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i've never felt more d̶i̶s̶g̶u̶s̶t̶e̶d̶ good about myself than when i'm with you

Chapter Text

Staci looked at the moose. He’d long since gotten used to the red antlers and white fur. This one had speckled blue dots near its tail. Staci took his arrow and notched it. It was thinner and more hollow to counter balance the weight of it being mostly metal rather than wood and stone. The colors hadn’t been the only thing to change after all. Most of the animals had extremely thick bones that were harder to piece than what had once been normal. It meant their weapons had to adapt, though a gun usually still worked.

Blending into the colorful underbrush, Staci slowly breathed in and pulled back. The motion was second nature now. No uncertainty. No fear. He knew what he was doing.

He released it, the arrow flinging itself through the open space and directly into the moose’s eye. Normally another arrow might have been needed to really puncture the skull but a shot directly to the brain worked just as well. At least that hadn’t changed.

Staci got up and walked over to the dead creature. His hair was longer now, pulled back in a tight bun, and his beard had finally grown past the stubble. Of course, he kept his at a pretty short length compared to others but that was just preference. He still didn’t have any grey hairs despite being just over forty now but then, his family had always held onto their hair color for an obscenely long time.

Thinking on family, blood family, was odd now. He no longer associated the word automatically with his mother, the aunts and uncles, the grandmother. That family had tried their best but they hadn’t raised him. Not really. They hadn’t taught him in what mattered, in what he’d need to survive. To be fair, they couldn’t have known, but now they were gone and Staci wasn’t. He had his family to thank for that.

Staci bent down and started to unroll his tools as he carefully took stalk of the area. Just because the world was more colorful now didn’t make it any less dangerous than before the collapse.

He first snatched the steel arrow back. He flicked it hard once. The blood flung off it before he put it in his quiver. Next he began to skin the animal.

 Usually they sent out hunting parties but in this instance, Staci was alone. He’d told Jacob he needed to clear his head, just have some quiet. Jacob had laughed so loud Staci was pretty sure everyone in New Eden had heard. To be fair, the irony was hard to ignore. Despite living in Hope County most of his life, Staci had never been the outdoors type. His idea of a good time had been sitting on his couch in his underwear, beer in hand and a ridiculous soap opera playing in the background. His life had been built off of subpar grades, beer pong, and an average physic. He’d gotten the job at the sheriff’s department because his mother had suggested it and he had known Joey who had started working there after finishing her tour overseas.

The sheriff’s department…for so long Staci had cursed himself for taking that damn job. Just because it had been safe. It had been close to home. Chosen just because he knew everyone and didn’t think anything could surprise him there. He’d once cursed that choice. After all, he would have been so fucking far away from Hope County if he hadn’t agreed.

Now that choice felt like fate.

But not the kind of fate where God’s invisible hand had guided him to this point. No, even after everything, Staci didn’t quit believe in that. Like Jacob, he’d come to believe there was a profound vision and understanding in what Joseph said. But neither thought it was truly a god at work. Both had been through too much to believe in that.

Staci finished with the pelt, carefully rolling it up so he could carry it back. He then started to cut up the meat. If he had been with a hunting group, he would have been able to bring everything back. Right now he just took the best cuts he could. He would wrap the pieces individually and then put them in his pack. It was the only way he’d get a descent amount home.

Squelch. Squelch.

He stopped and looked up sharply. The old Pratt wouldn’t have noticed a damn thing but now his ears had easily picked up the careful motions in the muddy grass.

The bear realized it had been spotted, and it charged. Again, despite being from Hope County, the old Pratt never would have known what to do. He probably would have panicked in this situation, wasted ammo, and finally would have gotten himself killed.

But now Staci didn’t scream. He didn’t cower or run. He jumped to his feet. The bear skidded to a stop in front of him. It stood on its hind legs, roaring into the sky. Staci mimicked it, the noise closer to a wolf’s howl but no less loud. The bear looked surprised at the response but nonetheless dropped back to all fours, acknowledging his ownership of the food. As Staci dropped to all fours too, he grabbed a piece of meat and threw it off in one direction. The bear would probably eat it quickly and then finish up on the carcass once Staci left it. Which was a good thing. He didn’t need the animal following him all the way back home.

The bear ate and then waited as Staci finished up. He cleaned off his tools in the grass, finished packing the meat, and then put the pack back on. He couldn’t help but glance back at the antlers though. There was no way he’d be able to carry two. But it would be a shame to leave them both. And his bike wasn’t too far away…

Staci decided to risk it. He threw off his pack again, dropped back down, and hacked off one of them. He secured it on top of the pack. The bear, still off to the side, stood on its hind legs. Staci let out a loud noise and the bear almost nodded at him. Besides becoming more ruthless, Staci could swear the animals had become more intelligent too since the nukes. He turned away, leaning forward just a little in order to keep his balance with the heavy pack, even while carrying the pelt. From behind him, he could hear the bear return, teeth and claws quickly tearing at what was left.

In Staci’s position, he couldn’t use a bow and arrow anymore so he took out his pistol with his free hand. His ears strained for any other threats, animal or man.

When people had first come out of their holes in the ground, there had been a sense of panic from people on all sides. There’d been stragglers and loners and small groups choosing nomadic lifestyles with an uncertainty as to who they could trust. But soon everyone had figured out that to really survive, they had to form bonds, create communities, exactly what Joseph had been doing.

Sometimes the irony of it all still got to Staci and even alone in the middle of the woods, he couldn’t help a small chuckle.

Still, even if the known stragglers had died off or finally joined groups or just left, there were still people from all over the country that might have been moving through. Staci had to stay on guard.

He went through the brightly colored woods, finally nearing the road. He’d left his bike by the side for a number of reasons. For one, he was pretty far from the rebuilding of Hope County. Early on, many people had decided to not risk treading on each other’s feet. After all the bloodshed, peace was important to both sides, even if they could have spent hours arguing who was more at fault for the violence before the collapse.

But besides the fact that it was unlikely anyone would come across it, Staci had also set the bike up specially all by himself. Starting it was more complicated than putting a few wires together or having some key to turn and only he knew how. He hadn’t even showed Jacob. It meant it wasn’t good for a quick getaway but to be fair, outright firefights were a thing of the past at this point.

So Staci wasn’t afraid of someone driving off with it. The chances of that were nearly unthinkable. He was surprised though at the figure inspecting it as Staci came out of the trees. He carefully placed everything on the ground. He continued to hold onto his gun and stepped forward, finally moving in a way so that his footsteps could be known.

“Step away.”

The man quickly turned around and despite himself, Staci perked up a bit. He smiled at the familiar face. Though Staci had only just gotten into high school after he’d left, he’d been known around the county for his flying skills, both with and without a license. He really had been a wild card in their younger years. Unlike Staci, his hair was definitely grey and his beard a great deal longer.

“Hey Nick.”

“Don’t you ‘hey Nick’ me you fucking peggy.”

“You know, that name doesn’t really work now. It’s just New Eden. Not Project—”

“That’s not even slightly what I fucking meant and you know it.”

Staci rolled his eyes as he holstered his gun and grabbed his pack again. Even with the history between them, he didn’t have to worry about Nick trying anything. No one wanted a reason to go to war with one another again. He glanced over, easily spotting what must have been Nick’s truck as the man in question took a few steps back.

“You know,” Staci casually said, undoing some of the items in his pack so he could properly mount them on the bike and keep the balance even, “Joseph asked about Carmina.”

“If that fucking—”

“It was a joke,” sighed Staci. Obviously it had been a joke. Joseph hadn’t even dared to venture into that side of the county after that day and Staci doubted he’d even thought of Carmina what with so much else on his plate. Still, even if Staci had only barely known Nick, Kim was a different story entirely. They were closer in age and had actually been in high school at the same time. “You know, Kim liked to talk about making me the godfather—”

“Keep her fucking name off your lips. You hear me?” growled Nick. “Same goes for my daughter too.”

Staci let out a disgruntled sigh. Maybe if this conversation had come during an earlier time, he might have been angrier. He had mellowed some with age despite how Nick clearly hadn’t and just said, “Can’t we be civil?”

“You threw that fat chance out the window when you didn’t fucking go with Rook! I mean, after all the shit he did for you and you fucking saved Jacob instead?”

“I’d ask if we could stop living in the past,” sighed Staci, “but that’s literally what you’re doing.”

“We are bringing order—”

“Hope County isn’t Hope County anymore. States, countries, the lines don’t matter. You need to accept the time you’re living in. Try and make the best out of the situation you have rather than trying to change it.” A pained look crossed Nick’s face. It gave Staci an idea. “I’m guessing Carmina thinks more like that—”

“I said—”

“Growing up in all this. I bet she gets it. That this new world, no matter how dangerous, can be as good and as positive as we try to make—”

Nick grabbed Staci by his jacket. Before, Staci might have let him do what he wanted. He might have become frozen with shock. If his deputy shirt and little badge had been on, then he might have tried to calm Nick down with some hurried words as Joey saved his ass.

As it was, Staci didn’t let Nick push him back an inch. He grabbed the older man’s hand expertly, forcing his grip to go lose and dropping it before he actually hurt Nick.

“I’m just telling you how it is now.”

“Fucking, god damn peggies,” growled Nick. He shook his head, started to go to his truck, and then shouted, “And don’t come back to our fucking territory!”

“I’m not that far south.”

“Well, you’re fucking close enough.”

Staci let out another tired sigh. He almost went straight back to his bike, ready to get out of there and head back home before any of the meat went bad. However, he rarely talked to anyone outside New Eden so he decided to ask a quick question. “Joey ever say anything about me?”

“She still thinks you’re fucking dead,” Nick replied as he got in his truck.

It was the first thing that Nick had said today that got Staci a little riled up. He stepped away from the bike. “We met again years ago after coming out of the ground. You knew I was alive! Why didn’t you tell her?”

We don’t talk.” It was clear the ‘we’ didn’t just mean Nick and Staci but what they represented as well. “We don’t fucking interact. That was the agreement. Right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well do you really think this fucking peace would hold if Joey knew you were alive? She’d raise fucking hell and then the moment she realized it was voluntary—” Nick stopped himself, shaking his head with a disgusted glare. “It’s better if she thinks you’re dead.”

Staci sighed. He was no less disappointed but he had to say, “You have a point.”

“Of course I have a fucking point.” The truck door slammed shut as Nick started it up. “You’re dead to Hope County Staci Pratt. Good and fucking dead.”

Well, even if Nick was a bit sour on the subject, Staci couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought. Nick wasn’t wrong really, even if Staci wanted to see Joey. Still, it was probably better for everyone if he stayed away. At the thought, he sharply looked up. Nick was in the process of turning around but he wasn’t actually gone yet. His windows were also rolled down, and Staci quickly yelled out, “Why the hell were you up here at all?”

“Heard reports of people getting too fucking close. Came out here to see if I saw anyone. So like I said, keep out of our territory!”

“It wasn’t us!” There was a chance Nick hadn’t heard him, already intent on driving away as fast as possible. But Nick just barely managed to slam on his breaks instead. He quickly reversed until he could look Staci in the face. The question was clear in his eyes and Staci quickly shook his head. “It hasn’t been us. And this was a onetime thing. Just a small hunting trip to clear my head.”

Nick grunted.

“I’m being serious. If you saw people near your community, it wasn’t us.”

After a few seconds, Nick’s gaze softened, if only a little. “Must be a fucking nomad group or some shit then.”

“Must be.”

Nick let out another grunt and quickly drove away as Staci walked back to his bike. He opened up the small panel and did the routine needed to get the bike started. He closed up the panel and got on, quickly speeding down the road in the opposite direction of Nick.

The last time he’d been on this road, besides that morning obviously, was before the nukes had gone off. Right before actually.

Rook had been headed straight for Joseph. He’d taken down John and Faith, had nearly succeeded with Jacob too. Jacob would have sent his people to support Joseph but his brother had responded that the end was nigh.

Both Staci and Jacob had been a little unsure. Was it going to happen tomorrow? A week from then? Longer? It was hard to say. But Jacob hadn’t taken Joseph’s warning lightly. Neither had Staci. Earlier that day, they had gone about double checking that everything was packed and already in the process of being shipped underground. Some of the remaining men and women from Faith’s and John’s regions were coming to them too if they weren’t headed for Joseph.

There had been a few people in the back of the open truck bed as they’d drove down the dirt road. However, only Staci and Jacob had been in the seats. In the past few days, Staci had been by Jacob’s side a lot, but not like before. He wasn’t just a pencil pusher. He wasn’t forced to demeaningly shave Jacob and wait on him hand and foot, never knowing when his next warm meal would be.

At that point, not a lot of time had passed since Rook had destroyed a good bit of Jacob’s work. They were playing catch-up and despite Jacob’s wounds, still healing at that point, it had been all hands on deck. They had been running against a ticking clock with no idea when it would go off.

So they hadn’t had much time. Not to really understand what had happened. Not to get at what it had all meant. Despite all the men in the back though, that moment had provided a rare bit of privacy. Jacob had grunted. It had been the first sign that Staci should pay attention, that they were finally going to talk about the elephant in the room.

He’d sat up just a little straighter, eyes focusing on Jacob. He’d waited for him to make the next move. The obedient solider.

“I expected you to fucking tuck your tail and run.”

Though not kind, the words hadn’t been the harshest ones Staci had received in recent weeks. Still, before he would have mumbled some apology, if anything. So fucking careful. So fucking scared. But at that point, sarcasm had dripped from his lips for the first time since being with Jacob, almost unbidden as he’d said, “I tried that once. Or have you already forgotten?”

The sarcasm would later become more natural, more appreciated. At the time though, Staci had automatically flinched, never having been so bold with Jacob. But the man had suddenly laughed instead. The noise had been loud enough to carry out the window and to the truck bed. Staci had felt the eyes on them. But no one had been able to hear what Jacob said next.

“You fucking surprised me there too. Expected you to run but do it fucking poorly. Didn’t expect you to actually take the sacrifices necessary to try and get free.”

“I was learning by that point,” Staci had softly admitted. Even if he had wanted to, he hadn’t flinched at what he’d done to try and get away. And when he had looked up through the blood, the failed sacrifice for his freedom, Jacob had just looked proud.

“Still, didn’t think you’d fucking make it.”

“Do you still not?” Again, at that time, Staci questioning Jacob had been new. But things had changed and he had needed to know what unspoken thoughts were in Jacob’s head.

“No, you’ve proved yourself. But I still don’t get why.”

Staci had cocked an eyebrow, focusing back on Jacob. “Isn’t this the right way? The chosen way?”

“It is. But that doesn’t explain why you chose it. You don’t believe this is right.”

“No.” Staci hadn’t tried to hide it. All the blood on his hands, was it necessary? Maybe. But far from right. Staci had looked at his hands, at the invisible red there. “I’ve never felt more like a piece of shit than when I’m with you. But with you I have a chance. I didn’t following the junior deputy.” He’d looked up then, a glare quickly forming on his face. “Don’t look so fucking pleased with yourself.”

Jacob had laughed again.

“You’re ripping your stitches,” Staci had sighed as he’d looked at the new drops of blood forming on Jacob’s cheeks. “They’ll scar.”

“Nothing new there. But even so, you haven’t explained why you saved me. You could have chosen other shit. Not just the junior deputy or me.”

Jacob had been right, and Staci had thought of other alternatives, tried to figure out how long he would have survived down those roads. But despite everything, Staci had grown to know Jacob. He had known, or had at least gambled on believing he knew, how Jacob would react to Staci’s act of staying. But explaining all that, explaining his reasoning, that had come later. Later while in the bunkers. Later when they had actually been alone and not with a bunch of peggies sitting behind them. In that moment though, on the road Staci was now driving on seventeen years later, he had simply said, “You don’t have faith.”

“Not in God. Not even close. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have faith in my brother, in his words.”

“Then there’s your answer.”

Faith. And at that moment, Staci had seen confusion pass over Jacob for the first time. He hadn’t fully followed. In a way, neither had Staci. But time for understanding each other had come later. It had started on that truck ride, or perhaps when Staci had chosen to save Jacob, but actually talking and learning to talk to each other had come much later.

But that memory had been long ago, when the trees were simply green and brown and traditional cameo would have easily hid you in the underbrush. A lot had changed since then.

Strands of hair that had come loose flew behind Staci, his jacket flapping a little in the wind as he easily moved around the winding, dirt roads. The memory slipped away as Staci turned onto a different road and focused on the moment. He wondered if he hadn’t had all of Jacob’s training, if he’d been with the resistance, then would he have had the appreciation and love of nature he now did. He suspected at least a little. Anyone would just about cry at seeing a fresh blade of grass after being stuck underground for as long as they had. But no, Staci would have enjoyed it but he didn’t think he would have understood nature as fully as he had because of Jacob.

The danger, the beauty, the fight for survival. There was a lot to admire and respect in that, not just what was on the surface.

The sky was darkening by the time Staci got back to New Eden. Some of the more luminescent plants were already starting to glow and Staci could see the moon, way off in the distance. In front of him, the gates were already opening. He slowed down until he stopped right inside and they could shut behind him.

He wasn’t surprised that Jacob was waiting for him. He looked so different from the man Staci had known, and yet he hadn’t really changed either.

On the outside, it certainly seemed that way. His hair was gray, even white in a few areas. It was longer too, no more shaved sides though he still kept it relatively short. Then there were the glasses that currently hung around his neck with his dog tags. Staci could still remember when Jacob had finally admitted his sight was starting fail. It had taken him a lot of courage to finally say it. Staci was still pretty sure he’d only admitted it because of the freak situation they’d been in at the time though. Upon seeing Jacob had failed to aim and take down a deer several times in a row, Staci had just about had a heart attack. The first over dramatic thought in his head had been that Jacob had been dying. From a stroke, an aneurism, anything!

But no, Jacob had begrudgingly come forward with the truth and after a great deal of work and pain, some glasses had been crafted to help with the nearsightedness. He only wore them when absolutely necessary though.

That was because despite the glasses and the fact that it took him a bit longer to get out of bed in the morning, not that anyone would have said it out loud, Jacob’s personality still hadn’t changed much. He was still strong and in better than average shape for someone his age. He was still insistent that he pull his weight around the community, and he kept patrols and security on a tight schedule. He was still stubborn as hell and still convinced he was ‘getting old’ and not already there, no matter how many gray and white hairs were there to disagree.

He’d have to realize that he was really only kidding himself, sooner rather than later, but so far Staci hadn’t tried to argue when the topic had come up. He didn’t argue about it now, though the teasing words left his lips all the same.

“Past your bedtime, isn’t it old man?” grinned Staci, even though he kept his voice low enough that no one else heard. He may have felt comfortable teasing Jacob but he sure as hell wasn’t going to embarrass him in front of anyone. He just took pride knowing he could say something like that to the man while knowing that anyone else would have gotten the shit beat out of them for saying it with Jacob yelling something like, “Who’s old now?!” the entire time.

Jacob glared at him for the comment but didn’t get a chance to say anything as Staci turned his attention to Gen.

Many wolves, at least in their area, had pink like coats. Gen’s had an unusual orange sheen to his though, making the nickname work even better for him. It sounded like the start of ginger, even if Jacob had named him General.

The name was simple and plain, though Staci suspected that Jacob would have preferred not to name him at all. He just wanted to avoid letting Staci name him because of the ridiculous name Staci had given Gen’s mom. The judge wolves hadn’t gone into the bunkers. There hadn’t been room, food, and no enemies for them to fight anyways. But unsurprisingly, Jacob had focused on the wolves again upon getting back to the surface. There hadn’t been a need for a whole hoard of them though so he had focused on one.

That wolf probably would have remained nameless and stayed more of a tool rather than a pet if Staci hadn’t been so involved. After she’d passed, Jacob had turned his full attention and training on her son Gen who was still relatively young.

As Staci scratched him behind the ears, Jacob turned his focus to Staci’s full pack. “Looks like the hunting trip went well.”

“Yeah. Brought what I could of a moose back along with some smaller ones I found here and there.”

Jacob took the antler, hefting it onto his shoulders and easing the burden a bit for Staci. Gen kept obediently at Jacob’s heels as they started to head to Richards where he salted and stored the excess meat.

As they walked through New Eden, Staci piped up, “Came across Nick Rye.”

Jacob’s stare narrowed.

“I didn’t go that far south,” sighed Staci with a roll of his eyes. “And he wasn’t in our territory either. Apparently he was just going around and keeping an eye out for some newcomers.”

“Newcomers?”

“Maybe. He didn’t know much. Had actually thought it was our people they were seeing. It’s not our people. Right?”

“No reason to go that far. We have enough game in our area to support us.”

“That’s what I figured. I think he believed me.”

“But he wasn’t able to give you anything more useful.”

“No. We should probably increase our patrols though, check on the security of the gate, that kind of stuff.”

Jacob nodded in agreement. “I’ll talk to Joe about it. See about sending a party out to check out the area for anyone.”

Staci watched Jacob as he said it. It was hard not to laugh at the old gleam that had come into his eyes. Again, not much had really changed in him. When Jacob looked at him questioningly, Staci explained. “Just the thought of a fight already has your blood pumping.”

“It’s what I’m good at,” Jacob gruffly responded. “All this peace, it’s been too much.”

“Only you would feel crushed by peace,” Staci said. However, he regretted how that had come out. He quickly shook his head. His voice dropped low. “Sorry. I know you haven’t been sleeping well. Not since the peace treaty with the others.”

“Would have thought I’d sleep better,” Jacob admitted quietly. “Slept better before the collapse if I’m being honest.”

Staci gave a sympathetic nod as they came up to Richards. Staci handed off the meat and Jacob didn’t walk far, giving the antler to someone who could put it to good use. It could be used to reinforce some tools or weapons, maybe get ground up into putty to fix some structural issues. Really, the antler could end up as anything.

They met back up once Staci’s pack was empty, Gen still at Jacob’s back. Staci had made it just in time for dinner. He still went and grabbed his food from the usual place. However, instead of finding a place to sit, Staci headed to the wall. Jacob grabbed his food and a small bit for Gen, following close behind. Staci usually joined New Eden for dinner but tonight he wasn’t in the mood for a sermon, even if they were shorter and to the point when preceding a meal.

Most of the older men and women still watched Joseph, utterly enraptured. Really, only Jacob, Staci, and a few of Jacob’s men were more skeptical, though they’d been that way before the nukes and it was only in the religious aspect. The younger members though, those about thirty and younger, they’d largely grown up in this world. They listened because Joseph’s words were all that they’d known, yet at the same time, they didn’t understand like the older members. It was an odd paradox and Staci sometimes wondered if Joseph was aware of it. Not that the man would ever confide in him in such a way.

The moon had completely risen by that point. Staci carefully held onto his stew and bread as they walked up to a lookout area. Jacob nodded to the woman at the top. She quickly dismissed herself, heading to the sermon as Staci and Jacob took her place. Gen waited until Jacob gave the signal that he could leave his side and the wolf quickly went to lie down in a corner. He was even more obedient and domesticated than his mom, though that probably had something to do with being born in New Eden rather than brought to the place.

They both sat in silence for a while. Slowly, they ate and watched what wildlife dared to come near before running back to the woods. Some birds flew over head, possibly hawks. Staci couldn’t say for sure but he could see their glowing eyes like all predators, even from how far up they were flying.

“You’re excited by the prospects too Peaches.”

The nickname, once so hated and now practically an endearment, had Staci focusing back on Jacob. “About what?”

“The idea of getting your hands dirty again.”

“Not like you,” Staci said with a soft chuckle.

“I could tell you were more interested than worried by the idea of new people coming to the area.”

“Well it’s not for the battle. Not like you,” Staci replied. “It’s more the…um…approval.”

Even still, that was what it was all about. The need for approval, to show Jacob he was capable, that the teachings had stuck. It was all so engrained in Staci. Just like Jacob’s voice. At one point it had been a nightmare, something he’d tried so hard to run away from. But now he’d survived. He’d chosen and he’d chosen right. He never felt more right, more like himself, than when he was with Jacob.

“You already have it. Long ago you did,” Jacob rumbled.

Staci had placed his bowl to the side. Now he moved over and straddled Jacob’s lap, his fingers starting to run through Jacob’s hair. Jacob’s eyes closed, his head leaning back just the slightest. He was like a silver wolf, stretching as Staci preened him.

“Tell me.”

“So strong. So ruthless.” Jacob’s rumblings continued before Staci softly pressed his lips to his. Admittedly, that was something that had changed. The desperate motions of ripping off each other’s clothes while in the bunker had mellowed a great deal, though the actions weren’t completely gone. They both simply took solace in the quieter moments, like now. Jacob’s eyes were still closed when Staci pulled back.

“Keep talking,” Staci encouraged, the warmth in the pit of his stomach growing. He continued the soft, continuous motions through Jacob’s hair.

“Do you remember Zachariah?” Jacob breathed.

Oh how could Staci forget? He had been the only casualty while they’d been in the bunker.

“Tell me,” Jacob now said.

“So fucking cowardly,” hissed Staci, lightly grinding against Jacob at the words.  A little over a decade ago and Staci could still feel his anger rising up at the memory. “The filth got everything he deserved,” whispered Staci. His hands moved down. No longer tangled in Jacob’s hair, Staci now traced his cheekbones with his thumbs. He kissed him, this time more heated, mouths parted before Staci pulled away. “The first time it had felt right. It wasn’t about survival. Not my survival,” Staci whispered. “I wasn’t thinking about that. Just thinking on how right it was.”

“You were beautiful.”

“Still am. But thanks for noticing.”

Jacob chuckled. This time he pulled Staci forward. He grabbed at his hips, increased the friction.

“You beat all my expectations,” Jacob said, his breath ghosting across Staci’s face as they remained closer this time. “So fucking good. You took charge. Took it right from under me. Showed so much strength that day, every day since then. So good.”

Staci hummed in pleasure, the warmth increasing as he surged forward with another kiss. It was all thanks to Jacob. He hadn’t realized it at first, but every moment being beat down, every second of torture and abuse, it had built him up stronger. He was more sure of himself than ever before. He was strong now, drawing out the needy growl, slow and steady from Jacob’s lips. His arms wrapped around Jacob, just trying to get them closer—

He felt Gen’s wet nose suddenly touch his back, pushing up underneath the shirt and jacket. What sounded almost like a whine came from the back of Gen’s throat and Jacob quickly pulled back. He clicked with his tongue and used one hand to gesture. The wolf begrudgingly followed the orders.

Staci chuckled. “He just wants some attention.”

“You baby him too much.”

Staci smirked, leaning in to kiss Jacob again before nuzzling against his face. Considering Jacob hadn’t gotten lazy with his age, Staci almost definitely had another good ten, maybe as much as twenty, years with Jacob. But he still appreciated and took advantage of each moment, knowing that their time wouldn’t be forever.

Up in the watch tower, they continued to kiss as dinner came and went behind them. Gen even got up again, trying to press his nose to Jacob’s hand. This time he allowed it.

Another member eventually came to take the shift and Jacob and Staci left with Gen in tow. They went home, Staci taking Jacob to bed. Gen automatically went into his cage, not needing to be told and the door not needing to be closed.

Staci straddled Jacob again. He gently pushed him back. Each soft praise, each time Jacob told Staci how good he was, how strong, it warmed him more. He got him just a little harder. The kissing became just a little more heated.

He owed so much to Jacob. To think that upon seeing him in person for the first time, Staci had been terrified. That terror had been replaced by respect now, understanding. Just as their new world had risen from the ashes of the old, so had Staci. His old self had been broken down, dissected. First, all Jacob had made him feel was fear. Then disgust at himself for finally giving in. Now Staci couldn’t have been happier about it, rocking their bodies together, their breathing synced, the blood pumping.

New Eden was his home and, for him at least, Jacob was its heart.

Chapter Text

Staci first found out about the nightmares in the bunker. Some time had passed since the nukes had fallen. People were calling it the collapse. The name certainly fit.

New routines had formed and Staci had managed to change in order to fit the new role. Change and change and change. He’d been doing it for months, from deputy to slave, slave to tool, tool to brainwashed, brainwashed to killer, killer to peggie. And now a survivor. So much constant change.

Now, it felt weird to be at an almost stagnant point. Just the same…for so long.

The preparation for all this, it was over. But neither could the new world, the new life, start yet. It was the waiting time.

Staci made sure to stay in shape. Everyone was on strict schedules so that they would be ready when they could leave. But for the time, it was poorly lit halls and the constant buzz of air filters that followed Staci’s every step.

No one questioned his being there. The fact that he was there at all had proved him to be a survivor, one of them, but that didn’t mean he suddenly had a mountain of friends. Choosing to save Jacob had helped. It had increased his level in the hierarchy of the place, but he still wasn’t exactly a top dog.

So during the moments in between training, and supply prepping, and keeping the bunker clean and in running order, Staci didn’t chat with the others. He didn’t stay behind in the mess hall after meals and he didn’t sit and sing songs with the especially religious members. He went to the required sermons, but he never stayed for more. No one joked with him, shot the shit with him, and Staci got it. He understood and didn’t try to push for more.

No need to fall down the rankings for no reason.

So for his free time, Staci just kept working. All interactions were business like and he stuck to the strict schedules. After all, it would be easier to get used to the new world if his night/day cycle didn’t get screwed up during his time in the bunker.

But there were nights Staci woke up late into the hours or early in the morning. Times when memories had wormed their way into his skull and wouldn’t leave. Every now and then, he woke up in a cold sweat, exhausted and feeling like he hadn’t slept at all. But he managed to keep the nightmares hidden. It wasn’t like he could talk to anyone about it anyways. Usually, he would just roll over and fall back asleep, or he’d lie and wait for the metaphorical buzzer to sound, signaling the start of the day.

But one night a dream clung to him. It was harder to shake, made his skin crawl, and he wasn’t able to just lie in bed. Getting up and out, even though he knew it was very early, helped him to detach from the dream, the memories. So he walked out and down to the cafeteria. The kitchen and green house were connected right to it. Though Staci would have to check, he was pretty sure he was working in the green house that day. It made since to just stay then until the others woke up and came to get breakfast.

Staci walked to the kitchen, intent on getting just a cup of water. He planned to sit down at a table, sipping it as he soaked in the solitude and the quiet. Or at least as quiet as the bunker could get without turning off the power and killing everyone.

Since they were underground, there was no need for nightly patrols. Staci was all alone. Or he should have been.

He walked into the kitchen and saw Jacob there. The man was brewing coffee. Technically there was a limited supply though everyone understood Jacob got first pick of that. There were actually coffee plants in the green house too, but no one was allowed to touch those except Jacob. To be fair, no one wanted to risk screwing up the plants, knowing full well Jacob would probably wring their necks at having that taken away from him.

Staci watched Jacob up until the moment he had poured the cup and finally turned around. He didn’t look surprised. Staci was sure he’d heard him come in anyways.

“You’re not supposed to be up yet,” Jacob said. There was an added gruffness to his voice, like he’d been awake for a while. It ended up being the first real time they were alone since the collapse.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

Jacob grunted, a vocal agreement.

“What kept you up?”

“Miller.”

And Staci had frozen. The name had come out automatically. There were no filters being held up, no persona being presented. Staci tried to really look under Jacob’s eyes. The sleepless nights had to be a semi-reoccurring thing at the very least. Just one all nighter and Jacob should have been fine. He probably would have still been level headed after two, maybe even three! How long had it been since he’d gotten a good night’s rest? How long had passed so that they were at this point where Jacob had just spilled a secret without meaning to?

Because it hadn’t been just a name. So much more meaning and understanding had followed it with Jacob’s tone of voice. Staci had known of Miller, but every time he’d heard the story, it was said almost proudly. It had all been fate. It had been proof of Jacob’s own strength.

But that hadn’t sounded proud at all.

Before Staci was even finished understanding all that, Jacob was already on him. Arm underneath Staci’s neck, pinning him against the wall. Not enough to kill but more than enough to warn.

Jacob would not allow his image to be tarnished. He didn’t have to say anything. Staci understood why this had to be kept hidden. So he tried to get across his understanding with his own confession. He spoke, or at least attempted to with the pressure on his neck.

“My mom. That’s-that’s what’s been keeping me up,” Staci croaked out.

And Jacob had laughed. Of course he had! Staci’s reputation was marred by him crying in the cages, on his hands and knees, covered in bruises and cuts because he’d once been too weak. Just too god damn weak. It was ridiculous thinking he’d just given Jacob an equal amount of ammunition against him. His reputation really meant shit whereas Jacob’s meant everything.

But apparently the secret had still been enough to cause Jacob to step back and release him with another chuckle.

As Jacob walked back over to the coffee, he said, “Never talked about it, but I could tell you were a fucking momma’s boy from day one. Bet she babied you your whole fucking life until I whipped you into shape.”

Staci rubbed his throat. At that point, he hadn’t completely disconnected himself from his blood family. They were in his dreams after all. Still, he had to admit that the Staci Pratt raised by his mother never could have made it with Jacob. “You’re probably right. Still just doesn’t sit right with her gone though.”

Jacob glanced back at him and Staci quickly clarified.

“I mean, there’s no way she was able to hide before the bombs went off. She and everyone else is dead and there’s…there’s no funeral. Or anything that should follow a death. It just…I haven’t been able to drown out those thoughts yet.”

Staci waited. He really wanted to get that glass of water, especially after being choked. However, he was wary of exactly what could happen now that they were alone. The fact that Jacob hadn’t yelled at him to leave was pretty shocking though. The man had to be fucking exhausted if he really didn’t have the energy to order Staci back to the bunks.

“Funeral wouldn’t have done you no good.” The words surprised Staci, forcing him to focus back on Jacob. “Even when you were a snivelin’ fucking puss. The fanfare isn’t for you. You wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye anyways.”

Staci actually kind of understood what Jacob was getting at. Staci watched him start to clean up as Staci said, “My father died when I was young. The funeral just made me more upset. I…I didn’t really feel at peace until I came to terms on my own. Certainly not surrounded by people pressuring me to say goodbye.”

“Like I figured. So are you going to get through the past or are you going to keep waking yourself up at night with guilt?” When Jacob turned around, Staci suddenly realized there were two cups in his hands, not one.

Only when Jacob actually moved one of the hands closer did Staci dare to reach for it. A part of him expected Jacob to pull back but he didn’t. As Staci took the cup, his fingers instantly warming against it, several questions popped into his head. Why was Jacob even still talking to him? Did…he need it in some way? Was this about Miller? If Staci was reading between the lines correctly, it probably was. Was that what Jacob was doing? Unable to sleep from unresolved guilt? Memories? Some form of PTSD? However, Staci didn’t dare to ask about Jacob’s past. He imagined that shit would get shut down and Jacob would finally leave or order him away. Staci stuck to one of the safer questions.

“Why so interested now?”

“You were a bitch when Joseph dragged your ass to me. Now you’re one of my men and I like to know the men I rely on.”

The comment warmed Staci’s chest, even before he took his first sip of the coffee. He was alive. He’d made his choice. Now he just didn’t want that choice to be in vain. He wanted to be useful. He wanted others to know he was capable. Jacob’s words gave Staci hope that he was getting there.

Jacob remained standing in front of him as Staci leaned against the wall. It was almost causal, even as Staci tried to think up a response to Jacob’s prior question. “I think…the issue isn’t that I feel guilty about her death. Really, my whole family’s death. Yet, I can’t imagine any of them made it except…except maybe an uncle of mine, way out east. But it’s not like I can just take a plane to see him now.”

Jacob snorted at that.

“It’s not like I caused them to die though. I know that. And it wasn’t like there was time to save them either.” Staci knew he was rambling a bit. However, Jacob wasn’t stopping him and the rambling seemed to be helping. Being able to say everything out loud, Staci was finally seeing all his ducks lining up in a row. “But I want…I think I want them to torment me. Their ghosts, even if they are only the ghosts in my head, are here for my sins. Because I am guilty. Not for getting them killed but for…for wanting them dead.”

Staci finally took a sip of the coffee. It burned going down. He’d always hated it black, still did if he was being honest. But sacrificing his taste buds to get the caffeine was worth it. He glanced up at Jacob, the older man’s expression unreadable. Staci looked away and quickly wracked his brain for the right words to continue.

