like his body’s a kite on a string, only vaguely interested in following directions. Thankfully, the slope is gentle, although if he did take a tumble down to the river now Rook doubts he’d even feel it.
“Hey, do you still have that rifle of mine?” He says, trying to drag his thoughts back to any kind of coherency. A losing battle, everything’s going soft, blunted and tissue-wrapped. “I think it was from the second time we… talked. The one-”
“The one with the flames on it.” John frowns.
Rook snaps his fingers. “That’s the one.”
“It had flames on it.” Like it’s some kind of personal insult. Like John and his bespoke coat with the bespoke fabric and the bespoke buttons had an inch of room to be casting stones. Which was it - did he have multiple coats made or are there extra bolts of fabric on standby in his bunker? Are there pants to match?
“Well, yeah, John. Flames make the bullets go faster.” Rook says. “Everyone knows that.”
John doesn’t laugh. He must have been great fun at parties.
Cocaine, Rook thinks, not for the first time. John is exactly the sort of asshole who doesn’t need the assist, which meant he probably went full Scarface at every possible opportunity. Rook’s hardly been a Boy Scout on that front, dabbling here and there with whatever happened to be at hand, what he could afford - but the highs never seemed to go all that high and there’d been a couple real fun, surprise lows waiting to say hello. All the dealers he knew weren’t worth the hassle of actually having to talk to them, and nothing was ever as easy to get as a drink or nine, in a bar or a bottle or sitting on the hood of his truck, watching the sun bleed out into the night.
Rook can feel the Bliss now, warm and winding through him as lets his hands trail lightly along the tops of the flowers. They’re soft. It’s nice. Everything’s nice here, and even though a part of him still knows that’s not true, in this moment it feels like it could be, like that other world is a door he could just shut and walk away from. Would he? Rook knows Joseph’s full of shit, that even if his prophecy was right, even if he knew something about all this he still went after it in the worst of all possible ways - but does that mean Rook’s got to be the one to put everything right, and is there any way to do that other than shooting everything that moves? He’s tired of hurting people, and being hurt, and the endless, endless grind of it all. Is it so wrong, to wish that the world could maybe be just a little bit more like this? Why does it take so much, just to blunt the edges?
“I don’t know who has your idiotic gun.”
He can’t remember what John’s talking about. That’s probably not ideal.
The path widens and the sun spills down, the field so bright it’s hard to look at and Rook hears footsteps - no, not quite that. Faith enters the clearing in a fresh cascade of butterflies, cradled in the antlers of a stag the size of a Buick and that’s one a hell of an inspired hallucination, Rook. Good job, gold stars all around.
“What are you looking-” John’s finally noticed that Rook’s no longer following, and then why. “You didn’t need to come.”
Faith descends to the ground with a sweep of ethereal wings, something akin to a curtsy in the way she holds the hem of her dress in one hand.
Thought I saw an eagle, but it might have been a vulture, I never could decide.
“The Father asked me to welcome you. Both of you.”
Sure, maybe, but it’s only Rook who gets her smile - like he’s someone she’s been waiting for, someone she wants to see. He wonders how many times it’s worked, the sales pitch taking little more than that, just a few moments of the pretty girl’s full attention - ‘we’re so happy you’re here’. Both of her hands clasp one of his, the way a child would with a favorite playmate. It’s all artifice - Faith doesn’t really give a shit about him as anything other than a way to score points, to raise herself in Joseph’s favor as high as she can go. Of course, when Rook looks at her, it’s not always her he’s seeing, so that’s fair.
Not the first of her name, just the one who’s survived this far. It’s strange, Rook had expected to trip over an entire stable of Joseph’s sister wives or child brides by now, what he’d always assumed to be the only reason anyone even bothered starting a cult - but of all the crazy coming out of Hope County, somehow that seems to be the only cliche left unturned. Thank fuck for small favors?
As they continue on, Faith hums softly as usual, slowly unwinding the wrappings on his hands. She’s circling him - or maybe not, it’s hard to tell with all the Bliss which one of them is spinning. Rook watches the strips unraveling, drifting lazily through the air, the dirt fading away to pure white and then even brighter, ribbons of pure light under her fingertips.
“What did you do to yourself?”
“Other hand.” Rook says, just as she finishes with the left, the long trail of light dissolving gently into sparkles. Faith gestures, and the bindings on his right just loosen and slip away, and Rook lets her get a closer look at a bit of his past, the remnants of one of his more impressive fuckups. The scars are old and white, criss-crossing in places, mangled skeins of healed tissue dragging down across the the backs of his knuckles, the front of his palm. The doctors did as good a job as they could, nothing that has to look all that nice. Faith makes a soft sound of sympathy, tracing them with her fingertips.
“It was an accident, one of my first jobs. Just… a dumb mistake.” Rook can’t remember the pain anymore, only that there’d been a moment right after with no pain at all, just blood everywhere and the knowledge that what was coming next was not anything he wanted, with something at the end of his wrist that didn’t look at all like it belonged to him. The scars disappear under the edge his jacket - they’re not nearly as noticeable, the higher up they go, but he’s got them almost to his elbow, dragged off his feet with the force of it. “I got lucky, two inches either way, and I could have lost the whole damn arm. There’s some, uh… some nerve damage.” He wiggles his ring and pinky finger, they still don’t bend quite as far as the others. “Had some PT. It still aches, now and then.”
The ‘physical therapy’ was more like fifteen minutes of instructions and a photocopy he lost somewhere between the office and the parking lot. No insurance, no use in going back. Luckily, it all turned out okay, and Rook doesn’t really notice the numbness or the pain much anymore unless he bothers to notice. The bills, of course, did the most lasting damage. He’s had a couple of consolidations, not quite sure which parts of what mistakes he’s still paying for. Mostly sure he’s cleared the medical out by now, at least, or they’d still be fucking calling. If anyone could get word into Hope County past cultists and monsters and the end of days it would be the fucking debt collectors.
“Wrapping it up helps. Especially if I know there’s going to be, you know… trouble.”
Faith tips her head, smiling up at him. “… but there’s no trouble now, is there?”
It’s not really a question, only meant to reassure, to lead. She’s still touching him, standing close and so attentive, as if Rook’s been saying anything worth listening to.
He’s not all the way in the Bliss yet, not quite gone where the only thing left is to smile and wait for her to tell him what’s next. There’s enough of him left to see behind her gentle expression - a wariness, although that could be another lie, feigning some vulnerability. Maybe there’s nothing in Faith that’s true, maybe she likes it that way - and this is about control, about doing whatever Joseph asks - but maybe it’s also about removing the threat, erasing any chance Rook might ever become one. Is this what it takes, just for her to feel safe in the world?
“You should stay.” She says, her hand on his. “Just ask, and the Father will let you stay.”
“Faith.” A voice in the distance, past what Rook can see clearly, someone who sounds like they could use a little more Bliss in their diet. She sighs theatrically, like she’s been caught trying to sneak extra dessert, and leans in, warm and easy against him.
“Brother John doesn’t always like to share.” An amused, wry look flits across her face, something Rook would probably understand if he wasn’t so far gone. “Sometimes more than others.”