“Because if she…if my mom knew what I’d done…I don’t think she’d want to keep living anyways. And it’s selfish. But them being dead, it—”

“I understand.”

Staci mercifully stopped. He would have probably continued to ramble if Jacob hadn’t said anything. He focused back on him and still the questions swirled in his head. At the beginning, he’d thought he understood Jacob Seed. He’d slapped the label of ‘monster’ onto him and had been done with it. Now he could clearly see there was more and he wanted to know! To understand! But it was foolish to think he could get all the secrets out in one night so Staci pushed, but it was a small push.

“So you want to know me? What else?”

On the surface, he hadn’t even asked Jacob a thing about himself. However, by continuing the conversation, Staci would hopefully get a slightly clearer picture before ‘morning’ came and their solitude was broken.

“You don’t listen when Joseph comes on the radio for his sermons.”

First, Staci wondered how Jacob could possibly know that. He was there for the required ones and always tried to look attentive! But before any real fear could enter Staci, he realized Jacob looked pretty damn amused about the fact. It still could be a trap, some kind of trick to get Staci to admit to it. But no. They were past the tricks, the training. Jacob had said he wanted to rely on him. Staci needed to be honest then.

He let out an uneasy laugh, attempting to calm his beating heart. “Just…God? Joseph, I’d like to believe he had some type of insight into all of this. Maybe not exactly religious but spiritual. It almost feels more meaningful if this was all meant to be. You know? And not pure fucking chance.”

Jacob actually laughed at that.

“I just didn’t grow up religious and thinking there’s a god that talks to him? That has a voice and told him everything?” Staci shrugged. “Maybe it’ll change, but I was never religious in my younger years. Putting a name to the unexplained then didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t.”

And Staci had waited. Part of him expected at least some form of punishment. At the very least maybe an order to fully read their bible, stay for more sermons, something. But from what Staci had heard, Jacob’s compound had always been the least heavy on its sermons and religious patterns. Perhaps Jacob would be more impressed with his honesty?

But in that moment, Jacob hadn’t followed up Staci’s admittance with anything. Instead, he’d asked another question. And another.

Not only was it their first full, proper conversation alone, but Staci had gotten answers to his silent questions. A new picture of Jacob started to form, one that didn’t necessarily like to be left alone in his own head. Staci could relate to that.

It wasn’t until years later though that Staci was really able to understand the pattern of Jacob’s nightmares. Of course Jacob hadn’t explained himself out right. Instead, Staci had figured it out through experience, just by being at Jacob’s side. Staci eventually realized that in the bunker, once everything got into its routine and nothing really changed, it allowed Jacob’s mind to wonder. Some might have thought he would want to get away from the war. But no, war was what Jacob was good at. It kept him occupied. Waiting to be let into the new world? Waiting to have threats come his way again and to be forced to plan and strategize? He had yearned for that. But without war, especially in the bunker, it had been maddening despite how so many others would have taken advantage of the peace.

When they’d gone out into the new world, by that point Staci had been around Jacob enough to notice the sudden drop in nightmares. They’d had to rebuild. Had to fight against the nomads and the other people of Hope County. The animals had been different. New tactics had to be learned and practiced in order to take them down. The landscape was changed and had to be remapped, reexamined. The days were harsh. The nights were even deadlier.

And Jacob had slept peacefully.

But then they adapted to their new world and peace was made with the others. The nightmares had come back and even now, they still persisted. Going by Joseph’s scripture, the peace was their gift. They had formed their ‘new’ Eden. But it wasn’t Jacob’s peace. And maybe that was why, deep down, he hadn’t expected to make it. He’d even said his whole purpose was to be his younger brother’s sacrifice, to get his group ready and prepared, right up until the end. Joseph might have even known that too, deep down.

None of them had expected Staci though. No one had thought he’d come back to save Jacob.

And so despite the almost suicidal mission, Jacob had lived. And when Jacob had slowly allowed Staci to get closer, first in the bunker and then later, it had felt right. He’d kept the older Seed alive. It was only right he stick by the man’s side as his penance.

After years of being with him though, it no longer felt like penance. Staci knew him, even if he was rarely willing to speak out loud about himself. Staci understood him more than ever. The faults and his strengths and, yes, even what few weaknesses Jacob possessed. Just one small example of that were the nightmares. Staci woke up like clockwork now, practically conditioned into knowing exactly when they came in the night.

Jacob didn’t always fully experience one. Sometimes Staci would lie there and wait, only to be able to roll back over and sleep. But other nights were immediately met with the telltale signs of tremors and twitching skin.

The night he came back from the solo hunting trip turned out to be one of the latter ones.

Staci rolled towards Jacob the moment he woke up. Slowly, in the dark, he traced Jacob’s scars that lay on his face. That too, was second nature but it had taken a great deal of trust to build between them before Staci had this affect on Jacob. Early on, in the bunker, it had been much more violent and unpredictable. Sometimes Staci would be able to calm him. Sometimes Jacob wouldn’t have a nightmare at all. But other times Jacob would unintentionally lash out in his sleep, desperate to protect himself. Once he’d even gone as far as to shove Staci down, wrap his hands on his throat, and nearly choke him to death before he’d fully come awake.

Staci could still remember that night clearly. Jacob’s hands, slowly loosening as his eyes cleared and he blinked himself awake. And Staci had stayed as still as he could, hands still on top of Jacob’s but no longer trying to rip them off. Just holding his instead.

But now Staci didn’t have to worry about being brutally murdered in his sleep. Not from Jacob anyways. He slowly trailed his fingers along Jacob’s right cheek. He felt for the small scars, so tiny that they weren’t noticeable if you didn’t know what to look for. He felt the burn marks, the twisted and bumpy skin. He trailed his fingers to the left cheek, just as soft as before.

Under Staci’s fingers, he could feel Jacob stilling, his breathing evening out. When it seemed that Jacob had fully calmed, Staci leaned closer and gently kissed his lips. Tonight, it seemed to be a milder one as Jacob immediately fell back into a deeper sleep. Staci curled around him, nuzzling against Jacob’s neck.

He briefly wondered if the news that an unwanted group might be in the area had made tonight easier. Already he was planning ahead for a coming fight. Or maybe it just happened to be an easy night in general. It was hard to say.

Staci curled in closer, eventually drifting back to sleep.

In the morning, Jacob woke up first. All he had to do was shift and Staci’s eyes flashed open, fully awake and aware. Be ready for anything. Never let your guard down. Know the exits. It may have been their New Eden, but even after close to two decades, Jacob’s training hadn’t faded. But as expected, there were no enemies to fight and no need to run. Staci propped himself up on his elbows so he could better kiss Jacob. One hand moved, cupping the older man’s face and tracing the scars again. He could feel Jacob holding him before gently pushing back.

“I’m going to talk to Joseph about what Rye said.”

Staci nodded. “I’ll feed Gen.”

Jacob and Staci both got dressed. Staci snapped his fingers and Gen immediately got up and stood by his side. The wolf’s heat could be felt, even through Staci’s pants from where Gen was pressed up against him. He didn’t have to bend down to scratch him behind the ear before Staci went to grab his bow. Technically, the weapon wasn’t necessary for Gen to get his meal, but if Staci managed to bag any more food, that was just an added plus. And besides, the wolf was a good companion but Staci always felt safer knowing he could defend himself with his own two hands.

Gen’s eyes followed Jacob until he left their home but the wolf kept by Staci as he still got ready.

“Come on. Breakfast time.”

Gen followed him out the door. They walked through New Eden and back to the gate. Staci nodded and greeted those he passed before finally going through.

Staci personally preferred the nighttime, but the early light was no less beautiful. No matter what, the world had become a gorgeous, vibrant place, wherever he looked. At least in the confounds of what had once been Hope County.

They walked out around the water and into the woods. Hopefully this wouldn’t take long though there was no certainty of what game was currently moving through the area or not.

Staci’s feet avoided the branches and gently pushed the leaves aside, as silent as Gen.  The sunlight dripped through the canopy, leaving the forest in a soft, early morning orange glow. There was a known stream that could just barely be heard to their right. They kept near but not close enough to see it. If Gen picked up the scent of a worthy animal, then they’d move closer, but for now they kept a safe distance.

A breeze suddenly swept through. The soft quiet of the forest turned almost deafening as Staci’s ears picked up on the new sounds. The leaves rustling, a branch suddenly breaking, movement to the west of them.

And Gen picked up on a smell that way, quickly changing their direction. Staci followed. His pace quickened to match the wolf but both remained as quiet as before.

Eventually they spotted the vibrant white amongst the trees. Staci peered out at them, trying to get just a little closer. The family of deer moved through the forest without fear, the wind pushing Staci’s and Gen’s scents away from them. Gen got low to the ground. Staci slowly followed.

One glance at Gen told Staci he was aiming for the buck. If Jacob had been here, he would have snapped at Gen, forced him to choose a different target. The buck was the largest and Jacob would have killed it, taking it back to New Eden. Staci almost did the same thing. However, when Gen noticed Staci was looking at him, he dropped the snarling fangs. The wolf’s face relaxed and if the deer hadn’t been so close, Staci would have outwardly cursed.

Maybe wolves had always been this smart and Staci just hadn’t noticed, but he doubted it. General knew exactly what he was doing.

Staci let out a soft sigh and relented with a nod to him. The wolf immediately got ready to attack again. Staci looked to the other deer. He didn’t have a clear shot of many of them and he’d have to be careful. If he shot an arrow too early, Gen would lose his meal. If Gen jumped the buck first, then the other deer might get lost in the trees before Staci could release the bow.

When Gen had been younger, getting this right might have been harder. Gen had been pretty wild, even with growing up domesticated from the beginning. Now though, Gen looked to Staci as well, double checking the human beside him was as ready as he.

Staci took out an arrow and pulled it back. Still no clear shot for him. He’d have to act fast to make sure he took his target down. He notched the arrow and pulled it back, as hard as it would go. He glanced back at Gen and gave a little nod.

The wolf moved a little closer as Staci kept his position. He breathed in and held it, attention split between the deer and General. Almost…

Just a little closer Gen…

And…

Staci fired as Gen attacked the buck. Staci quickly took out another arrow and fired at the same deer before it could bolt. After the second one, it fell while the others ran away. Staci still stayed back though, keeping an eye on Gen as the wolf avoided the hooves and antlers, finally ripping through the buck’s throat and dropping it to the ground.

Only then did Staci walk over. First he took the two arrows out, cleaned them, and placed them back in his quiver. Since he was taking back the whole deer, there was no reason to skin it here. He just tied it up so it would be easier to carry along his shoulders.

Gen was still ripping through the buck, blood staining his muzzle.

“You going to save any of that for me?”

Gen growled.

“Thought so,” Staci chuckled. He kept watch, keeping his eyes peeled for new game or threats as Gen finished up. Though it wasn’t like the animal had been picked clean, what was left wasn’t worth dragging back home. Besides, some other predator would probably come out at the smell and finish it off.

Staci picked up his own catch and threw it over his shoulders as Gen led the way back. It didn’t take long, especially since they didn’t have to worry about being as quiet. They stopped near the water so Gen could take a drink and clean his muzzle before they headed back inside. They went straight to Richards where Staci dropped off the deer before heading back home. He didn’t see Jacob amongst the people and he wasn’t back at their place, suggesting he was probably still talking to Joseph.

It was easy to imagine how that conversation was going. Jacob would be like barbed wire, every point cutting, every comeback harsh and bloodied. He would be ready for a fight. At the same time, Joseph would still try to instill that this was their peace, a new world, to which Jacob would resist the urge to say ‘bullshit’ to. It would likely be some time before they finished talking and since Staci didn’t have anything he needed to do that morning, he went searching through their things.

He opened up an old chest and quickly found what he was looking for. The book was yellowed, its spine cracked. But no pages were missing. Jacob had made sure of that. There were several other books in the chest too, but this one was special as Staci sat on his bed and stared at it.

He’d first seen it in the bunker, long after he and Jacob had their first extensive conversation. Enough time had passed that at the time, Staci had thought Jacob was done with him. To be fair, Staci wasn’t exactly an ocean of information. He’d probably just discovered everything he’d needed to know and had moved on. The fact that he’d wanted to know anything at all was honestly flattering.

But then during one of the sermons broadcasted from Joseph’s own bunker, Staci felt a hand clasp his shoulder and pull him up. As the hand turned him around and forced him to walk out of the room, Staci got a glimpse of the face and saw Jacob. Immediately, he wracked his brain for what he must have done wrong but nothing came to mind.

Jacob’s hand moved to his back, still guiding him through the bunker. Staci soon realized that it was towards Jacob’s quarters, a thought that left Staci conflicted. No one was allowed there, which made this all the stranger, but if Jacob was going to punish him for something he’d done, then the place was idea. Jacob certainly wouldn’t have to worry about being interrupted.

At Jacob’s door, he finally stopped guiding Staci forward so he could go and unlock it. Staci dutifully waited, the only sign of tension in his clenched fists. Staci followed after Jacob, the door closing behind them, and then—

“The one thing I do know about my brother’s words, is that religion is an education. An education on philosophies and morals and who you are as a person.”

Staci blinked. His hands loosened. The last thing he’d expected was to get some lecture.

“Joseph’s words don’t reach you. Which fine, you said it best. Religion isn’t for everyone. But I’m not going to let you waste your time sitting in those sermons if you’re not learning anything from them.” Jacob went to a shelf of several books. He picked up the largest one, glanced back at Staci, and then smirked. “I bet you don’t know a fucking word of this Peaches. I doubt English was your strongest subject.”

To be fair, no subject had been Staci’s strongest but he hadn’t said anything and had caught the book tossed to him.

The Completed Works of Shakespeare.

“You’re going to start reading that whenever the sermons are scheduled,” Jacob said as he started to walk to the door.

Staci automatically turned and followed him out of the room, still so shocked that he couldn’t come up with any words.

“Didn’t think I was the literate type?” grinned Jacob.

“I-well-yes?”

Thankfully Jacob didn’t seem annoyed with that, letting out a soft laugh as he started to guide Staci back through the compound with that hand on his back.

“But…but won’t this conflict with Joseph’s teachings?”

“I sure hope it does. As much as he thinks we’re moving into a golden age, same shit that used to happen still will. Knowing it. Understanding it. That will put you above the rest. So read that. All of it because you sure as hell have nothing but time at this point, and then come back to me.”

Staci had nodded as they’d finally come back to the sermon room. Jacob had left to go back inside, back to his expected place, and Staci had gone to the bunks, sat down, and opened to page one.

It had taken him a long time to get used to the prose and understand what was really being said. However, considering it was the only real mental stimulation he had down in the bunker, it had allowed him plenty of time to muse and think on the words.

Whenever it was time for a sermon, Staci had read. When he finished a part, had a question, he went to Jacob during his free time rather than just doing more and more work like before. And slowly, those conversations had grown longer, more in depth until they’d begun to happen in Jacob’s room where privacy was easier. More books had been given and Staci had seen Jacob in his room more often than outside it. And when Staci had thought it would go no further, a key had been given. It had allowed Staci to enter whenever he needed a new book or wanted to go back to an old one. And then he’d gotten used to reading in there instead of on his own bed or in the cafeteria. And then…well.

To put it lightly, the book had a lot of history for Staci. He flipped to Henry V, picking up where he last left off when he’d had a chance to read.

There were other books in the chest that, after being handed The Completed Works of Shakespeare, had seemed to fit in with Jacob’s collection. The Art of War, Beyond Good and Evil, there were even some fiction works like Catch-22, White Fang, and Brave New World. The only one that didn’t actually fit was a completely undamaged, and seemingly hardly read, copy of A Day Late and a Dollar Short. The fact that the book was about a damaged family coming together in the end had seemed a bit on the nose from the start. However, the torn out blank page in the front of the book had told Staci why it was included. Though the page with the written words had been ripped out, Staci had been able to feel the indents left in the page underneath it.

It had been a gift from an old friend and even if Jacob had clearly never read it, had even torn out the page reminding him of who it had been from, he’d still kept it. Physically, it was Jacob’s most prized book and Staci was always careful when handling it.

However, as he read through Henry V, he was reminded why it was his favorite story out of Jacob’s collection. Out of all of them, at least to Staci, he felt like he understood Jacob through this one the best. His views on governments and war and their roles in life. What was considered just. Even sacrifice.

Everything Jacob had never spoken to him out loud, sat down and explained, Staci felt it could be found in his choice of stories, especially this one. And the fact that he’d let Staci read it all those years ago, it was like Jacob had allowed him to come closer, to understand.

He was still reading when Jacob finally came back. Staci sat by the window with Gen at his feet in the sun spot. Staci closed the book just in time to see Jacob sit down with a growling harrumph.

“So Joseph was his usual cryptic self,” Staci said.

“What do you think?”

Staci chuckled, the annoyance on Jacob’s face making him actually look closer to his age for once. “Well, no matter what Joseph says, I trust your judgment. Do you think there’s a threat?”

“I think we need more information rather than letting what happens happen,” Jacob replied. He got up again and walked to the window. He was clearly surveying New Eden, the people, probably already thinking what they could to do in a moment’s notice.

“Maybe we should go down near Prosperity.”

“Now that is a crazy fucking idea.”

“True, but I can tell by the look on your face that you like it,” smirked Staci. “We haven’t seen anything near us, but if Rye was telling the truth then maybe going down there will give us more insight.”

“I doubt they’d want you there. Could cause trouble, especially considering some of your former friends don’t know you’re alive.”

“What, and you think seeing your face will calm them?” chuckled Staci.

Jacob did smile at that, instinctively humming the oh-so familiar song.

“No, I think both of us would be a terrible idea if we just showed up on their doorstep. However…”

Jacob stopped humming and focused back on Staci again.

“Do you really trust anyone else to go out there other than us?”

“Not many,” Jacob softly agreed, glancing back at the people outside.

Staci stood up. “We don’t even necessarily have to visit Prosperity, just the area.”

Jacob nodded at that. “If we stay low enough, that could be more viable. I’ll have to talk to Joseph.”

“Do you really think your brother is going to agree with the plan?”

“I’ll tell him we’re going on vacation.”

Staci snorted.

“If he’s alright with letting things just happen, then we’ll make sure we’re the ones who happen first.”

“I do like the sound of them,” Staci said.

He planted a quick kiss before Jacob added, “I’ll talk to Joe. You start planning for supplies. I’m thinking at least five days. At most, a week and a half. We don’t want to leave too much evidence we were in their territory after all.”

“Understood. And good luck with your vacation pitch to Jacob,” Staci chuckled.

Jacob rolled his eyes in response, Gen quickly returning to his side as he left again.

Chapter Text

Staci prepared himself for the expedition before leaving his home. Considering this would take several days, Staci felt compelled as always to see the Judge before he was off.

The urge to call the Judge by another name had faded with time. Because Staci knew. He might have been the only person who knew besides Joseph. Unless the Father had confided in his brother, then Staci didn’t think Jacob knew either. Staci had certainly never talked about it with him.

To be fair though, Staci wasn’t meant to know. It had been an accident, near when they’d come out of the ground for the first time. The fighting had still been present and when one of the nomads had knocked the Judge’s mask to the ground, Staci had seen.

The Judge had killed the enemy, quick and efficient. Staci had watched as the mask had come up again, their eyes meeting for a split second.

He’d tried to reach out, countless times. Yet he had finally realized that he wasn’t wanted or needed. Staci didn’t know what was left inside the Judge, how much the personality had really changed or if it was still Rook, just hidden behind a mask. He supposed only the Father knew and after years had passed, Staci had accepted that he might never know. Yet at least knowing his old friend was physically there, it still made Staci feel compelled to always say good bye on long expeditions. It was hard to read the Judge, but Staci could identify the small shifts in the Judge’s center of gravity now, the small tense or un-tensing of a hand.

From those small tells, Staci liked to believe the Judge appreciated the goodbyes.

Unsurprisingly, Staci found the Judge outside the Father’s home, guarding it as Jacob and Joseph likely argued inside.

Staci came to rest beside the figure. “I don’t know how it’s going to go down, but whatever the Father thinks, Jacob is going to want to leave. So am I. If there’s a threat, we need to assess it before it gets here.”

What looked like a small nod of agreement occurred. Staci took it.

“We’re just trying to be realistic. Like always. I don’t know how much he listens to you…if you…if you even talk to him. But if you do, try to help him see reason. Jacob’s been fighting with him on this whole cutting ourselves completely off from civilization from the start. Right now we need more people going out, more ammunition, more metal and tools and resources. Not less.”

What looked like a subtle nod happened again.

“I’ll see you when we get back.” Staci started to step away, only to suddenly feel a light touch on his elbow. He glanced down, and the motion, though small, made him smile. It was the closest thing to ‘good luck’ he’d probably ever get from the Judge.

Staci quickly headed to Jacob’s truck. He finished packing what they’d need when General suddenly came running up. Staci went to his knees so he could comfortably scratch behind the wolf’s ears and around his chin. Staci chuckled as the long tongue rolled out, the wolf’s eyes closing in pleasure. One glance up showed Jacob was clearly not in a similar mood.

“So the vacation ploy didn’t work.” To be fair, that had been more a joke than a realistic lie.

Jacob gave him a sidelong glance as he got in the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut. Staci backed up from Gen so he could jump into the back and then Staci got in.

“What did he say?”

“The outside world isn’t our concern right now. I’d argue it’s a big fucking concern.”

Staci sighed. In moments like this, it was amazing the brothers were related at all. Their differing thought processes and beliefs made sense, but it also just added to the mountain of proof that Jacob wasn’t meant for the perfect “New Eden” that Joseph strived for. In Jacob’s defense, his thinking was more realistic. At least, in Staci’s opinion.

Only time would prove which brother was more correct though, which approach would end up being better.

“At least I convinced him to turn on the damn radio,” growled Jacob.

Staci snorted. “I can see him turning it off again and hiding it the moment we’re out those gates. I’m still surprised he didn’t throw it away after you set it up.”

“I’m still the older fucking brother.”

Staci laughed, and it seemed the sound finally made Jacob’s lips quirk up into a smile as they drove out of the gates. One glance in the back showed Gen’s head sticking out the side of the truck bed, tongue out in the wind like he was an actual dog and not a brutal, orange, killing machine created from nuclear radiation and nature.

“I was looking at the maps you know,” Staci said, suddenly careful of his next words but knowing he needed to say his peace. “I think we should go to John’s old bunker. The position is one of the higher places down south, it’s still a fair ways away from Prosperity, and it should help us see any clear signs of disturbances.”

Staci watched Jacob’s hands tense against the steering wheel. To be fair, if they’d actually decided to go straight to Prosperity, Jacob would probably be going through some similar reactions. Whatever John had become, he had always been the little brother. He shouldn’t have been the necessary sacrifice for Joseph’s vision to come true. Jacob should have made John stronger, and Jacob should have been the sacrifice instead.

Sadly, things just rarely went how they were meant to be.

Staci dropped one of his hands in between them. Jacob slowly unclenched one of his fists and dropped it by Staci’s. Their hands slowly intertwined and Staci held on until he could feel Jacob relax.

“It is a good idea. We can hide the truck there too. Then we can work south, southeast from there around Prosperity.”

Jacob returned both hands to the steering wheel and Staci nodded. “Hopefully it’s just some nomads that need to be taken out quickly and quietly.”

“Possible, but a lot of time has passed. More likely the people Prosperity saw were scouts for a larger group.”

Staci hummed in agreement as he turned his head to the window. If it was a larger group, Staci wondered what they would be like. How many people? How many weapons? What would their threat assessment be? The old Pratt’s mind never would have immediately turned to such inquires. Now it was second nature.

Both enjoyed the silence for a while. Gen eventually lied down and curled up in the truck bed. However, at one point Staci did open the dashboard, finding one of the many old tapes in there. Back at New Eden, it was always the hymns. The Father didn’t even know they had these, similar to the books in that one trunk. And again, Staci had long since accepted the Father and the teachings in his own way, but that didn’t mean the same songs didn’t get boring over and over again.

Thankfully Jacob was of a similar mind. Instead of silence washing over them, now old country tunes from the sixties did. There were a few slightly harder albums in there and it wasn’t all country, but the album was relatively calm which was what Staci wanted for the moment. It fit with the empty roads.

The songs continued as trees flew by them. Jacob only started to slow once they were definitely outside their own territory and encroaching on Prosperity’s. There was of course a chance that a scout from the place could be moving around far north, but they seemed to get lucky. No one else crossed their path. Eventually they found the right overgrown road and made it up to John’s closed off bunker with ease.

A few of their people had found shelter there at the beginning of the collapse, but upon realizing the Father was alive, they’d all promptly left to help build the New Eden. It had been unoccupied for years. Staci wasn’t even sure if one could get in. At the very least the front door definitely wasn’t an option.

Once they pulled over, Staci stayed quiet. He stood by the truck with Gen as Jacob wandered around. He was clearly soaking in the place, probably thinking of some old memories that Staci wasn’t privy to. But no matter how sentimental Jacob could get over family, he was still the military man and got straight to the point not long after. He went to the highest spot, looking out over the area.

“Anything of interest?” Staci asked when Jacob came back down.

“Nothing. We should go ahead and continue south though. See how much ground we can make before nightfall.”

Staci nodded in agreement. He grabbed his packs and weapons, following Jacob on his heels like Gen.

Even with their goal constantly in his head, Staci had to admit it was nice just being out of the walls with Jacob. This kind of peace at least seemed to suit the man better. There were still dangers, bears and wolves and rabid dogs and the issue of making sure they stayed hidden from any people, whether they be strangers or from Prosperity. Of course, Jacob was obviously active in New Eden. But the work was more often than not things like organizing patrols and arguing tactics with his brother. He definitely wasn’t as involved or on the frontlines like he’d been before the collapse, or even just a few years ago.

Honestly, looking at the new peace on Jacob’s face, Staci imagined he would have been happy to live it out in the woods like this. Just the two of them and Gen. But family was still important and no matter how many arguments they had, Jacob would never abandon another younger brother. Staci didn’t mind, having his own ties to New Eden, but it was still nice pretending that they could just live out in the woods for as long as they wanted to.

The days slowly passed one by one. They went by a few old, broken structures. Staci could remember all of them. Their purpose, the original colors of the walls, who had worked and/or lived in them. Jacob occasionally asked after a few, his lack of familiarity making sense considering the siblings had largely kept to their areas. Staci didn’t mind telling what stories he remembered of them.

Before, even after he’d chosen Jacob and the Father for good, there’d been a good chunk of time where Staci hadn’t wanted to think on the past. He’d known he’d made the only decision he had, but at the beginning, the guilt had still been there and thinking on the past had only increased it. He’d chosen Jacob, and every waking reminder of that fact had disgusted him to his core.

That disgust had disappeared though and with it, Staci could look back on things with more bemused fondness than before. He’d chosen right, and he felt good about it. The past was just stories to be told now.

With the passing days, not much happened and they didn’t find any signs of people outside of Prosperity. They almost ran into a small scouting group of theirs but managed to stay hidden until they’d passed by. The stealth was enjoyable, just a little bit challenging, but the threats were still familiar ones. Nothing new seemed to have entered the remnants of Hope County.

The end of the week was starting to come near and Staci and Jacob had started to discuss plans to turn back. Since they would just do a straight shot to John’s bunker, it would take less time. Should they go tomorrow? Maybe just one more day of searching?

They’d been having the conversation while trekking through the woods when they saw the smoke further south.

“Unless a spontaneous forest fire just began…” Staci sarcastically muttered.

Jacob was already off with Staci close behind. They didn’t have to say it. No way was it a coincidence. Whether friendly or dangerous, this had to be the strangers. They went as quickly as possible without outright running. They found the road and kept near, listening to make sure no cars came speeding down.

So far it looked like the smoke was in a stable location. They still didn’t hear anyone driving down the road, away or from the county.

It took some time but they made it to an encampment. It looked to be blocking one of the bridges that let out of the area. It looked like they’d been setting up for a long time. Pink and blue graffiti was everywhere. Men and women cleaned their equally colorful weapons. They laughed and joked back and forth. The smoke came from a fire. A large one as they ate and drank.

Words of excitement filtered their way. Things like “tonight” and “we’ll take that whole place down” gave Staci answer enough as to their intent.

It was a pre-celebration and Prosperity was the main event.

“We need to get to Prosperity, now,” growled Jacob.

Staci’s mind worked quickly as he followed him back into the woods. He understood the implications, that these new people clearly didn’t care about being seen. They probably wanted it honestly. They wanted some fun, a good fight. It showed arrogance but it was unlikely they were comfortable showing that arrogance if they hadn’t already proved they’d earned it.

Whoever Nick had thought was out there, they had been scouts. Now they were coming to collect. But still…

“Why Prosperity? Why not make a straight shot to New Eden and warn Joseph?”

“Obviously these people are gunning for them, not us. If Prosperity falls, that opens up all of Hope County. I don’t care who they are or what we did to each other in the past, they’re going to have to realize that we need to fight together now if we have any hope of stopping this.”

Staci nodded in understanding.

Now they didn’t have to worry about being quiet, moving as quickly as they could back through the woods. When they were a fare distance from the new people, they got on the road and took it to Prosperity. Sadly, no one passed as the day only passed them by. Dusk cam and fell and night was upon them by the time they got to the place.

As they approached, both a bit winded from how hard they’d pushed themselves, Staci could see the people tensing at the gates. He didn’t recognize any of them at first until—

Nick Rye’s eyes looked like they were going to pop out of his head.

“You’re not welcome here! Neither of you! Leave now!”

“We don’t have time to argue about that!” Staci yelled back.

“They are coming!” Jacob practically roared, louder than both of them. “The people you saw were undoubtedly scouts for the area and now a new group is on the horizon, readying for a fight! Let us in! Now!”

Nick jolted just a little. Staci could see every stubborn bone in his body begging to yell ‘fuck off’ or something of that nature. But then he looked at the horizon, the dark sky that hid friend and foe from them now.

He caved.

“Open the gates! I want more patrols on the walls, figure out the weapons situation, prep the meds, and anyone else meet in the courtyard!”

Jacob nodded approvingly as Staci breathed a sigh of relief. Neither had time to think about how hard this was going to be. Jacob couldn’t stop and hesitate and remember what John’s home had once looked like. Staci couldn’t focus on the people he’d recognize and who probably wouldn’t recognize him. He couldn’t think about how they probably thought he was dead, that Joey was in there and definitely thought he was dead. There just wasn’t time. They had a battle to fight.

People stared as they walked in. Word moved quickly of who they were, though Staci couldn’t hear his own name being passed around. To be fair, to any familiar faces, it had been seventeen years. They probably just thought he was some random New Eden resident following Jacob.

Staci could feel Gen tensing near him, not familiar with any of the new smells coming his way. Staci rubbed the wolf’s fur, calming him as much as he could.

They followed Nick to the center of the courtyard, everyone near them already running around and prepping. Staci recognized some of them. Sharky and Hurk Jr. were still alive which really had Staci praying this was going to work. He saw a kid that had worked at a gas station he’d frequented a lot. Though now he was definitely a man. And then there was someone who might have been Joey but soon Staci and Jacob stopped walking and they were focusing on the people in front of them instead. Staci recognized some of them as well. There was Grace, Pastor Jerome, Kim. So much older, so different. Grace was fucking blind and Jerome’s hair was gray. It felt so strange. And then a teenager, nearly a young woman that stood by them…

Staci almost involuntarily moved forward but he forced himself to stay still. Looking at her standing by Nick and Kim, it was clear who she was. How she had grown.

As the talks started, no one really paid Staci any mind, not with Jacob Seed standing by him.

“What the hell is this about?” Grace asked, still just as no-nonsense as before. She had to have heard from others as she added, “Why the fuck are peggies here?”

“There are people who have blocked the bridge out of Hope County and they spoke of plans to come here tonight. Maybe even right now. The people your scouts were supposedly seeing, any reports of wearing armor? Pink or blue? A spray painted eye?”

“Our reports didn’t have anything specific like that. We really thought they were nomads,” one person started to say.

“But I know that look. It’s the Highwaymen,” a woman suddenly said, stepping forward. “I told you all about them. Well it looks like they’ve finally made it to this side of the country.”

The fact that the woman knew of the people interested Staci. He kept his mouth shut though and focused on who spoke next.

“Shit,” muttered Nick. “You said they blocked out the bridge?”

“They were having a god damn party. There was no way to get closer without being spotted but I counted at least eighty-nine people, seven vehicles with guns. There were explosives near them. High-grade. Nothing you could obtain here.” Jacob went on. Even in these dire situations, it was hard not to smile. Jacob had seen and processed so much in such a short time. He was in his element now.

As other people had stopped doing all they could to prepare, they started to gather around. Jacob’s words got passed back, the tension and worry of the group rose and rose until Jerome suddenly said, “Shouldn’t you be tending to your own flock. Why even warn us?”

“Because if only you’ve seen them, then they likely haven’t reached far into Hope County. If we want to keep it that way, we have to stop them here,” growled Jacob. His voice quick, clearly not wanting to spend any more time than was necessary on the topic. They had more important things to discuss but he did add, “We both call this land home. If we want to keep the chaos outside it, it does me no good to just let you fall without warning. Ideally I’d argue take everything and run, live to fight another day when you have proper time to prepare, but they could be getting here at any moment. You’d have to abandon so many supplies and being put that far back isn’t worth it. Besides, I doubt you want to abandon your home.”

Everyone started to nod in agreement at that. Nick seemed to approve of that explanation too. “Then I’m putting you and Grace and Gina in charge. You’re the military men and Gina knows the Highwaymen. Tell us what we can do to prepare—”

“Get back!”

Staci closed his eyes. He’d felt the look about halfway through the conversation. He could tell the eyes had been analyzing him, trying to place him. As much as he’d wanted to see her, now wasn’t the time. He had hoped she’d look elsewhere, focus back on Nick or something. There wasn’t time to argue more.

But no. She had recognized him and it seemed her easy temper and quick actions hadn’t slowed with age. The gun was out, pointed at Jacob, and finally Staci turned to look at Joey.

“Staci, step away from him. It’ll be ok. You’re home.”

“Staci?”

The name got passed around quickly, plenty of people confused by the turn of events even as a few widened their eyes and were now clearly looking at his face. It seemed he’d become the center of attention as old friends and neighbors slowly started to recognize him and the strangers just looked confused. The only ones that didn’t look shocked were Nick and Kim.

Jacob didn’t back up though. He just looked increasingly irritable, the old man look almost amusing if they hadn’t been on such a tight schedule.

Staci knew this would have to be resolved quickly if they wanted to get Prosperity truly prepped. It was probably a bit dramatic but they didn’t have time to really talk things out. So Staci just calmly stepped in between the gun and Jacob. He tried to make his point clear.

“There are at least eighty-nine people with guns and ammunition headed our way. Not now Joey,” Staci said.

He hoped reminding her of the threat would calm her. It just made her more upset.

“He’s a Seed!” Her voice boomed even more, clearly talking to all the people around them now, not just Staci. “Fuck the peace agreement. You know we can’t trust them! John tortured you, and you,” her gun moved around, pointing to multiple people amongst them. She landed on Nick. “He ripped off your skin and that was mild compared to what Jacob was doing up in the mountains!” She turned on Staci again. “You’re not in your right mind! This man tortured you! Brainwashed you and made you kill—”

“We can talk about this later, but right now we have more important matters,” pressed Staci. He understood she was upset. He would be too if their positions were switched. But they just didn’t have the time right now.

“You’re not in your right mind—”

Staci acted quickly. He suspected Joey’s reaction time hadn’t slowed that much. The only reason he got the jump on her was that she was in shock. To be fair, the old Pratt never would have done this, nor so smoothly. But he counted that as a plus. After all, the last thing they needed to be doing was fighting each other.

Six seconds and he’d disarmed her and already taken out the clip before dropping it at her feet. He desperately wanted to explain himself better. It was Joey after all! His partner! His friend! It felt good seeing her and all Staci wanted to do was go over and hug her and tell her it was ok. But he stayed back as the realization finally came on her face.

It was the first time in a long time where the decision to stay with Jacob actually hurt a little. The regret and guilt didn’t just coming roaring back, but it was clear Joey felt betrayed and Staci felt bad for that.