She takes him by the hand then, pulling him forward, and Rook follows along obediently. A few more butterflies flit by, alighting on the flowers, perching in her hair. Has he ever seen real butterflies before, or were they all just on TV? He can’t remember. There were places that they lived, right? Rook could have gone to those places, somehow. He should have tried. He should have done every single minute of it differently.
Rook doesn’t think it’s quite like this, for most people who get hit by the Bliss - euphoria, it’s supposed to be a pure high. Sure, he’s stupid and slow now, content to do as he’s told but it aches, too, beneath the hazy unreality. The longing for the lie she’s telling - that’s what has him all the way down, that’s where the hook’s been set. It’s not real, and a part of Rook always knows it’s not real but there are a lot of things he knows, and most of them haven’t ever gotten him anywhere he wants to be.
The trees rise up, long branches curving over the path in a gentle arch, the kind of thing straight out of a storybook and Rook couldn’t say whether even that's real or not, and it doesn’t really matter. Faith sweeps the leaves back, and everything goes white for a moment, Rook blinking his vision clear - and there’s the Father, right in front of him. Denim and bare feet and tattoos, beads in his hand and sins carved into him like a switchblade on a picnic table, the bleached expanse of a weathered tree. Rook remembers it, his hand on Joseph’s shoulder, just to the side of ‘gluttony’ and thinking - of all the sins, that’s not really the first one he would have gone with. He’s wiry, just a little too strong for scrawny, but his wrists had been thin and narrow when Rook had cuffed him - bird bones. Even more than John, Rook is certain he could utterly wreck the Father’s shit in any kind of one-on-one - the man’s just not built for fighting - and the funny thing is, he thinks Joseph knows it too.
He wears his vulnerability like armor, bare skin a dare or a challenge or maybe just that raw belief. God will not let you take me. What must that be like, how fucking crazy is anyone who’s sure of anything in this world?
When it all comes down to dust, I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.
Footsteps behind him, moving fast but the Bliss has made him a passive observer, middle aisle tickets to The Rook Show, and even though it’s Jacob and he’s looking murderous, the fear is barely a distant rumble, a storm for another county, and he watches placidly as the man reaches out, yanks Rook’s jacket back and removes the gun he forgot he’d even had on him, John rushing them out of town before he could think to hand it off.
“That’s mine.” Rook says to no one in particular, as Jacob ignores him, pulling the clip while giving John a pitch-black look. “You can have it, though. I don’t need it.”
I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can.
Rook tips his head back, enjoying the soft rustle of the wind over the sound of the river and the sun so bright that even with his eyes closed it burns everything else away and if he could just fade into it, he really would. The air is clean and clear, and on a thousand days just like this Rook would have already had to drag himself up, already be out there somewhere with his head down, grinding the hours away in some windowless concrete box for the bare minimum they could bother to pay him.
Hey, remember the warehouse job? This might actually still be better than the warehouse job.
He opens his eyes to see the Father just watching him, like he’s always been standing there and would be content to do so until the rivers went dry and the mountains crumbled and blew away. His feet are cold, there’s water swirling around his calves - huh, when did that happen? Rook looks upstream, a vague pang of worry but he can’t remember why.
“Fear not.” Joseph says. “The faithful are standing guard.”
“What was his name?” Rook asks, not sure exactly where the question’s coming from. “The one that threw himself into the blades?”
“Noah.” Joseph answers, without hesitation. “His name was Noah.” He could be lying. It’s not like Rook can ever find out. “What’s yours?”
He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t… Rook’s done more than the other guy ever did.”
Whoever Kim knows, that person that Nick and Grace and Sharky know - that’s what Rook should be, what he wants to be.
Joseph nods. “A new name, for a greater purpose. You’re not the first among us to make that choice.” Not surprisingly, they have wildly different definitions of the word ‘choice.’ “Do you know why you’re here?”
“Seven-thousand, six-hundred eighty-six dollars and fifty-four cents.” Rook says without hesitation, and knows he’s smiling, and that’s a bad idea, because the truth sounds like mockery and that’s what makes it all so funny. It would make Joseph far happier to hear some bullshit lie, and if Rook wasn’t so far in the Bliss he might have given it to him, but here he is, barely a participant in the story of his own life and isn’t that familiar, haven’t we all been here before -
“John.” A warning in Joseph’s tone, although his expression hasn’t changed. Rook missed it, whatever it was that has John quietly seething, standing much closer now than he was before. How can he be so pissed off on a day like this? How much better does it have to get, before it’s worth enjoying?
“Shirt off, Wrath.” John says. “No more hiding what you are.”
Rooks hands slowly fumble with buttons that don’t actually exist on a T-shirt, and this… this is a terrible idea.
“Uh… I don’t think…” He mumbles. “You’re really not gonna like it.”
It’s been a remarkably short time, really, since the standoff at the church, since John had doodled him up and Rook failed to reply with a bullet. Not enough time for most people to do anything truly, irreversibly stupid. Except for the equation of one Charlemagne Boshaw, a few unopened bottles of half-decent liquor and a conversation that had ranged through all the peaks and valleys of bullshit and ended with Rook thoroughly smashed and craning his chin down to try and get a view of what had been written on him. Goddamn stupid John, he wanted to give himself his first regrettable tattoo.
A very bad moment of inspiration then, with a bit of 110-proof fuel behind it. It may have been that after enough weeks in the shit, bouncing between Seed siblings, Rook just needed to do something to feel in charge again, in control of his own skin. Or possibly it was that there was tequila at hand and Tequila Rook made all of regular Rook’s bad decisions, just slightly less coherently and about three times as fast.
Of course Sharky had known where to go, and of course they were happy to accept the bulk of his payment from what was left in the crate and what Rook had in his pockets - ‘hey wait, aren’t you that guy?’ - remarking on how it wasn’t smart or medically sound to tattoo drunk people even as he got the needle buzzing.
“This is a red flag for a bull, you know that, right? That Seed fucker ever sees this, he’s just gonna flay it off you - and if he doesn’t see it, what even the hell is the point?”
The point was that the Seeds all liked to make themselves into walking billboards for why the world needed to burn, and Rook figured he ought to say something back, even if nobody ever saw it and especially before he sobered up enough to think the better of it.
The point was, as always - fuck it.
So here he is, shrugging his way awkwardly out of his shirt to reveal not one but two tattoos still healing, the words stretched across his chest beneath John’s handwork, half of them blocked in dark, gothic letters and the rest an outline waiting to be filled. John may not have the only tattoo needle in Hope County, but he probably has the rest of the black ink.
‘Ad Maiorem Del Gloriam’ - because if you’re going to make grandiose religious declarations, you might as well do it in Latin. A good thing Pastor Jerome knew if off hand.
Hey, Father Chris? Remember me? I bet you thought I was headed straight for a string of DUI’s and a van down by the river. Boy, things have taken a turn.
John’s expression is so apoplectic he might not actually be breathing, fury and confusion and indignant outrage by the bucketful, like he’s not sure what about this is angering him the most, or he’s too pissed off to decide. Joseph, for his part, barely seems surprised.
“You’re a Catholic?”
“Pride.” John says in a low snarl, possibly only to himself. “Oh, it’s going to be pride.”
The Bliss makes Rook utterly indifferent to his fate - like watching the replay of a car crash in slow motion, as the pretty sparkles from the shattered windshield fly through the air. The only thing he can focus on are all the details that don’t matter. The squish of his socks when he wiggles his toes - borrowed socks, borrowed shoes too - and the chill in the air because he’s got his shirt off for some reason - oh, there it is, Faith has it draped over one arm. Before he can smile at her, John is there between them, looming over him, and Rook can pick out all the different shades of color in his meticulously trimmed beard. He’s talking, scowling, so it must be important. Rook should probably pay attention, given that he was unconscious for this part the last time but John is so close and his eyes are so blue, expressive and angry and nervous and all this means so much to him. God, he’s trying so hard. Everyone’s always trying so fucking hard.
Rook doesn’t fight it, when John takes him by the shoulder, gripping much harder than he has to. He wouldn’t fight even if the Bliss hadn’t left him vague and loose-limbed and Rook’s down under the water and out before he can even finish exhaling and John is still holding on to him, as if waiting for something. Confession, that’s the next part, right? He wants to hear a truth.
“I blew up your big ass ‘YES’ just to piss you off.” Rook says. “Zero tactical relevance whatsoever.”
He knows better than this, he does, even now. Don’t poke the fucking bear, Rook. Just don’t do it. He knows what to do and what not to do and Rook can see it all play out even as he looks John in the eye and gives him his best shit-eating grin.
No real surprise, then, to be lifted off his feet in the next moment, John with his hands around his throat again and slamming him down under the surface - except this time the Bliss has him in full, so there’s no panic, the threat of drowning only a distant curiosity and the pain of the thumbs digging into his throat equally unimportant, as Rook stares up into the full force of John’s wrath and feels nothing but a weary sense of pity. Just stop caring, and most everything seems absurd.
Did you ever go up there on your hill at night? Did you even bother to look? It had been breathtaking, with the sign gone and the lights out - stars, so much more than stars, more than anything Rook could name, and he’d been awed and grateful for the awe, even with everything the way that it was. Glad that he could still feel a feeling like that. Rook wishes he could… fold that moment up, somehow, and give it to John. Maybe it would do something, against all those things waging war against each other behind his eyes. Maybe not.
The hands around his throat vanish, but with nothing in their place to support him Rook is free-floating, flailing, left to scramble for purchase and finding none. A hand drags him up, letting go as soon as his head breaks the surface, but at least it’s enough to get him right-side up.
Rook coughs and crawls and laughs to himself, both hands braced in the mud and his face barely above the surface of the water. John is not quite shouting somewhere behind him, his voice a badly-leashed fury and a tightly wound whine and the voice that responds is much quieter but hard with anger - Joseph, disappointed with little brother yet again.
“No… wait… I didn’t…” Rook says, trying to stand and going nowhere, his vision refusing to clear no matter how many times he blinks the dark edges back, every breath an effort. But he still has to try, because Joseph doesn’t know, doesn’t understand or he never would have made that demand, never tried to tie John’s soul to his like a rock around the ankle of a drowning man and Rook will not be a punishment, not for anyone, even John Seed.
He tries to stand up, feet sliding for purchase against the silty riverbed, hands tangled in the roots of the weeds on the shore. The argument’s still going on somewhere behind him, but the water’s holding him down, and even looking over his shoulder is more than he can manage. He shouldn’t have done that, he knew he shouldn’t have, but what else is new.
“’S not his fault. I’m not his fault. He tried. ’S not…” The fancy-pants lawyer didn’t expect the white trash rent-a-cop to take the hits and keep on coming, didn’t know it’s only thing Rook’s ever been good for. Defiance for its own sake, whether or not it matters or anyone’s keeping score.
It’s not John’s fault that the worst thing Rook’s ever done, he’d do it again. No repenting, no forgiveness - someone has to pay that price, and it's damn sure going to be him.
“… I’m gonna burn.” Rook laughs, helplessly. He’s known it for years, deep down where there’s no point thinking about it anymore, but it feels real now in the way it usually doesn’t in the light of day, with his knees in the muck and his elbows propped up against the bank, whispering his confession to the smooth river stones. If Rook survives this - and he won’t survive, none of them are gonna… there’s still only one way that all of this ends, and if Joseph fucking Seed thinks he can do anything about that, if he wants to take it to a higher authority - well, that’ll be a real short argument.
A shadow falls over him. Rook shuts his eyes.
He’s damp. That’s not great, but at least he’s not cold and his feet are bare and it feels good to flex his toes, he’s had to sleep with his shoes on too often, lately. Even better is the hand in his hair, carding gently and Rook has… no idea who that might be, but he’s not going to complain. It’s been a while since anyone touched him like this - a real long time. The rest of the world’s a blur, soft and heavy and warm - an afternoon nap, that’s a rare luxury most days, and it’s nice to be awake and just enjoying it, drifting on the current.
“… appreciate it if you let me know when you’re done with all this ‘catch-and-release’ business.”
The voice is familiar. The words evaporate even as he’s listening, too hard to make sense of, but Rook knows the tone, hears the threat in it, like a knife thumbed a half-inch out of the sheath. It’s close by, but the hands that are on him are closer - he’s got his head in someone’s lap, and Rook leans in and that touch doesn’t retreat, doesn’t deny him - strong and certain and the reassurance that wherever he is, he’s safe.
“Always the first to doubt. I know it comes from a place of love…”
A rumble, the slight shake of movement over rough terrain. A car? Is he in the back seat? So… Rook probably got drunk and started a fight - or fought first and then started drinking, in some place he shouldn’t have. He aches, all over. God, what now - you try to fight the whole bar yourself, Rook? Shit, he hopes he still has his wallet on him, hopes he didn’t break his phone again. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
‘… had the other one… would have worked out…”
“… souls… not interchangeable, brother…”
A rhythm in the contrast, the short and blunt sentences punctuating responses that unspool like a fisherman casting out a long line. Someone who doesn’t talk until they’ve got the whole argument prepared, every word as certain as the pressure of their hands, stroking Rook’s shoulders and he hums his appreciation, tries to burrow closer.
“Give him back to you, after I’ve made sure…”
“… appreciate your concern, but it’s unnecessary…. opportunity… the whole purpose of this… and now…”
The world sloshes around him suddenly, like a sea in a storm - and they’re not moving anymore. The car’s stopped. Rook hopes nothing’s wrong, that he doesn’t have to get up - he’s not sure that’s even an option at the moment, but whoever’s holding him seems untroubled, every movement with the same steady, soothing calm.
“Why am I the only one who can see this for what it is?”
“I have made my decision, Jacob, and I know that you will abide by it.”
“… playing you, and you’re letting him… and we both know that John-”
The hand in his hair tightens, not quite enough to hurt.
“Was he lying?” Silence. “Was he lying, Jacob?”
A thumb finds his temple, kneading a gentle circle, and there’s something else, something he can’t quite - bliss oil, on his hands, just enough to keep you… - but whatever’s going on, it sounds complicated enough that Rook doubts he would have much to offer anyway.
“He was sent to us, for all of us, and for the darkest times yet to come. It was never meant as an insult.”
“You want me to protect you - protect all of this, everything that you’ve built? Let me do my damn job.”