“Staci, please…”

It was a desperate cry, one last attempt for him to walk to her side. But he didn’t. Instead he turned back to Nick and asked, “Do we have any proximity bombs we could put out on the road? We could try and slow their arrival once they do come.”

“Good idea Peaches. See if we can take out one of their mounted guns while we’re at it.”

Nick hesitated before finally focusing in on Staci. Thankfully he seemed to agree that fighting each other was the last thing they needed.

“We should. We’ll get on that.”

Jacob nodded just as Grace spoke up with her own idea. She and Jacob started to go back and forth along with the woman who had apparently known the Highwaymen by name, Gina. Staci wasn’t surprised Prosperity had brought in stragglers. It seemed more their style. Gina gave what she knew about the group but it had been years since she’d been with them, having left the bandit life long ago. She wasn’t even sure if the same people were still in charge. Staci focused more on the planning between Jacob and Grace instead. It was more interesting, watching how their body language and way of talking changed so quickly. No longer were they talking like someone from Prosperity and someone from New Eden. They weren’t two people with countless lives taken from opposing sides of an old war. They were just two battle scarred soldiers with mutual respect for the other, at least for the next few minutes as they strategized and planned.

Staci mostly focused on the words, but when he did glance back, Joey was long gone.

He let out a tired sigh. Hopefully there would be time to reconcile this.

When the planning part finally came to an end and people started to get directed left and right, Jacob added, “Do you have a radio? I need to try and get in contact with Joseph.”

“Yeah, though I don’t know if it’ll reach that far out.”

Staci was a bit surprised Nick was so willing to do it, but the fact that Jacob had come to Prosperity first to warn them rather than holing up in New Eden had proven something to Nick, even if he’d probably always despise the Seeds in general. Staci let them go and directed Gen to follow him instead. The wolf stuck close still, pressed against Staci’s pants.

They focused most of their defenses on the wall that faced the road. Considering what Jacob had seen and what Gina now told them, the Highwaymen had always been brazen and they definitely wouldn’t want to leave their trucks behind. It also meant the ones who couldn’t fight, the children and old and sickly, could leave out the back and disappear into the woods

When the materials were found and bombs were quickly made, a few people left to plant them as everyone else took their places. People stood on the walls, in the windows, on the roofs of structures. Guns were passed around. Everyone was armed to the teeth. And along the way, Staci got small bits and pieces of information about the people he’d left behind. Things like, “This person died,” or “These two people are together now,” didn’t have to be explicitly said. Staci understood from the body language, from the absence of someone. It was weird to think he might have been one of these people. It was even weirder knowing the old Pratt still would have hated it. He wouldn’t have survived the collapse period. He still would have had to change in order to survive Prosperity.

Staci had no way of knowing what that version of him might have become so he remained comfortable in his choice and stopped focusing so much on the hypothetical.

He was helping to pass out ammo now, going round and asking who needed clips and bullets, when he looked up at the next person and stopped. He quickly inhaled. He’d never seen her as a baby and when he’d seen her at age six, it had been from far away. Now she was already so close to being a young woman.

“You’re—”

“Staci Pratt.”

He blinked, a bit surprised that she knew his name.

“Sorry, it’s been passed around a lot.”

“Ah, of course.” He hesitated. In some ways he already knew her. In other ways, he suddenly found he wanted to know her, now that the option was in front of him. He’d never been interested in having kids, still young and mind on other things before the cult had come to town. But when Kim had asked him if he wanted to be the—

“You were going to be my godfather. Right?”

“They told you?”

“Yeah though…from the way they talked I thought…well everyone thought—”

“That I was dead.”

“My parents didn’t.” She sounded a little pissed at that.

“But you just said—”

“They talked to me like you were. Whenever it was brought up, like when Joey would tell me a story from the old times or something. But I saw their faces tonight. I could tell they knew.”

“Well considering how Joey took everything—”

“Yeah, I kind of get why they might have wanted to gloss over it. You know they really hate—”

“The peggies?” Staci sarcastically said, a smile gracing his lips. “I had a feeling. They feel betrayed which is understandable. But—”

“There’s more important things to worry about,” she agreed. “My dad can be stubborn but he cares about this place.”

“He does. It’s why I knew he’d listen to Jacob, no matter how much he wouldn’t want to.”

“And that’s really Jacob as in—”

“Yep, Jacob Seed.”

“And is that one of the—”

Staci glanced at where she was looking. “No,” he chuckled, “definitely not a Judge Wolf and a hell of a lot smarter than anything Jacob could have made himself.” Staci clicked his tongue and gestured forward.

“Wait, are you sure? Because that is a wolf—”

“He won’t bite unless Jacob or I tell him to. So no, he won’t bite.”

Staci watched as she held out her hand and Gen sniffed.

“His name’s General but I like to call him Gen. Fits with the orange coat I think.”

“It does-oh! And here I’ve been babbling on and I haven’t even give my—”

“It’s Carmina,” Staci said with a small smile. “I know. You were named after—”

“His plane,” chuckled Carmina. “That I definitely know.”

“Do you need any bullets?”

“No, all stocked up as usual.”

“So you’re a good shot I take it? If they trust you to always carry.”

“Yeah, Grace taught me.”

“Well in that case, I definitely trust you now.”

Carmina laughed and Staci smiled a little bit wider.

“I can’t help but say be careful all the same though. I’d like to have a chance to talk with you again, after all this is over.”

“Yeah, me too—”

“Staci! I need you for a moment.” It was Kim, and Staci would have easily bet that she didn’t need him at all.

He didn’t argue though, now not being the place or time as he said, “I’ll talk to you later.”

“I hope so. Bye Gen.”

Staci walked down the stairs and watched as Kim first waved to Carmina before wrapping her arm around Staci’s and dragging him away. Clearly she was trying to make it seem that things were fine though Staci wouldn’t have been surprised if Carmina had picked up on how tense her mother was. Kim warily looked once at Gen before focusing on him.

“I’m grateful you came to help. Gina had told us about the Highwaymen but chances are we wouldn’t have seen them coming until it was too late if you both hadn’t gone down that way.”

“I hear a but coming,” sighed Staci.

Kim suddenly stopped, spinning him around so he could face her. “Don’t act like this isn’t warranted!” Her voice remained low so they didn’t cause a scene but it was no less harsh. “You were my friend. I grew up with you, but you chose your side.”

“Sides don’t matter anymore. Unless you’re talking about us or the Highway—”

“Maybe not to you, but they matter here! The peggies killed and kidnapped the people you were supposed to protect. And we fought for you! Fought to find you! And then you turned around and went straight back to them, even saved Jacob when Rook could have ended—”

Kim stopped, clearly growing upset before she pulled herself together again.

“Just know I won’t let you hurt Carmina. You’ll be dead before that happens.”

“You really think I’d do that?”

“I don’t know you anymore Staci. I just know what you’re capable of and it makes me sick just thinking about it.”

Staci let out a small sigh. Their opinions differed but from her point of view, it made sense. Still, “I thought you were going to say, don’t ever go near my daughter again.”

“I think everyone knows that this isn’t just going to end in a blaze of glory and we can all go home. There’s a possibility we’re going to have to work together a hell of a lot more if we want to keep the Highwaymen from infesting our land. Telling you to just stay the hell away from her isn’t practical and, even if Nick hates to admit it, she’s an adult. She can make her own decisions but…”

“I understand Kim. I do.” Staci glanced back to where Carmina had propped herself up against the wall. “She’s got your wit you know.”

“Oh don’t I. We team up and I win any argument with Nick. Not that I needed the help before but…”

Staci chuckled at the few memories he had of seeing Kim and Nick together. It almost felt like they were friends again. But then the smile on Kim’s own face dropped and she focused back on Staci.

“I meant what I said. I’ll have a bullet in your head if you even think of harming her.”

“I won’t take the words lightly.”

At least after a moment of looking at him, Kim slowly nodded. At least she seemed to believe that.

“Where’s Jacob now?”

“Setting up on the roof with two other snipers.”

“Thank you.”

Staci started to walk away but it seemed Kim had one last comment to make. “At least there’s one thing Joey and I can agree on. I don’t understand how you can follow a man that tortured you like he did.”

“It was necessary.”

Kim shook her head. “Don’t tell Joey that. She’s already confused enough as is. Right now she needs her head on straight.”

“It’s the truth.”

Kim grimaced. “Well then just avoid her. We need everyone who can aim right ready. She can’t be distracted by the fucked up things that fall out of your mouth.”

“Don’t worry. I’m way ahead of you on that front,” Staci replied. Maybe afterwards but no, for now he really didn’t need to talk to Joey. Instead, he went to the main building and used a ladder to get to the roof. Jacob was lying down, glasses on as he peered through the scope. He adjusted it a bit before looking up at Staci. Another man and woman were doing the same thing a little ways away from him.

“Were you able to get in contact with Joseph?”

“Yeah. Gave the necessary orders.”

Staci got down so that way he was lying beside Jacob. “You think the Highwaymen could go there if they destroy Prosperity?”

“Not right away. We never saw any sign of them up there. They’re probably more focused just on this area and then they’ll start to move out to the rest of the map. Which will be good. It will give time for New Eden to prepare.”

“Even if we beat them here, it won’t end, will it?”

“No. What we saw was a fraction of an army and from what Gina said, they stretch across the country. Win or lose, a war is coming.”

Staci nodded in solemn agreement. War meant casualties, unpredictability, and Staci didn’t take the unknown lightly.

He didn’t care if the other two snipers saw, if they would tell others. He leaned over and Jacob instinctively turned to meet him. Soft, slow as lips spread wider and angles were changed to add easier access. Staci could feel Jacob’s calloused hand run along one of the scars he’d created on Staci’s face.

“Make them bleed,” Jacob growled as they parted.

“For you, always,” Staci whispered before planting one last kiss and pushing himself up.

He went back to the ground and got ready. No one was going to sleep tonight. The fight could come at any moment.

As they waited, some people came around with water and food, refreshing people when they needed it as they still waited and watched. The people who’d gone to set out the bombs should be back soon. Anytime now—

Boom!

Fire erupted in the dark.

“Get ready!”

“Positions!”

Staci watched. He waited.

They saw Prosperity’s men first. They came, tires screeching and voices screaming that they were coming. The gates were pushed closed behind them and then everyone fell in line again.

From the look of that explosion, they had to have taken out at least one car. But that wouldn’t have stopped them. Staci doubted it even really slowed them down.

The music was heard first. The beat loud, making Staci’s heart vibrate alongside it. The music grew and grew, assaulting Staci’s ears as he adjusted slightly. Finally the cars were actually seen, turning onto the road just down the hill.

The colors were as loud as the music. And then even above the ear blasting noise, Staci could hear the screams. The scream weren’t for their fallen comrades though. They were for the fighting to come and now they were nearly upon them.

No matter the outcome, people were going to die tonight.

It was hard to say if the Highwaymen had been prepared for a full fight or had just been excited to cause chaos. However, the people in Prosperity didn’t exactly ask. The first shot fired came from a sniper, probably Jacob. The glass broke. A man behind one of the wheels slumped over dead as the car swung left and hit a tree. And then chaos.

Guns fired first. The vehicles stopped their advance. People got out and fired back at them, one of the mounted guns had everyone regularly ducking and hiding from the spray of bullets.

A Headshot.

A bullet through the arm and then the chest.

A knee taken out.

A neck ripped open.

Each bullet Staci shot landed on someone. Breathe, assess, act. The words repeated in his head like a mantra, Jacob’s voice practically in his ear. Staci wouldn’t die today. He refused!

More people fell. Someone took out the woman behind the mounted gun. The singular spray stopped but the bullets kept coming all the same. Then blood exploded near Staci. Bodies continued to hit the ground on both sides. Again and again and again and—

“Move!”

The scream ripped from somewhere as a truck finally came speeding forward, crashing through the gates. The gunshots kept coming, but Staci quickly found he needed his knife. He pulled it out. The blade sliced a throat. It stabbed an eye. Staci shook his head to clear the blood from his face.

Another bullet to a head.

Another sliced artery.

General was doing just as much carnage beside Staci, grabbing whatever exposed flesh he could find and just pulling as hard as he could.

Who was winning? Who had the higher body count? Staci couldn’t tell.

Until he could.

Staci got knocked to the ground. Not his first wound in what now had to be the early morning but definitely the most grounding. He struggled to push himself on his hands as he heard a gunshot near him, accompanied by a high pitched whine. Some more gunshots sounded around them.

And then…

His blood was pounding in his ears, his hair loose and in his face. They’d played their cards.

They’d lost.

Noise broke through his own thundering heart as he felt a boot kick him back on his ass. He shook his head, hair falling back and blood clearing from his sight. He looked at the same face twice.

“Now we weren’t expecting a welcoming party, were we sis?”

“Not at all! But boy, don’t they know how to throw one!”

They walked by Staci, farther into the crowd as weapons were knocked from the hands of Prosperity’s people. He carefully pushed himself to his feet, half expecting someone to knock him to the ground again. They didn’t though. There was no need.

Staci looked around. Some were standing, a few crouched and on the ground because of their wounds. Bodies of both groups covered the area.

He looked farther back. Hoping…hoping…

There he was.

Jacob stood near Nick. From the way the Highwaymen knocked both them and some of the other men and women to their knees, it seemed they’d been the last ones to stop fighting.

“From what we heard, you lot were a bunch of hippy dippy shits. Color us pleasantly surprised.”

The words could have just meant they’d come to that conclusion from their scouts. But that didn’t feel right. Staci and others instinctively looked to the woman who had known the Highwaymen but the twins didn’t seem to care. Either she’d been low enough in the chain of command that they didn’t recognize her or she’d worked under someone else.

“We’re Mickey and Lou.”

“We’re trying to return some order to this mess of a world.”

“Order means rules, planning, currency too. Ain’t that right?”

“Damn right! And what is that currency?”

“Ours. We’ve come to collect—”

“I won’t let you take anything from us!!!” The yell came from Nick. He was seething. The reaction he got was less than welcomed though.

The Highwaymen laughed. Loudest of all were the twins.

“How ‘bout some fun then?”

“Little wager, Lou?”

“Why not! I bet you three good whacks he’ll give in.”

“Oh I doubt it.”

“Well let’s see. You want to pay up, or would you rather this place burn?”

When Nick didn’t immediately respond, one of them gestured and a Highwayman struck him hard. Nick spit blood on the ground before he said, “I’d rather it burn. Every last fucking inch.”

“Looks like you lost.”

“I guess it’s me who’s doing the whacking.” And then suddenly she took her bike helmet and slammed it into Jacob’s face. It made since. They were treating Nick like the leader and as far as they knew, Jacob was just one of his men.

Staci watched as after one, two, three hits, Jacob went to his hands, face split open and bleeding. It took all of Staci’s strength not to run over there. He couldn’t show weakness. It would only give these people more ammunition to hurt Jacob all the more. Staci had to wait.

“Wooh! Start them up boys. It’s time for a light spectacle you have never seen!”

Nick’s eyes widened. “You won’t—”

“You made your choice!”

“What, going to try and fall back on your word?”

“We don’t like that.”

“No, not at all.”

“You lie like that?”

“It makes you a problem maker.”

“Not a solver.”

“But lucky for you, your little rabbit told us you got skills.”

“That in fact, some of you got some very, very nice skills we can utilize.”

“Let’s see. The old man wasn’t hard to pick out, but we need some help putting some faces with names!”

“Come on little rabbit!”

“Help us out!”

Staci kind of expected Gina to walk forward. He could tell they all were. He hated this. At the very least, they’d had hope but now he knew that had just been an illusion. The Highwaymen had known Prosperity so much better than they’d thought. There had been a rat-or a rabbit-with them the whole time.

So as flames started to come out and wood began to burn, they waited for the guilty party to step forward. But it wasn’t the former Highwayman.

Staci actually had to blink, to wait and take a moment to see if he knew who it was. It took a while, but he recognized the guy, Mark. He was about Staci’s age. He had lived near him before the cult had showed up. He’d worked in Fall’s End. There had never been anything really remarkable about him and yet he was the snitch?

“You were the one on patrol. Who reported the strangers.” Nick’s words came out hushed, shocked. And then a rage fueled cry ripped through his throat instead. “The only reason you said anything was because I could tell you were lying about finding nothing! And then you lied again about not seeing who it fucking was!? I thought you were quite and couldn’t remember shit because you were scared! But you knew what was coming! You knew the whole time—”

But as Nick tried to stand up, to get at Mark, he was instead quickly silenced with a hard hit to the head. He was forced down beside Jacob and the others again.

One of the twins tutted. “Come on rabbit. Point out the pickings.”

And Mark did. Staci watched. They all watched. What were the skills the twins were talking about? What did they need?

“Good job rabbit.”

“Time to collect ours!”

One of the twins used both her hands to point forward and then the men descended.

As Staci watched the people being taken, including Nick, movement caught his notice. He looked, saw Carmina nearby, and then launched himself at her. Guns were drawn on them in seconds but thankfully Staci had stopped Carmina from pulling a hidden weapon. He stayed in front of her, one hand practically a death grip on her wrist.

When the twins didn’t signal anything, too focused on the men and women being taken, the Highwaymen thankfully didn’t fire. They focused elsewhere but Staci didn’t let go. He’d recognized that look on Carmina’s face. If he didn’t stay with her, there was no telling what she’d risk in the heat of the moment to save her dad.

The flames grew around them. Prosperity burned as the people were forced into the back of a truck.

“Now, you see here?”

“We’re doing you a favor.”

“We’re giving you a second chance.”

“And next time we come collecting, we will collect.”

“Damn right!”

“Time to move out!”

“Wait!” The cry came from Mark as he rushed forward, actually tripping over himself as he fell at their feet. “You said I’d go with you! You said—”

“Did we say that?”

“We sure did.”

“Well I have been looking for a new hood ornament.”

“But I have more information! New—”

The people of Prosperity had been silent up until then. If they could just survive, then they could fight another day. But now the unbidden screams came forth. Staci didn’t look away as he watched them cut Mark’s head from his body. Carmina’s struggling stopped and Staci could feel her pressing her face to the back of his jacket instead.

Staci didn’t look away though as his mouth turned down in disgust. The act was pointless, too showy.  It was done more for a sickening laugh than to prove any type of point. He watched as one of the twins walked to the nearest vehicle and shoved the bleeding head onto of the hood ornament, leaving it stuck there, eyes crossed.

“Now, remember we spared your lives here.”

“Spared far more than we should have.”

“So when we collect?”

“We expect a bonus for our services.”

“We even got rid of your little rabbit for you!”

“So no matter what you find, what you build, it’s ours now.”

“And we’ll be back for it.”

They could have killed them. They could have easily killed them then and there with probably only a few more casualties to their own men. But they clearly didn’t see them as a threat. If anything, they wanted them to try. To try and build. To try and gather ammunition and weapons and resources again. And then they’d drive back and take it all again. It meant the Highwaymen were stronger and larger than they’d hoped. However, their own arrogance would work against them. They hadn’t known who Jacob Seed was. They didn’t know about New Eden, made clear by Mark’s last ditch attempt before being decapitated. And they clearly didn’t realize how fucking stubborn and unstoppable the former resistance members were.

They were bloody and broken and crying on the ground, but they’d been in worse situations before in their fight with the Father. It hurt now. It probably even felt hopeless. But Staci knew they’d get up again. The Highwaymen had no idea who they were really dealing with and if a successful partnership was reached with New Eden? There was no telling what all their people were capable of.

So as the twins lead the Highwaymen and their bounty away, the first battle had been a loss. More than that, it had been a tragedy. But the war had only just begun.

Chapter Text

When the Highwaymen were gone, Staci finally let go of Carmina. She ran to her mother. Staci took in his surroundings. People were close to breaking, but Kim stopped that. She’d just lost her husband for who knew how long, possibly forever, but the orders came quickly and her face was steady. She’d hurt later, perhaps breakdown in private, but she was strong and knew when a job needed to be done.

“Anyone who doesn’t need urgent care, go to the river, put out this damn fire! Jerome, find the ones we sent into the woods. Make sure they’re safe. Sharky, get some people together and loot the Highwaymen for what you can and move them out of the courtyard. Selene, try to get any medical supplies that haven’t burned yet. Mary, gather the people. Help the wounded where you can! Move, move, move!”

Staci immediately turned to his left. He’d heard the gunshot, General’s wounded howl, but he hadn’t seen. He half expected the wolf to already be dead. Somehow though, he was still holding on, whining more as Staci got close. It seemed the bullet hadn’t hit anything major. There was a chance Staci could keep him alive long enough that he could eventually get him medical attention. Besides the fact that training a wolf was damn hard, he’d also seen him grow up from a pup. There was definitely some sentimentality in Staci’s actions and he’d save General if he could. He took off his jacket. He managed to tie it around the wound, twisting it tight so proper pressure was put on the wound. He started to move away, but Gen tried to get up to follow him. The wolf only managed a high pitched whine again.

“Stay,” Staci commanded, putting a calming hand on the wolf’s head before quickly rushing to Jacob.

Of course Jacob was trying to get up too, even as blood splashed underneath him. Staci got down on his knees. He grabbed Jacob’s shoulders, stilling him. “Don’t even fucking think about it. You’re one of the wounded this time.”

“I’ll…be…fine. Just…help…get…my…jaw.”

“Damn it. She fucking dislocated it,” hissed Staci. The rage felt because of that would come later. He had to keep his vision from going red and focus. The damage was extensive. Staci carefully felt Jacob’s jaw, looking for any obvious breaks, but he couldn’t feel anything major. The fractures would heal as long as Jacob took care. It would just take time and be difficult for him to eat for a while. Staci just counted himself lucky that Jacob’s jaw hadn’t been taken clean off.

Staci carefully positioned himself, hands cupping Jacob’s face and thumbs on his lower teeth. “Ready?” A slight nod. Staci let out a small sigh. He was going to hate the sound this made but it wasn’t like he could just leave Jacob like this. Honestly, Staci was just glad Jacob hadn’t tried to fix it himself. His stubbornness could have really fucked him up there.

Staci focused back on his face. He breathed in and held it just as he pulled and pushed the jaw into the necessarily position. Jacob involuntarily bit down on Staci’s thumbs as the sickening pop sounded.

Argh! Huh…huh…fuck.”

“This needs to be taken care of too,” sighed Staci. He wiped his hands on his pants as he started to look at the gash across his cheek. Those bones were definitely fractured and really just added to the time Jacob would need to rest. Staci moved his fingers carefully around the torn skin. He was pretty sure he could see bone amongst all the blood. The visible muscle moved as Jacob carefully worked his jaw.

“Deal with the people in more need then me,” Jacob said, able to speak more easily but clearly still in a lot of pain.

“Only if you stay here. I see you try to get up and I’ll knock you right back on your ass. And not just because I finally have the advantage here.”

That earned him a tired chuckle. Jacob relented and Staci felt safe leaving him be. What he really wanted to do was stay by Jacob’s side. But there were more pressing matters around them. Staci rushed to the others instead. He checked pulses and called out for help if needed. He put pressure on wounds until he found something to bandage them and eventually went to grab water for those that needed it.

The people worked quickly. The fire was out and from what Staci heard, Jerome had found those that had hidden in the woods, though he was keeping them there and away from the carnage, especially the children. Not much could be scavenged from the Highwaymen, all weapons having been picked up by the living as they’d left. The armor, however, could prove useful, so after pulling those off, the bodies were loaded into one of the few surviving vehicles. Once they were all there, Sharky drove off to burn them elsewhere, not wanting the bodies to attract any predators. The bodies of Prosperity’s people were placed much more carefully. Hushed discussions went round, trying to figure out whether a mass grave would be best or if they could do them individually.

It was a morbid topic to say the least.

The young woman with the weird hair, apparently Selene, had managed to salvage some things from the fire but was already instructing others to go out and find plants that could help the sick and prevent infection. A small group went out to do that while others continued to clean up the mess.

Staci wasn’t really surprised that Jacob pushed others away, more focused on talking to Kim. He had to be the strong one. There were things to plan out. Their next move to set up. But he was a lot older now and, to be fair, even if he’d been younger a hit to the head like he’d received still would have grounded him.

Thankfully Prosperity’s doctor, or the closest thing they had, came up to Staci as he finished up with another person.

“Hey um…so you. You’re the peggie. Person. Sort of right?” asked Selene.

Staci resisted the urge to role his eyes and just nodded.

“Right well, I managed to get a needle. Don’t worry. Burned it to clean it up a bit you know, cause who wants to die from infection. Right? Yeah no, other things you should be focused on dying on, like a bear or something.” She snorted, the sound somewhat inappropriate for the situation. “But yeah, so anyways I got it and I got some twine from the fishing stuff, hope he likes green. Though I guess it doesn’t matter. Not like he’ll see it but um…here. I figured talking to you would be easier than me going up to him. Don’t really want to get bit or anything. If he bites. I don’t know.” Selene quickly handed over the items, actually pricking Staci with the needle because of her rushed motions. “Sorry! Didn’t mean to do that just, hope it helps.”

Staci raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t exactly the hardest to read. “I take it you’re not used to this.”

“I just…I really froze. Couldn’t fire a single shot. Does that make me a coward? Everyone else was fighting and it just…the wind came right out of me. I mean, it’s not like me helping would have done much. Right? Yeah I mean, not a great shot anyways.” Another chuckle, probably a copying mechanism then.

Staci had to bite back his tongue. His immediate thought was yes. They should have had every able bodied person firing upon the Highwaymen. She’d been too weak. However, things would go more smoothly if Prosperity and New Eden joined forces so he simply said, “Lucky for you, we need doctors. Thanks for the materials.”

“Yeah anytime. I mean not anytime. Unless you think this will happen a lot. Maybe. I hope it doesn’t though. I got more people to help! So yeah, I’ll see you around.”

Staci watched her hurry off, eyes noting the shaking in her hands before she quickly clasped them in front of her. She was definitely not meant for the battlefield. Even the ones that were, they needed work. The Highwaymen had made them weak, threatened to make New Eden weak, and if they didn’t step up their game, the Highwaymen would cull the heard.

He quickly walked over to Jacob, an annoyed sigh escaping Staci’s lips as he saw him standing. He’d give him a talking to once they were alone. Kim paused the conversation upon hearing Staci approach. Then she talked to him. Staci froze, shocked by the admittance.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“What I said earlier. About not knowing if I could trust you,” Kim said. She almost looked a little ashamed. “You stopped Carmina without a second thought.”

“If she’d pulled something, more people would have died. Or would have been taken,” Staci automatically replied.

“And you could have died.”

“It was a risk I had to take. I understand what she’s going through. She wanted to help her dad but if I’d let her act, things would have ended up worse for Nick and everyone else.”

Kim looked away. Her face was a mixture of emotions. Anger, confusion, and a bit of pain hidden behind it all. There was a resolve there too, but that seemed to only make her more unhappy.

“We could do this on our own,” Kim bit out, eyes focusing back on Jacob.

“For a while, perhaps, but even if you had time to rebuild, it won’t be enough,” Jacob replied. “We could both retreat. Hide back in the bunkers, go deeper into the woods, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. You and I both know it.”

Kim shook her head. “And how do I know when this is all over, you’ll turn your backs to us? That you’ll go back to your home and we’ll stay in ours? How do I know you won’t take advantage of it and attack us when the Highwaymen are gone?”

“We were preparing for the end. The end is here and preparation is done. We’re not interested in being some major controlling force.”

“You could have fooled me,” growled Kim. She shook her head and added, “I don’t care that the nukes actually fell. It doesn’t justify your actions and it doesn’t change the fact that your mad brother got lucky.”

“Maybe he did.” Those words at least seemed to surprise Kim. “But it doesn’t change that it’s about surviving now. Fighting you after we drive out the Highwaymen will just end in both our destructions. It’s how the world ended. I’d rather not destroy everything my brother has tried to create now.”

“I hate this,” Kim immediately replied. “If someone had asked me yesterday if I was even considering partnering up with you, I’d say hell no. But then I wouldn’t have thought you’d come and warn us, help us defend our home as best you could.” She looked to Staci again. “I didn’t think you’d protect my daughter.”

“To be fair, the past is what we learn from,” Jacob replied, “and it’s because of how much destruction we caused each other that I know we have a better fighting chance together than alone. Otherwise I would have gone straight back to New Eden.”

Kim was silent for a few moments, her face wrought in concentration. “Let your wounds finally get tended to. I need to discuss things with my people.”

Jacob nodded and Kim finally walked away.

Staci moved closer and grabbed Jacob by the arm.”You need to sit somewhere. You shouldn’t be standing up at all,” he grumbled. Jacob had to have a concussion of some form or another. It was ridiculous to think he didn’t.

Thankfully, as stubborn as Jacob could be, he wasn’t stupid and knew when things needed to be attended to. He’d probably waited too long to get his face looked at as it was.

Staci found a place for them and quickly tied the twine around the needle. He had to hold Jacob’s skin together at first, blood seeping onto Staci’s fingers and down his wrist. He could feel Jacob wincing underneath him but not a word was said. One stitch, through the skin and then muscle. It went across the gash and then into more muscles and popped out of his cheek on the other side. Then a second one, a third. Staci finally felt comfortable removing his hand after the fourth one, the stitches finally keeping Jacob’s cheek together. There were still a few more to go when they were suddenly interrupted.

“Kim will never work with you.”

Staci knew the voice. He tried to ignore it though so he could finish the stitching.

“She will if she’s as smart as I think she is,” Jacob replied.

“Stop moving. You’re making it more difficult for me.”

“We can’t forgive you for what you did.”

Staci quickly spoke first, if only to keep Jacob from talking. “We’re not asking you to. I would have thought that was—”

Joey grabbed his hand. The needle ripped through Jacob’s cheek. The older man flinched. More blood pooled. Staci acted before Jacob could move. He grabbed Joey’s hand, digging his fingernails into her skin as he shot up and pushed them both back. He was seething. Anger hot enough to ignite dripped from him.

“Don’t ever think of touching him again.” The words were cold, dark. They only hinted at the much deadlier threat that Staci was stopping himself from saying.

Joey scoffed, not deterred. “I thought-no. You’re really fucking protecting him. Him!”

“Obviously.”

“How is any of it obvious? You…this has to be some sick kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Or maybe—”

“I don’t care what you’d call it. Damn any attempt at a partnership. Do. Not. Touch. Him,” hissed Staci. He finally let go of her. She quickly went about wiping Jacob’s blood off of her, acting like it burned to the touch.

“I can’t believe I was happy to see you. Ecstatic! I thought my fucking friend was finally ok. That a miracle had happened!”

“I am ok—”

“You’re not even you anymore!”

“Are you?”

“What—”

“The Joey I remember never would have intentionally hurt someone while they were down, even the worst of the worst. The Joey I remember smiled a lot more rather than that ugly scowl that’s plastered to your face. The Joey I remember was a hell of a lot more understanding than you are.”

“The things I went through—”

“Changed you,” Staci finished for her. “It changed me too.”

Maybe it was because Staci had finally phrased it right. Or maybe Joey was just tired of arguing. Either way, she let out a tired sigh and muttered, “I guess it did. For the worst I might add.”

“Really? The old me would have been a mess in a situation like this.”

“But he still would have been my friend.”

“We still could—”

“After you just threatened me? Over a Seed? Ha! I don’t fucking think so Pratt.”

She stomped off before Staci could say more. A small part of him wanted to follow after her, but that feeling was getting smaller and smaller, especially since a larger part of himself wanted to tend to Jacob. Staci did just that. He sat beside Jacob again, assessing the new damage before picking up the needle again and finishing the work.

“Sorry,” Staci murmured. “I know you can defend yourself. Just…”

If anyone else had done something like that, even in his state now, Jacob probably would have been pissed. Having to be defended would have been a major blow to his ego. But to Staci, he simply said, “It’s fine,” and the look in his eyes showed he was proud and possibly a bit aroused at Staci’s reaction rather than upset. It warmed Staci’s stomach and he quickly finished up the stitching. He used his knife to cut the excess twine and then carefully looked Jacob over again.

“You’ll hate me for saying this, but whether the fighting really gets going months later or it ends up happening again tomorrow, right now you need to rest.”

“You’re right. I hate you.”

Staci rolled his eyes. After he carefully moved his fingers over Jacob’s face again, checking for anything he might have missed, he finally glanced at his neck. “Guessing they got lost in the fight. You’ll need new glasses too.”

“You’re just really dragging me through the mud today, ain’t you Peaches?”

Staci chuckled and gently kissed him. When he pulled back, Kim had come over again. The expression on her face clearly said, “Oh, so it’s that kind of relationship,” but there seemed to be an added level of understanding with her now. Even if she didn’t like it.

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this but…we need to go see Joseph.”

“Would have thought you’d waste more time thinking,” Jacob replied.

“You can thank my daughter for that. She seems to think you’ve changed. That a partnership is the safest bet.”

Jacob shrugged, neither agreeing or not with Carmina’s thoughts. Kim seemed to appreciate that. It seemed more honest than if he’d just said yes or no. Jacob added, “Whether or not Joe will give his full support to join forces—”

“Hang on! I thought you said this was a done deal if I agreed. Us going there is just supposed to be a formality.”

“He’s still in charge.”

Staci made a noise under his breath.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jacob sighed and stressed out, “He is.”

“Joseph has been training his son to take over these past few years,” Staci explained.

“He has a son?!”

“Not biologically, but when he calls Ethan his child, he means more than his ‘you are all my children’ thing.”

“Either way, it doesn’t matter. My brother is in charge and he’ll have the last say in this,” Jacob growled out.

Unexpectedly, Kim laughed. It just made Jacob look confused and at the idea that Kim Rye could cause that ridiculous expression to appear on Jacob’s face had Staci laughing too, even if he didn’t fully understand why.

“Just imagining you, with normal family issues? Like dealing with a little shit of a nephew? It’s pretty insane.”

Jacob smirked at that and Staci couldn’t quite hold in the laughter this time, imagining that if Ethan had been there he would not have been pleased with Kim’s caricature of him.

“Well I am human.”

Kim’s eyes seemed to be drawn to the massive gash on his cheek just barely being held together and the slight swelling from his jaw being put back into place. “I guess you are.”

“Listen to me though. No matter if Joe agrees or not, I’m not going to ignore the god damn threat,” replied Jacob. “Going up there won’t be pointless. There are still supplies that can be taken, and my people will follow me. But if we want more help, we still need to try and convince my brother in order to convince all our people.

“But even with that said and done? That’s not the biggest issue. Whether it’s all our forces or just the ones who will follow me, we’re still going to need materials we don’t have. Some we can probably find around the valleys if we get there before the Highwaymen, but it likely won’t be enough.”

“I’ve been thinking of that too,” Kim replied and Jacob nodded approvingly. “I’ve talked to some of my people who weren’t originally from here, after the nukes that is. They told me about a man called Thomas Rush and his train that’s been going around the country, trying to help restart people’s lives. They’ve got tools and specialists and are no friend of the Highwaymen.”

“You sure they’re real?”

“Asked my people the same thing. Some of them it was just stories they’d heard, but others said they’d been through places where the train had come through and had helped them. They’d seen it with their own eyes. One had met people from it, even Rush once.”

“Well that’s great and all, but we can’t send out a manhunt just hoping someone else will save us from this sorry mess. The threat is too imminent for that.”

“I know. But you said we need materials. Well, finding Rush and his train could be our best bet while we hold down the fort here. Carmina…Carmina’s already volunteered to go.”

Staci couldn’t help his surprise. “And you said yes?”

“What was it you said? She has my wit? Well she certainly knows how to spin a good argument.” At least in this, Kim didn’t try to hide the fear in her face. It was her daughter after all. The fear was to be expected.

“Staci will go with her.”

And if Staci hadn’t thought he could be anymore surprised, well he was quickly proved wrong. Before he could argue with Jacob, Kim was already saying, “So you don’t trust Carmina then.”

“Not that. I don’t trust her to come back.”

Staci watched as Kim clearly went back and forth between feeling insulted on her daughter’s behalf and also agreeing a bit with her own trepidations of letting her daughter do this.

“Besides, having Staci with her will calm anyone from New Eden who feels like they’re being left out of the plan and besides, you did say you trusted him.”