“I don’t need you to protect me from him.”
Rook’s fading, everything going comfortable and dark and quiet again. Whoever it is they’re talking about, he hopes it all works out.
1. Rook’s thinking of the Story of Isaac, by Leonard Cohen. I like the cover from Suzanne Vega.
A familiar weight across his legs, warm and steady, and Rook’s smiling even before he opens his eyes, looks down as Boomer leans back and looks up.
“Hey, look who’s still the fucking best.” Rook rasps, and then laughs, because that’s all the time it takes to get a face full of Boomer, and he pets and scratches as the dog huffs and sniffs, licks his face and jumps around over him and on him - oof - tail wagging the whole time. Excellent wakeup, definitely worth still being alive.
He’d always wanted a dog - was going to get a dog - but Rook was also never home, or home never stayed home for long, and a dog didn’t deserve that, no point in bringing anyone else along for the ride. He was gonna, though, when he had the money and the time. He was gonna have the time.
You still have more than Rae-Rae got. Try to keep that in mind. Rook reaches out, gets Boomer in a bear hug, holds him there for a few seconds, and then the dog’s wiggling away because Staci’s in the doorway. Rook blinks, takes another look around - he’s in the back room of one of the abandoned houses in Fall’s End. Mostly empty, the bed bare except for a thin blanket, but given how he had half-expected to wake up at the end of John’s knife, it might as well be the Ritz.
He’d heard there were different rules to the atonement since he’d gone willingly, since he’d bowed down. Still, Rook doesn’t really know the particulars and John will no doubt make up new ones as it suits him, no matter what’s been written down. But Joseph tossed him back in one piece, when he didn’t have to at all, and that’s… whatever the hell it is.
“The Peggies dumped you off a few hours ago.” Boomer circles Staci, moves back to Rook as he sits up, drops his legs over the side of the bed.
“What time is it?”
“Just past one.”
Same day? Must be, or Staci would have said something by now. Bliss trips are weird like that. Rook feels like he’s lost weeks, maybe more, tossed up on the shore from a life adrift at sea. The quiet, limitless peace of it, the lie that everything was going to be all right. He wishes he could remember more of exactly what happened, what he said or did - but at least there’s no sense of dread, that plummeting feeling of looking back on the blur of the night before and knowing there were consequences lining up somewhere - picking the wrong fight, kissing the wrong guy. At least this time he can be pretty sure that last one’s not a problem.
“Joseph was there.” Rook rubs a hand over his eyes. “All of them were.”
“Dutch’s bunker’s been stripped.”
“What the fuck.” Rook says, tries to stand up but the world swims around him, that post-Bliss kick in the ass, gravity still not working exactly the way it’s supposed to. Staci has a hand around his arm, helping him up, keeping him steady. He’s got his jacket on, but his shoes are missing and his t-shirt’s vanished. Rook can’t see the damage, but it hurts to swallow and his throat’s tender to the touch - he remembers the bruises in the mirror, from the last time John decided to go with a full-contact baptism. Fuck, it was the sign, he must have mentioned the stupid sign.
At the time, he’d just needed to keep John’s attention off of Hudson - he seemed to threaten her more when Rook kept quiet, didn’t destroy things fast enough for him to tirade over. Rook had thought for a long time, of how to change that Hollywood 'YES' into something filthy, the more juvenile the better, but three letters didn’t leave much room for creativity and in the end just blowing it up had been awfully convenient. A little obvious, maybe, but it seems John hadn’t forgotten.
“He do all that to you?”
Staci’s never seen it before, John’s little memento. Whitehorse and Hudson haven’t either, and Rook hopes he can keep it that way.
“This,” He says, touching his throat, “and this one” as he brushes over where he knows the ‘h’ is - not rat, right John? Rook waves a hand lower. “The rest is all me.” He doesn’t have to look up, to guess what Pratt thinks about that. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“No, it did not.” Rook says, and pulls away, finally steady on his feet, or what passes for it these days. “What happened at the bunker? Peggies leave anything behind?”
At least they’d already taken most of the guns, but that was barely a dent in the real supply. Food and water and medicine, and Dutch had been packing it away for more than himself, Rook knew that - not quite enough of a pragmatist to keep from hoping that his family wouldn’t come around to his way of thinking, that he wouldn’t be ready to welcome them if they did. Enough for all of them, for a decade at the least. It’s a big fucking loss for the Resistance, and all Rook’s fault for not keeping his damn mouth shut. Maybe it’s still salvageable, in some small part. He could go to Joseph tomorrow, plead his case. Ask for enough to keep the people at Drubman’s place secure, if nothing more. Just enough to-
“It was the Whitetails.”
Rook takes a breath, and lets the world reshuffle itself around him, and nods. Okay, okay. It makes sense. Eli wasn’t doing anything less than Rook had done - acting the best way he knew how to protect his own. He’d even warned Rook, that things weren’t exactly going to be civil from now on. Did Jacob know? Did he sit back and just let it happen, hoping to drive a wedge between the Whitetails and the rest of them - or just to see Rook twist in the wind? It doesn’t seem likely - a petty fucking move, fortifying one enemy at the cost of another. Not that it matters all that much, whether it was petty or Eli just took advantage of an opportunity and got lucky.
“You need to tell the Sheriff, if the Cougars and the Whitetails are helping each other out at all, Jacob cannot fucking know about it. The Whitetails have to stay the hell away from Drubman’s, not one radio call - he is just looking for the excuse. All it’s going to take is one sign that we’re using this ceasefire against them-.”
“He could set it up. Make it seem like we went back on the deal.” Staci says. “He doesn’t even have to do anything. Just has to tell his brothers that’s what happened.”
“You think he’d try to lie to Joseph like that?”
John wouldn’t, at least. He might lose his shit, forget himself in the moment - Rook’s walking proof of that much - but lying to his brother’s face, trying to play lawyer with the holy orders? Rook doesn’t think he’s got the stones.
He hasn’t asked Staci these kinds of questions, any intel that could come from the time he’d spent in Jacob’s bunker, anything he might have overheard because it means seeing the look on Staci’s face that’s there now, thinking back, remembering. His eyes gone distant and a muscle working in his jaw and come back, Stace. Don’t stay there. Just a bunch of smelly Cross Fit motherfuckers circle-jerking on a mountaintop. Not worth your time.
“No, I don’t think so. Not.. not right away.”
Yeah, he wants to see them turn on each other first, prove his little theory that everyone’s an asshole if you give them five minutes. Like that’s an argument. Like most days Rook couldn’t round down to at least a 70/30 split - but that doesn’t mean those people don’t exist, the better people. Rook watches them enough on the internet - people who rescue dogs and nurse wild birds and give homeless people new haircuts for free. Hell, there are people here in Hope County who would take a hit for a stranger, no questions asked. Pastor Jerome’s probably taken more than his fair share already, and it’s not exactly a stretch to see Grace choosing honor and humanity over anything as meager as survival. Even Sharky, for all the collateral damage he can leave in his wake, doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.
Wolves are good to each other. They take care of their kids. They play.