“I did,” sighed Kim, sounding very much like she was already regretting it. “What’s your take?”

Finally Staci was allowed to talk. He spoke slowly, cautiously thinking about each word before he said it. “Having just one more person go with her would be good. If we can sacrifice one pair of hands, we can do without another for a while. It’ll mean that if Highwaymen or someone else tries to stop her, she’ll have someone watching her back and vice versa for the person who goes with her.”

“The person,” snorted Kim. “You don’t want to go.”

“I think—”

“Staci,” warned Jacob.

You just got the literal shit beat out of you,” Staci angrily hissed, keeping his voice down so not the whole of Prosperity could hear. “I can’t just leave you now.”

“I am not just going to keel over and die because you’re not here.” From the way Jacob crossed his arms and held his head a little higher, it was clear he thought Staci was overreacting. “If I make it an order, will that make it easier?”

Something between an angry snarl and a whine escaped Staci’s throat. But before he could do anything, Jacob’s hand was on the back of his neck, pressing their foreheads together. It was a motion that Staci had once only seen him do with his brother. It was familial, one of the last soft edges left on Jacob. And Staci was family. His breathing calmed and he leaned in more. They were so close all he could smell was Jacob and the metallic tang of blood.

“Alone, I think the chances are too low to risk this. But having you with her, I think you could both bring us much needed help,” Jacob stressed. “I trust you to do that. I know you’ll accomplish it. I know you’ll protect Carmina and vice versa. Kim trusts you and I know you’re the only one we’d both agree on. I need you to go with her.”

Staci still wanted to be upset with him, but it was hard being this close. For a moment, he couldn’t even think of anything more to say, just pressed against Jacob with the man’s thumb slowly stroking his neck. Staci’s eyes had slipped closed without him realizing it. He forced them open. “Then you promise not to become a martyr. We can win this without your sacrifice on our hands. Please.”

The words were spoken softly, begging. Because Staci knew Jacob. He knew that if the man thought it was the only way, he’d lay down his life in a second. But Staci couldn’t bear the thought of Jacob dying before he could get back to him. He couldn’t leave if Jacob couldn’t promise him and because of that, he almost didn’t want Jacob to promise. But he did.

“I’ll be here when you get back. I won’t abandon you,” murmured Jacob with a light kiss.

When they parted, Staci could see Kim had respectively been looking away during most of that. Now she asked, “So, will you go with her Staci?”

“Yes.” He still sighed but it was a less upset noise now. “I will protect her Kim. With my life if I have to.”

“God help me but I…I believe you,” she replied.

“I’m assuming the people who know of this Rush have some concrete leads to follow?” Jacob asked.

“Yes, I asked them to cross examine what they all know and to write down all the facts. I’m also having someone look for some state maps so they can plan the route.”

“Good. Then while they do that, you can come to New Eden to discuss things with Joseph.”

“Then I guess Carmina and I will probably leave later today or tomorrow,” sighed Staci.

“I want to bring a few of my people with us.”

“Understandable. Pick whoever you want.”

Though weird to be seeing Kim and Jacob so calmly agreeing with each other, Staci was sure it was only because of the Highwaymen’s presence. Still, after so many years of living a separate but distant peace, this felt good. Even with the war encroaching in. Staci had missed them. He just hadn’t realized just how much.

“I’ll go talk to a few of them then. I’ll be back.”

As Kim left, Jacob asked, “Did General make it?”

“Last time I checked. Come on. He was over here.”

Staci didn’t help Jacob up because he knew he’d just grumble about it. But he did keep close as they walked across the courtyard. As they spotted the large orange wolf, Staci was surprised to see Gen had let someone near. Selene was crouched by him. She’d pressed some plants to his wounds, along with readjusting the bandaging to a better position. Staci guessed the wolf had finally made the connection that the scent of Prosperity’s people was friendly considering none had attacked him during the fight.

“How’s he doing?” asked Jacob as he slowly got back down to look at the wolf.

“Really well! It’s remarkable how resilient animals are now a days. I’d swear a bunny rabbit could take off your face if you allowed it.”

Jacob just grunted in response. He ran his hand through the fur on top of Gen’s head and then around underneath his chin. The wolf looked less tense and actually pushed himself up into more of a sitting position.

“Nothing can keep you down, hmm Gen?”

“Or you for that matter,” Staci mumbled under his breath, equal parts fondness and sarcasm.

“Sele-oh perfect! You’re here too,” Carmina said, hurrying over to them. “Selene, I know there’s a lot you got to work with right now but do you think you can craft me some med packs before tomorrow?”

“Anything for you Carm. I’ll get right on it.” Selene turned back to Jacob. “Make sure he rests. He should make a full recovery if he does that.”

Jacob nodded, still petting Gen.

Selene left to go get supplies from the woods. At the same time, Staci surprisingly got another apology thrown his way. Carmina said, “I…I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking about earlier. I was just…just so angry…”

“Anger’s good,” Jacob mused, still putting most of his focus on Gen but glancing at Carmina now. “But it has to be focused. Don’t squelch it. Learn to control it instead and you’ll have a much more powerful tool in your hands.”

“Yeah, just…easier said than done.” She shook her head. She really was so much like her mother. For the moment, the pain of losing her dad was being pushed back. More important things needed to be dealt with. “Mom told me you were going to join me?”

Staci nodded.

“Cool. I was ready to just do it alone but it’ll give us time to catch up! Well, no that implies we actually know each other. It’ll give us a chance to know each other!” Carmina finished, somehow finding something positive out of this whole mess. She got a little closer. “And how is Gen doing?”

“Pretty good now. We’re lucky he wasn’t killed,” Staci replied. He watched Carmina go down next to Jacob.

As she joined him in petting Gen, Jacob said, “He likes you.”

“Well he seemed to like Selene too.”

“He tolerated her. Tolerates most people. He likes you,” Jacob softly said.

“I guess I’ll count myself as one of the lucky ones,” Carmina smiled. She looked to Jacob. “And are you ok?”

“Fine,” Jacob instinctively replied.

“I’m glad to hear it.” At Jacob’s somewhat confused look, it seemed the Rye’s were good at causing that, she added, “I mean, you’re our ally now for one. And…I’m curious.”

Jacob arched his eyebrow. “Parents ever tell you what a proverb is?”

“It’s just a saying with like…certain connotations. Right?”

Staci chuckled. “He’s referencing curiosity killed the cat. But I think you’re forgetting satisfaction brought it back.”

“I don’t get it.”

Both Staci and Jacob chuckled a bit.

“Maybe I can explain some of them while we search for the train,” Staci suggested.

“I’d like that. And what about your home? Do you think I could see New Eden sometime?”

“You want to see New Eden?” asked Jacob.

“I’ve only ever known Prosperity. Any other town I’ve come across is either half covered in dirt or overrun by grass and trees. I’d like to see one that’s still alive. And that I don’t know like the back of my hand.”

“I’d like to show you someday,” Staci replied. He couldn’t believe he was getting this opportunity. He almost thought about taking her up that day for the meeting with Joseph. That would have been counterintuitive for their partnership with Kim though. She would have been anything but happy if Staci overstepped his boundaries like that. Instead, Staci said, “Once I gather what I need from New Eden, I’m going to come back here. I was wondering if you could try and hunt a bit to prepare for the journey.”

“Yeah, sounds like a good idea. I’ll check some of the snares we leave for the smaller animals out in the woods.” She petted Gen once more before standing up. “I’ll see you in a little while then. And I hope to see you again soon Jacob. If it’s alright if I call you that.”

“It is my name.”

Carmina rolled her eyes. “Jacob it is then. I’ll see you both later.”

Jacob pushed himself up again as Carmina left. He clicked his tongue. General pushed himself to his feet too, the wolf pressing up against Jacob for support. This time Jacob allowed the affection, burying a hand in Gen’s fur, almost like he was using the wolf to support himself as well.

They met up with Kim who was being followed by Jerome and Grace. It made sense she’d chosen them. They were definitely some of the more levelheaded members of Prosperity and were more likely to help the talks rather than hinder them.

They were far past needing introductions or pausing to just get over how strange this partnership was. Now it was time to survive and thankfully, that was something they could all agree on.

Jacob made sure to tell them of where he and Staci had hidden their own truck. After all, they were going to need as many supplies as possible and didn’t want anything getting into the hands of the Highwaymen if they could help it. After picking up the truck, they all headed north, Staci leading the way in Jacob’s truck.

Staci swiveled his head left and right, constantly keeping an eye out for any Highwaymen. The last thing they wanted to do was take them straight to their home, even if it was likely they’d find it at one point or another.

The Highwaymen’s infiltration of Hope County would take time. They weren’t instantly everywhere and hopefully they’d manage to block some of their attempts from ever getting off the ground. By the time they came upon New Eden, the new dawn had come, the glow of the sun washing the landscape in red. At the walls, their people recognized them and quickly opened the gates. Staci could see worry passing amongst their people’s faces quickly. To be fair, just because Jacob had gotten the worst of it didn’t mean they didn’t all look like shit. There was plenty of blood stuck to all of their cloths, eyes dark and bruises numerous.

Kim came over to them. Her eyes quickly took in what she could see of the town from the gates. Staci could tell she was easily picking out the people that must have originally been under Jacob. She looked back at Staci. “You don’t look like you belong here.” Her gaze moved to Jacob, growing more confused. “Either of you.”

“I love my brother but he’s going to have to wait until I’m six feet under before he even thinks about pulling my weapons from me.”

Grace actually snorted at that, even if she didn’t have the full context.

One of Jacob’s people, Zachariah, came running up to them. “Sir, your orders!”

“Keep the patrols outside and on the walls consistent. As far as we know, we haven’t been discovered yet and we need to keep it that way as long as possible. Keep your eyes peeled specifically for pink and blue armor and a white, spray painted eye. But if they’re not from Prosperity and it looks like you can’t capture them for questioning, shoot on sight. We can’t risk it.”

“Yes sir.” Zachariah paused, clearly looking at Jacob’s face. Worry set in as he looked at the stitches.

“Don’t even think about asking.”

“Yes sir!” Zachariah said, snapping to attention before quickly turning around and rushing back to the people.

“This way,” Jacob instructed. Everyone followed, Kim, Jerome, and Grace sticking close to them. It was ironic that now, in what they probably considered the belly of the beast, they felt safest near Jacob and Staci. Jacob snapped his fingers and pointed, giving Gen permission to return home and lie down. The wolf rubbed against Jacob’s hands once more before slowly making his way there.

People continued to stare as they walked by before walking up to their house of service. They knew Joseph was there because, unsurprisingly, the Judge was guarding the doors. The Judge slightly nodded to Staci and then glanced to those behind him. A quick look on Kim’s face and Staci suddenly wondered if perhaps others did know. Maybe not those in New Eden, but perhaps an instance like Staci’s. An accident near the beginning, a slip of the mask.

Staci didn’t ask about it though and no one explained if they really knew or if it was just a hunch. The Judge simply pushed open the doors and Jacob led the way in.

Ethan was there and already arguing with Joseph. Despite Jacob’s unwillingness to work with him, it certainly seemed Ethan had somehow absorbed some of Jacob’s stubbornness. If everything had been for show, Staci figured Joseph would have chosen a successor that was more compliant. The fact that he continued to work with the difficulties that Ethan presented showed that, at least in his mind, he truly believed the prophecies and the voice to be God’s.

Staci just found it amusing how much the younger man got on Jacob’s nerves despite some of the similarities between them. Perhaps if Ethan were truly Joseph’s son it would be different, or maybe it was more the fact that Jacob could feel his younger brother pulling away and neither did he understand it nor want it. It was difficult to say with Jacob and for the moment, Staci just focused on the current argument.

“We cannot simply do nothing,” hissed Ethan, each word enunciated and harsh.

“The time is not right—”

“Then when?!”

Jacob cleared his throat. Their eyes turned, both men landing on everyone’s bloody clothes and the multitude of wounds that could be seen. It was clear they were focused on Jacob’s more severe ones though. Joseph went to him quickly, the relief clear in his eyes as he switched from the Father to brother for a few seconds. He placed a hand on the back of Jacob’s neck. Their foreheads touched for a moment, Joseph taking solace in seeing his brother still alive. When the moment passed, Joseph turned to Staci next. He did the same thing before pulling back and placing a hand on Staci’s shoulder.

“I am glad to know you are safe my child.”

“Only for the moment,” Staci answered honestly.

Joseph’s eyes turned to the others. He analyzed them quickly before focusing back to Jacob. It was clear he already understood why. There were few reasons why Kim and her people would come to them after all. His words weren’t exactly what they were hoping for though.

“These…Highwaymen, their sins threaten to ruin our home. They are not meant to be.”

“What? Didn’t see them in one of your prophecies?” Alright, so Grace was more levelheaded but that didn’t mean her sarcasm hadn’t disappeared.

Joseph slowly walked over. Her blind eyes met his and actually stayed there, as if she actually saw him.

“I saw our shepherd. And now I see what they shall lead us from. God kept them from me for a reason. Perhaps to bring all of us together.”

Grace made a noise that clearly said she didn’t believe him but didn’t push farther.

“Father,” Ethan tried again, “if you just explained the trial, then we can find our shepherd. I can be—”

“No, the trial hasn’t formed yet. But…” Joseph paused. He focused back on Staci. Even now, after years of knowing the man, it was still unnerving how he could so easily look into his soul. “Your path begins this. You will start the purge of sin from our home.”

Ethan stepped forward. His disbelief and annoyance couldn’t quite be hidden. “You’re not saying that Staci will be—”

“No,” Joseph calmly said. He held out his hand, stilling Ethan, before turning back to Staci. This time he placed both hands on Staci’s shoulders. “Do not feel trepidation. You and Prosperity’s daughter are following God’s path and when you return, your families will be waiting.”

Staci breathed deeply. The small part of him that had still worried and been upset over having to leave Jacob calmed under the Father’s touch. Out of the corner of Staci’s eyes, he could see Kim’s surprise. Joseph knew that Staci and Carmina would be leaving soon in search of the train, even if he didn’t have all the details. Staci had long since stopped being surprised at that ability.

Joseph turned to Kim. “And you seek our help. You wish for our people to fight.”

“For all our freedom,” Kim pressed.

“The time…the time is not right.”

Kim bristled. “Not right? I watched my people fall in front of my very eyes and you think it’s not right?”

“Did I say I would not help?”

“What I want is a straight answer! At least your brother gave me that,” growled Kim.

“Our homes were burned down,” Jerome quickly said, trying to calm Kim’s anger by taking over. “We are low on everything and we…we are coming to you asking for help that is desperately needed. Even after what you did to us.”

A sad smile graced Joseph’s lips. “After what I did to you?” Kim looked about ready to launch herself at him but thankfully Jerome was just barely holding her back. Joseph waited, as if to see if Kim would keep her temper under control. When she did, he continued. “Then I suppose it is fitting that I meet you half way after what you did to my family.”

Before Kim could find something in those words to argue about, Joseph spoke again.

“This land is not truly ours. We borrow it in His grace. And in His grace we have been given plenty. We will provide you the food you need. Your people will not needlessly starve in His land. And Jacob, my brother, you will continue on your path. I know the past years have been difficult on you. I have seen that it is not an issue of will. You simply cannot change who you are. So put who you are to good use. Be our Herald again. Strengthen and protect our people and theirs. Take the men who will follow you but no more than that. I will not force the rest to fight.”

Kim released a breath she’d been holding in. Considering Jacob’s words to her, she’d probably feared that she’d get nothing from Joseph. Though not everything, he’d clearly offered her more than she’d expected.

“And when your shepherd comes?” Kim asked, the sarcasm there but definitely more reigned in. “What then?”

“Then God’s path will open to us again. But not until then.”

Joseph took Jacob and Staci into his arms. They bowed their heads and Joseph kissed them softly. “You have mine, and His, blessing. And do not worry, Staci. You will see us again.” Joseph glanced to the others. “You have His blessing as well, even if you do not view our God as one and the same. Jacob will show you to who you will need to speak with. I must speak with my son now.”

Staci glanced back to Ethan who had become quiet during the latter half. He still looked upset. It was clear he felt there was more that could be done and the Father’s elusive words about looking to a shepherd clearly had him irked. Staci supposed that was probably the biggest difference between them. Even though Staci and Jacob didn’t fully believe the source of Joseph’s information, they believed in him fully when push came to shove. Ethan? There were still doubts in his mind, doubts that Staci sometimes wondered would ever go away.

His mind moved away from Ethan though as Jacob guided everyone out again. The Judge watched them as they left before slipping inside.

“You radioed ahead. Right?” Kim asked Jacob.

“No.”

“But he knew about the expedition to find the train.”

“He did,” Jacob simply said.

The look on Kim’s face clearly said she didn’t really believe him but there were more important things to tend to now. Jacob led Kim, Jerome, and Grace to different people so they could talk food supplies and figure out the best way to get what was needed to Prosperity until they managed to rebuild. Others, mainly Jacob’s men, talked strategies and planned ahead for the coming fights. The weapons and tools that Jacob had stored but hadn’t taken out due to Joseph’s insistence were finally dusted off and placed in the trucks.

Joseph’s words moved across their town quickly and any uncertainty on dealing with the outsiders vanished. It meant Kim and the others could work freely to prepare for their trip back to Prosperity as Staci finally dragged Jacob away and back to their small home.

“You need to rest.”

“I need to finish packing so we can go back to Prosperity and—”

Staci shook his head. “No. Send Zachariah.”

“He’s in charge of patrols.”

“Then Camille! You do not have to be back there right this second,” Staci pressed. He guided Jacob to the bed and gently pushed him down. Gen was in his cage and immediate perked up at having Jacob nearby again. “You heard Joseph. I’m meant to go with Carmina, but I will not leave until I at least see you attempting to rest your eyes.”

“By that logic, I could just get up the moment you’re gone.”

Staci rolled his eyes. “Then do that if you have to but at least give me the illusion that you’re going to take a break.”

“You worry too much.”

“Only because I care.”

Jacob’s face softened. “I know.”

“Good. I’m going to go get you some water. I’ll be right back,” Staci said with a quick kiss.

The journey to the clean source of water didn’t take long. Staci actually got a large bowl, intending that if Jacob didn’t drink it all, he’d set the rest down for Gen. On the way back, he passed Camille and decided to go ahead with the initiative and give her the new orders.

She wasn’t actually one of Jacob’s original people. She’d been young before the collapse, her time spent in the new world longer than the time before. She’d followed Faith, wrapped up in the Bliss and songs, but when Faith had been killed, Camille had found herself lost. She’d gone towards Jacob’s compound, John already gone by that time.

Even young, Jacob hadn’t gone easy on her. She’d been a child but the world didn’t care about things like that. He’d broken her down, built her up again as she’d grown up inside the bunker and without a sky. Now she was one of their trusted, only second to Zachariah who outranked her in experience and time he’d known Jacob. She often wore the handmade clothes as was the norm of their members, but like most of Jacob’s people, she felt more comfortable with a pistol on her hip and a shotgun on her back.

“You’re going to lead our people back to Prosperity. Jacob will meet you there later.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied. “Is he…?”

“He’ll be fine,” Staci pressed, carefully leaving any worry off his face. “Zachariah is likely going to remain and protect New Eden. That means you’ll be his right hand out there.”

“Me?” Camille straightened her back, trying to look larger than she was. “Will you remain here as well?”

“No. There’s something else I need to do,” Staci said. “I’m not sure when I’ll be back but I need you, everyone, to look after Jacob. He is your leader, your Herald, but he is still a man.”

“Of course sir. Always,” she replied. “Will you be departing with us?”

“No, go ahead and drive on down south once the vehicles are loaded. There are a few things I need to do before I leave.”

“Yes sir.”

She left and Staci quickly made his way back home. He walked in and stopped, surprised that Jacob was actually lying down and his eyes were closed. Was he…?

“You like watching me in my sleep Peaches?”

Staci chuckled and walked over with the bowl. Jacob opened his eyes and pushed himself up, taking a sip before setting it on the ground for Gen. Staci sat beside him and stayed still as Jacob pulled down his hair. Jacob ran his hands through it, smoothing it almost like how he’d pet Gen. Staci leaned into the touch first. Then he bowed his head as Jacob pulled his hair back for him and tied it up again.

“I will be here,” Jacob said.

“And I will see you again,” Staci promised. “But before then, I still need to see you resting.”

Jacob let out a small huff but eased back. “Read to me then. I’m sure you’ll miss the books while you’re gone.”

Staci smiled at the idea. He went and picked out White Fang, knowing Jacob had been in the middle of re-reading it. He went to the dog-eared page and picked up where Jacob had left off. General came closer and when Jacob didn’t order him to go back to his cage, the wolf climbed into the bed beside him, almost taking up as much room as Staci would have. Jacob buried his hand in Gen’s fur and Staci continued on. He would have liked to keep reading until the very end of the book, if only to prolong his time. But he’d delayed long enough and Carmina was waiting for him. They all were waiting for him to return, even though he had not left yet.

So Staci finished with, “The world as he saw it was a fierce and brutal world, a world without warmth, a world in which caresses and affection and the bright sweetness of spirit did not exist.” He looked to Jacob, the man having actually fallen asleep much to Staci’s relief. He closed the book, careful not to wake him as he murmured, “But even the harshest of worlds have something worthwhile in them.” Then he kissed him softly before finally moving away. Jacob and his wolf lay there together, wounded and broken but always able to get up in the end. Staci wondered how long his travels would take. Would their wounds still be bandaged by the time he got back? Or would Staci get to see the new scars that had been added to their skin?

It was impossible to know, even if Staci felt more sure about leaving now that he had Joseph’s blessing with him.

Staci put the book up and then gathered his things. Outside, Kim and her people, along with those led by Camille had long since left. The sun was high now, close to noon, and it would take Staci a while to get back to Prosperity. He needed to hurry so he and Carmina could hit the road before night fell.

He said his goodbyes to those near him, held hands and pressed his forehead to theirs and gripped forearms. He promised them all he would return as soon as possible and that he would bring change with him when he did.

Staci securely attached everything to his bike along with extra fuel. He got it up and running, throwing his leg over and ready to drive through the gates for the last time in who knew how long. The Judge was there, waiting to close the doors behind him. As Staci passed, the Judge nodded again.

Good luck.

Staci drove down the cracked, paved roads and the dirt ones, eyes staying pealed for any threats as he made his way back to Prosperity. The sun had moved high and then low again, now the afternoon as Staci came upon the broken wreckage. It looked worse in the light. Every burnt patch of grass, crumbling bit of rubble, it all stood out so much more when in the light. The vibrant nature around it looked even brighter in contrast.

As his eyes slowly wandered over the wreck, he easily picked out his people among Prosperity’s. Camille ordered their family around, already doing an excellent job despite not having Jacob over her shoulder. His eyes met hers for a second and he gave her an approving nod. She smiled and her back went straight again. Her confidence increased and she quickly marched around, making sure everyone was as prepped as could be.

Staci finally spotted Carmina, his brow furrowing as he saw Joey talking to her. Joey shot daggers his way when she saw him watching. Joey whispered some finals words in Carmina’s ear and then left. She looked confused, but rushed over to Staci anyways, perking up at seeing him.

“We ready to go?”

“Ready.”

“Staci,” Kim said, meeting her daughter at the bike. “I just wanted to say, take care.”

He understood why. It wasn’t necessarily that she really cared about him. It was more that if he didn’t, Carmina’s survival chances dropped. It was all about her own daughter’s safety and Staci respected that. Still, he pretended just a little that she was actually sad to see him go.

“We’ll be back as soon as possible,” Staci said.

“I trust you will. Take care sweetheart,” Kim said as she turned to her daughter now and kissed her forehead. They hugged, the moment emotional for both as Staci looked away, giving them some privacy. Even in the short glance he could see how much Nick was missing from that hug. Hopefully the help they were searching for would make that family whole again.

“I love you so much and I am so proud of you. Your dad would be to. After he was done crying over how worried sick this whole operation would make him.”

Carmina let out a little, choked laugh and nodded. “I’ll see you soon mom.”

“I know you will.”

Staci waited until Kim was already walking away before he said, “So which way out of here are we going?”

“Well since the main bridge is probably still blocked by the Highwaymen, I figured we could drive across the train tracks. Makes since too since we’re going to try and stick near them.”

Staci nodded in agreement. “I remember where they are. Hop on.”

He turned them around, pausing just a little as he felt her wave to friends and family. Once her arms were comfortably wrapped around him, he started off back down the dirt roads. The trees flew by quickly at first, Staci getting them to the tracks in record time. There he slowed down as they went over the railroad ties, being even more careful as they went over the bridge. Once off, he’d pull them back onto the dirt so they could pick up some more speed. However, since they were going slow enough that the wind didn’t carry their voices away, Staci had to appease his curiosity.

“What was Joey whispering to you back there?”

“She wanted me to ask you about Eli Palmer. Why?”

Staci immediately knew why. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Joey had heard what had happened and had made him out to be a victim. Brainwashed, as she’d spouted last night. But considering what she’d learned since then, Staci was sure her view on the story had drastically changed. He let out a long sigh. He could always not tell her, but he was getting the chance to know Carmina when he’d thought the opportunity would never come. He wanted to be honest with her. He wanted her to really know him.

“I’ll tell you when we camp for the night,” Staci said after a moment of silence. “It’s too long and complicated to shout it back at you while on a motorcycle.”

Carmina chuckled a little and Staci smiled at the sound. Only hours away from all the tragedy she’d seen and she still found a way to smile, to laugh. She was strong, and it felt good knowing she was already prepped for this world.

Chapter Text

Staci had tried to save Rook. He’d pushed the Junior Deputy onto the truck, desperate to get them out of there before he did something he regretted. Staci hadn’t expected Rook would grab him and pull him over too.

Rook should have left him, forgotten about him, but instead, the Junior Deputy had managed to drag him back to the Whitetails, just barely alive and kicking. It should have been a miracle. What Jacob would have done to him because of his transgression, well Staci would have once said it was unimaginable, but he’d been able to imagine it just fine. Jacob had already done those things to him before. It wouldn’t have mattered that he’d been moving up the hierarchy, that he’d managed to impress Jacob. The man would kill him for letting Rook go.

But he still should have been happy! He was with the resistance again! He’d finally escaped! They could do this!

That hope that he’d expected hadn’t come though. No one had asked what he’d done, what he’d been put through, but it was obvious they all knew. It hadn’t all been Jacob. It hadn’t just been the conditioning and the training and the orders over and over again. Staci had taken the initiative. He’d become stronger on his own, had shed blood without a single whisper of that song in his ears. The resistance would never accept that. He could see their lies behind their smiles, how they treated him like a wild animal, ready to snap at any moment, how some gripped their guns tightly whenever he got snappy or shouted.

And after this was over? What then? If the government did come, he’d either be thrown in some institution or put in prison depending on how they viewed his mental health. There was only so much that could be excused in the line of duty. Neither scenario he could think of dealing with. To do all he’d done, the blood on his hands, only to be caged again? He couldn’t allow that to happen!

Then to deal with his family too? His mother? People liked to think mothers stayed by their child’s side through anything, but Staci knew she wouldn’t have been able to. Learning what he’d done, become, it would have broken her. He couldn’t risk her finding out.

And what if help never appeared? What if they’d become some no-man’s land in the middle of America? He wouldn’t have to worry about seeing his family ever again, of being jailed up and called insane, a murderer. But what of the resistance? They weren’t strong enough to win. Staci didn’t want to believe it but he could see it. Everywhere he looked, Jacob’s teachings were still in his head. Weak. Incompetent. Should have left them to die. Wasted too many resources getting them back. Eli cared too much. Too much faith. He couldn’t bring himself to sacrifice the weak and it would be his undoing. He had to sacrifice the weak!

In the end, Staci wasn’t sure what had been the final straw. Was he doing this to make the resistance stronger in some warped way? Maybe. It certainly would bring them together, strengthen the other bonds. Tammy would be a better leader, a harsher leader. She was strong enough to go against Jacob.

But then, Staci wasn’t so sure they could beat Jacob, even with her. Did he do it for him? Because he knew, inevitably, that Jacob would just be stronger than the resistance? Even in Staci’s attempt to save Rook, it didn’t change things. Jacob was still successfully capturing the Junior Deputy. Jacob was still successfully fighting the resistance on so many fronts. Even if he sacrificed himself, it would all be so the way would be paved for Joseph to win anyways so why not help him along?

Or maybe it was to save Rook from the heartache and the pain. Because Staci knew what Jacob was working up to. He’d been by the man’s side constantly in later weeks. Should he have told them? Told Rook? In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered. Jacob would have still kept gunning for Rook. He would have gotten to the Junior Deputy in time and even if Eli had been moved across the county, even out of it, Rook would have completed the mission for him.

No, telling them would have just caused more panic, more heartbreak when they realized just how inevitable it all was.

So why did he do it? Even years later, it was difficult pinning down a definitive reason, all of it so muddled up in his head. He’d just known that he couldn’t make a life for himself in the resistance and if the government ever did come? Staci would rather die fighting them than being chained again. If anything had truly stuck with Staci from Jacob’s teachings, it really was that. He wouldn’t be caged again. He wouldn’t be shackled, and ironically, it felt that to avoid that, he had to go back to his jailer.

The night it happened had been a quiet one in the Whitetails bunker. If Tammy had been there, it was doubtful Staci would have been allowed to be alone with Eli. It wasn’t like she distrusted him the most. She just made sure he was fully aware of it.

But she hadn’t been there. The rest of the county had been bustling and busy, full of gunfights and orders and struggles over resources. And the bunker had been quiet as Staci asked to speak to Eli alone.

He’d known it would be hard, but he hadn’t quite expected the tears to come like they had. And Eli? Of course he’d grabbed onto his arms, tried to ground him. He’d tried telling Staci it would be alright, that he was out. But Staci wasn’t free and Eli’s misguided faith in him just sealed the deal. The Whitetails needed a stronger leader and in procuring that, Staci would have to leave the resistance and never come back.

He’d wiped at his face, pushed the tears back. Eli’s words of encouragement, that Jacob didn’t have a hold on him, all of it were lies that fell on deaf ears.

Instinct took over.

Breathe, assess, act.

His heart had calmed and with it, his hands had stopped shaking. He’d pulled out his gun. He’d shoved Eli against the wall, hand over his mouth. Staci had almost said sorry. He’d almost apologized. But he’d doubted it would be appreciated and besides, was he really? So without another word, Staci had pressed the gun against Eli, using his own body as a muffler as he’d unloaded the clip into him.

Eli’s bloody body had fallen, lifeless to the floor. Behind him, the blood smeared against the wall. Staci had looked down, looked at his blood stained hands. The disgust was there, but it was already dampening, even at that point. It wouldn’t be until some years later that it fully went away, but in that moment he’d started to push it back.

He was strong. He would survive. He wouldn’t let anyone ever force him into a cage again.

After Eli’s death, Staci had grabbed the pack he’d prepared and left. He’d only passed one other Whitetail on the way out and Staci had only had to shove his blood spattered hands into his pockets before they saw.

He slipped away, the resistance far behind him.

But then of course, there was the issue of getting back to Jacob. He couldn’t just show up. It was doubtful the peggies would believe him. Maybe Jacob would hear about Eli’s death, but would he really think Staci had taken the initiative or would he think he’d just snapped? They were more likely to shoot him on sight. How could he be let back in? How could he prove himself to Jacob?

The memories ran through Staci’s mind as he drove him and Carmina beside the railroad tracks. He hadn’t thought on Eli Palmer or the Whitetails for a while. He wasn’t sure how Carmina would take the story, but he decided he’d just start at the beginning. He didn’t want to sugarcoat it. He wasn’t going to try and fuzz the truth a bit. Carmina wanted to know and Staci would tell her.

They drove well into the night. Being in unknown territory made Staci wary about stopping while it was still dark. Of course he’d been out of the county before the collapse, but now he had no sure idea what was out there. Considering predators seemed to be more dangerous and eager to come out at night, Staci kept driving until morning had to be on the rise.

By that point, they were both exhausted. They’d both been awake for nearly two days and two nights and the adrenaline of the battle had long sense worn off.

They stopped sometime after midnight. They chose to stay near the tracks because even though it left them open, it meant it was less likely something could be hiding from sight. In order to stay hidden from any people nearby, they forwent a fire and only used a flashlight when Carmina pulled out a map.

“It says Idaho Falls should be about an hour away. One of our people mentioned going through there before they got to Montana.”

“Alright, we’ll talk to any people there and then decide where to go after that. The train tracks split off here. We’ll probably want to go more west if what you were told is true.”

Carmina nodded in agreement. They went over planning a little longer before Staci pulled out some food. Carmina showed him the meat she’d salted and prepped. It only took Staci a few seconds to ration it out in his head. He packed the majority of it and then passed Carmina’s ration to her.

“So about Eli Palmer…”

“Do you know who he was?”

“Like, the former leader of the Whitetails. Right? A few of them lived at Prosperity. He died before the nukes went off. Right?”

Staci nodded. He took a deep, careful breath, and then he explained. He watched Carmina’s face at the same time. The way her eyes moved, a small tick in the cheek, he analyzed it all. Staci suspected the reason Joey had told Carmina to ask about this was because she’d hoped for some kind of shocked, disgusted reaction. Perhaps she wanted to stop the chances of any kind of relationship between them from developing.

But Carmina didn’t outwardly show that disgust. She didn’t even interrupt him. Not until he ended with his leaving the resistance. Silence moved over them. The whistling wind could be heard, blowing around them. The animals were otherwise silent, probably hiding and wary of the sudden intrusion into their territory.

Staci waited until Carmina spoke first. He wasn’t going to waste his breath trying to explain himself. Especially if he didn’t know her reaction first.

“I…” She stopped. Finally her eyes moved away. Her thoughts, her emotions, were momentarily hidden from Staci as she collected her reaction. She looked back to him when she spoke again. “I knew about Jacob’s brainwashing. You know? Like I have heard about all the Seeds from before and what they did.”

“I really hate that word.”

“Brainwashing?”

“It makes it sound like something out of a science fiction book. It was a mixture of psychological, behavioral, and social techniques and theories, largely based just on classical conditioning with other aspects mixed in. Which, didn’t make it any less effective, but it’s not like Jacob made it up himself. It’s just science.”

“And he did all that to you, and you still care about him?”

“You can call the methods brutal but they worked. They worked for me. I probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t gone back.”

He almost expected her to argue that point. But she didn’t. She may not have fully agreed, but she seemed to understand going off the reactions on her face. Instead, she said, “What I don’t get is why you thought you couldn’t go back. You were just surviving.”

Staci almost repeated himself. But no, she may have been from Prosperity but she was young, different from her parents. She actually seemed to understand better than her parents why he’d stayed with New Eden, with Jacob. It was the before times that were confusing her.

“Well take Nick for example. Your father was kidnapped and you want to—”

“I’m going to kill every last one of those fuckers,” growled Carmina immediately. “They tried to take everything from us? Well I’m going to make them wish they’d finished the job that first night.”

Staci snorted. Jacob had been right. She definitely needed to work on the anger but he couldn’t help but admire her tenacity considering her age. “Ok, well in that regards, you wouldn’t have been able to do that before. Even with your reasoning, you probably would have been tried for murder. Maybe even in the first degree considering the planning and forethought that would go into this.”

“But they kidnapped my dad!”

“Doesn’t mean you can kill them. Or it didn’t. You would have picked up your phone instead, called 911, and some law enforcement official would have come around. They would have taken evidence if there was a crime scene, your statements, and then left. If you were lucky, they’d be kind enough to keep you in the loop during the investigation. Otherwise, you’d just be stuck waiting at home.”

Carmina gawked at him, making Staci laugh a little harder. “How could people live like that?”

“You could have. If you’d grown up with it around you.”

“I don’t know…” Carmina skeptically said.

“Well, you would have adapted at least. You’re smart. You would have figured out how to live. Or you would have made one of the few intelligent criminals.”

“Criminals?”

“What?”

“I don’t understand what that means.”

It was odd, thinking that a concept as simple as that wasn’t grasped by Carmina. “Well…you know the word thief right? Murderer?”