Rook’s not anything so worthy, but he’ll gladly give up his life for some hopeless cause if it'll fuck with Jacob’s bottom line. Just where do ‘good deeds done entirely out of spite’ fall on the scale of noble virtues? Time to start rehearsing that pitch for the pearly gates. “Okay look, but I did try. I mostly tried. I tried to try.”
“The… Jacob’s people, they can challenge you.” Staci says, softly, not looking at him. “I don’t know where you’ll end up tomorrow, or the next day. If you can avoid… if they’ll.... they call you out, and when they do, you gotta fight, there’s not… you can’t say no.”
“To the death?” Rook asks, and Staci swallows and he knows then that Pratt never found out if there was another option, never thought to ask. How many times did he have to fight and kill, before they left him alone? Did they ever leave him alone?
“I’ll do my best to keep my head down. Just stay out of everyone’s way.” As if that’s at all an option - like he’s gonna fucking blend. As if Joseph couldn’t send him to either of his brothers’ little all-inclusive abattoirs on a whim, and Rook wouldn’t have any choice but to go. Except if the Father really wants him dead, he probably wants to be there to see it himself, if not hold the knife. “They know what’s out there now, they’ve seen enough to know it’s bad. If Eden’s Gate’s half as interested in surviving this as they say, they won’t want to waste the resources fighting us, not if they don’t have to.”
Staci doesn’t say anything, a non-reaction that speaks volumes - not exactly a lot of evidence that simple logic will carry the day.
“He wants you to kill Eli Palmer. He’ll make you do it.”
The two of them up in the mountains, volleying Rook back and forth against each other, and it wasn’t like Rook had any real problem thinning out the ranks of the Chosen, but he’d never been anything more than a tool, no matter who was doing the pointing. He wonders what the name was, of the poor bastard who came before him, or the one before that. You ever kill me before, Eli? The last one of me too broken to send back the way they came?
“If things keep going this way, he won’t have to work real hard.” Rook mutters. “I didn’t say that. You didn’t hear that.”
“Like I listen to a damn thing that comes out of your mouth.” Staci says. “We should hit a couple of the bunkers you marked up, move some supplies while the sun’s out, if you’re feeling up to it. Find you a pair of shoes on the way.”
Rook zips up the coat - shoes and shirt, that’d be good - and wonders if he will ever feel up to much of anything Hope County’s got to offer, ever again. It’s a little late to go up into the mountains today, but he’d better get up there soon if he doesn’t want the rest of the bunkers picked as clean as Dutch’s. At least Boomer’s ready to make the trip worthwhile, circling at the door with an excited bark, that canine sixth sense of an impending car ride.
“Yeah, let’s get moving.”
1. Thanks for everyone for the kudos and the comments. I really appreciate them all, and I'm glad that this thing is entertaining so far.
Hey kids, here’s a fun question - what’s the worst possible outcome, for the night after Rook surrenders to Eden’s Gate?
Okay, maybe not the worst, not these days. But it still is a surrender, even if Rook doesn’t think of it that way - even if he hasn’t done anything yet, or intends on giving the Peggies an inch more than he has to. It doesn’t matter, because they’re not the only ones who believe in symbols and it means something, for the Sheriff’s junior deputy to break faith with the Resistance, for Rook to flick his safety on and wander off to play with the enemy. How they alternately mock and loathe Joseph Seed - because they fear him, too. Even the Sheriff didn’t want a piece of Eden’s Gate until the feds had forced his hand.
No one wants to admit it, but the Father’s become their boogeyman, capable of all kinds of impossible things.
So when the sun sets and the night comes - and the fog doesn’t roll in? The monsters don’t appear? Oh, you bet your ass no one’s happy. It ought to be a relief, an unexpected intermission, but instead Rook is on the water tower, gun in his hand, listening to a small group in the church that’s become a less-than-small group as the night’s rolled on and nothing’s come calling. The sound of raised voices carries even from where he’s sitting - the night’s full of crickets and frogs, a hell of a sweet song compared to the alternative - and the long pauses in between must be the Pastor trying to calm things down, fighting the good fight, keeping the peace - but what really matters is the rumble, all those people who only know that Joseph got something he wanted and suddenly the monsters went away.
The fog’s still out there though, holding court across the river, and there’s still only static beyond.
“… did I dream, you dreamed about me? Were you hare when I was fox?” Rook’s can’t get the back half of the song out of his head, even though it’s doing exactly nothing for his looming sense of dread. Even on brighter days, it can still prickle a few goosebumps on the back of his neck, and right now it seems like it’s pressed right up against him, looking out over his shoulder into the empty dark. Counting down the minutes with him on cold fingertips.
Doomsday prepper pro tip? Raiding bunkers is a real bad way to feel confident about your own chances for survival.
He’s hated it, from the very first time he climbed down into one - the tidy stacks of bandages, the boxes full of food. Everything just waiting on the people who’d been smart enough to put them there, forewarned and forearmed. All that hard work, all that planning and look how far it got them. If he was real lucky, there weren’t any bodies or blood - which meant Rook only knew that they’d only been chased away before the cult could close its grip. Until a few days ago, that had been a relief, the best possible outcome.
He still doesn’t know what happened to Rae Rae’s son. Rook could ask, could have asked at any time, but the words just won’t come.
Pratt’s on point tonight, keeping watch from the roof of the Eagle, Running bunkers with him had been the easiest part of the day, quick and quiet. They’d run out of space in the truck before they’d run out of daylight, halfway through the third pantry. Rook’s been keeping a list on his forearm with a Sharpie he’d found in the truck - what they’d discovered in each, what they’d had to leave behind that’s worth going back for. So many of them were built from the same kit, the same templates, each personalized with some painful detail - this one had a rowing machine, that one planned on killing time carving wooden ducks - and cash. Always cash, and what the hell good was that going to do, after the end of the world?
Of course, he always picked it up, and Staci did too. It was too close to crossing a line, leaving a roll of bills just sitting there. Admitting that if it didn’t have value anymore, it might not ever again.
Rook’s picked up a couple other nonsense things along the way - a world atlas, oversized but thin enough to roll up and wedge in the cup holder in the door. A phone, out of charge and locked when he finally got it going, but Rook has a few spare minutes of downtime between disasters to tap in random numbers. If Staci had noticed, he hadn’t said anything about it. Just something to do, to keep him occupied, holding out hope for a new tune or two on board. So much music he doesn’t have here, so many bands Rook figures they won’t turn up no matter how many bunkers they roll - still holding out hope for “At San Quentin,” c’mon guys, one copy in all of Hope County really isn’t too much to fucking ask - and what if he never… what if there are no new songs coming, not ever, and what if…
What if anyone left out there would give anything just to be where you are? Cult and all. All this, right now - what if you’re the lucky one, Rook?
“Now my foolish boat is leaning, broken lovelorn on your rocks.” A lot of thinking about not thinking, singing softly if only to keep the stone in his throat from choking him.
What are they gonna do about Eli? No one’s gonna do shit about Eli. Half of them probably think he’s the only sane person left in the county. Rook knows exactly what they’re talking about in the church, the panic they’re pretending isn’t panic - and can he say for absolute certain, that this - all of this - isn’t still within Joseph’s power somehow? Crank up the Bliss, jam the radios, let loose some godforsaken abominations they’d been cooking up… somewhere. Turn the crazy up to eleven and watch it all fall down? Ease up a little, if the sinners beg hard enough for mercy, but otherwise…
Rook doesn’t buy it - he’s seen too much, heard and seen… John would have let it slip, couldn’t have endured this long with no one knowing how clever he was - and Nick had been up in the sky, beyond anything Eden’s Gate could touch and still came down terrified and they’d lost the lodge and any of that should have been enough, but this is too big now for anything to be enough. The rest of Fall’s End has only dealt with the creatures that - fair enough - aren’t all that much more fucked up than a goddamn Bliss Moose - and more importantly, they don’t want to believe it. It’s asking too much to be real. Joseph Seed’s not just a man to them, for all that they hate him. Congratulations, Father - you’ve got those hearts and minds, if not quite the way you wanted. He has to be responsible for all of this, for everything - because Joseph’s a monster and monsters don’t suffer, don’t ever lose control. It’s impossible to think that he might be caught up in this just like they are.
“For you sing, "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow. Oh my heart, oh my heart shies from the sorrow.”
Rook thought there was a pattern. He thought the fog and the things in the fog would come every night and they’d just keep coming and it should be a blessing that they’d stopped at all - but if they did, what was the pattern, then? Why should there be a pattern? Why does he think that being cautious or being smart or paying attention is going to do fuck all, in the end?
He wants guide wires down on the ground, something pointed toward Gardenview, toward the mountains, in case the next time the fog does roll in it doesn’t feel like rolling out again. At least try to find some way to get to the cars, and maybe they could cut a notch in the road to follow, up toward the hills. Staci doesn’t see much point in bothering, can’t imagine any of them would have the chance to run, or get very far if they did. It’d be a big project, anyway, and they don’t have the people for it, with continuing to strip down the the hanger and fortifying everything else taking precedence.
Maybe the fog won’t roll back in at all, and Rook threw his hand way the hell too soon, for nothing. It’d hardly be the first time.
The church door opens, and there’s no one too familiar in the group that grumbles their way out but it’s not small either, the meeting obviously more ‘ended’ than ‘resolved’. Pastor Jerome stands backlit in a yellow rectangle of church lights - still the pillar, unmoved, or at least good at faking it. He looks up at Rook - no way to see his expression from here, not that he really needs to.
“It’s a good job, being on the force. You get to be a real part of the community.” Rook murmurs. “Don’t worry about what you see on the TV, rookie. It’s mostly paperwork.”
It would make sense to ride a bike back up to Eden’s Gate, rather than driving. Rook could do it, the light on the way up a little dimmer than he’d like but the sun still rising and no mist in sight and he’d probably be safe enough. Rationing the fuel is gonna have to happen sooner or later - it might as well be sooner. No point in anyone else making the trip up there, if the Peggies suddenly decide to stop playing nice. He presents his argument to Grace, and she listens quietly and blinks and nods and tells him to get in the goddamn truck.
Rook gets in the goddamn truck. It is less unnerving to have a bit of steel between him and the outside world, to know that Grace could slam the pedal to the floor if she had to, even if the rest of the night had been as quiet as the beginning. He’d managed to pull a few hours of sleep near the end. Probably not the best idea to crash out in the middle of one of Joseph’s sermons.
There’s not much worth saying, so they don’t bother, and before long they’re sliding through the checkpoint, the Peggie in charge making some noise about checking the truck until Grace just stares him down, unflinching, and he stammers and shuffles and finally lets them drive through. One last moment worth smiling about for the day, and then they’ve arrived.
No sign of the big three at the door, or even Faith. No one waiting to say hello. An ego check, maybe, in case Rook thought he was worth any more attention than the rest of the congregation.
Grace finally glances at him, like maybe she’s regretting waiting so long to speak, but there’s Peggies watching now, any hesitance on his part more than he wants to give so Rook just opens the door, gets out and walks away without looking back. He listens to the sound of tires on gravel, the engine revving and Rook keeps listening until she’s gone. Deliberately relaxes his shoulders, hands open, pretends everything’s fine as that knot of tension winds itself tighter and tighter in his gut.
It’d probably be a good idea to start paying a little more attention to the Peggies, stop seeing them as something other than one great snarling, unkempt mob to go around or through. Clusters of the faithful are standing here and there, all watching him now, but no one says a word, or gets any closer - there’s whispers behind him, as he passes by, and Rook pretends not to hear. The church doors are open and a few people have already filed inside and okay, so either this is where he’s supposed to end up or someone will tell him otherwise or throw a rock or just shoot him, and then he’ll know.
Armed guards wait at the door, Jacob’s Chosen - cold and dead-eyed, and he remembers what Staci said about challenges, about fighting to the death as the man grabs him, slams him harder than he has to against the wall next to the door, a rough frisk for any hidden weapons. Rook doesn’t move, even with the man’s arm against his throat, how he could stick a knife in Rook so easily, in a dozen different places - but he doesn’t struggle, doesn’t fight. He thinks about Kim instead, how she called to check in on him exactly when she said she would, and didn’t mention where he’d been or where he was or any of the shitshow at all - just talked to him. After they’d signed off he’d spent every five minutes trying not to call her back, maybe get Nick on the line and talk about anything at all, didn’t really matter.
Every minute here keeps Mary May breathing, keeps Eden’s Gate focused on him. Every minute is worth the price.
So having this stupid bastard’s hands on him, grinding Rook’s chin into the boards, pinning him for just that little extra bit longer than he has to - doesn’t matter, not important. He’ll let go, they both know he will, because Joseph’s got plans - and isn’t that a fun thought to walk through the door with. The chapel looks a little less ominous in the early morning light, when Rook doesn’t have a gun or a warrant or any shit to stir - just an old pile of boards, worn walls and worn floors and the creak of the pews as the Peggies all turn to look at him - some in little glances, others glaring outright, more whispers plucking here and there at the silence and Rook makes his way forward, slides over all the way to the wall, a row back from the front. Still close enough to show that he wants to be there, and if Joseph wants him center spotlight Rook will do as he’s told, but he can’t put himself there on his own. Not that it matters much - wherever he’s sitting is automatically the center of the room.
The pews fill in around him, though there’s an invisible line no one’s crossing, space for at least one more in every direction. Rook assumes there will be a Herald beside him eventually, waits for John or - fuck his life - Jacob to sit down next to him with some threat barely passing for a greeting - but there’s nothing. A murmur comes from the back doors, following Joseph as he walks slowly down the aisle, reaching out to touch a shoulder or briefly clasp an offered hand because he’s the king here, this is all his to bless and command and it’s not the first time Rook wishes he’d been in on that original call, how Burke convinced Whitehorse that they were going to take this place with five people and no plan beyond kicking the doors in. Just what the hell kind of authority did Burke have for this little mission anyway, what kind of bargain bullshit justice did he promise to his superiors?
No sign of the Marshall yet - and John isn’t here and Faith isn’t here either and that might be a bad sign, Rook with his radio off for the sermon which means anything could be happening out there - the Father’s a liar, and you got duped, Occam’s Razor you dumb fucking excuse for a cop - but there’s Jacob, leaning against the far wall and looking straight at him. Rook can see him from the corner of his eye and yeah that’s not great either, but at least it means he’s not out there leading the troops, which means that’s maybe, just maybe, there’s day two bought and paid for.