“Sure.”

“And have you ever had someone who did something wrong in Prosperity? Were they punished for breaking a rule or something?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, imagine the rules were created not by your parents but by governing officials far, far away. And if you broke those rules, that made you a criminal. Sometimes the punishments would be minor. You might be forced to give something to the person you victimized, might have to pay money or be required to go to counseling or certain classes. Or you might have been locked up for however long the courts decided, maybe even put to death. To be perfectly honest, just about everyone now would have been labeled a criminal under the old laws.”

“Laws?”

“A rule made by the government.”

“Ah.” Carmina turned silent again. She was getting around to understanding the concepts. It was just a little difficult since she’d never experienced them first hand. “When you put it like that, we really are all on the same footing then. But mom still hates New Eden. Even if she’s working with them now. And clearly Joey wanted to drive a wedge between us by getting you to talk about Eli.”

“To be honest, I’d wondered if it would.”

Carmina shook her head. “Maybe it’s just because I never knew him. But…but it was war. Yeah, the Edeners hurt us, but Prosperitans hurt you guys too. Right?”

Staci agreed with her but asked, “Edeners?”

“Well you’re not peggies. I know some of the older people still call you that but it doesn’t really work anymore, right? So you’re Edeners. New Edeners just like I’m a Prosperitan from Prosperity.”

Staci smiled. “I like that. Much more fitting than peggie I think.”

Carmina looked pleased and quickly launched into what she’d been saying before. “Family was hurt and killed on both sides. But your goals were the same really. I mean, the resistance wanted to bring things back to the way they were but it was still about survival, protecting their people, all that, right? Same for the peggies back then. They just thought the best way to protect their people was to prepare for the end. And when you think about it like that, it makes sense that the two groups clashed, even if all they wanted was to save their people.”

“It actually does.”

“Of course! And since the nukes fell, both your groups made peace with each other because you both were suddenly faced with the same threats. Yeah, from what I’ve heard Joseph is trying to distance New Eden from modern things, but now both groups have had to learn to survive in this new world. They both still want to keep their people safe and…and I think there’s hope for both our groups in the end.

“But the Highwaymen…” Carmina’s voice grew darker. She looked at the ground as she cracked her knuckles. “They don’t care about their people. They’re in it for the power, that momentary satisfaction of knowing they’re the big fucking dog out there, but it’s short sighted. They don’t care about longevity, about making their people stronger. They don’t even see them as useful, just damn meat bags to sling around for their enjoyment. They’ll fall because of it and I’ll make sure I’m one of the people who causes it.”

Staci nodded. “We have a chance, and we have to make the most of it.”

“Yeah…” She let out a tired sigh. In the early morning with all adrenaline out of her, the pain in her was clearer. She was hurting but the rage glowed brighter. She definitely was anything but a quitter.

“Get some sleep,” Staci said. “I’ll take the first watch.”

“But what about how you got back to Jacob? How did that happen? And what about in your bunker—”

“Stories for another night,” smiled Staci. “Sleep. I’ll wake you in a few hours and we can switch.”

“Fine. But you’re telling me eventually,” she smirked as she moved her pack to use as a pillow.

Staci watched her fall asleep quickly. That anger and pain on her face disappeared. She looked peaceful finally. It reminded him of Jacob, how only in sleep did he truly seem to calm down and even that was fleeting. His heart hurt at the thought and he looked back in the direction they’d come. He hadn’t been without Jacob for so long. It was like he’d suddenly lost a limb.

But he’d see him again. He trusted Joseph’s words in that.

It was light out when they switched but Staci fell asleep easily in the open field. They’d probably continue with that pattern from then on out. It was safer to stop during the day anyways.

Carmina shook him awake a little while later. They drank some water but Staci had them hold off on food for a little longer. He showed her how the bike started so that way she could always use it if needed. Then he asked, “Want to try it?”

“Really?”

Staci nodded. He stepped back and watched her slowly approach it. She carefully got on, getting used to the new position as her hands rested on the bars.

“Dad said he was going to try and fix up his plane soon,” she murmured. “He said he’d teach me how to fly her. My namesake. Said it was fitting.”

A sad smile danced across Staci’s face. He couldn’t see Carmina’s from where he was standing but he was sure hers mirrored his. “He will show you, one day. And I bet you’ll be just as good a pilot. Better in fact.”

“You really think so?” She looked back at him. Her eyes shined with hope.

“Of course. You’ll have your father’s skill but Kim’s sensibility. You’ll be unstoppable,” smiled Staci leading Carmina to laugh, humor coming back into her voice.

“Does she have a name?”

“I never really was into that. It was one of the few dude bro customs I didn’t partake in. Though maybe that was just because I had a shit car,” mused Staci, mind briefly wandering back to college days.

“Dude bro?”

“It’s a term that has hopefully long since died out,” laughed Staci. “But no, I’ve never named any of my vehicles.”

“Can I?”

“Go ahead.”

Carmina didn’t even have to pause to think about it. “Morgana.”

“Really?”

“She uh…she’s a character in this comic book series. Mars? Nadine Abercrombie left me her whole set before she decided to journey out of the county.”

“I’m a bit surprised. She’d sacrifice her own limb for just about any comic, and she gave you a whole set?”

“She had another copy of it. It only ran for twelve issues anyways.”

Staci chuckled. “Alright, that I can believe then.”

“I’m guessing you knew her?”

“Not well. She was a few years younger than me. I knew her grandfather a lot better though. He um…he joined the peggies back then. Willingly, before the fighting started. He passed away a few years ago. He’s buried in New Eden.”

“She said he was dead.”

“Probably easier for her to deal with it that way.”

“Only some miles apart…and they missed out on any chance to fix things.”

“It was the way things were. No interactions amongst our communities. It was what we agreed,” Staci said with a small shrug.

“Maybe it won’t have to be. Afterwards.”

“Maybe,” Staci replied. But he knew that was something he couldn’t exactly promise. He walked closer again. He put a hand on her back and looked down his nose. “So, think you’re ready? Idaho Falls is only about an hour away.”

Carmina gave an excited nod and Staci finally got in behind her.

“Remember, don’t try and fight it. We should mostly be going straight anyways until we reach the city, but when you turn, don’t panic. Lean with the motion. If something happens, try not to jerk the throttle. That’ll just make a crash more likely. And don’t go faster than you’re comfortable with too. Got it?”

“Got it.”

Staci wrapped his arms around her. “Alright, kick back the stand and let’s go.”

Carmina pushed back and turned the throttle. She picked up speed quickly before choosing to maintain it for a bit. She waited until she was comfortable with that and then picked up the speed a little more. She did it once more before Staci advised her to stay at that speed. They weren’t on smooth pavement or a clearer, dirt road after all.

Because of their offset time, the sun was well past its high point at noon once they drove into Idaho Falls. Though Staci wanted to get back to Jacob still, and he honestly couldn’t think of leaving New Eden, he had to admit his own curiosity was growing. He’d actually been to Idaho Falls once before. Decades ago and now…

It had always been a rather green city so it wasn’t surprising to see how far the grass and trees had pushed into the concrete and steel. The place had once held around sixty thousand people. Staci and Carmina ended up finding out it now held around seventy-eight. Even then, only a portion of those people were originally from there. Unlike Hope County where just about everyone had a bunker set up, either planning for the end times or thinking they could use it to hide from peggies or because of old conspiracy theories. Here though, it seemed like a lot of people hadn’t found shelter before the radiation they experienced was irreversible. A lot of people started to die in those first few years, either from increasing medical issues, starvation, or both. Not many were as lucky as Hope County when it came to their preparation for the end.

The people had understandably been wary of them. Guns got drawn and a standoff occurred. A quick assessment of the people told Staci that the group wasn’t made of killers though. He took the risk and put his weapons down first. Carmina followed and Staci was quickly proved right. They found out that the Highwaymen had stopped through the city, likely on their way to Hope County, but the people had hidden. Somehow they’d managed to avoid a confrontation.

The people couldn’t give them any more information on Rush or his train too. At least not anything they didn’t already know. The people didn’t want them to stay, afraid the Highwaymen could be following in their wake, and to be fair, Staci and Carmina couldn’t waste time trying to make friends. They left not long after that, the people actually giving away gas as an incentive to get them out of the place. They didn’t need it that much considering they didn’t have to stray far from their homes.

Staci and Carmina left the group and only stayed in the city long enough to scrounge up some more food. They took a moment to make a quick fire to cook the meat they had as well. It felt safer doing it in the mostly desolate city and during the end of the day too where the fire’s light wouldn’t be as well noticed. They ended up leaving just as the sun went below the horizon again.

They followed the tracks on past nighttime. They paused only if absolutely necessary and didn’t make a proper stop until morning had already come again. Eventually they would get into a pattern of opening up more during the spare meals and right before one of them slept while the other watched. Using a truck rather than Staci’s bike might have been better as they would have been able to constantly keep moving, but the bike let them get over the uneven terrain and through the trees they came across where a truck probably would have gotten stuck and they would have had to do more backtracking. It also gave them time to take advantage of those talks.

On the second night, Carmina told Staci a bit more about Prosperity and what growing up in that had been like. Then she asked, “When was the turning point? When did you go from captor to…to surviving I guess?”

The question was an easy one to answer. Staci told her.

Those first few weeks had been hell. The cages. The training. The hunger. There’d been a lot of crying, a lot of denial, a lot of overwhelming pain. But he couldn’t just let himself die. He realized his crying, his constant trembling, they were good things. It meant the people underestimated.

Honestly, Staci had underestimated himself. There’d been nights where he’d thought to just give up. If he got caught, the punishment would be worse than anything he’d dealt with before. But could he ever live with himself if he just gave up?

No. It didn’t matter how terrified he was. He had to try.

At the time, Staci hadn’t picked up on how obvious the whole scenario had been, the fact that there was actually a peggie being nice to him and not fully following Jacob’s orders when Staci begged enough. But Staci had taken it and rolled with it. His eyes had constantly been moving, planning. Thanks to the nice peggie, there was a possibility to escape. He could get out if he timed everything just right.

Over a month had passed. Staci had heard of what Rook was doing to the other Heralds’ areas but the Junior Deputy hadn’t gotten to Jacob’s region and the Whitetails were still clearly losing by that point. It meant Staci didn’t have a lot of options once he actually got free but he still had to try.

He’d waited and planned. He’d dealt with each pain and each torment and then he’d acted. At the time, he hadn’t even realized he’d done it automatically, without Jacob’s voice in his ear. Without the music box.

Breathe, assess, act.

And he had.

The music box hadn’t pushed him. The voice hadn’t been in his head. He’d stabbed one peggie in the neck, shot another. He’d gotten into the woods. He’d almost made it. Maybe the plan hadn’t been to let him get that far. Or maybe the hunting patrol had been purposefully placed there to stop him from actually escaping. He’d never asked.

He’d just acted.

The one woman and three men had gone down. The last one had ended in a fist fight. Staci had been desperate then. If he didn’t win, there was no telling what Jacob would do to him. He’d killed so many of his men. He’d be tortured to death for sure.

So when the peggie had started to get the upper hand, Staci had bitten that hand. He’d remembered hearing somewhere that biting off a finger took the same amount of force as biting a carrot. Staci ultimately would say that the finger was easier, at least when your life was on the line.

He bit and clawed. Flesh stuck to the underside of his fingernails and blood spattered across his face. He’d been on top of the peggie. His hands had grasped the man’s head. His thumbs had pushed into his eyes. He’d forced the man’s head against the ground, again and again as his thumbs tore into his sockets. He’d probably killed him in the first couple of blows but he’d just kept going. Again and again and—

The whistle had sounded.

Staci had frozen as best he could. The only thing he couldn’t stop had been his labored breathing. He’d finally looked down. His eyes had focused. He had barely been able to recognize the thing in his hands as a face. That had been him. Not Jacob. Not the music box. Not some pre-planned programming. Just Staci.

And then he’d looked up. The peggies had him surrounded, guns drawn, and Jacob had stared back. The look on his face had clearly told Staci he’d planned the opening for an escape attempt. But it had also been clear he hadn’t expected it to go as far as it had.

Staci had still thought he was going to be killed for taking out as many of Jacob’s men as he had. The fight had left him though. No way could he take them all. Exhausted and covered in blood, he’d been dragged back to the compound. He hadn’t been taken to his cage though. He’d thought, Well they’re getting this over with quickly.

But he hadn’t been brought to the torture room, thrown into a pit for wolves, or anything of the sort. He’d been dragged to what had to be a cafeteria, though at that point Staci had never actually seen it. The peggies had dropped him in the seat. Staci had put his hands on the table only to quickly retract them as Jacob had sat across from him. Bloody prints got left behind.

The silence had somehow been worse as Staci had waited. He’d wanted to crumble under the gaze. The trembling had started again, even as Staci had fought the feeling. That reaction had seemed to cause a disappointed look on Jacob’s face but he’d still said, “At least now I know you’re not fully domesticated Peaches.”

Staci had frowned at the wording, only growing more confused as a full meal had been set in front of him. Jacob had ended up giving his permission with a single nod though and Staci had dove in, just barely keeping himself from throwing up at the sudden intake of food.

He’d felt disgusted with himself. A part of him had tried to let himself throw the food up rather than holding it down. He didn’t deserve a meal, a pat on the back, fucking praise after what he’d just done. But his survival overruled his moral sense even as each bite made him feel more and more like one of the worst people in the world.

After that, Jacob had changed to keeping Staci by his side. He’d clearly hoped Staci would show that kind of initiative again. It only showed up once more.

Usually Staci was a barely kept together mess. He just did everything Jacob asked, desperately hoping it would mean not having to go back to the cages. But then one of the peggies he was meant to give orders to questioned him, something had snapped again. The peggie knew that what Staci had said came from Jacob.

He’d had to prove himself again because clearly his acts in the woods weren’t enough. He’d almost second guessed himself. He’d almost backed down and crawled back to Jacob. But then the peggie had pushed him and he’d just snapped. He’d kicked the legs out from under him, knocked him to the ground. When the peggie had just taunted him, had thrown up a hand to try and get him off, Staci had grabbed it and bit off another finger, a warning.

He’d said, “When I give you an order next time, I expect you to follow it.”

Almost immediately after getting off the man, he’d felt sick to his stomach. He’d just barely kept it together, at least while all the other peggies were watching. Jacob had told him, “Good job,” and already the fight between feeling abhorrent and wanting that praise was getting muddled up in his head. Would Staci have acted again? Would his scared, trembling self keep getting chipped away replaced with…replaced with whatever he was becoming?

Before he’d come up with a proper answer to that though, the Junior Deputy had come to Jacob’s area. Then on that second capture, knowing what Staci himself had done, he’d suddenly acted. He hadn’t wanted to imagine Rook going through that. So he’d let Rook go and had then unexpectedly gone with them. And well…after that…

“So it was really the attempted escape, not the training that made you think you couldn’t be accepted into the resistance?” asked Carmina.

“Basically.”

“But you were doing what you had to!”

“Most would have argued that I probably used excessive force in that scenario. Even though I was disgusted with myself, I already knew I didn’t regret it. And that just made me feel even worse.”

Carmina let out a frustrated sigh. “I still just don’t get that.”

“Alright, another hypothetical situation then. Say someone breaks into your home. What do you do?”

“Kill them.”

“Did they have a weapon?”

“Doesn’t matter. They trespassed and I have family to protect. There are kids in Prosperity! I can’t risk asking questions if a stranger were to just suddenly break through our protections.”

“Well, in law enforcement that would be considered excessive force. You’d likely be charged with some lower form of murder.”

“They broke in! Wasn’t there a rule not to do that in the before times?”

“Yes. There was a law. However, the victim in that situation could also be an offender if excessive force was determined to be unnecessary. Unless you had an adequate way to defend your use of force, you’d be charged.”

“Damn, with rules like that, I guess I can get why you were conflicted,” groaned Carmina. “But what if it was for a good reason!?”

“Unless the murder of another person was done clearly in self-defense with that level of force being required to protect yourself or others, then perhaps. But the law was tricky. Maybe you did have to kill the person but mutilation, like what I’d done, that would be considered excessive. A lot of bad people slipped through. Good people got caught and vice versa. And sometimes it was the good people committing the crimes, for arguably good reasons, but often didn’t mean the law could just give them a pass.”

“You’re really just making me more thankful for living now rather than before,” Carmina said. She let out a little huff for emphasis. Some hair that had fallen in front of her face got pushed up and then fell back down.

“To be honest, I’m surprised you take everything I say with such stride. I know your parents and the older people of Prosperity have been trying to recreate the old days.”

“They try. And I get it. I do! And I mean, don’t take my acceptance for complete agreement! I don’t fully agree with Jacob’s old methods, but there are some situations where you have to sacrifice your people, or maybe even yourself, in order to save the group. No matter how difficult that choice could be. Besides, he still got results with his men. He managed to prepare his people for the end times. They helped you.”

“See, your parents would never say something like that.”

“I know,” sighed Carmina. “But…I mean the Highwaymen. I know I downed at least six of them before they overwhelmed us. How would you have felt being my age and doing that?”

Staci unexpectedly laughed at the image that came to mind. It really wasn’t amusing but the idea was just so shocking. He would have been worse off than that first week he’d been with Jacob from before. “If I’m being honest, no matter the circumstances, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Would have broken down. I…I wasn’t very strong back then and if something like that happened, that much blood on my hands…I might have tried to kill myself.”

“Even if it was a you or them scenario?”

“Probably even more then because I’d just be wrapped up in the fact that I’d traded six lives for one.”

“You can’t think about things like that though. You have to focus on protecting your own. Now don’t get me wrong! I like peace! I prefer it! But if you’re threatened, you can’t think about the other people’s family or friends. You have to just focus on your own and in those cases, the few may outweigh the many.”

“Jacob would be grinning at you from ear to ear right now.”

Carmina shrugged. “It’s how our world is now. I mean, arguably the Highwaymen are bigger than us. They have more people. They have a larger stretch across this land. Maybe we do need a giant, governing force if humanity is supposed to advance like they say it did in the before times. I doubt it, but really, who knows?! The point is, no one is really in charge now. People still group together. I’m guessing because it’s preferable from being alone. I know it is for me. But you have to be willing now to protect your people with everything you have. I know I am.”

“I can tell.”

“Those facts, it’s difficult for my parents to accept. And…and I guess with how you’re explaining everything from before, I get it a little better now. I definitely better understand why they hated the peggies and still think of you guys as them. They can’t see that your two groups had the same goal, survival. She just views you as the criminals, even though technically we’d all be criminals now in one way or another.”

Staci nodded.

“I don’t know if it’ll help, but I’ll talk to mom when I get back. I just…I don’t want this to end only with nothing moving forward for our two groups. We can learn from the past but the past isn’t coming back either. At least not in this situation. We need to move on. I want us to move on! I don’t…I don’t want to have to think about not seeing you again just because your generation and older are unwilling to see we have more in common than we do apart.”

“It’s a nice sentiment. Who knows,” Staci said. When Carmina spoke like she just had, he almost believed it was possible. Maybe there was a future that involved their two communities. Who knew? “Get some sleep for now. I’ll take first watch again.”

And from there, they continued to travel. Some of the people they came across were friendly, welcoming. Others were closer to the Highwaymen or the Highwaymen themselves and more than one gunfight ensued between Staci and Carmina and strangers. Most of the people though were like the people in Idaho Falls, wary and ultimately just wanting to be left alone. From what Staci saw, the rural areas actually tended to have more people now, to be more prosperous. Part of the reason was probably because the nukes had been dropped closer to cities. People in the rural areas were also more likely to have underground bunkers and nuke sheds built. It was an odd switch, with the stone jungles being more desolate now as the country sides flourished.

Staci took it all in as they searched for the train and they slowly learned more and more about each other along the way. Staci was especially surprised when one morning before they would sleep in shifts Carmina asked, “Did you know my parents eventually chose a godparent?”

“Really? Who?”

“The Junior Deputy, from before. Apparently Rook drove them to the little hospital before my mom gave birth.”

“I approve of the choice,” smiled Staci.

“You knew them.”

“Not well. Rook had only just started at the Sheriff’s department when we were called to go in and arrest Joseph.”

“But you know them better than Joey. You’ve known them longer.”

Staci cocked his head. He looked at her curiously. His lips parted and he slowly said, “So they do know.”

“Grace found out. Obviously before her sight went. She didn’t want to tell anyone at first but…well my parents could tell something was off. The news traveled pretty quickly when my dad heard.”

Understanding seemed to dawn on Staci. “That’s why Joey hates me so much.”

“You mean there’s another reason for her to hate you?”

They both let out sad chuckles at that and Staci quickly shook his head. “No, I just mean, I think I get it a little better now. Seeing me with New Eden. Seeing me protect Jacob and seeing what I chose…that I chose at all, it makes her realize that Rook probably chose to. Seeing me like that, there were other things that she suddenly had to question that she didn’t want to.”

Carmina smiled sadly. “It is hard for her. For everyone. Because of what happened in the past. I get that. But they need to move on.”

Staci nodded in agreement. However, now that he had an idea of what else was weighing on Joey, not just his own decision, maybe he’d have a better way to approach her next time they spoke. Maybe their friendship wasn’t over yet.

“Can you tell me about Rook?”

Staci did. He glossed over the before times, knowing that she had to have heard plenty of tales from her parents by then. Instead, he talked about the unrelenting devotion the Judge had. How they followed Joseph where ever he went, how they protected New Eden so fiercely. Staci talked about how at first, he’d tried to reach the Judge, only to realize he was doing it in a way that the Judge would never reciprocate again. The Judge understood what some of the older people in Prosperity didn’t quite get.

The carnage could have been avoided. The deaths at their hands had been senseless. The collapse had come anyways and now what was left? The Judge had realized they needed to make the most of the world, so they had. They’d made their vows and so far, had protected New Eden more furiously than anyone else.

Once Staci had understood those vows and had accepted it, he’d gotten used to reading what he could of the Judge. Rook, the Judge, they were known for their wraith, their violence. But the humor was there. A small cock of the head, a quick motion of the shoulders. The Judge cared fiercely about the people, it wasn’t just out of penance. The Judge still got sad, could be happy. Very rarely a soft, exasperated sigh could be heard, almost always after someone had suggested something stupid. You just had to learn to read them right.

“I’d like to meet them, sometime. Same with going to New Eden.”

“Definitely,” Staci agreed.

He even wondered if perhaps having Joey meet the Judge would help. Of course, Staci could just as easily imagine her trying to strangle them but…well they’d just have to wait and see.

Staci and Carmina’s journey continued. He learned that Nick and Kim had tried to give Carmina some level of schooling while in the bunker and afterwards. But her knowledge was still limited. She didn’t understand that schools had been completely different before, and concepts like the internet went over her head.

She often asked Staci about those things, either because prior explanations hadn’t done justice or she was just curious as to how he’d seen those same concepts. As promised, Staci also explained some of the sayings, phrases, and proverbs that had come before. Some were technically archaic now. Others even he didn’t fully understand the meaning behind. But it was a fun and easy way to pass the time.

His own stories also kept coming whenever Carmina would ask. There was always something new to talk about each night.

“What were you like in college?” she asked after he’d explained what the general path of life had once been for everyone.

“Oh god! Don’t get me started!” Staci laughed.

“What’s a typical day in New Eden like?”

“Probably not that different from a day in Prosperity.”

“Do you really believe Joseph’s words?”

“To an extent.”

“How did money work?”

“I think I’ll just confuse you more.”

“What are some foods I probably haven’t come across?”

“Wow, there’s plenty. There’s unique food not just from all over the world but just on this continent.”

“Did you ever go abroad?”

“Went to Canada. Some would argue that doesn’t really count.”

“Are there children in New Eden? What are they like?”

“Not many but a few.”

“When did Jacob and you…you know?”

“Ok, maybe not exactly appropriate…”

“Yuck! I just mean in general! I don’t need specifics.”

“In the bunker, when he was teaching me about people and  philosophies. But let’s move on. Next question.”

Every night, or technically every day for them, a question would come and Staci would elaborate on it as best he could. Rarely the answers were simple ones and even if they were, more questions often popped up in response to the answers.

It was a good thing too that they had those moments together to lift their spirits because the search for the train was not going incredibly well.

As much as they tried to keep moving forward, there were times they had to backtrack. Sometimes it was a significant amount. There were the areas still too permeated with radiation. There were times when the tracks were covered or destroyed and they had to decide whether or not to go a different way or to continue on and hope they found them again.

Usually they backtracked in those instances, but there was once when they chanced it. It had taken several days before they’d managed to find the track again.

Then there were the issues of coming in contact with others. Again, usually it wasn’t a problem. Most people just wanted them to keep moving. But there were nomads and bandits that were out there just for themselves, encampments of Highwaymen they still had to sneak past if possible and kill if unavoidable.

A particularly grueling fight made them even lose a day, Staci having to stitch up Carmina’s chin and splint her finger while she’d had to pop his knee back into place among other things.

But they still kept going. They couldn’t come back with nothing.

The days passed usually sleeping in fields, maybe trees. On the rare occasion a cave or in a worn down building if they had to move away from the tracks. The nights felt even longer. Always moving. Never a chance to truly rest or see. As their path took them farther and farther down south, their coats were more often than not left strapped to the bike, only taken off during the day to use as blankets and pillows.

Staci didn’t let the lack of progress beat him down though. He could tell Carmina was doing the same. They’d both known this would likely be a long journey. They just couldn’t give up hope. Even if they never pinned down where Rush was, they’d find something to bring back.

Of course, when thinking of that, Staci meant useful things like tools and resources and maybe even people. But there were far less useful things that got found along the way.

One such instance was when they’d ventured into the outskirts of a city, looking for supplies and gas before they continued on. It had started to rain, far worse than they’d experienced so far. Considering most of their traveling was off road, it was ridiculous to keep moving, even if neither wanted to be forced to stay in the city longer than they needed.

They found a store to shelter their things in. They still rushed out to try and gather anything else they could find until the rain became too much and they could barely see in front of their face anymore. They made their way back to the store and Staci finally made a fire to help them dry up. He made the pit near a part of the store where the roof had caved in so they didn’t choke on the smoke, though obviously couldn’t put it directly under as rain poured in, seeping through the floor and flowing down the slight slant in the ground until the water slipped out the door on one side.

The first thing to do was to eat. Then they rearranged their new resources and filled up the bike on gas. Only after that did they properly look around the store they were in and Carmina said, “There are just books here?”

“It was a bookstore.”

“That just sold books?”

“Well it is implied in the name,” chuckled Staci.

“But like, no survival equipment. No food. No clothes or resources. Just…books. For fun.”

“Mainly, yeah.” He glanced back at the waterfall that was practically coming through the roof. “We’re not going to be moving for a while. Let’s see if any of them lasted the stand of time.”

Unsurprisingly, everything seemed to be in varying stages of mold and rot, likely due to whenever the ceiling had collapsed and had ended their somewhat enclosed environment. However, there was a back door that Staci broke open with a good kick. It was an office that hadn’t been opened to the elements like the rest of the store had been. Staci swept a flashlight over the area and there they found the jackpot.

“These still look to be in fairly good condition,” commented Staci as he flipped through a few, the flashlight trained on the pages.

“Shit! They have comics!”

Staci couldn’t help but chuckle at Carmina’s excited reaction. They were actually probably in better condition than the books considering the different material used for the pages.

“You can sleep first tonight,” Carmina immediately said as she grabbed a few things that caught her interest and quickly went back near the fire for better lighting.

Staci let out an exaggerated yawn. “Be my guest.”

She’d rolled her eyes but her nose had quickly gotten stuck in between the pages. Technically speaking, they both probably could have slept at the same time. It was doubtful people or animals would come across them at all during the storm. However, it was good to stay in the habit and Staci felt safer knowing Carmina was watching over him. He was sure the feeling was mutual.

A few hours later they switched as usual. The rain was still coming down but it looked like it would be almost gone later that afternoon.

Carmina fell fast asleep and Staci looked over some of the books they’d found. From the multiple copies, it looked like some new editions had been ordered, along with some used books that had been placed back there for pricing. Staci momentarily wondered if anyone had been in the store on the day of the collapse. Had they run to their cars? Foolishly thinking they could outrun it? Had they hidden behind stacks of books? Had they called loved ones only to hear nothing on the other end? Or had the store been closed that day, the books silently watching the fire and fury going by, the screaming people, the end of modern civilization as they knew it?

It was impossible to say.

Staci glanced at the small pile of comics Carmina had grabbed. He didn’t recognize any of them, having stopped reading comics by the time he’d entered high school. He recognized some of the characters though, all superheroes, and he identified two of them as horror stories. One was about zombies and Staci shuddered at the thought. He’d take mutated animals over zombies any day.

He turned back to the books he’d grabbed and started flipping through them. They couldn’t waste valuable space that could be used for resources or gas but Staci couldn’t bring himself to leave all of it behind. After all, he doubted he’d get another chance to get this far away from New Eden, at least not for a long while.

After reading a bit of each, he decided on two books. Though a little different from most of Jacob’s collection, American Like Me seemed like the kind of enlightening thing he’d like. The whole point was about understanding other walks of life, both the differences and similarities and the questions of belonging from the stories and the people in them. For Staci himself, he kept Alice Isn’t Dead. It was completely different from anything Jacob had, even A Day Late and a Dollar Short. Once they defeated the Highwaymen, it would prove a nice change of pace from the usual activities Staci did in his spare time.

The rain eventually stopped as Staci continued to read. However, the roads would likely be muddy so he let Carmina sleep in. They had breakfast and then finished packing, pushing Morgana back outside. Carmina had taken a couple of comics and Artemis, a book about a colony on the moon. It fascinated Carmina that they’d had people up there at all.

“There was a space station. Scientists would go up there and perform experiments and what not. Sometimes posed at specific questions. Other time just trying to understand our universe as a whole,” Staci said as he let her take the lead that day and got in behind her.

Carmina started to drive through the broken streets and back towards the tracks. She asked over the sound of the motor, “Were people still up there when the nukes fell?”

“Maybe. I don’t actually know.”

“Do you think they’re still up there?”

“The longest time spent in space was a little less than a year if I remember correctly. They needed to have supplies sent up to them regularly but…who knows. Maybe they managed to grow something. Or maybe they piloted back down to Earth.” Even if they’d done the latter, they might have landed in the middle of the ocean with no one to come and pick them up though. What a horrifying thought that was.

Carmina focused on the positive instead and replied, “I could just wake up and look at the entire planet in one look. Every morning. How amazing would that be?”

“It would be remarkable. But there’s also the issue of zero gravity up there. I think I read somewhere that in—”

“No way! You’re shitting me!”

“Hey, respect your elders,” Staci teased. “I’m not lying. They’d just float everywhere. They’d even have to be zipped to the walls while they slept and stuff in order not to hit each other in their sleep.”

“That’s so cool!”

Staci just chuckled, letting her think on the more positive and magical aspects of all that. To be fair, they could still be alive. It wasn’t like Staci was a rocket scientist or anything.

From there, they continued on their journey and though they still hadn’t actually come across Rush, they’d started to hear more and more whisperings of the train the farther south they went.

With how long they’d been traveling together now, it felt like every topic under the sun had been brought up. Unsurprisingly, they started to repeat some, or just go into further details, and eventually Jacob came back up in their conversations. They were eating a small ration early in the morning as Carmina said, “I don’t think you ever explained to me how you managed to get back to Jacob without getting shot or anything.”

“Did I not?” Staci thought back on all the stories he’d already told. “Huh, I suppose I didn’t.”

“I bet it was something pretty important, right? Something that the then peggies wouldn’t dare attack you on sight for and which probably sent the resistance into a frenzy.”

“You could say that.”

“So what was it?”

“I saved Jacob’s life.”

“Holy shit. That would do it.”

Staci snorted. “I even managed to surprise Joseph with that one. He hadn’t wanted his brother to die of course, any of his siblings, but he also knew Jacob. Definitely better than me back then. He knew Jacob would willingly become a sacrifice in order to prepare and set up the end for Joseph. He also knew that Rook was not going to stop until the peggies were stopped so…it only left two outcomes. Jacob would eventually kill Rook or Rook would break another seal and continue on to Joseph.”

“But then you stepped in.”

“I did. I’d been by myself for a few days. I was trying to think of what to do when one of my radios informed me a last assault was being taken against Jacob. From the sounds of it, they were blaming him for Eli’s death. They were upset. They were ready to end this. There hadn’t really been any mention of me in the conversations. People just wanted blood. They wanted revenge. So that’s where I went.

“I stayed out of the conflict for a while. I managed to see what the plan was, the defensive positions, the offensive ones. I hadn’t been sure what to do. Should I have jumped into the fray? Should I have waited until it was over? But before I could decide, I saw Rook shoot Jacob, way off in the distance. The peggies yelled, calling everyone together as a defensive front as Rook and the resistance just rammed them with everything they had. It was bloody, but while that was happening, I went around the battlefield and managed to make it to him before anyone else.

“He didn’t even pull a knife on me. He just sat down. He seemed ready for the end. But then his eyes had come up and met mine and it was so obvious he was completely caught off guard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more surprised. Not once.

“I just ran over, looking for the bullet wounds, assessing the damage. The only thing that broke me out of my concentration as I started to prep him to be moved was his voice. He just said, ‘It was you.’ His eyes…so fucking bright, so amazed that I would do that for him despite how every rational thought in Jacob’s head had probably said I was gone for good. And I knew what he was talking about. I didn’t have to ask. I just replied, ‘I wanted to survive.’ And I think he got it. In those few words, he understood.”

“What happened next?”

“I kept him from bleeding out and guided him away from the fighting. I took the radio on him and used a secure channel to contact the other peggies in the area. We managed to get away before the resistance could get to us. It was obvious no one had expected me to come in and save him, on either side.

“The collapse happened about a week later. Jacob was still healing by that point but he’d gotten back to his feet as soon as he’d been able to. I didn’t leave his side once in those final days. I could tell I was confusing Jacob, that I was a puzzle he hadn’t expected but he suddenly very much wanted to solve.

“And by that point, I’d stopped trembling. I’d stopped standing behind him and had started standing beside him. Not a single person argued with that either. After all, it had been me, not them, that had saved their Herald.

“That was where the relationship was at when we went into the bunker. He finally trusted me and I finally felt like one of his men. But then it unexpectedly advanced. We talked, without others around us, without egos being needed to be upheld. He saw something in me that he realized he wouldn’t get out of his men, a lack of belief and devotion to Joseph, something that he could put himself into and mold.”

“And then the lessons started,” finished Carmina. A playful, teasing look, came on her face. “And continued and continued until you were practically reading in his bed.”

Staci snorted. “Something like that.”

“You’re lucky.”

“You think so?”

“You know where you belong now. You survived the end of the world and you have a family. Someone you love. Considering all you went through, that seems pretty lucky to me.”

“Love…”

“What? You do. Right?”

“I just…I don’t think I’ve ever actually said that to him,” Staci murmured.

“Well you should. When we get back,” Carmina said. “In every story you’ve told me, it’s obvious how much you care about him and you wouldn’t want to regret not saying it.”

Staci slowly nodded. “Maybe you’re right.”

The thoughts started to swirl in Staci’s head. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t believe Carmina. He knew it was true. He just couldn’t believe he’d never said it to Jacob. The man had changed him to his very core, had rebuilt him stronger. But ultimately, he’d let Staci in when not one of his own men had gotten that opportunity. He’d like to believe the words didn’t need to be said to Jacob, but Staci realized he wanted to say them all the same the next chance he got.

Staci didn’t contemplate that for long though. There were more important things to focus on instead. They’re long trip was finally coming up near to what had once been Odessa, Texas, one of the places where they knew for a fact Rush and the train had been if Prosperity’s people were to be believed. Hopefully the people there would be able to give them more information. Maybe they had a way to contact Rush. Or, better yet, maybe the train was already there.

Plans for what would hopefully be the last leg of the journey were made and Staci eventually went to sleep after Carmina got up for her own shift. Thoughts were drawn back to Jacob, New Eden, and Prosperity. Staci fell asleep with the hope that he’d be home soon.