“I want to speak to you about resilience. Resolve. The courage that we are each given in the face of the terrible and the unspeakable. The greater strength that we find here together, in our family.”
It’s funny, that anyone in the Resistance thinks this is how Joseph’s going to get to him, that there’s any fancy talk he’s gonna come up with that will run through Rook’s triple-distilled bullshit filter and come out even slightly convincing on the other side. Rook can practically see the Father’s subtitles as he paces back and forth, and they don’t exactly match the inspiring call to action and it doesn’t matter how eloquent he is, how earnestly he preaches on about virtue and righteousness and bravery when it scrapes away so easy, and underneath is just more of the same - ‘I me mine, I me mine.’
It’s every bullshit job Rook’s ever had, some assistant manager or unknown dick in a suit from even higher up to tell them why it was great news that their benefits were getting cut or the break room was being moved out of the one spot with windows or how there was a whole new, more complicated way of doing things they’d come up with in the head office, without ever asking anyone who actually did the work. It’s Burke, pulling rank because he could, because he knew no one was going to challenge him and it’s always the fucking same. Work harder for less, put your ass on the line for someone else’s gain, for the bullshit promises of some future payout that only sound so good because nobody has to deliver, because there’s no way you’ll last that long.
Seven years. Seven years.
“… but we have prevailed, my children, as the rest of the world falls away, and we will overcome, no matter what challenges lie ahead. Again and again, we have triumphed over adversity, and it is our unquestionable destiny to walk through the gates together, strong and worthy of the paradise that awaits us.”
New Eden. Sure, it’ll happen. It’s waiting for Rook, right along with his holiday bonus and his flex time and that party they were gonna have when they finally made quota.
Yeah, Rook’s done this - being on the leash, pretending he doesn’t notice the pull. Paying attention while letting none of it show, a neutral non-expression that isn’t defiance or indifference or anything at all. Obedience, and if it’s just that little bit grudging it’s usually for the best, amusing for them to know that they’ve got him where he doesn’t want to be. As long as Joseph doesn’t start baying for blood, anything else will do.
He can still take the chance he’s been given to study the landscape, start building maps of whatever part of the inner sanctums he’s allowed to see. Just in case… who knows. Might as well keep his eyes open and his head down and as many options on the table for as long as there’s a table.
No clocks to be had, but Rook figures the sermon must last about an hour, ending on what’s probably a familiar refrain - read your holy book, kids, and try to be sanctimonious at least three times a day to stay regular. Joseph… walks away, out some side alcove and an exit he can’t see, with Jacob right behind and yeah, of course someone’s watching but Rook was expecting… more. A confrontation, a challenge. The Father dragging him up on that stage and beating him bloody, just because he could. If not pain, then at least humiliation. Maybe they’re letting the line out a bit first, hoping he’ll just hang himself if they give him half a chance.
Nope. Rook is not going to go exploring, or chat anyone up, or do anything that could be misconstrued as having a thought of his own. Everyone else seems to be filing out toward a larger building at the other end of the compound, and as Rook reaches the entrance he smells the food and his stomach reminds him it’s been a while, that he’d been too distracted to grab something on the way out and maybe that’s a plan he should consider sticking to, skipping any meals that aren’t on the Peggies’ dime and leaving that little bit more in the Resistance reserves.
The food’s served cafeteria-style, which makes sense for this many people, and Rook gets his bowl and cup and queues up - familiar gestures turned surreal under the circumstances - and there’s the same pocket of silence around him, like there’s been since he arrived and when he finally gets to the front of the line the man serving him freezes up, doesn’t move at all.
For a moment, Rook figures he was mistaken, that breakfast isn’t in his future unless he feels like wearing it - but it isn’t hate on the Peggie’s face, or even suspicion. It’s fear.
He used to scare people. Rook could be pretty good at it, without even trying, without even knowing. When he was younger, before he figured himself out - and it’s a terrible, shameful thing, that he’d ever had to be told. Taken aside and quietly informed that what he thought was only minor frustrations, just his day-to-day temper could make people uncomfortable, afraid of what he might do next. Rook thinks even the person who’d told him might have been a little afraid too, of how he might take the news.
It sounds so good on the surface, being tough and strong and always getting what you want - but what it really means is a whole lot of this. Intimidating people who never had any intention of fighting back - is this guy a fucking noncombatant? Why wouldn’t the Peggies have a few of those, somewhere behind the lines?
What it really means is living in a world that’s just mirrors, just people telling you whatever they think you want to hear. Whatever it takes to make the angry, loud, dangerous thing go away and leave them alone. Everyone does all their real living - all the bits actually worth bothering with - wherever you aren’t, and you only get the dregs. If you never figure it out - if no one tells you, or you don’t learn - you’d never even know what was missing.
All he has to do in this world is not be that. All that matters is that Rook dies without becoming his father first and he’s won. It’s a win, no matter what else happens and even if he’s the only one who ever knows.
He ducks his head, lowers his eyes and waits for however this wants to resolve itself. After a moment there’s a scoop of stew in the bowl and a piece of bread on top, an apple on the side, and Rook murmurs a thank you and keeps walking. It looks mostly vegetarian - which makes sense, keeps it simple and cheap and healthy for so many people. Rook wonders how much the Project has that’s still fresh - everything they took from Gardenview, and anything they would have had packed away in advance. It makes sense, to eat what’s perishable first and work backward from there.
He turns toward the dining room, long rows of tables set up banquet style, the whole building probably bought wholesale from some club hall or meeting room that had fallen on hard times and the rest of the smaller structures raised up around it. What it reminds Rook of, more than anything, is the lunchrooms of his youth - right down to the nasty glances, the open seats that disappear as he looks at them, because people grow up and join cults and declare war on their neighbors and nothing, nothing in the world actually gets any less stupid. He wonders if he’d ‘accidentally’ get nudged into a group of Chosen, ‘accidentally’ have his tray shoved out of his hands, ‘accidentally’ end up in a fight he won’t win.
Well fuck it, this isn’t grade school and he doesn’t have to play along. So Rook turns on his heel instead, wolfs the food in the few steps it takes him to walk the narrow hall to an open door, hopefully to return his bowl - and then he’s in the back of the house, where it looks like kitchen prep is in the weeds.
It’s a nice setup, newer than the rest of the building - commercial fixtures, with gleaming tile floors and long, stainless steel prep stations no doubt all paid for on John’s dime. A long rack of hanging pans, a row of knives - unnerving purely from context, but these are clean and well cared for. The drop sink’s piled high with unwashed dishes, though, and the only other occupant, a woman with a blue bandanna, doesn’t even notice him, too busy wrangling another enormous pot of breakfast out the door. The meals must go in shifts, maybe there’s different days for Joseph to preach to different groups while the others just eat and run. Whatever the reason they’re short-handed, Rook is not going back out into the dining hall, and getting any more adventurous on his own seems like a real bad idea for any number of reasons and this? This he can do.