Chapter Text

The last stretch they drove through the night and day. Carmina was actually at the front and Staci held on tight. When Odessa started to show just on the horizon, hope rose in them both. Even from where they were, the place looked so much more alive and bustling than any of the places Staci and Carmina had passed through.

Those thoughts only grew as they got closer. They were able to pick out actual people, rebuilt structures and smoke like a factory might be actually up and running. At the same time, the people eventually spotted them. Staci’s eyes narrowed, ready for any kind of greeting. However, as they drew closer, he couldn’t see any kind of weapons being drawn. They looked friendly. Some waved to others excitedly, not like they were desperately trying to get everyone forward to create a blockade.

It seemed that only a section of the city, the side they were driving up on, was fully inhabited, but it was definitely more than any other location that they’d passed through. Carmina slowed the bike in the last few feet and still the people looked only excited at the new comers. Staci would have argued they should be more wary of strangers. For the moment though, he just hoped the friendliness would prove advantageous in their talks.

At the very least, they didn’t swarm them the moment Carmina stopped. They probably didn’t want to scare them off.

People whispered and an older woman stepped forward. “Welcome to Odessa. I’m Mayor Jacquelyn, or so they keep telling me,” she said with an easy chuckle.

Carmina slipped off and quickly went to shake her hand. It was obvious that she didn’t just want, but needed all this to go well for the people back home. “Carmina,” she introduced.

“It’s good to meet you Carmina. And your…”

Staci was honestly curious what she’d guess. Friend? Brother? Uncle? Dad? God he hoped she didn’t say husband or boyfriend. But before he could deal with that gross factor, Carmina took a step back. She looped her arm around Staci’s. With a big grin, she said, “He’s a long time family frienemy.”

“A frienemy?”

“Yep. He’s been a family friend and a family enemy.”

“It’s complicated,” snorted Staci. He did glance at Carmina and murmured, “I do like that though.”

“Thought you would,” she smirked.

Jacquelyn seemed to overcome her confusion and the smile came back. “Well, isn’t everything complicated these days?”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Staci replied. Carmina dropped her arm from his, and he finally stepped forward to introduce himself too.

“It’s good to meet you both. However, I need to ask the question that I ask everyone who comes our way. Did Rush send you?”

Well now that was very, very promising. “No,” said Staci. “But we are looking for him.”

“Now that is different. Most people give a simple yes or no,” Jacquelyn murmured. She looked them over with a careful eye and then said, “You look like you could use a shower and some proper food. Luckily, we have both and—”

“I don’t mean to be rude ma’am,” Carmina quickly said. “But we need Rush’s help and we’ve already been away from home long enough. We can’t waste anymore time.”

“Business first then. I understand.” Jacquelyn looked to the people that were gathered and said, “Go back to work. I’m sure you’re curiosity will be satisfied eventually but let’s not crowd the newcomers too much.”

People nodded and murmured agreements, finally breaking up.

“Walk with me,” Jacquelyn offered.

Staci went back to Morgana and started to push the bike along before falling in step with Carmina and Jacquelyn. The mayor asked, “So what exactly do you need Rush for?”

“We heard about his resources and his train. Our people are currently being attacked up north, by the Highwaymen,” explained Carmina. “When we left, plans were being made to last the onslaught but the chances of us winning are still slim without proper resources and more people.”

“How long ago did you leave?”

“It’s been…Jesus, Staci. How long?”

“Over three months. We didn’t have an exact location on Rush or anything to work with. Just talk from years ago. Honestly, you were one of our last bets. If this didn’t work out…” Staci helplessly shrugged.

They were currently still following the train tracks further into the city. One look around showed that it had definitely changed from its pre-apocalypse form. However, in this case, it seemed for the better and the people had readily accepted the encroaching nature in between the concrete and steel. The buildings weren’t overgrown in moss with trees breaking up massive bits of the street. It was more civilized but far more green than a city would have been before.

“May I ask something?” Staci said as he finished looking around.

“Certainly.”

“Why ask if Rush sent us? Why is that such a common question?”

“Thomas Rush is the reason this city is a city at all. I’m one of the original members and…well it was difficult keeping people together. In the beginning, you know? I think we can all relate to that. Food was scarce. Water more so. But when nature started to flourish again. When animals started to appear, we had hope, but that was bashed when bandits came through.

“We would have been pushed out of our homes or would have died fighting. But Thomas came with his train, with another group willing to fight for a home and ready to defend us. He helped us build this to what you see now. If he finds people in need whose home is beyond repair or stragglers, he’ll sometimes send them our way. It’s why I asked.”

“You seem to hold him in high regard,” commented Staci.

“A mother tends to do that with her children.”

Staci and Carmina looked to each other in surprise. “So he left to find help for you? And brought back a whole train?”

“Oh no. When society fell, I was here, at home with his father. Thomas was serving in the military. He hadn’t been deployed though, thank god, and was in California around that time. He started a community there. Gathered scientists and engineers and somehow got a working train together. At first they just focused on their area for several years, remaking civilization. It’s understandable. That had become his home and for all he knew, the rest of America was gone.

“But once they had their base covered, they made their way along the South. He eventually found us again, right in our time of need,” Jacquelyn said with a proud smile. “Now we even have an old factory up and running. We use what scraps we can find from the rest of the city to melt down and create ammunition for Thomas and his people whenever they come through.”

“Are they coming back anytime soon?” Carmina excitedly asked.

“Yes, tomorrow in fact.”

Staci could almost collapse with relief. This was better than either could have hoped for.

“And since that train can’t move any faster than it already is, I think you both can take advantage of our hospitality now,” Jacquelyn said with a large smile.

What Staci wanted to do was ask which direction they were coming from and meet the train halfway. One look at Carmina showed she was thinking the same thing. That was a bit ridiculous though. Besides, they’d already made it this far anyways. What was one more day?

“That would be much appreciated.”

“This way then. We have a motel that we use as a sort of guest house for all newcomers.”

They finally departed from the train tracks right as they passed the station. They didn’t have to go far as Jacquelyn stopped at an old hotel. The original name had broken away, leaving the letters to spell out CarionneSs.

A man walked out the main entrance, the automatic doors permanently forced open.

“So you’re our latest guests. I’m Jose.”

“News travels pretty quickly when we see people headed our way. We like to have things prepared for newcomers. Both types,” Jacquelyn said with a wink as she patted what had to be a hidden weapon in her clothes. Alright, so perhaps these people weren’t as naïve as Staci had thought. They just liked to keep up the cheerful front.

Staci and Carmina introduced themselves again before Jacquelyn said, “I’ll leave you in Jose’s capable hands for now. I’ll meet up with you again after you freshen up. Even if it turns out Thomas can’t help, I can at least stock you up on food and ammunition before you go.”

“Thank you. That would be greatly appreciated,” Staci politely said. What he really wanted was more information and for that damn train to hurry up. However, for now it was better to get on the good side of the mother of Thomas Rush and just wait.

Jacquelyn said goodbye and as Staci focused back on Jose, he said, “You can roll your bike in here. No problem at all.”

Staci did so. Remnants of the old hotel were left but the people had added their own flare. A lot of the decorations looked like they’d been done by children.

“We’ve already got two showers set up and ready to—”

“Carmina can go first,” Staci replied.

“We have it set up so both of you—”

“I’d rather one of us stay with our things.”

Carmina nodded in agreement.

“Ah, got it. No worries. I wasn’t originally from here so I get wanting to keep an eye on your stuff. I’d say you’d get used to it but it sounds like you’re leaving soon anyways,” chuckled Jose. “I’ll be back down after showing Carmina the way up.”

“Sounds good,” replied Staci. He kicked out the stand for Morgana and leaned it over. Carmina followed Jose up the stairs as Staci got a better look around.

There was a mix-match of couches and chairs in a little sitting area. Some might have been the originals to the hotel but it was impossible to say exactly which ones. Old rings were warn on the wooden coffee table too. A note was tabled to it.

USE THE COASTERS

Staci snorted. He imagined this situation had happened quite a lot to warrant the all-caps. He looked up and walked over to some photos on the wall. They all must have come from the residents. All different sizes and styles. Some were much older. Some might have been taken more recently. Loved ones it mainly seemed. Some were surely dead. Some probably alive and in the city. One picture in particular showed Jacquelyn. It was one of the more recent ones. There was a man close to Staci’s age beside her. Maybe a little younger. From his equally proud look and similar stature, it had to be Thomas.

He could see the military man in him, just from the way he stood in the picture. Staci hoped posture wasn’t all he’d learned from them. Staci didn’t have to worry though if half the things he’d heard about the man were true.

Staci walked to the next room over. It had once been a little restaurant for the hotel. The booze behind the bar had all been cleared out and it looked like the tables weren’t used often. Maybe they had another cafeteria or restaurant area that was more commonly used by everyone.

When he walked back into the opening room of the hotel, he saw people going in and out. It seemed a few guests were still housed up in the place. Staci stuck to the wall. It was obvious they were all curious about him but they thankfully kept their distance. One waved and Staci gave a polite nod but he didn’t offer anything more.

Thankfully Jose came down not long after that.

“Carmina is all set up. Anything I can do for you?”

“I’d rather just stay here and wait.”

“Perfectly fine. We’ve got three individuals, two couples, and a family also living here right now before we set them up in more private homes. Just letting you know there will probably be some more foot traffic back and forth. Especially the little ones. They’re a handful,” chuckled Jose.

“I imagine.”

“Well, I need to get back to work. I’ll be back in say, an hour? Two tops and then I can take you back to Jacquelyn.”

“Sounds good,” Staci replied.

He watched him go before walking back to his bike. While Carmina showered, Staci took out one of the books he’d taken and started to read. He moved around as he flipped from page to page. Sometimes he’d lean against the bike. He sat on different chairs in the lounge area. He even paced around the old restaurant. The words kept his mind from wandering off into other thoughts but his body was still fidgety. He’d been fidgety since having to leave.

There had been so much he’d gotten a chance to see. He’d driven through so many states and had seen whispers of the past peaking through bits of the future and all of it covered in green and ruled by nature rather than humans. As a young man, all he’d wanted to do was leave Hope County, Montana in general. He’d envied his college friends with more money, more opportunities, more wits who’d gotten those chances and had taken them at a drop of a hat. But he’d had responsibilities. He’d needed to pay the bills and staying was the only way to consistently keep a roof over his head.

Now he was out. The ghosts of old thoughts and an old personality had been drifting through his head all the while. That Staci would have ran. Whether on Eden’s or Prosperity’s side, he would have ran. Too full of fear. No sense of belonging. No understanding that sometimes the group was more important than a person’s own personal interests.

He would have gotten on that bike and road far, far away. Like Nadine. Like others. The real dark humor of it was that he wouldn’t have gotten far in the slightest though. Unless he had found some other group, he probably would have died pretty quickly. Eaten by a bear or killed and raided by humans.

But despite being so far away and having the ability to just forget everything, the pleasures and the pains, all feelings of regret and happiness, he knew he didn’t want to permanently leave any of that behind.

Staci missed Hope County. He missed the people he’d seen in Prosperity. He wanted to make things right with them, no matter how stubborn they were. He missed home, missed New Eden. God, did Staci just miss Jacob and General and the house they’d built for themselves.

If Rush agreed and they went back there, arms full of tools and weapons, then all this time away would be worth it. But it didn’t make him wish any less that he hadn’t left at all. He was grateful for the opportunity that he’d gotten in getting to know Carmina. Even if everything came crashing down when they got back, Staci felt that their new friendship and their now shared experience couldn’t be taken away.

But with the end of this journey just on the horizon now, Staci wanted more than ever to get back home.

For now, all he could do was to continue pacing. He continued reading. Then finally Carmina came down, fresh clothes on and hair still slightly damp.

“Feel better?” smiled Staci.

“Much. I was just on the second floor, room 209. 210 is where they prepped for you. You should have clean clothes up there and they said they’d wash the old ones if you wanted to just leave them behind.”

“Thanks for the info.”

“I’ll stay with the bike. See you when you get done.”

Staci nodded and put the book back before climbing up the stairs. The signs were a bit confusing but he eventually found 210. One glance around showed that all the electronic locks had been broken off. A lot of the doors were actually propped open, allowing for light to filter into the hallways. It was probably an easy way to save on electricity and another glance around showed that candles were more often used than not.

He walked into 210, did a quick survey of the room and the bathroom, and only then relaxed a little more. He stripped and pulled out his hair tie, only for most of it to stay clumped together. There hadn’t been many opportunities to get clean along the road, the best ones usually coming from a shallow river or rainfall. Thanks to Jacob’s training, he’d learned how to ignore the feeling of grime and stiff clothes. However, the moment of realizing just how dirty he was when the opportunity to take a wash presented itself always had Staci wrinkling his nose in distaste.

He turned on the water. The pressure wasn’t great but he definitely wasn’t complaining. He didn’t wait for it to get warm, if it even could. It was hard to believe he was in an actual, proper shower. He hadn’t even seen one in years. The water ran brown, a mixture of dry dirt and probably some old blood that had stayed stuck in his hair during one of his and Carmina’s encounters with bandits.

It took longer than he’d planned, or maybe he was purposefully taking his time. It was hard to say for sure. He just knew it nice, finally running his fingers through his hair and eventually getting it to a point where he didn’t catch a clump or a tangle.

When he got out, he noticed the hair trimmers and decided to go ahead and trim his beard. It had been a while. But as he clipped away, he slowed. He paused and leaned forward and really looked. Because he was looking in a mirror, something that shouldn’t have been so surprising and yet he was only just now realizing he hadn’t been in front of one in years. Sure, there’d been times he’d seen his blurred image in a pond or something. But he hadn’t actually seen himself. Maybe not since joining the peggies, definitely before the collapse.

His nose was almost against the glass. Who…

No. It was him. He recognized his distinctive nose, even if it was a little crooked from an old incident. His chin was mostly the same, his cheeks maybe a little gaunt from having to ration food on the road recently. And the eyes, the color was right, but…

Staci blinked. He leaned against the counter and looked closer still.

God, he was actually old! Not as old as Jacob obviously. But there was only now a sudden disconnect. Growing up, Staci had probably looked at himself in a mirror multiple times a day up until he was twenty-six. He’d known where every slight wrinkle was and had done everything to prevent the deeper ones in his forehead from forming. Every hair had been in place to create that ‘I didn’t really try with my hair today’ look that told everyone he very much had.

That was all gone now.

Staci knew who he was. He was aware of the drastic changes that had come, some willing, some not, but he didn’t actually recognize himself anymore. It was a strange feel—

Was that a gray hair?

Staci leaned forward again. His fingernails carefully pulled it out and away from the rest. Well, if there was one thing that was going to make him go gray, it made sense that it would be the stress the Highwaymen presented and his current worry over not knowing what was happening back home. He followed the hair to the root. He was careful not to let it slip and pulled it out at the follicle.

Joseph would have chided him for his vanity.

Jacob would have laughed.

The thought made Staci smile. He would see them again soon. He knew he would. With that thought in his head, he quickly finished trimming his beard. He then washed the hair tie in the sink and pulled back his hair into a tight ponytail. With his face clean and not covered up by stray, clumped hair or a bushier beard, the scars were now much more distinctive.

He picked up his pile of clothes and set them to the side before getting dressed in the new ones. He took his boots and carefully scraped off the mud there before putting them on. The last thing was strapping his gun to his side and slipping the hidden knives back onto his person. He left the room and, though he knew it was ridiculous, a bit of anxiety flared up. What if they had separated them on purpose? What if he got down there and Carmina was gone? He picked up the pace as he hurried down the hall. At the stairs, he took them two at a time. The moment he was in the lobby though and saw Carmina, the small flair of anxiety disappeared again.

She looked surprised and said, “You clean up nice.”

“Don’t sound so condescending,” joked Staci.

“Just thought you were intentionally going for the mountain man kind of look.”

“That’s Jacob all the way. Me to a much, much lesser extent.” He nodded to the comic in her hand. “That wasn’t one of the ones you picked up in that store, is it?”

“No, one of the kids here let me borrow it. I met the family that’s staying here while you were up stairs.”

“What do you think?”

“Of them? The kids were really cute. The boy, Andy, damn was he rambunctious,” chuckled Carmina. “The family is apparently from this different state to the east, can’t remember what it was called and…” She trailed off, finally noticing Staci’s amused look. “You meant this place in general. Right?”

Staci chuckled.

“Right! Ok, let me backtrack a bit.” Carmina quickly thought about it and then said, “They seem nice, but they’re strong. They know tragedy and they’re going to hold onto their home with all they have. I think despite Jacquelyn’s motherly exterior, she can definitely handle herself. She wouldn’t have lasted as long if she couldn’t. Hopefully Rush takes after her. Both in the willingness to help and the smarts.”

Staci nodded in agreement.

At that moment, he spotted Jose walking up from the street. Staci glanced back at the bike but this time Carmina put a comforting hand on him. “I think it’ll be ok if we leave it behind this time.”

“Yeah?”

“If they really wanted to do something with us, it would have happened by now,” Carmina said. “Really, there were a ton of times they could have just shot us.”

“Fair enough…” Staci still hesitated but then pulled his bow and arrows off the bike and onto his back. He felt better knowing all his major weapons were with him.

Carmina seemed to agree as she made a point of patting herself where Staci knew she had hidden weapons. “Yeah, already did that too.”

“Even though you said we could trust them,” chuckled Staci.

“Gotta be careful,” she shrugged. She set the comic down on the coffee table and then went to meet Jose at the door. Staci followed.

“Jacquelyn is just finishing up dealing with some civil matters. I’ll take you to her office where you can wait for her.”

Staci inclined his head, showing that it was acceptable. They followed him back onto the streets. Carmina started up a conversation as Staci kept his eyes peeled for danger. She’d been right of course. There were a lot of opportunities these people could have taken to attack them. Staci could now count even more as they walked through the streets. However, the most that happened were some of the people smiled or said hello.

Looking around again showed stores were actually kind of in business, though none matched their original intent. He wondered if there was a barter system or if they’d made some new money form. Staci supposed the latter made since with how big their community was and all the materials that were at their disposal being in a city. However, it made him happier to be in the former Hope County. Sure, him and Jacob disagreed with some of Joseph’s ideas, but in general it was nice not having to worry about some of these older traditions and knowing that most of the things they had were achieved with their own two hands.

They walked down the streets before getting to an old 7/11. Staci raised his eyebrows.

“It’s where everything kind of started for the people here,” Jose said with a chuckle. “I won’t bore you with the tale. I couldn’t do it justice anyways. Let’s just say it has meaning so when it was decided the people here needed a leader of some kind, they also chose the location for the town hall.”

Jose opened up the door for them. The electronic bell had long since stopped working. One look around showed that though the signs on the outside hadn’t been completely removed, the inside was definitely not a 7/11 anymore. The shelves had long since been emptied of food. Now they housed a careful filing system. Staci realized they were organized by dates, going back a little over ten years ago. Behind what had once been the register area was a woman carefully typing out notes on a typewriter with carefully ordered papers around her.

“Our history,” Jose explained. “We try and keep a record of everything. That’s Li.”

Li grunted, barely looking up as she continued to type. Her gaze only really strayed from the typewriter in order to look at a notebook beside her.

“She’s basically the town’s entire secretary, taking her own notes and compiling notes and accounts from others. She starts typing at about eight each morning and doesn’t stop until nearly the same time at night,” Jose said as he guided them back into what had once been the manager’s office. “Jacquelyn will be back soon. If you need anything, well I’d say ask Li but she’ll honestly probably ignore you.”

Carmina snorted at that.

“I’ll see you later.”

The moment Jose left, Carmina leaned over the desk and started picking up the pictures there.

“Nosey, aren’t we?”

“What? Photos are so rare anymore. Especially new ones. Selene did have this Polaroid camera that still worked but she ran out of film pretty quickly.”

“I guess that’s where we differ.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m almost thankful for how much harder it is to get a photo of anything now. Before the collapse, people constantly took photos with their phones, usually of themselves. They would send it to basically everyone. Right up until civilization went to shit, it was probably considered weirder if you weren’t obsessed with sharing every small detail with the world.”

Carmina’s nose wrinkled up. “Hmm, I wish it was easier to get a photo, but I don’t know if I’d like that.”

“Yeah, well most people didn’t do it out of fun. It was more like an obligation, a second job that you kept people up to date on social websites and apps and the like.”

“Websites? Apps?”

“I honestly don’t know how I’d explain it to you. Let’s just say it was the main way for people to over share information,” chuckled Staci.

“Well, then I guess I also prefer pictures being harder to come by now. They feel more important since it’s harder to get them.”

Staci nodded in agreement and, even though he’d just called her nosey, still leaned over and looked at the ones Carmina was picking up. There were a lot more of Rush. Jacquelyn seemed to be the perfect picture of the ever doting mother. A few pictures looked like they might have been Thomas’ father too. Maybe other family members or dear friends. Like they hotel, there was a mixture with some looking older, taken before the collapse, and a few having been taken more recently.

He looked around the rest of the little office. Papers were neatly organized just like in the main area. There was an old safe with a door that didn’t work. A piece of wood sat propped up on the desk with Mayor Jacquelyn etched into it. Considering the motherly, humble nature the woman had, Staci guessed it was a gift. His eyes then moved to a rather advanced radio set that was behind her desk just as it suddenly started to beep.

Staci and Carmina looked at each other.

“Should we…”

“I don’t…”

Staci poked his head around the corner, hoping Li would have an answer. Instead, Jacquelyn nearly took him out and he had to jump to the wall as she rushed in.

“Excuse me! Sorry about that. This will take just a moment,” she said. She plopped down and with perfect muscle memory, fiddled with the knobs, turned the microphone towards her, and leaned in. “Odessa receiving.”

“Rush receiving.”

A smile popped up on her face and the professional tone immediately dropped away. “Sweetheart, did you just get in range?”

“Yes mom.” The voice, which had just been completely flat, now carried that tone of ‘you’re embarrassing me mom’, even if he probably thought they were talking privately. Carmina snickered into her hand.

“Are you bringing any newcomers?”

“Yeah, we have two women and a man. One of the women is nearly nine months pregnant. She thinks she still has a week but the baby could honestly come any day. Get Dr. Saul to prep a room for her.”

“Understood,” Jacquelyn replied as she took notes. Rush gave her some more important details about the woman which Jacquelyn noted as well. She then asked, “I’m assuming you’re running on the usual schedule?”

“Yes. We should be there midday tomorrow.”

“Understood.” Jacquelyn glanced to them now. “We have two new people with us that arrived today. They’ve been looking for your help. Came from up north.”

“Is it the Highwaymen?”

So it seemed that group was an even bigger problem across the rest of America.

“Yes.”

“Well get more information from them and start planning a route north for us. If it sounds serious enough, we’ll probably leave tomorrow night.”

Carmina shot an excited look Staci’s way. This was even better than they had hoped.

“As long as you properly stop and take a quick break to give your old mother a kiss—”

Mom.”

Now Staci could hear someone in the background laughing and it was very clear that the conversation was definitely not as private as Thomas probably wished. This time Staci had to hide a chuckle behind his hand as well.

“Just promise me. I never know when I’ll see you again.”

Exaggerated kissing sounds were made on the other end, followed by a large ‘owe’. “I promise mom,” Thomas quickly said.

“Thank you dear. Now, what kind of resources do you need restocked?”

They spoke some numbers back and forth, Jacquelyn still taking notes until they gave a more formal sign off. Jacquelyn turned off the equipment. Her pencil ran down the notepad once before she jumped up again. “I’ll be right back. And please, sit down. I should have mentioned that earlier.”

She disappeared again, only this time she reappeared much quicker. Staci and Carmina had only just sat in front of the desk when she came back. She hurried around it and plopped down again, turning her chair to face them. Her smile was even brighter now and she said, “I’m assuming you’re pleased with the news thus far.”

“Absolutely!”

“Then I suppose we can finally get straight to business like you both wanted from the beginning,” Jacquelyn responded. “Now, you said up north, but where exactly?”

“Montana. We have a map with the railroads marked and can—”

However, Jacquelyn interrupted Staci with a thoughtful look. “Now why does that state stick out to me?”

“Did you ever go there?” asked Carmina.

“No. No, but I want…I want to say I read something in the paper about it. You know, before the end of the world and all. Something about a Hop County?”

Staci winced. “Hope Cou—”

“That was the whole cult business! Yes, I remember now! It was like they quarantined the whole area. No one in or out. Conspiracy theories were running wild because the government supposedly tried to do a media blackout on the situation since it had gotten so out of control,” Jacquelyn explained. “Is the cult still around?”

“I mean, can you call them a cult if the guy was technically right?” Carmina asked.

“They were doomsday centric, weren’t they? Don’t those types usually all end up killing themselves?”

Though Staci hadn’t planned to explicitly say he belonged to them, at least not in this moment, this was too painful to sit through without trying to defend his home. “We’re not Jonestown. Far from it.”

Jacquelyn blinked in surprise. “So you’re…”

“I’m part of New Eden. It’s one of the two main communities left in Hope County. Not including any loners or nomads.”

“I’m from Prosperity,” Carmina added. “Before the collapse, you probably would have said Edeners were the cult and Prosperitans were the normal people but we’ve been at peace for years now.”

“I take it it’s more than just peace, if you’re both here now.”

“You could say that,” sighed Staci. “When we left, our communities were already making plans, but even together the Highwaymen outnumbered us and we definitely don’t have the resources necessary to defeat them.”

“Which is why you’re here,” murmured Jacquelyn. Thankfully, it seemed she thought the present was more pressing than the past and didn’t press on the cult anymore. Instead, she asked them to explain exactly what happened and Staci and Carmina did just that.

At first, they did gloss over some of the gorier details. However, Jacquelyn had picked up on it and pressed them to elaborate. She didn’t hide her looks of disgust, but she still stayed pragmatic. She continually wrote notes throughout it. The only really in depth question she asked was, “You said these twins seemed to be the leader?”

“Yes, Mickey and Lou,” Staci said.

“There was no mention of someone above them? A man? Vince?”

They both looked at each other confused. Carmina asked, “Why?”

“We’ve been afraid of this. I mean, it would certainly explain the change in the Highwaymen—”

“Hold on,” said Stacey. “You’re not about to say you used to work with them or something.”

“Oh no. My son has definitely not been on their short list of friends. But they were run by a man named Vince and though he was ruthless, he wasn’t greedy. If that makes sense. He only took as much as his people needed. They were actually largely situated on the east coast, not pushing too far into the Midwest or southern areas. But in the past year or two, that’s all been changing. Rumors started to run that Vince might have died. Then that his own two daughters might have killed him.”

“Mickey and Lou,” Carmina murmured, her mouth dropping open in shock.

“They’ve been expanding and taking everything they can, whether they actually need it or not. It’s like they want an opportunity to kill more people, not for any practical, defensive reason. If they’re in Hope County, Thomas will certainly want to leave as soon as possible. From what we’ve heard so far, there isn’t a proper hierarchy. So if we cut off the Highwaymen’s head, then the whole structure could end up crumbling down. Now, you said you have a map on you?”

Staci nodded and quickly pulled it out. They went about explaining the best way to get to Hope County, along with pointing out radiated areas they’d driven near and places where the track had been destroyed. A path was planned out from Odessa back to the area. However, as Jacquelyn asked about where the train tracks stopped in Hope County, Staci stopped her.

“I think we should stop the train here.”

She looked at the location he pointed to on the map. “But that’s at least a five day hike before you get into the county.”

Even Carmina seemed confused by Staci’s request.

“Listen, when we left, the twins already had the major southern bridge out of the county blocked. Even if they have no god damn inkling of what we’re doing, they’re going to have the biggest presence in the south because it’ll be one of their major ways to get supplies through. They may be ruthless, especially Lou, but I don’t think they’re complete idiots. They’ll see the train coming and they’ll act quickly before we can get through. If we want to bring the largest amount of people and resources that we can, then we should stop the train here. We’ll largely have to go on foot because any major roads just won’t be an option, but it’ll be worth the added time.”

“Are you sure you’re not just being too careful?” asked Carmina.

“Yes,” Staci calmly replied. Everything in him was telling him Jacob would have come to the same conclusion. He trusted that inner voice.

Thankfully, Carmina trusted Staci. She finally nodded. “Alright. We’ll stop there.”

Jacquelyn let out a slight sigh and focused back on the map. “Ok, let me just think for a moment to figure what I can do to make that five day trek more efficient then.”

They continued to talk way into the afternoon, Jacquelyn only stepping away to order an excessive amount of bullets to be made so they could be sent on the train tomorrow. When the plan was completely finished, Jacquelyn sat back. “My, I don’t think I had lunch today. Are you both hungry?”

“Well…” Staci suddenly stopped, trying to remember when they’d last ate.

“Wasn’t that…”

“Did we even have breakfast yesterday…”

“I don’t think…”

“Goodness gracious, you should have said something! Not eating in over two days! Come. Come. We’ll fix that right away.”

Jacquelyn got up and led them out of the room. Li was still typing and didn’t look up as they left. As they walked down the streets, Jacquelyn said, “I was planning on cooking anyways. I’ll just cook a little more. You both like good old fashioned American food?”

“What’s that?” asked Carmina.

The woman gasped and Staci couldn’t help but chuckle a little.

“We will fix that right away.”

They ended up going to Jacquelyn’s home. It wasn’t far and was situated in a mall strip. It looked liked some people lived near her as they waved from their own homes before they walked into Jacquelyn’s. Technically there were still suburb areas that could have been viable homes. However, it made sense to keep their community close. Even if they were massive compared to most groups of people, they still weren’t enough to actually fill the city. Staci found out that most people ended up living where they worked. Some had apartments that were built above their stores that made good homes but most decked out backrooms and the like.

Jacquelyn’s home, for example, just felt like an extension of their city hall. The papers were just more current as she kept track of any major issues, wrote times for community meetings, had lists of current resources, etc. Unlike Hope County where even Prosperity ate a lot of simple meals, they had access to electricity and tools here that they no longer had. Even though Staci expected something better than raw vegetables or a simple stew, he wasn’t exactly expecting the burgers and potato wedges Jacquelyn brought out.

“We have a bread maker who gathers up any and all bread making machines he can find and who deals with a nearby farming community who sends us the necessary wheat. Our butcher also often stores some of the meat we have, just in case, but he has the tools to ground it up for burgers when people request it. I was saving this for a special time, but now seems better than any other.”

They ended up helping Jacquelyn cook and prep. Staci asked about the cooking tools she had and listened to the long tale of how stores like this had slowly gotten turned into homes over the years. Apparently all the nearby houseware and kitchen stores had been raided and moved to the people who needed it. They also had gas generators but they used those as little as possible and had solar panels in some areas. They were hoping to find more so that the gas generators could be a last resort.

She answered their other questions, told a few funny stories about Thomas as a kid, and finally set the table for them to eat. It was so weird eating food like this now. It made him think of old, family meals from before the collapse. It was crazy how much something so familiar could feel so alien now.

As Staci started to eat, he couldn’t tell if it was best god damn burger he’d ever had or if it was just because he’d forgotten what one was supposed to taste like. Still, he definitely enjoyed Carmina’s whole facial journey and excitement more than his own meal. Though most of the things she missed out on were probably good riddance, Staci was happy small things like this and the comics could broaden her horizons a little bit.

After dinner, Jacquelyn promised that her son should arrive midday and then had Jose guide them back to the hotel. He offered up two rooms but despite the trust that had grown, Staci and Carmina still chose to sleep in shifts. For Staci, the only reason he was able to actually sleep was because he hadn’t in over twenty-four hours.

When he woke up, he probably needed more sleep but the adrenal to get moving made him feel completely refreshed and awake. Jose stopped by early, giving them back their old clothes only with several less layers of mud. They changed back into them and had breakfast with Jose before being taken to have their supplies personally restocked. Then they could only anxiously wait as the train approached.

Luckily, Jacquelyn had been right though. Only about half an hour from noon and they saw it appear on the horizon. People waited near the station, either ready to move resources on or off the train, or they simply waited to greet loved ones.

Staci and Carmina waited near Jacquelyn but stayed back when the train finally eased to a stop. They watched as everyone moved left and right. Orders were shouted, cries of excitement and people getting hugged happened. And then Staci finally spotted Rush. Though not a large man, the way he held himself and how people reacted around him would have told Staci who he was, even if he hadn’t already seen a picture. He was also barking orders, moving quickly, at least up until his mother came up and patted her cheek.

“Now what did I say?”

“I know. I know.” Thomas kissed her on the cheek and hugged her tight. “I missed you too.”

“And I’ll miss you even more.” Staci and Carmina just barely heard their conversation over the bustling of everyone else.

“So it is that bad?”

“Mickey and Lou are up there. If you can stop them, maybe it’ll all finally be over.”

“And you think they’re still there?”

“From the sounds of it, they’re planning some fun for the long run,” Jacquelyn said with a disgusted look. “Those people need your help.”

Thomas nodded in understanding. He walked into the middle of the crowd and shouted out, “Mickey and Lou’s most recent location has been found! We leave as soon as possible! Move!”

Though some showed looks of anguish at not being able to rest or properly visit, everyone still moved double time now. Thomas walked back to his mother who said, “Let me introduce you to the people who came all this way for your help. This is Carmina and Staci. They’re from Hope County in Montana.”

They both watched as Thomas went through a similar moment of confusion like his mother before it donned on him why the name was familiar.

“Not a cult,” Staci preemptively said.

“Our two groups were actually starting to work together when we left,” Carmina added.

Thomas nodded. “That’s good. Better to know it’s not going to be two against one or something like that then. I think it’s best if you show me everything you discussed yesterday.”

Jacquelyn led the way back to city hall and they all crowded into the backroom as Thomas looked over the notes. Like his mother, he was hesitant at not taking the whole train into Hope County. He was worried about losing viable time and liked it even less when Staci proposed they break apart into intervals so that they weren’t just one massive group headed to Hope County.

“You a military man?”

“I was a sheriff’s deputy.”

“They teach you how to deal with a war situation like this?” The question wasn’t exactly accusatory. However, it was clear Rush wanted to know what made Staci think he had better military understanding than the actual military man in the room.

“No. But someone from the 82nd Airborne Division did.”

Rush actually looked surprised.

“Trust me. The things he taught me kept me, and everyone at home, alive throughout the collapse. I may have not served, but I know what I’m talking about. The risk wouldn’t be worth it if we just drove straight into Hope County.”

Rush hesitated and then said, “You implied you’re from the…well not a cult. As you said it. Right?”

“Yeah, he is. I’m not,” Carmina said.

“Then Jacob Seed…”

Staci had only known that Jacob’s division would be noticeable. He hadn’t been sure if the name would. However, whether from within the military or because of what news had filtered out of Hope County before the collapse, Rush did know the name.

“He taught me,” Staci explained.

“He’s helping protect both of our people but we can’t hold out forever,” Carmina added.

Rush slowly nodded, carefully thinking about it for a moment. “Alright, we’ll do it your way then. Now let’s see…”

They went over every tiny detail they could think of. Then Rush took up the marked maps and quickly headed back to the train. They all followed. Rush talked to the conductor for a few seconds and then suddenly turned to a man standing off to the side who had just been supervising the moving of resources onto the train.

“Cap! Get these two set up on the train and make sure everyone knows I want to leave in two hours.”

“Two?!”

“Yes two.” Rush then yelled out louder to everyone, “Move it people! Move!”

“Two,” muttered Cap with a fond look. “He’s mad.” Cap shook his head and then gestured forward. “Come on. I’ll help you get situated and find you something to do.”

“I’ll be right back then,” Carmina quickly said. “I have to get our stuff.”

“Sounds good. Don’t want to leave that behind by accident. You can help me with some of the storing then,” Cap replied as he focused on Staci.

He followed the man into the train and asked, “Cap?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m Rush’s Captain of Security. The nickname Cap just stuck. Get’s used more than my real name,” the man explained. “And yours?”

“Staci. The kid’s Carmina.”

“Got it.”

They went through a few cars until Cap paused in one. He instructed Staci where to store a bunch of food in a refrigerated car. Staci didn’t bother to ask more questions. There would be time when they were heading back north. Instead he worked as quickly as possible, getting things secure and put out of the way.

It took a little while for Carmina to find Staci again. Apparently she got pulled into another job further down the train before she could find him. At the same time, Cap showed up and put them on another job as Rush’s two hour time limit continuously ticked down.

After the minutes were almost up, Jacquelyn found them on the train, ordering up some of the last bits of ammo.

“Is it almost time?” asked Carmina.

“I’m afraid so.” For a moment, Jacquelyn just looked like a worried mother, wondering when she’d see her son again. However, she brightened up and said, “I’m glad you found us and wish the best for you. If all goes well, hopefully the Highwaymen won’t be an issue for your communities or anyone else’s after a while.”

Staci nodded as Carmina hugged Jacquelyn. “Thanks for everything. And dinner!”

“You’re welcome sweetheart. I need to go find my son now but if I don’t see either of you again, I wish you both the best.”

“Same to you. Thanks again.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Jacquelyn let them be and as they finished up the last bit of work, Cap showed up again. “We don’t have enough room for everyone in the sleeping cars at the same time so we rotate. Or you can squeeze between a box and get some shut eye here or there but otherwise your turn starts early next morning.”

“Understood.”

“Good. I’d get comfortable now. It’ll be a couple of days before we actually hit Montana and from there it’s apparently a lot of walking.” Cap gave Staci a pointed look at that.

“Hey, it was the smartest way to go.”

“Yeah, well I think I’d risk getting blown up to not walk for nearly five days. Anyways, I’ll check on you a bit again if not Rush himself. See you.”

Cap headed out and Staci and Carmina got out of the ammo stocked car. They found another one that still had some of the seats in it. Carmina and Staci sat together and looked out at some of the people still giving goodbyes. The platform was a lot more empty now, all resources loaded and most people having gone home or already getting in the train.

“You know, maybe I will come back.”

“You think so?”

“Yep. I mean, I can’t stay at Prosperity forever, right?”

“I don’t know. I basically stayed in Hope County my whole life.”

“Do you regret that?”

“Well technically I’d probably be dead if I hadn’t…”

“Ok, ignoring the apocalypse happened then,” laughed Carmina. “Do you regret it?”

Staci let out a large sigh. He didn’t try to think on things like that. There wasn’t much point now. However, he was honest and murmured, “Yeah. A little. I’m happy where I am now but…yeah. There’s plenty of things I would have liked to see.”

“Maybe I can see them for you. Or the ruins at least.”

“You planning on leaving? Like Nadine?”

“Not for good!” Carmina quickly said. “But maybe after we’ve dealt with the Highwaymen and the country is a little safer…well…”

“You think your parents would be ok with it?”

“They’d be apprehensive but they’d support me. At least I’d like to believe so.”

“Hmmm, yeah they probably would. Kim especially. She’d be proud of you thinking independently. Nick would probably give you an adamant no and then you’d probably throw something at him like ‘well I just want to know what it feels like to be free to go where I can like you could in the sky’. Or something like that. No way could he argue then.”

“It probably would go like that,” chuckled Carmina. Her face immediately darkened though. Her voice shook a little and she mumbled, “But what if…if that conversation never comes—”

“It will.”

“You sound so sure…”

“You’ve been sure until now that you’d see your dad again. Don’t let that hope fall away just as we’re about to head home,” Staci assured her.

Though her face still seemed dower, she forced herself to smile and said, “Thanks.” Carmina leaned over, resting her head against Staci’s shoulder and wrapping an arm around his. He squeezed her hand for comfort, eyes going back to the window. More and more people moved into the train or away. The last people Staci could see on the platform were Jacquelyn and Thomas Rush. They hugged. He kissed his mother on the cheek, and then turned back to move into the train.

There were people in their car now and word quickly got passed down that they were heading out. People sat down where they could and got comfortable. Staci heard the whistle and felt the movement of the cars starting to be pulled across the tracks. People started to chat. Some read books. One woman came up to them after the train had gotten to its max speed and Carmina sat up. The woman leaned against the still intact seat in front of them and smiled.

“Hey, I’m Tiff. I think I speak for everyone that we’re pretty happy you found us.”

Staci glanced around and saw some of the closer people who were listening in nod in agreement. “Really?”

“Well for one, we got further proof it’s the twins that took control and dear old Vince is dead. But if we can take them down, then it’ll partially be because of you two. It’s Staci and Carma right?”

“Carmina.”

“Got it. Well here you go Carmina.” Tiff threw an object to her and Carmina finally let go of Staci to catch it. “It’s a CD player. I’m assuming you know what that is?”

“Yeah, though I’ve only seen one before. Most people in our county have vinyls.”

Staci unexpectedly laughed as he glanced at Carmina. “I don’t think I’ve seen a CD player longer than when you’ve been alive.”

A few older people near them chuckled too.

“I know, right?” said Tiff. “Talk about a surprising fucking find. You do like music, right kid?”

“Sure. Like The Turtles and The Kingsmen?”

“Jesus, I bet that all came from your old man huh? Well I’ve got some actual music and it’s a long way to Montana. Give it a listen and come see me when you want a new CD.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. If you want someone to talk to, just come find me during dinner tonight.”

“Thanks,” Staci said. He turned back to Carmina as she put the headphones on and fiddled with the player for a few seconds until she found out how to turn it on. He smiled, simply enjoying watching the mixture of emotions on her face as she tried to decide if she liked it or not. “What do you think?”

“I think I like it. Did you ever listen to this?”

She held out one of the headphones and Staci gave a quick listen as the chorus came on.

“What if you and I/Just put up, a middle finger to the sky/Let them know that we're still rock 'n roll.”

Staci laughed. “Definitely not the kind of music I was listening to at that time but it’s perfect for someone your age.”

“You think so?”

“Trust me. You’re going to start mumbling these songs before long,” Staci replied as he handed her back the earphone.

As the train kept moving along, Staci ended up grabbing his book. He spent his time reading and looking at the countryside as it flashed by. Over an hour passed and Staci noticed Carmina pressing play again on the CD player. He hid his smirk behind the pages of his book as it only took a couple of minutes before she started tapping her foot along.

Chapter Text

The train ride back to Hope County was relatively short when compared to their full journey to Odessa. Despite how much Staci’s anxiety seemed to rise as they got closer, he tried to make the most of the needed rest before they got back into the warzone.

Carmina enjoyed the CDs passed her way, and she read just about every comic she’d brought with her. Staci managed to relax some, but he also spent a lot of his free time talking with Rush and Cap. Staci explained other points of interest around Hope County and what they’d want to secure first if it hadn’t already been secured by their own people. Carmina helped with those meetings but it wasn’t like her presence was necessary. Most of the time, Staci just convinced her to take advantage of the train ride while they had the chance.

Still, despite trying to cover every angle, it didn’t change that they were headed into the unknown. Rush was taking a chance with them in order to stop the Highwaymen, but anything could have happened while they were gone. The least likely outcome was that Prosperity and New Eden had already won.

Which of course meant one of the most likely outcomes was that the Highwaymen had taken over by now. And if that had happened, Jacob would have fought until his last breath. Staci tried not to think of that outcome. He just focused on the planning aspect and thinking of other eventualities that could occur. And then that focus changed to the present as they stopped at the determined destination.

By that point, Rush had already gotten people into teams. Carmina would lead the first group with Cap. There would be seven others that would follow afterwards, an hour apart. Though the distance would mean it would be difficult to help a group if they were attacked, it also meant they were less likely to be spotted from far off. Already they’d been ordered not to start any fires and to keep noise to a minimum. Hopefully it would be enough so as not to draw the attention of the Highwaymen.

Staci would be with the last group right next to Rush and their other eight members. Over seventy people would be getting into Hope County, all with guns and ammo pouches, and other packs strapped to their backs. They’d be able to keep up with the Highwaymen like this and hopefully cut down the twins for good.

Before the first group left though, Staci made sure to give the bike, Morgana, to Carmina.

“Here. That way you can scout ahead for them,” Staci said.

Carmina just snorted. She leaned in close and hugged him, making sure to whisper into his ear. “I know you’re just giving me a way to get to safety if shit goes down.”

When they parted, he just shrugged. “We’re not back at Prosperity yet. You’re still my priority.”

“Oh just you wait. I bet I’ll have to save your ass before this is over.”

“We’ll see,” chuckled Staci. “I’ll see you again in a few days.”

“Promise,” agreed Carmina.

With that, the first group was gone and Staci just focused on getting each following group prepped until the last group was theirs. Staci secured several ammo pouches on his person and the pack allocated for him. There was a set amount of time they were supposed to keep moving each day and a set time to rest. Each person in charge was to keep their group on the strict pattern up until they got to Prosperity.

The first trek was mostly just everyone getting used to being on their feet again. There wasn’t a lot of talking and Staci kept to the back with Rush, watching for any signs of danger. When it was time to rest though, Staci quickly found the attention being turned to him. He’d given Rush all the technical details he could. Now it seemed like everyone wanted to know about the former cult again.

Word had gotten around and now that all they were doing was either walking or waiting, the questions started to pour in.

“I remember hearing about that on the news.”

“I was too young. What happened?”

“Well there had been pretty big cults before. Remember the Rajneesh? Johnstown? But this was something new. I mean, they made the entire state of Montana a no-go zone.”

“Heard someone say you were a deputy. Were you one of Joseph’s inside men?”

Finally, everyone quieted, turning to him and waiting for an answer.

“No, not even close. I went in with the US Marshall. We were meant to arrest Joseph, but Whitehorse tried convincing the Marshall that we should leave and come back later. At the time, I’d thought we should have. Now I count myself lucky Rook didn’t listen to Whitehorse.”

“Seriously? Lucky?” asked one.

“Didn’t you kill people?”

“It was war. I did what I had to. And what I had to do? The resistance wasn’t going to want me back. Not once they fully understood. And I would have gotten thrown in jail for what I’d done in any other part of the US.”

Rush finally spoke up. “So? It would have been the right thing to do, damn what others thought of you.”

“Yes, it would have. And I probably would have regretted my choice if the world hadn’t changed. But the world did change and my choice kept me alive. I can’t regret that.”

A different person spoke up. “So you’re seriously ok being a part of their community?”

“Been ok with it for nearly two decades now,” Staci replied. He couldn’t help but show a tiny smirk. “It would be kind of awkward if I’d just stayed for the food.”

That at least got a few laughs. As that quieted, Rush asked, “But do any of you actually believe it? The nutjob visions? That he’s seriously a prophet?”

“Many of our people take it seriously. But some more so than others. I believe in him as a leader, and that his visions are sometimes too spot on to be pure luck. But is it God?” Staci shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t really bother with that part. I just focus on protecting my community. My family.”

“You got any kids?”

“No.”

“Really? I almost thought Carmina might be yours.”

Staci let out a sharp laugh. “No! And please don’t pass that sentiment to anyone else. If her parents heard that, they might just kill me on principle.”

“Pretty protective huh?” Rush murmured with a knowing look. “I get that.” He looked back at his people. “Anyone else have any burning questions or no? Otherwise we should hurry up and start sleeping in shifts before it’s our time to head out again.”

As everyone started to move to their positions or tuckered down for a quick rest, Staci shot Rush a thankful look. The man gave a curt nod, even though Staci could tell he didn’t really approve of Staci’s past actions. But it wasn’t like he’d been there. He couldn’t judge Staci for his choice. It wasn’t like Rush knew how he would have acted in that position either. They couldn’t change anything. It was better to just move on and deal with their current threat.

Staci wasn’t on watch for the first half. He laid down and tried to get some sleep. It would have been stupid to not try and take advantage of the few hours of rest. However, he didn’t think he’d get much. He was too close to Hope County now. His fingers itched to scratch Gen behind his ears, to wrap Jacob up in his arms. He missed the smell of home, the fresh food and colorful flowers that covered the land. He didn’t think he could rest until he was with family again.

Yet somehow sleep took him. His dreams pulled him back to Jacob, to Gen. He felt safe and content. For just a moment, the Highwaymen weren’t a concern. They weren’t even in Hope County. Staci was just living his life. He fished and hunted. He took the food in. The community stayed well fed. Jacob was always there waiting for him. The howling wolves were a comfort, memories of times before and after the collapse accompanying them.

Staci kissed Jacob. He petted Gen. He always came home.

Every day he came back. On bike, on feet. And every day Jacob was waiting.

Until he wasn’t.

And Staci looked. He spun around, and each time he did, something else seemed to disappear. The people, the smoke from cooked food, Gen, the tools, the hanging clothes, the homes—

Then it all stopped.

His body swayed, uncertain about the sudden stillness. He saw Carmina off in the distance. She looked like she was reaching for him, only to change her mind. She turned away. Staci tried to get to her. She was the only thing there after all. Did she know what was going on? Where was New Eden? Where was Jacob? He needed to know! But an unidentifiable figure stepped in front of his line of sight. The figure pressed one hand against Staci’s forehead and pushed him back.

“It isn’t you.”

Staci’s mouth stayed open in a silent scream as he fell back and through the ground.

Not you. Not you. Not you. Not you. Not you. Not you. Not you. Not you. Not you.

It rang through his ears. A mantra.

And then Staci woke with a start, breathing heavily. His eyes wildly moved around, searching for any threat. But all he got were strange looks.

Rush was standing near. His brow was furrowed, though not exactly with worry. Staci understood. He was a stranger still and the most these people knew about him was that he’d been part of a former cult. Even though Staci had defended it, Rush was probably making sure he wasn’t about to lose it or something.

“I’m good.” Staci wiped the cold sweat form his face. He quickly pushed himself up and started to redo his hair.

“You sure?” Again, the question wasn’t out of any real concern.

“Perfectly. My turn for watch?”

“That’s why I came over. We start moving again in about three hours.”

Staci nodded in understanding. He moved out from the huddled group of bodies and towards the person he was supposed to switch with. His mind momentarily moved to the dream. He could only remember parts, the clearest not being anything visual but a feeling. Fear. Joseph probably would have found meaning in it somehow. Staci just chocked it up to the anxiety of heading into the unknown. But he trusted Jacob. He knew that he would have kept his promise, that they’d see each other again. The memory of that promise helped Staci’s head clear as he focused back on his surroundings.

The next couple of days were basically like that. They walked and rested at their exact, planned times. Since most of the planning had happened, people were more curious asking about New Eden and Prosperity. Staci told them all he could about New Eden. His notes on Prosperity were based more on his brief visit there along with his past vision of Hope County.

People mainly asked about what structures were in the area and what kind of defenses there were, natural and manmade. They asked about the wildlife, if they would be able to set up a farming in an area if necessary. Only Rush specifically asked about the people. Though it was only really one on his mind. “What’s Jacob Seed like?”

“He’s managed the security of New Eden from the beginning. When I left, I know he was planning on leading the defensive forces that came from New Eden.” The response was almost instinctive. It was like a soldier describing a commanding officer.

“But what’s he like?”

Everyone seemed to get drawn into that question, waiting for Staci to answer. He unintentionally bristled at it. Actually seeing and understanding Jacob? It had taken years for Staci to do that. He wasn’t just about to throw it all at everyone’s feet. “He’s a good soldier. That’s all you need to know.”

Even so, Rush tried. “But in the army, I heard—”

“He’s tough and intelligent. None of that has lessened with age. If you want to know anything else, you can ask him.”

That had shut down the conversations that night, but the questions had started coming his way again the next day. Staci hadn’t meant to be so unexpectedly harsh. Or maybe he had. But with Rush having been in the military, Staci didn’t know how much Rush knew about Jacob’s past. However, the last thing Staci wanted was for Rush to just spread that information around like it was nothing.

Outside of rumors, only Joseph and Staci knew exactly what had brought Jacob to where he was today. Only they had seen his softer side, knew of the nightmares, the regrets, the doubt. Staci wasn’t going to let anyone pull that kind of information out of him, even if they were helping them with the Highwaymen.

Thankfully, Rush didn’t try it again though. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful except for a few animal encounters.

And the continued dreams.

Each night they came. They always started differently, even if the endings were all the same. Each time, the specifics of them drifted away from Staci along with any remaining sleepiness. However, that feeling of terror still stayed. He didn’t like how suddenly they’d started up. However, he didn’t put any extra stock in them besides the fact that they were likely induced by stress.

On the last night before the final stretch, Staci dreamed again. This time, it began as a memory.

Staci was back in the bunker. He and Jacob were years younger. Their clothing hadn’t changed to fit the new world yet and Jacob’s hair was still short and red. They’d grown comfortable around each other. Staci had long since used Jacob’s room as his reading room, learning all that he could and being praised for what he could retain and gleam from the texts.

It had been there, Staci explaining the latest book that Jacob had made him pause.

“Is that not right?” Staci had hesitantly asked.

Jacob had given a pointed look.

“Right. No, I stand by what I said.” Staci had still been building himself up at that point. One of the many things Jacob had broken down had been Staci’s confidence in himself, not that he’d had much to begin with. Jacob had slowly built that back up though and Staci had shown the results thus far in that moment. He’d held his head high, looked Jacob head on.

After a moment’s silence, Jacob had eventually showed a small smile. “Good. Because you put up an excellent argument for your analysis and I’d hate to see you back down from it. Besides, that’s not why I stopped you.”

“Oh?”

“I know this little literature club isn’t why you stayed. So, tell me.”

“Are we really doing this now?” It had been years at that point since Staci had saved Jacob. His confusion had been understandable.

“Joseph’s predicting we’ll be able to break out into the new world within the next two years. Possibly sooner. You’re here because you don’t have another choice. But once the Earth is opened to us again? You stayed once. I need to know if you’ll stay again.”

And Jacob had slowly approached, every bit of him a warning. A threat. At the time, it had still scared Staci a bit. However, he’d built up enough strength that he’d managed to fight through the fear and hold his head high.

Staci had demanded, “And what would you do if I didn’t?”

“I think you know.”

The tension had been thick. At the time, Staci had fought to keep still. If he had moved too much, he would have begun shaking uncontrollably. Somehow, he’d managed it though. Head still high, Staci had murmured, “So? Do you really think you’d win now?”

A look of surprise had crossed Jacob’s face. “Wouldn’t I?”

“You taught me Jacob. You never do anything half assed so don’t be an idiot now. You know I’d prove more than an amusing fight for you.”

“Hmm, that you would Peaches.” And Jacob had placed a hand under Staci’s chin. He’d looked him over, the appraisal causing Staci’s stomach to go warm.

“You’ve seen my everything. You had to, to remake me. You know the answer.”

And they had stayed like that. So silent. So still. The only thing moving was their chests with each low breath and the slight movement of Jacob’s finger underneath Staci’s chin, like he was petting him. Eventually, Staci had been able to tell that Jacob did know Staci’s answer now. But he didn’t know the reasoning. Staci would stay after they came out of the bunkers. He would always stay. But that didn’t explain the why to Jacob.

“But why?”

And that had been when Staci had fully opened himself up to Jacob. “I realized the resistance wouldn’t have me back. I’d be put in a nut house, in jail, for all that I’d done. And even if I ever got out, it wouldn’t be until they were done poking me so full of holes that I wouldn’t have been myself anymore. I was once so disgusted by what I did because of you, for you. But I felt alive. I had purpose. Even if it had all come crashing down on us, I felt like I had more of a future with you. And after what you took from me? I’d be damned if I let you walk away with my best option for tomorrow.”

Jacob had hummed thoughtfully, finger still placed under Staci’s chin where it scratched softly. “A future with me.”

“With Eden,” Staci had quickly corrected. It hadn’t mattered though. Jacob had seen through that too.

In that instance though, all that had happened was Jacob continuing the soft motions before murmuring, “You stayed.”

“I stayed.”

And that was where the memory ended, and the dream diverged. In reality, they had broken apart. Nothing more intimate had happened until later. But the dream didn’t continue down that path. Instead, Jacob wrapped that hand around Staci’s neck and said, “But you didn’t stay. Did you?”

“Jacob, you told me to—”

“You didn’t stay.” The voice warped, changed.

Staci fell backwards again. He went through the bunker’s floor, one-hundred and eighty degrees until he was standing up straight in a field. Carmina was there again. This time she stood in pink fire. Staci tried to run to her. He had to keep her safe! Damn the fact that Kim and Nick would kill him, he simply needed to keep her safe because he cared for her. He could have been her godfather. Uncle Staci. The hand he’d been dealt hadn’t included that, but it was never too late to try. Right? He wanted to be there for her, to teach her what he knew. After traveling together for so long, he’d come to love her deadpan expressions, her wit. He appreciated her intelligence and was proud of her quick thinking and skill with a gun. He couldn’t let her die. And certainly not in fire.

His feet pushed against the ground. His hand reached forward. Yet he didn’t move an inch as Carmina disappeared into the fire. Then the indistinguishable figure from before appeared again. No face, no name, just a bare form of a silhouette. The figure pressed a hand to Staci’s forehead.

“It isn’t you.”

Then the figure pushed, just like every time before. Staci’s mouth open in a silent scream? Check. The endless falling? Check. The mantra of ‘not you’ playing over and over in his head? Check.

And suddenly Staci woke up again. The particulars of the dream drifted away, but the fear of what was to come was still very real. And this time, a name accompanied his worry. Carmina…he couldn’t remember what exactly in the dream had caused him to worry, only that he desperately needed to know if she was alright.

He sat on those worries for over ten minutes after he’d gotten up and switched for the watch. It was only a dream and yet…

That feeling of anxiety had only gotten worse, and with Carmina stuck in his head…

“Contact the first group.” It was a demand directed at Rush.

People turned and frowned at him. Tiff muttered, “What gives?”

“It’s…a feeling.”

Rush shook his head though. “I’m not going to contact them based on a feeling. What if the Highwaymen intercept? I’m not going to—”

Everyone jumped as Rush’s radio crackled to life. Staci’s heart was in his mouth. What had—

“Hey, everyone. Update on how to finally get into the county.”

Staci breathed a sigh of relief. It was Cap. He sounded fine. Carmina must be ok too, right?

Rush increased the volume on his radio so everyone could more easily hear the next set of instructions. It seemed they’d made the right choice of going on front. The Highwaymen were all over the south side exit from the county. Apparently, Cap had spotted explosives set on the bridge. The Highwaymen must have gotten word that they were coming. Or had just been very paranoid. That gave Staci even more reason to breathe in relief, knowing they’d managed to dodge that. Cap laid out a slightly new route that mainly went along the river that he and the first group had been going. He described the other path they’d used to get inside Hope County and then finished with, “See you all Prosperity. Over and out.”

“Hmph, good fucking timing, huh?” Rush muttered as he glanced at Staci.

“I guess so,” Staci muttered. Even so, knowing that the first group were almost in Prosperity didn’t exactly ease him. Something else was bothering him, both in general and specifically about Carmina. He wished he could remember more of his dreams. Again, he didn’t think of them like a prophecy or anything else equally ridiculous. But dreams did come from memories and unconscious thoughts. What were his trying to tell him?

Staci couldn’t answer that. Not right then anyways. He simply turned his focus back to the watch until it was time to go again. Now it was the final stretch. No more rest stops were ahead of them. Ideally, each of their groups were slowly making it into Hope County now as they followed behind.

Soon Staci would be in Prosperity. Then he could finally be home. He’d see Jacob. And he had no doubt that General had made it. The wolf was strong. He would have survived the bullet wound. Just a little longer now…

They got to the point where their original plan was supposed to diverge. They were supposed to start heading down the cliffside and follow the riverbed for a bit. Instead, chaos erupted.

Staci barely had enough time to take in the bodies. There weren’t enough people for it to be everyone. However, Staci imagined it had to have been the group in front of them. The Highwaymen had likely tortured them, and they’d given up information that a final group was headed their way, explaining the ambush.

For the moment though, Staci just focused on fighting and staying alive. Rush yelled out demands, and his people followed. The words breathe, assess, act, ran through Staci’s head. He downed Highwayman after Highwayman. But they just weren’t quick enough.

Despite how long it had been, seeing the spray-painted eye and the bright blue and pink armor had Staci seeing red again. What they’d done to Prosperity, what they could have done to New Eden by now, what they’d done to Jacob? Staci would kill every last one of them.

But that moment wasn’t for today. The remaining men got backed onto the cliff’s edge. Their immediate weapons were taken from them. The river roared beneath. And then out amongst the sea of blue and pink, Staci saw them again. The same face twice.

“Looks like they were right on the money. Huh sis?”

“Smart, splitting yourselves into two and walking.”

“But not smart enough.”

So they only knew of their two final groups. Good, at least the rest must have made it into Hope County by now, if they weren’t already at Prosperity.

“Which one of you is Rush?”

They all stayed silent.

“Ah, loyalty? That’s cute.”

“We were hoping to have a little fun with that.”

“But it really doesn’t fucking matter.”

“You see, we already got a description.”

“Also got his resume.”

“So we really only just need him.”

Lou took out a gun. She shot the man standing next to Staci. A Highwayman kicked him over the edge. Staci could hear the body hit the sides of the cliff on the way down. At the same time, Mickey killed a woman on Rush’s right. She got kicked over. That left guns pointed at Staci and the other man on Rush’s right. Before Lou could pull the trigger though, Staci spoke. It was technically a desperate moment to distract, but he kept all desperation out of his voice. Instead, it was calm, cold, and deadly.

“I’m going to fucking kill you for what you did.”

As expected, Lou paused. She laughed, her sister looking just as amused. “For what we did? Bitch, we don’t even know you.”

“You will.”

But before Staci could do anything more, take her out in a blaze of glory and at least destroy half of this leadership, Rush grabbed him instead. A gun fired. The bullet went through Rush’s shoulder and entered Staci’s arm. One of the twins yelled out, “Don’t shoot the fucking merchandise you idiot!” At the same time, Rush only managed to get out the word, “Fight,” before he pushed Staci off the cliff. He wasn’t able to follow though as Highwaymen grabbed him at the same time and pulled him back.

Staci’s ears managed to get in the sound of another gun going off. The other person must have been killed, leaving Rush alone and in the hands of the twins. Then Staci hit the water.

He tried desperately to breathe, only to suck in water faster. His clothes and the supplies on his body were weighing him down as the river quickly carried him away. He struggled to undo the pack, the ammo pouches. The water moved in a way that allowed him to get a quick breath of air. Then he was pulled under again. He unhooked two pouches, just in time for his head to slam into a rock.


 

“Please-please wake— Yes! Come on. There you go. Just-just sit up.”

Staci felt someone supporting him with shaky arms. He rolled over and out of them, coughing up a lung full of water. His hair was loose. It hung around his face as he tried to even out his breathing. He coughed a couple more times before feeling like he was able to push himself back. He moved his hair out of his face, just in time for Carmina to wrap him in a tight hug.

“Ow!”

“Sorry!”

“No, no you’re good. Just the bullet wound.”

“Shit, sorry! Did you get hurt—”

But before Carmina could finish that thought, Cap was stepping into view. “Did anyone else make it? Rush?”

“Hey! You can give him some air—”

“Did anyone else make it?”

Carmina huffed in annoyance as Staci shook his head. He took several shallow breaths before hoarsely getting out, “They took out the group in front of us. Someone must have told them about Rush. What his background was, how he could help the twins. The other group was dead by the time we got there. Then they backed us into a corner. They took Rush. I think I was the only other survivor.”

“God damn it,” muttered Carmina.

“Do they know about the rest of the groups?”

“Didn’t sound like it.”

Cap still looked upset, understandably so. However, he murmured, “At least we still got surprise on our side then. The rest of the groups made it into Hope County.”

“Cap and I decided to stick at the path’s opening, to make sure everyone got through, when the other group didn’t arrive on time. We were coming to look for them,” Carmina explained.

“Well you found the only one left. We should get going now before the Highwaymen find us again.”

“You both go ahead,” Cap suddenly said.

Carmina frowned. “Are you sure—”

“I’m going to see what the Highwaymen left behind. Maybe find a few stragglers and figure out where they took Rush. I know the path now. I’ll meet you both at Prosperity.”

“By yourself?” asked Carmina.

“I’ll draw less attention that way. Besides, only two people can fit on your bike comfortably. Go. I’ll see you both soon.”

Carmina hesitated. She looked to Staci but he nodded in agreement. Cap’s reasoning made sense, and if he could figure out even a little bit of the twins’ plans, then it would help them in the coming battles.

“We’ll see you at Prosperity,” Staci agreed.

Cap started to head down the river as Carmina helped Staci to his feet. Staci dumped the useless ammo and carefully spun his pack around. One of the books that he’d picked up on the journey was completely ruined and he dropped it beside the water logged ammo. The rest was damaged but still salvageable. As he closed up his pack, he looked to Carmina. Her eyes were still on Cap’s back. She watched him go for a moment before turning her worry to Staci. “Were you shot anywhere else?”

“Just the arm. Bullet’s still lodged. Best to just deal with it when we get to Prosperity. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Let’s hurry home.”

Carmina walked over to the side where she’d left the bike. Staci got in behind her, trying his best to not let his weight crush her. The sooner they got back, the better. God was he fucking tired.

He held on as best he could as they traveled by the riverbank for a bit. They cut across on a shallow stretch, then made it up to a piece of railroad track that hadn’t been blown, just mostly covered up. As they drove across and through the area on the other side, Staci noted the bodies.

“You come across trouble?”

“Not much. We managed to get rid of them without making any noise,” explained Carmina. “Good thing too because they might have gotten reinforcements to join them by now if we hadn’t.”

Staci nodded in agreement. They made it out of the little outpost, got onto the other path, and then—

They were in Hope County.

It wasn’t like Staci had every rock and tree memorized. But the place did suddenly go from just forest to feeling like home. Carmina guided the bike onto a dirt road and followed it. It didn’t take long before Staci could tell where they were. Only a few more turns and Staci knew they were on the road headed directly for Prosperity.

By now, the cough had mostly disappeared. The pain in his lungs was mostly gone, meaning it was harder to ignore the throbbing in his arm now. He’d need to get that checked out first if he didn’t want an infection.

The sun had already gone down by this point, the moon and the bike’s headlight making the road clear for them. They first spotted Prosperity appearing over a small hill they’d just driven up. Carmina slowed down a bit, and Staci understood why.

When they’d left, the entire place had been smoldering ash. Now it stood above them, tall and impressive, whole again. It looked even harder to breach than before. Someone on the top of the wall quickly pointed their gun at them.

“Hey! Stop—”

“Hold on! That’s Carmina!”

“Open up the gates guys. Quick!”

Carmina picked up the pace a bit before they finally drove through the gates and they closed behind them. She got off the bike immediately, running straight into her mother’s arms. Staci followed a lot more slowly, turning off the bike before getting off. His clothes were stiff but dry now. The bullet wound ached even more, and Staci cradled his arm. He looked around, taking in the renovations. The place was a livable home like before, but it had been improved into a defensible fortress as well. Several mounted guns had also been fixed to the walls which definitely deterred anyone from an attack head on.

Staci walked forward, into the throng of people. There were some from Prosperity that Staci obviously recognized, a few new faces, and then all of Rush’s people that had made it. Then he recognized the New Edeners. People like Zachariah and Camille. But…

The only people of New Eden were still Jacob’s people. And as for Jacob…

Camille spotted him. As everyone else was focused on Carmina and Rush’s people were sticking to themselves, those of New Eden came to Staci. He was surprised by the hug that he got from the petite woman. Camille seemed just as embarrassed, quickly jumping back and keeping her head down.

“My apologies. I have overstepped my—”

“No, not at all,” Staci interrupted. He put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She looked up. “It’s good to see family again. All of you. But I don’t see any of the others.” None of those exclusively followed Joseph. No one that preferred the completely man-made clothes and arrows over guns.

“You came just when we needed you most,” one admitted.

“Status report?” asked Staci.

Camille quickly stood at attention. “We’ve managed to keep hold of three major outposts. The lumber mill, those warehouses, and the old radio station. We’ve been able to keep a steady supply of lumber for making quick repairs on all our outposts and roadblocks. The warehouse has provided us with a steady stream of supplies and ethanol but that’s been slowing down lately. The radio station has kept us connected to home.”

“Kept you connected?” questioned Staci. He looked at them, looked at how they hesitated and grimaced. Fear flashed through Zachariah’s eyes. The fear was directed at him which meant whatever they were about to tell him wasn’t anything good. The whispered word came from Staci’s lips, bitter and harsh. “Explain.”

Everyone else hesitated. They were afraid to be the barer of the bad news, but Camille quickly held her head high above the rest. Her attitude told Staci something important. It told him she was in charge here.

“We were able to hold on to the remnants of Fall’s End and the orchard, but when the Highwaymen took them, they also blocked off the road. They also set up an outpost on the water, completely blocking off any ships from making any food deliveries. We can get people too and from New Eden in very, very small groups, but no major shipment of supplies like Joseph promised. Besides, now New Eden is also running out of food with how the Highwaymen have taken over most of the valley.”

Staci had to fight back the anger that was starting to well up inside him. He’d brought back help, supplies, Rush’s people. But had it all been too late? Were they about to lose New Eden anyways?

“And Joseph still refuses to call our people to fight this growing war?” Staci slowly asked. “It’s no longer theoretical. It’s real. It’s happening. Our home is in danger now and he does nothing?”

Again, the others hesitated. But Camille kept her head high. It didn’t mean she was any less afraid of Staci’s reactions, but she took her role as the current person in charge very seriously. That meant relaying everything that he’d missed. “Joseph went missing. It was about two months after you left.”

Staci closed his eyes. He slowly breathed through his nose. “Then why hasn’t Jacob taken command?”

“Jacob went missing in action not long after that.”

Staci knew he wasn’t going to like this. “Then who’s in charge?”

“Ethan.”

Staci’s knuckles turned white. “And exactly what is he doing?”

“He’s trying to take control, but nearly no one listens to him as Joseph told them all would be explained when he returned. Ethan claims the Father is dead, but no one believes him. Before he disappeared, Joseph laid out how the chosen one will come before us. Ethan attempted to make the pilgrimage but failed. Because of this, many of our people have receded and await the return of the Father.”

“And you?”

“Jacob’s orders were to protect the valley, not just New Eden. The Father gave Jacob permission in allowing us this station. So we continue to protect it. Even without his presence here.”

Staci slowly breathed. He tried to focus on how they’d worded it. Not dead. Just missing in action. And Joseph had promised. He’d promised Staci that he’d see his family again. So for the moment, he held onto that hope, even if the dream of finally holding Jacob again was gone for now. Instead, a twisted laugh escaped his lips. “I’m sure that grates upon Ethan more than ever.”

“The fact that we follow Jacob’s orders and not his does undermine his authority. But Joseph is gone, not dead. No matter how hard he tries, he isn’t the Father yet.” At that point, Camille grabbed his hand, gripping it tight. “The Father said you would bring forth the chosen one, our shepherd. You can make our home whole again, really bring everyone back into the fight so our home and this valley can be saved,” she whispered. “Please, tell us who it is.”

They all looked on, new hope and desperation in their eyes. Staci had to look away.

“I…I can’t.” Staci of course remembered Joseph’s parting words. Ethan had been enraged at the idea that Staci might be the shepherd, but Joseph had insisted he was only the guide. But the guide of who? Rush maybe? But he was captured. And to be honest… “Joseph only told me that. Not how I would know.”

Faces fell for a quick second. However, Camille pulled herself together first. “It doesn’t matter. Whoever they are, you brought them with you. You had to, and our home will be made right with it.”

“I hope so,” Staci earnestly said. Now with him caught up, he wanted to ask where Jacob’s last known location was. Had there been any updates? Any word on prisoners? But he couldn’t just run after Jacob. No matter what had happened to him, he knew Jacob wouldn’t have wanted that. The role of partner had to be put aside for the role that Jacob had trained him in, that of a soldier. “You’re in charge then, Camille?”

“I was until Jacob’s or Joseph’s return, yes sir.”

“Well done then. It’s clear you’ve kept things together as best you could. And thank you for continuing to follow Jacob’s orders.”

“Of course, sir.”

“In that case, I’d like you to stay on as—”

Staci didn’t get to finish the thought. A howl sounded and people quickly parted to let the large, orange wolf through. Despite how much bad news Staci had just heard, a smile finally broke across his lips. He didn’t even have to bend down, the wolf jumping up and put his front paws on Staci’s shoulders.