Dishwashing had usually been under the table work, when he’d been able to get it at all, but it had been enough to plug up the gaps in between paychecks now and then, and he’s not bad at it. It’s meditative, working his way down through the pile, and there’s enough space to move and the faucets all with hose attachments and decent heat and water pressure. It even vents well, an open door behind him with a good view of the morning, bright and fresh and clean. He wonders who John bothered to listen to, to set this all up right.
Maybe it’s the chef, who comes back into the room with another tray piled high with dishes, and finally catches sight of him. Nothing fancy about her, but not edging toward ragged, the way some of the Peggies are. Rook looks back, but keeps working - and after a moment she sets the tray down at his side and goes about her business without a word.
A few more Peggies trail in as time ticks by - other kitchen staff from the front, the man he’d already scared once - and they keep their distance but Rook figures he’s a little less intimidating with his hands in soap suds halfway to the elbow, and no one bothers him.
If there were a radio handy, and something worth listening to, it wouldn’t be the worst way to spend the time.
“- mean you don’t know? Well get out there and find him!”
Rook looks up, as a very angry John Seed goes stalking past the door, trailing a small flock of anxious Peggies. Rook wonders if he actually ever bothers with moods besides furious or waiting to be furious. By the time he thinks about calling out, the sound of footsteps has already faded, and in the end it seems more useful to just keep racking up the forks and bowls where he is. John will figure it out, sooner or later.
In the end, it’s Joseph who finds him first - not as inclined to hurry, glancing into the room as he passes and it’s almost worth it to see the Father nearly do a double take. Never easy to tell what he’s thinking, and Rook doesn’t want to hold eye contact too long, doesn’t want to risk anything that might look like a challenge. If he had to guess, though, he’d say the look on his face is almost bemusement. Indulgent, like Rook’s little surprises are now things to be charmed by. For the moment, anyway.
Before he can say anything, John’s through the door, blowing into the room with indignant outrage just barely brought up short by Joseph’s presence - but he still gives Rook a dangerous look.
“What are you doing?”
Rook looks down, one hand with a dishrag and a bowl half full of soapy water in the other, and then back up at John. If Mr. Ivy League can’t figure this one out, an explanation’s not going to help much, and the thought must show on his face. John’s nostrils flare, hands immediately balling into fists - so goddamn easy to wind up, Rook’s not even trying, not really - but Joseph lifts a hand before Rook can enjoy convoluted murder baptism number three - kitchen sink edition.
“John, I believe you had something to say?”
A muscle works in John’s jaw, as he glances away from Rook to the back wall, the silence stretching out. On the other side the room, the chef works with her back to them, so silent she might as well not be there at all.
“… okay?” Rook says, tentatively, unsure just where this is going. It’s not the right response - surprise, surprise - John’s scowl deepening with whatever frustration or annoyance always has that storm brewing on his face, the world and everything in it a perpetual disappointment.
“I let myself be provoked, when I knew better.” He sounds like a child, reciting a scolding back from memory. “When I knew that you - I could have controlled my temper. I shouldn’t have… done that. To you.”
Holy shit. John’s apologizing for what happened at the stream, for the bruises Rook’s still wearing, and even if Joseph’s dragged it out of him he’s still actually saying the words. A part of Rook is trying to superimpose this moment on the time, not that long ago, when he’d been strapped to a chair while John had been busy stapling bits of other people to the walls. Following the thread of lawyer to torturer to whatever the fuck is happening now, and coming up blank.
“It’s fine.” Rook says, because what else is he supposed to say? “Uh… apology accepted. Don’t… don’t worry about it.”
“It won’t happen again.”
Rook snorts, before he can stop himself, because… no, just no. Proven by the immediate, volcanic reaction, John’s eyes lighting up with new fire and it’s only the Father’s presence that keeps him at all in check. Joseph frowns at Rook, reproachfully, which means it’s time to duck his head and try for more proper amends.
“Don’t worry about it.” Rook says again. “It’s not like it’s the first time I got my a- my butt kicked, it probably won’t be the last.”
Certainly won’t be the last, but as long as John sticks to the more impromptu beatdowns from now on, Rook can roll with it. One of those things he’d rather keep to himself, that it’s better that nobody knows. The old, familiar language of all of this, the sharp glances and clenched fists and unspoken threats. The times Rook’s been just fine with being hurt if it gives him free rein to hurt back.
At least Joseph seems pleased, convinced that things are smoothed over for the moment.
“So, we’re letting him near the food now?”
Jacob’s in the doorway, a few feet away, and there goes the rest of the air out of the room. It’s always hard, having him this close, Rook trembling underneath the thinnest rime of calm, and he’s never sure if he wants to run away or find a knife in the dishwater and lunge for his throat. Just fucking end it, one way or the other, whatever it takes so he doesn’t have to feel like this anymore.
So the words don’t register right away, what he’s implying - betrayal. Rook’s gonna… fuck, what? Ruin the supplies? Poison everyone? Maybe it’s a good thing, that Jacob thinks he has it in him, to be that dangerous. It doesn’t feel like a good thing. Rook glances to Joseph, hopes the surprise is clear on his face, that the suds dripping down his arms make some kind of case in his defense, but the Father seems to be in a good mood, looks to the chef, who knows exactly when to stop blending into the background.
“It seems that our Rook is quick to find a worthy purpose, if left to his own devices.” Our Rook. Oh fuck everything. “I trust that you will be able to guide him in whatever duties are… appropriate.”
“Of course, Father.”
The barest glance in his direction, just in case Rook didn’t think she’d happily end him at any hint of trouble, and go back to prep just as soon as she’d rinsed off the knife. A warning he really doesn’t need, and it’s not just Peggie rules in play. Rook doesn’t believe in much, but he knows enough to know you never, ever fuck with a chef in their kitchen.
The sound that interrupts them isn’t much, outside the open back door, a dull thud in the distance - but Rook’s gotten used to explosions of all kinds from all places, and when Jacob moves and Joseph follows, Rook trails a little ways behind. Sees the plume of smoke rising to the south, the barely-audible burr of an engine - and another thud, as Nick drops the second payload. Rook hopes whatever it is, it burns hot, for a long damn time.
“My house.” John says, his voice flat and furious. “You could have said something.”
“No one told me.” Rook says, a little surprised himself, that they hadn’t made any mention - but it’s what he asked for, right? If it’s about trust, if they have to go farther, cut him loose completely to maintain order… he’ll deal. There’s always a way to deal.
“I could have taken it back.” John says. “You got spooked. It didn’t even look that bad from the air.”
Rook’s almost dizzy for a moment, with the thought that John could have just gone and put the plane down. Could have listened to Nick and Staci barely survive and decide they were still full of shit, that he wanted a closer glimpse, to salvage something - or just to stick it to the Resistance.
It’s not sympathy he feels, far from it, but Rook has a sudden, clear understanding of just what it must have been like for his brothers, trying to keep John alive despite all his best efforts to the contrary.
“Yeah, well,” Rook says, “you might have felt different, once you heard the grass tell you about all the people it’s killed.”
None of this is a day he wants to be having, but there is something a little satisfying in the silence, when even the fucking Seeds don’t know what to do with that one.
1. Song to the Siren - Rook's thinking of the Cocteau Twins cover, but singing the Tim Buckley lyrics.