“General!” Staci nuzzled the wolf, scratching behind his ear before the great beast finally dropped to all fours. At least this was good news. It was clear the wound Gen had suffered before Staci had left was now fully healed. He glanced up to see a person had followed close behind Gen. “Grace—”

“Thank god you’re here. I was getting tired of taking care of him,” Grace muttered, though there was a small smile on her lips.

The other New Edeners stepped back a bit, giving them some space. Staci continued to scratch behind Gen’s ear as he said, “You’ve taken care of him?”

She nodded. “Was working with Jacob a lot while you two were gone. I can’t damn well see but I had some good weapons for him and it turns out we both worked well at planning our attacks. When he disappeared, I guess I had his damn scent on me or something because Gen would leave my side. Up until now anyways.”

Staci chuckled at that. “Well, thank you all the same.”

“No need for that. Even if New Eden’s weird politics go over my head, Jacob and his people kept up their end of the bargain the entire time and then some.”

“I hope to right those politics.”

“From what I can hear, you already helped with the new reinforcements. But I won’t lie. We’ll have a better chance at winning this if you force the rest of your people to get off their asses. I hope you brought the damn chosen one.”

“So you’ve heard about that.”

“All I can do is damn well hear.”

It was hard not to laugh at that. “Point taken. But, maybe. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

“I guess so,” sighed Grace. “Anyways, with you being back, come see me when you get a chance. I’ll stock you up good.”

“Thank you.”

She nodded and walked off, carefully moving through the people like she could still see them. Staci kept near Gen, taking comfort in the one thing that had stayed the same now that he was back. However, he did turn his focus to Camille again. Because of his connection with Jacob, he knew what his reappearance meant to them. They saw him as their leader, before even Ethan. It didn’t matter that Staci would have preferred Jacob was here to hold that mantel. He wasn’t going to slack off and let others do the job for him. “As I was saying, I want you to stay on as my second in command,” Staci said. “I’m going to need to meet with Kim to figure out our next move soon. When I do, I want you with me.”

“Yes sir.”

“The rest of you, follow whatever orders you had until then. Dismissed.”

They all nodded, parting ways as Staci momentarily turned his full attention back to Gen. He scratched the wolf a bit more before getting up. He suspected Cap would be seen as the leader of Rush’s people when he got back. Once that happened, Cap, Kim, Staci, and anyone else could see what their new reinforcements would do in terms of changing the tides of this war. Gen stayed at Staci’s side as he walked through the small crowds of people. He tried looking for Kim and Carmina again. Those of Prosperity that Staci knew nodded at him. Clearly, they were more welcoming now than originally. It seemed while Staci had been gone, Jacob really had been proving New Eden’s worth, at least those who would fight.

Otherwise though, everyone just ignored him. Until one woman didn’t.

She moved in front of him, stopping him right in his path. Gen let out a soft growl but didn’t do anything.

“So, you survived.”

Staci let out a small sigh. “Joey. I don’t have time for—”

But before he could finish, Joey suddenly had him wrapped up in a hug. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to cause Staci’s stomach to twist painfully at the moments that had been lost between them. Before that feeling could really settle though, Joey had already pulled back. She punched him. Right on top of the bullet wound.

Staci let out a stressed growl from between his teeth as he quickly gripped his arm.

“Fuck Joey!”

“That’s for taking four god damn months.”

Staci let out another groan of pain despite how hard he tried to keep it back. His entire arm was throbbing now. “We brought back the people we promised. Didn’t we?” growled Staci.

“Did you? Huh, guess you did. Could have done with more weapons though,” Joey sarcastically said.

“We already lost nearly twenty people just getting here—”

“It was a joke.”

Staci honestly had to stare for a second. Was this real? Or was the bullet wound worse than he’d thought, and he was hallucinating all this? “Right,” Staci uncertainly muttered. “Who would Joey Hudson be without her dark sense of humor?”

“Damn right.”

“So…that was a joke. The punch was for how long it took. What the hell was the hug for then?” muttered Staci, still through gritted teeth.

Joey shrugged.

“Don’t fucking do this with me. Not right now,” growled Staci. “I just found out that while you’ve been rebuilding, my community’s been suffering! So don’t fucking shrug at me like it’s an answer.”

Unsurprisingly, the uneasy conversation quickly erupted into an argument.

“Oh, well that’s a big fucking shock. Your ‘family’ only told their side.” Joey angrily waved her finger at Prosperity and its people. “You think just because this place looks like this, we’ve been ok? We’ve been fucking suffering too—”

“I was just told my husband is missing in action! Our leader is gone! Don’t try to explain suffering to me right now—ah, fuck.” The anger left him just as quickly as it had come. He must have tensed up wrong, moved a muscle when he shouldn’t have. His entire arm felt inflamed.

“Shit. You need to get that looked at.”

“Yeah, obviously.”

Joey looked like she was ready to give her own angry retort but somehow managed to pull it back this time. “Selene isn’t here now. Someone else is going to have to look at that.”

Staci kind of wanted to argue, but he really did need to make sure the wound didn’t get infected and that bullet needed to be taken out. That was more important than trying to figure out what the hell Joey’s game was. “Who can I see about it?”

“Just fucking follow me.”

Staci reluctantly did, the only comfort being Gen pressed against his side. Joey started to ask around, but it quickly became clear she wasn’t finding who she needed. Finally, she just stomped off with a muttered, “Fine, I’ll just do it myself.”

She marched into one of the buildings and Staci slowly followed. She pointed at a chair by the fire and grumbled, “Just sit and I’ll be right back.”

It wasn’t the kindest treatment, but Staci wasn’t going to argue for the moment. He sat down and Gen quickly curled up at his feet and by the fire. A few more people walked by and gave respectful nods his way. It was a bit surprising from his last visit, but he still chalked it up to Jacob and their people having proved their worth since then.

No one came to talk to him though. He took advantage of the moment to lean back and rest his eyes. He’d traveled for so long beside Carmina, and they’d succeeded! They’d brought back what they’d promised, what they’d hoped. And all Staci had wanted was to kiss Jacob, to see home. But that dream was gone. Was it momentary? Would he ever see—

He couldn’t think like that. If he thought like that, he might get sloppy, might become too willing to go on a suicide mission. No. He’d keep what Jacob had so far built stable and effective. He’d do what Jacob would have wanted and he’d find him again. He’d figure out his last known location, he’d track him down, he’d find him alive, and he’d kill every last motherfucking Highwayman in his—

“Hey. Wake up.”

Staci slowly opened his eyes. “I am awake.”

Joey let out a little huff. “Just hurry up and take your shirt off unless you want the whole thing ruined.”

She set the medical supplies to the side and crossed her arms, waiting. Staci got the pack off easily. Then his jacket was a little more difficult. Last was the shirt, but the movement proved to be more painful than expected. He winced and could hear Gen’s whine of concern. He struggled for a second, right up until Joey let out another huff and helped him.

As the shirt finally got over Staci’s head, it revealed his confused gaze. However, before he could ask why she was willingly helping him at all and not spitting at his feet, she said, “Didn’t you used to have a bit of a beer gut hiding under your deputy’s uniform?”

Staci unexpectedly laughed.

“I’m fucking serious. Where the hell did all of this come from?”

“Training mainly.”

Joey grimaced. “Training? I call it fucking tor—” But she stopped herself again, another surprise. She turned to grab the materials she’d need first. She mumbled something under her breath.

“I’m sorry?”

“I said I’m shit at trying to clear the air. Ok?”

“Seriously? I thought you hated me,” Staci muttered. He had barely thought on Joey in the past weeks. Why would he? She’d made it clear that there was nothing to fix between them. Or so he’d thought.

“Between hating the Highwaymen and trying to stay alive, it’s been kind of hard staying angry at you on top of it.”

“You tried to drive a wedge between me and Carmina,” Staci immediately said remembering that conversation near the beginning of his and Carmina’s journey.

At least on Joey’s part, she didn’t try to deny it. “Let me guess. It didn’t work.”

“It didn’t. She understood why I did what I did.”

“If she understood anything, it’s only because she didn’t have an emotional connection to the people you killed.”

“Maybe so. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand—ow!”

“Well at least you’re as big a baby when it comes to needles as I remember.”

“You surprised me!”

“Uh huh.”

Staci just let out another small groan. His head fell back, eyes closed again. He focused on his breathing, rather than the feeling of Joey digging out the bullet. It probably wasn’t a good idea to antagonize her now, but he was honestly curious. Considering how she’d acted upon finding out he was alive, this really didn’t make much sense.

“You said Jacob was a monster. That I was one for choosing him over you guys.”

Joey was uncharacteristically quiet. She was probably putting all her focus onto the wound.

“I thought you wouldn’t forgive us for the past.”

“Yeah, well Jacob’s not like his brothers.”

Staci opened his eyes at that. Joey made a point of not looking at him, but she continued nonetheless. “He’s not a fucking creep like John was, and he understands what it means to take action unlike Joseph.”

“He is a veteran…but you already knew that.”

She grunted.

“And that still doesn’t explain the change.”

Joey let out a small sigh. She stopped working on Staci’s arm and sat back. “You know, I don’t know why I’m even dancing around this subject. It doesn’t matter. I still won’t trust your lot anymore once this is over and I still resent you for choosing them over us.”

“I thought you said you didn’t have time to hate me—”

“Resentment isn’t hate. And that’s not the point! The point is, I was there.”

Staci froze, all focus on her now. “There when?”

“When Jacob was captured. He saved my life. I got away, and he didn’t. Now you fucking know—”

“What happened to him?” Staci grabbed her arm despite how pain shot through his own. “Do you know where he was taken? Did he have injuries at the time? Did he—”

“Hey! Don’t think that me telling you this or me realizing the differences between the three brothers made me fucking buddy buddy with him,” Joey replied. She forced Staci’s hand off her and made him sit back before she continued. “I just know it was fucking planned.”

“Wait. Planned? Joey, Jacob wouldn’t have staged his saving of you for any—”

“I’m not talking about that,” sighed Joey. “That was genuine. Even if it was fucking weird. No, I’m talking about what he told me before he got captured himself. He had a hunch about the Highwaymen, about some possible alliances they’d formed here. He wouldn’t tell me who with. Or maybe he just didn’t have time. But he’d planned for that capture.”

“Planned-but my people said—”

“That he just went missing in action. Because that’s what he told me to tell them. He only wanted you to know the truth.”

“Why?” stressed Staci.

“Fuck if I know. Hell I didn’t even know how to fucking feel about the guy after he saved me and shit. And Jesus, you? Even if I hadn’t seen you both up on the roof before the twins got here, it’s obvious now you truly care for him, and that just confuses me more. All I know is that whatever he was doing, it was important and that we’re going to need you and the resources you brought to win this war. So this is me playing nice. Ok? I’m apologizing for some of the shit I said earlier. Because fuck it, I don’t think it’s possible for monsters to love and somehow your people do, even if it’s a little fucked up.”

Staci let out a small sigh. This wasn’t at all what he’d expected to hear from Joey. “I just want you to know—”

“Nuh uh. We’re not suddenly friends again, got it? Not even fucking close. I’m just saying I’m working with you on this, on getting the Highwaymen out of our fucking valley. After that? It’s back to the old separate ways for all I care.”

“Do you really think we’ll be able to go back to that? After all this?”

“Maybe not, but God knows I’ll fucking try,” growled Joey. She shook her head in frustration before focusing back on the wound. They turned to silence for a bit, up until Joey was finally finished and pulling back. “There. You should be good to go as long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

“Thank you.”

“Yeah, well you got Carmina back. Figured I should repay you in some way.”

“Of course,” Staci quickly said. He carefully moved his shoulder a bit before carefully putting the long-sleeved shirt on again. Joey had already gathered up the supplies and started to leave, but Staci quickly added, “Would you mind telling Kim where I am? I need to talk to her.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll tell her,” sighed Joey. She looked back at him. It looked like she had more she wanted to say. More angry words. More words of regret. But she didn’t say anything and just walked away.

With Joey gone, Staci relaxed as best he could whiel he thought on Jacob again. A new sense of hope had entered his system. It made sense that Jacob would have only gotten captured if for some reason. But what could that reason have been? And why only trust Staci with the knowledge when he hadn’t known exactly when Staci would be coming back? He’d have to find Jacob in order to understand those questions but for the moment, there were other matters to attend to.

He waited until Kim came in. She was followed by Carmina, Cap, another of Rush’s men, Joey, Grace, and Camille. It seemed the meeting was starting now.

Kim thankfully didn’t force Staci to move and instead, everyone gathered around the fire. For the most part, Kim told the newcomers what Camille had already explained to Staci, just in a little more detail. She also let them in on the fact that thanks to a new guy and some working parts, they had a helicopter, eyes in the sky. Though the limited land in which they’d taken back meant the helicopter wasn’t much use for the moment. Then Cap came forward, revealing what he’d found out before heading to Prosperity.

The information was all laid out. Staci knew the new advantages Prosperity now had thanks to Rush’s men and supplies. He knew what they had control over and what was most important for them to get back first. A plan started to form, one that Kim had already been in the process of making, but now that they had Rush’s people, their chances of success had increased tenfold.

The goal was to first take back the forge. Not only would that cut off the Highwaymen’s immediate way to make bullets, but it would mean they’d suddenly have their own steady stream of ammunition too. Next would be taking back the orchard and finally breaking the roadblocks between New Eden and Prosperity. With the added manpower, it was possible they’d be able to do both. If they hit the forge, the Highwaymen would undoubtably focus their presence on that, thinking the bullets more important. That would mean as most of their men would deal with that, small groups could take back the orchard and take down some of the roadblocks. Without Rush’s people or supplies, such a maneuver wouldn’t have been possible. Now, on day one, it looked like they could start changing the tide of the war.

Cap was thankfully willing to work with them too, though that was probably helped by the fact that his new information had told him Rush had first been transported to the forge. If they put their plan in action quick enough, they could get him back too, performing four rather than three successful missions all at once.

By the time they finished with the base plans, it was quite late and all of Rush’s men needed rest before any type of assault. They agreed to finish the specifics in the morning, along with gathering what resources they would need tomorrow too. It meant everyone started to break off, all except Carmina who stuck around to give Staci a quick hug.

“I’m glad you’re ok. I heard Joey fixed up the wound?”

“Yeah, not that she was too happy about it,” chuckled Staci. “Still, it’s appreciated.”

Carmina sighed. “I wish she wasn’t so angry. I can tell a lot of our people have already gotten along pretty well while we were gone.”

“Yeah, but they weren’t hurt like her either,” replied Staci. He shrugged. “Maybe she will come around. Who knows. But we should just count ourselves lucky she’s been willing to work with New Edeners for this long.”

Carmina nodded in agreement. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Night.”

“Good night.”

Staci watched her go. It felt momentarily weird that she wasn’t going to be near him that night. With a sigh, he pushed himself up and General reluctantly got to his feet too. Staci grabbed his jacket before he and the wolf went in search of their people. It wasn’t hard to find the section of Prosperity that they’d been allowed to use as their own bunk space. Already, an area had been made up for Staci and he gratefully got in it.

Gen waited at the edge, only whining the smallest amount.

“It’s alright, Come on in.”

The wolf quickly forced himself into the small cot and curled up next to Staci. It reminded him of how he’d left Jacob, wounded and tired and curled up with Gen for once. Now Staci was the one, wounded and tired, and Jacob was off in the unknown somewhere. He hated not having seen Jacob yet, the ache more painful than the bullet wound. But for the moment, he needed to focus on keeping the valley safe. It was what Jacob would have wanted and it was what a soldier would do.

With that final thought, Staci threw a hand across Gen’s furry hide and fell asleep. He was both closer to home than he had been in months, and yet it felt like he was farther away than ever before.

Chapter Text

The next day proved a busy one. It began with Staci cleaning his own wound. Thankfully, an infection hadn’t set in overnight. Then he sat down with those from New Eden for a quick breakfast. After it being just him and Carmina for so long, it both felt weird but nice to be with his people again. He got details on how everyone was doing emotionally and who had died. Despite how the Highwaymen had entered the valley, it turned out the death toll was relatively small. He of course mourned those that had died, but he was incredibly thankful for how many had made it. They of course asked him how their journey had gone. Staci took time describing what other parts of the country looked like. They all seemed shocked to hear about Odessa. A city that was still standing? Buildings still tall and the place only partially affected by radiation? It was unthinkable for them up here.

Once Staci was done eating, he headed with Camille to the morning meeting. They walked to the main building, Kim waiting outside. It was clear she wanted to talk to Staci so he directed Camille to go inside alone. He promised her he’d be quick before he turned to Kim. She said, “What with all the new people last night, I didn’t get a chance to say it. But thank you, for bringing Carmina back to me.”

“Trust me. She helped me get back too. She’s a tenacious young woman. I can tell she gets it from you.”

“And her stubbornness from her father,” Kim finished, her smile tinged with sadness. “I know. I don’t think I’ve talked to someone who hasn’t come to that conclusion yet.”

They both chuckled at that.

“I also heard you and Joey talked.”

“Yeah, I guess. Though, I gotta say I’m curious how she and Jacob got along well enough to work together.”

“Well it didn’t start out that way. Joey was basically trying to do her own one-man army situation. Jacob followed her on one of them. He ended up saying something like, her plan had been good, but she shouldn’t have gone in alone. He saved her life.”

“Wait? More than once?” Staci asked, recalling what Joey had told him last night.

“Try four times,” snorted Kim. “It was only by the third time that they both got into a straight up fist fight.”

Staci let out a low groan. “Of course they did.”

“It was pretty impressive. Almost no one bet against Joey but…well we soon figured out Jacob wasn’t the old man everyone thought. He got her on the ground, though not before she broke his nose of course.”

“Of course,” Staci dryly said.

“But after it ended, Jacob gave this big, angry speech at her and the rest of us,” Kim explained. “He said he could have easily snapped her neck. Then one of us would have probably blown his head off and so on and so forth—”

“Basically, we can fight each other, or we can work together and fight the enemy. Right?”

“Exactly. He told Joey she was an excellent fighter. He could see how she was let into the army. But the whole point of fighting in the army was to fight for a group and she wasn’t doing that. Unless she wanted to end up dead on one of the Highwaymen’s cars, then she needed to play soldier again. Joey had been the most vocal about not wanting to work with New Eden, but to be fair, we all kind of needed a kick in the teeth to get over that hurdle. Though I have to say, the way Jacob put it was a bit more eloquent.” Kim frowned for a second. “Also a surprise there.”

“He likes to read,” Staci supplied. He let out a small sigh. “And the last time he saved her?”

“You have heard. Right?”

“I have.”

Kim slowly nodded. “I…I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’m sorry for your loss.”

“He’s not dead.”

“You really think he could be alive? If he didn’t die out in the woods somewhere then the Highwaymen must have taken him and—”

“If anyone could survive, he would.”

“Maybe you have a point,” sighed Kim. “Still…I’m sorry. He’s a fucking Seed, but if he hadn’t helped…even though Joseph didn’t put all his forces forward, the food and supplies he sent our way kept us going when our home was still ash. I can’t forgive them…but maybe all our children can.”

“I think Carmina’s already started doing that.”

“No surprise there. She’s never completely understood why our communities were so dead set on staying separate. She said we would have been stronger together.”

“Maybe we would have,” Staci softly agreed. “All we can do now is hope our partnership didn’t come to late and we can still push the Highwaymen out.”

Kim nodded in agreement. “Then with that, we should hurry to the meeting. We have some fucking Highwaymen to kill.”

“Damn right.”

The same people as yesterday met up again in what had been the center of John’s old ranch. They started to coordinate who would be paired with what group, their offensive strategies and defensive strategies. They made plan As and Bs and Cs just in case. Any eventuality that someone could come up with got its own plan. Next came the tools and supplies. Stock needed to be taken account of and weapons needed to be passed around. Grace had some tools at an old storage yard that she needed to get to as well. Highwaymen had overrun it, but Grace assured everyone that going there would be worth it once she finished up her latest invention.

Staci volunteered to get those supplies. With all plans set out, there wasn’t much more leading that needed to be done. All tasks in Prosperity were simple labor and busy work. Staci needed something more active to keep his mind busy. Otherwise, he’d still have to fight with himself to not go into the unknown and try to find Jacob then and there.

Everyone agreed with the assignments. Grace gave Staci information on what she needed, and then the meeting was adjourned. Before Staci left though, there were a couple of things he needed to do.

First, he talked to a guy about procuring a car. He loved his bike, but General clearly didn’t plan on leaving his side anytime soon and there was no way the wolf could fit on the bike without some major upgrades. Staci managed to come to an agreement with the guy in charge and the guy set aside one of the cars for when Staci was ready to head out. As he walked away, Carmina passed him.

“Not taking Morgana?”

“Well, Gen’s a special wolf but I don’t think he knows how to sit passenger on a motorcycle,” snorted Staci. Gen let out a soft growl in agreement.

“Mind if I take her?”

“Go ahead. You have back-up?”

“Christ, you sound like mom,” Carmina laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m meeting Sel out there.”

“And has she learned to fire a gun by now?” He hadn’t quite meant to sound so sarcastic, but Selene had kind of froze on them when the Highwaymen had first come all those months ago. At Carmina’s glare, he held up his hands. “I’m just saying.”

“Well, I have enough skills to protect both of us. And Sharky’s been working on a new formula which I’ve got right here.”

She opened a side bag and Staci looked into it.

“Dynamite?”

“Explosive dynamite.”

“Is there any other kind?”

“This one has an extra punch to it.”

“If Sharky helped make it, I’m sure it does,” snorted Staci. “You don’t know how many calls I had to answer at the old widow Ms. Frisby’s place because her windows had shattered again after some explosion had just come from his home.”

“Tell me about it some time?”

“Over dinner,” Staci said with a smirk. “I’m sure your mother is happy to have you back, but I’m not quite done hanging out with my almost goddaughter.”

Carmina snorted at that. “Hell yeah. I’ll see you later then.”

“Sounds good. And take care of the bike!” Staci added as she walked off.

“Always!”

Staci and Gen then turned away, heading to their last stop before they left Prosperity. Along the way, Camille intercepted them. They went over a few more details she wanted clarification on, and right before she left his side, she added, “Careful about Hudson. She saw you talking to the Rye’s kid.”

Staci’s head fell back with a groan. “Christ! I feel like I’m in high school again! Shouldn’t cliques have died off after the collapse?”

He looked to Camille for a response, but she just looked confused. “What’s a…click?”

“I forget how young you are,” Staci said with a sharp laugh. “You were in middle school when shit hit the fan?”

“Technically. But I was home schooled.”

“Well that makes even more sense. But hey, with any luck, the whole idea will die with my generation,” sighed Staci. “And you don’t have to worry about Joey.”

“She got in several fights with our group, including Jacob—”

“I heard. But it’s not going to come to that, and even if it does, I don’t need a bodyguard,” Staci said. The idea was an amusing one, but he made sure to put a comforting hand on Camille all the same. “Joey has her own issues she’s trying to solve, but she won’t ruin anything just for her own ego. Prosperity comes first for her and at the moment, that means working with us. No matter how much she might not like it.”

“If you say so sir.” Camille glanced down at the sheet. “I’ll go ahead and implement your orders. See you when you get back. May the Father watch over you.”

“And you,” Staci murmured.

Camille headed off to do her job while Staci finally got a chance to head to the top of the former ranch. That was where they had their official radio station set up. It wasn’t easy with stairs not having been implemented in every section. However, Staci was able to pull himself up and get to where they’d set up the radio. Using the old station as a midway point, they could contact anyone of their men who had a portable radio with them, including all the way up to New Eden.

Staci asked for some privacy from the guy at the radio. He nodded and quickly scrambled down. Staci looked to see there was a sticky note of frequencies taped to the side. Staci turned the nobs in the proper direction and pulled the mic forward.

“New Eden. Do you copy?”

He waited a little over a minute before trying again.

“New Eden. Do you copy?”

This time he got a response.

“So, the guide finally returns.”

Staci let out a small sigh. He could already tell this wouldn’t be an easy conversation. “Ethan, I’m contacting you to—”

“So did you bring him? Our shepherd?”

“I don’t know. Now I’m—”

“What a surprise! Our Father was wrong again!”

“Listen!” Staci interrupted. God, he wished he was there in person. It would have been easier to make Ethan listen to him then. “I’m in Prosperity and we’re going to engage in an attack that should open up the roads between New Eden and here again within the week. Prepare our people so that if the Highwaymen try a strike, you’re well protected.”

“You realize I’m the speaker now. Don’t you? The Judge even follows my side, so I’d suggest you—”

“Whatever test Joseph set up for the chosen one, I already know you failed it. So, don’t pull this shit with me,” growled Staci. The mention of the Judge had only somewhat surprised him. He wished he could ask Rook about Joseph’s plan. The Judge was probably the only one who knew what the Father was really thinking, but it wasn’t like the Judge would just suddenly break silence now. Staci focused on the conversation instead and reiterated, “Tell our people to prepare and I’ll be at New Eden as soon as I can.”

There was silence for a long moment. Staci resisted the urge to slam the mic in frustration. “Ethan, will you just—”

“No, now you listen here,” Ethan interrupted, his own voice turning harsh. “Joseph is dead. Jacob is dead. I may have a few more hurdles to deal with, but I will be New Eden’s leader and I will remember this conversation when I am. Come home soon, brother.”

The patronizing way he said it was almost enough reason for Staci to throw his plans out the window, march on foot to New Eden, and punch Ethan in the face. Now was not the time to grapple for power! Instead, he forced that urge down and muttered, “See you soon,” into the now dead mic. He put it down and headed back to the edge. He gestured that the guy in charge of the radio could head back as Staci dropped down.

Staci met Gen on the ground. They walked over so he could grab some supplies and then went for the gate. The car he’d gotten had been moved and was waiting for them. He was almost at it when Joey walked into his field of view with a huff.

“Kim wants me to go with you.”

Well he certainly hadn’t thought he’d deal with this anytime soon. “Kim asked you to join me? Kim?”

“Jesus, she tried to grab someone else, but they’re all busy and Kim wants someone you can work well with. She contacted a small group we have in that area while you were at the main radio. Apparently, the number of Highwaymen increased.”

“She thinks we’ll work well together?” Staci asked, still not completely believing her. It was hard not to laugh at the idea.

“She knows we’re both capable. Ok! And she wanted us to try and bring back some ethanol which is going to be a lot easier with four hands,” Joey grumbled back.

Ok, well that was a fair point and made more sense than just Kim throwing Joey at him. “Well are you ready to go?”

“Yeah yeah. Let’s just get this over with.” She spun around and beelined it to the car. She went for the driver’s side. It made Staci involuntarily smile. Even on the most minor calls, she’d always demanded to drive.

“Glad to see that hasn’t changed.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Staci opened the back door for Gen, the wolf quickly taking up the entire backseat. Staci then climbed into the passenger’s side. The gate’s opened up. They drove out and down the dirt road.

After being with Jacob and New Eden for so long, Staci had learned to appreciate the quiet. When he’d been younger, there had always been something going on. He’d have the TV going, be listening to music, texting people or chatting away with them at the station, looking up shit on the internet, that kind of stuff. He always had to be entertained. But with Jacob, he’d learned the value of hearing the wind rustle, of keeping time with his own heartbeat. He relished the peace that could come of it.

But that was with Jacob, New Eden. They’d been his home for years now. With Joey? He lasted about three minutes.

“So I heard Jacob saved your ass four times. Not just once.” Staci didn’t exactly want a fight. But he did want a conversation because the silence was just too damn awkward. The comment clearly riled Joey up, but it also opened the line of dialogue like Staci had hoped.

“And did you hear I broke his nose?” she growled.

Staci actually laughed. “Yeah, I gotta say, I’m impressed. Jacob doesn’t let others easily one-up him.”

“How is that impressive? He’s like twenty years our senior.”

“Really? He saved you four times and you think his age affects him that much?”

“OK, point taken. But the glasses. I mean really?”

“You didn’t mention them! Did you?”

Joey snorted. “Yeah, I called him Old Man Jenkins. Actually, surprised he got the reference.”

Staci started to laugh. Then he started to wheeze because the image he had in his head was just too damn funny. He could hear Joey trying to contain her own laughter as he gasped out, “Jesus, I wish I’d been there for that! Jacob does not like to be reminded just how old he is.”

“I caught onto that pretty quickly.”

For a moment, she was smiling. They were both smiling. But then their lips slowly started to drop. This wasn’t before. They weren’t laughing at some local they’d both had to deal with or the latest noise complaint.

Despite how Staci had wanted them to talk, he feared that any continuation was impossible now. Though he would have liked it to be like before, Joey wouldn’t allow that to happen. She was still too hurt. They weren’t friends and they weren’t—

“Why?”

Staci jolted a little as he came out of his head. “Huh?”

“I’m serious. I thought about it while you and Carmina were gone.”

“Yeah, speaking of her. I heard you weren’t too happy to see us talking—”

“I’m still not, but shit! It’s Kim’s call. It’s her call now that she’s growing into a young woman. It’s not like I can stop it, but I can accept that. Now stop avoiding the question.”

“I’m not avoiding the question. I don’t understand the question.”

“Why!?”

“Yes, but why what?”

“Why did you stay? Was it Stockholm Syndrome?”

“N—”

“See, I thought about that and it didn’t make sense. Maybe it’s some co-dependent bullshit. But why stay with the cult? That doesn’t make sense either. And then clearly you and Jacob and the rest of his men don’t dress like the rest of New Eden. You aren’t out there singing hymns all the time so it wasn’t like you were brainwashed into their religion or—”

“Are you ever going to let me answer?” Staci softly said. It was a little amusing. Joey had often domineered their conversations. The older version of Staci had let her, being too uncertain of himself to ever interrupt. But he didn’t outright grin or laugh at the memories. The current conversation was too serious for that.

He looked over. Joey’s lips were pressed into a thin, straight line, but she stayed silent.

Staci took a deep breath. “You’re right. I don’t believe in everything Joseph says. Is he really a prophet from God? I don’t know. But I believe in his vision of a new paradise, or a new Eden.”

“Well yeah. It’s a nice vision when you ignore all the people he killed beforehand. What John did, Faith, Jacob—”

Staci gave her a pointed look.

“Right, right. I’ll let you say your peace. Jesus.”

“Thank you.” He took another breath, just trying to prepare himself for what he was about to say. It was impossible to tell how Joey would take it. “We, as in both of us, could go around in circles forever when it comes to if Joseph did the right or wrong thing. From your point of view, it was murder and torture. From his, it was a desperate attempt to get everyone ready for the end. Maybe it was wrong, but it did prepare people. He saved lives. People who wouldn’t have lived through the collapse did because of him. And yes, for many of them, they believe completely in his teaching and his words. But I didn’t stay for that. Not exactly. And I didn’t just stay for Jacob. Those feelings came later. I stayed…I stayed because I knew without a doubt, that they would forgive my sins.”

“Staci, you think we wouldn’t—”

“I’m talking about before Eli Palmer. Before I even made that decision. I killed people to survive Joey. I butchered them, and you really think you could have forgiven me?”

“You were forced to! You were put in a cage and made—”

“Yes. And that’s all you would have seen. Either I would have been some mad, wild animal to you, or a broken toy in need of fixing. There was no chance of getting back my old life. People would have never stopped staring. A freak, a murderer, or a sick, broken thing. Right?”

“Staci. I—”

“Tell me I’m wrong! Tell me you could have looked at me and seen the same Staci Pratt that ate too much on breaks and who always laughed at your jokes! Tell me you would have seen him and nothing else!”

Joey stayed silent.

“Exactly! What happened to me, it couldn’t be undone. Say what you will about that, how horrible or awful it was. But I made my peace with it long ago and I chose New Eden, I chose Joseph and Jacob because I knew they wouldn’t see me as any less of a person. You would have. You do now.”

Still silence. She knew he was right.

“I couldn’t live like that Joey. I couldn’t. And if the world hadn’t fallen apart, you know it would have been straight to a psyche ward or a jail cell for me. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go back to a cage after just getting free of one.”

Staci wiped at his face. The rant had strained him, but it had felt good to get out. Gen whined from the back, poking his nose between the two front seats. Staci put his hand back and petted him. He focused on anything except for Joey. Despite him pouring all that out, she wouldn’t understand. Would she? This conversation hadn’t changed anything in their relationship—

“I never…thought about it like that.”

Staci looked at her in surprise.

“I…fuck. You hit it right on the head.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t mean I wish you hadn’t killed Eli. Doesn’t mean I wish you hadn’t come back.”

“I know,” murmured Staci. “But be honest. What would have happened to me if I had?”

“We probably would have put you in a room. Separated you from the rest. We wouldn’t want you to lash out at the others or hurt yourself.”

“Exactly. A wild animal.”

“Yeah,” murmured Joey. “But what if you hadn’t gotten taken there. What if you’d—”

“Thinking like that will only run you tired. We can’t change the past.”

“No, I suppose we can’t.” Joey sighed. Silence took them for a moment, but eventually Joey said, “With how you put it…I get why you chose them now. And…and you made a life for yourself. I can’t blame you for that after…after what you just said. You wanted somewhere to belong again. A home.”

Staci nodded.

“But why and how on God’s green Earth did it end up being Jacob?”

It was hard not to laugh at that. All of the tense, angry, regretful emotion that had filled the car popped. Joey started to laugh too and despite how Staci hadn’t thought anything had changed, something did feel different. It felt freeing.

“Like, ok we moved past all the weird psyche stuff. Not Stockholm Syndrome or anything like that. But Jacob? And wasn’t the whole place like, celibate or something?”

“Ok, first, do you really think everyone followed that? Second, it was more to prevent a child being born in a dark bunker and having that affect them for all their early years. Third, it wasn’t like it happened right away. It took a couple of years.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’d earned my place, but I wasn’t part of Eden. Not yet. I stayed up late and away from a lot of the people. Didn’t really socialize and…well it turned out Jacob didn’t either. In the early throws of the morning or late at night when people were sat at dinner or listening to a sermon I…I learned to see Jacob more and more as just a man. A man with his own demons, his own opinions and fears and likes, not just an extension of his brother.”

“But that still doesn’t explain how it happened.”

“You seriously want to know?”

“Listen, I know all the fucking gossip back at Prosperity. I’m ready for something new. Spill the beans. Pratt.”

Staci rolled his eyes but said, “We started interacting more when he gave me a reading list.”

“A reading list?”

“Yes! Don’t sound so incredulous,” snorted Staci. “As he put it, he wanted his men to be well read, to remember the before times because humans were too circular. Even if the collapse brought peace for a while, there would always be someone else who’d come along and try to take advantage of it.”

“That explains why you guys are different from the rest of New Eden. So what happened next?”

“Well…”


 

Nearly four years of lessons had occurred. Staci still hadn’t read everything in Jacob’s personal library. After all, it wasn’t like he’d just been able to sit down and do nothing but stare at a book and he didn’t always pick up another one immediately afterwards. Still, by that point, he’d covered a lot of ground within the collection. Jacob even mentioned it as they sat at his desk. Usually Jacob paced behind Staci as he explained what he’d read, but this time there was another chair there. It put them at eye level, rather than Jacob towering over him like he usually did.

“You’ve come a long way,” Jacob commented.

“Only thanks to you.”

“It was your will power that kept you going.”

“Yeah, but you still guided me. You let me in at all.”

“I do it with all my subordinates.”

“Wait, hang on a—” Staci stopped at seeing the small smile on Jacob’s lips. “That was a joke. Urgh, Jesus every time.”

“It’s a better reaction than the heart attack I caused the first time.”

“You did not cause a heart attack over a little joke.”

Jacob cocked an eyebrow.

“Ok, maybe you did a bit. But it’s not my fault it came out of left field.”

“Did it really surprise you that much?”

“Yes? No? I don’t know. Everything about you surprises me. Yet everything seems to fit so perfectly into place too,” sighed Staci. He looked up, expecting Jacob to turn the conversation back towards the lesson. Any time things got too personal, he did that. But he’d been following that pattern less and less.

He asked, “How does it fit?”

“You mean…you? Like how I see you?”

Jacob nodded.

“I…I don’t know how to say it in words.”

“If you can’t do this, how can you relay new orders you’ve just had to think up on the fly to your subordinates?”

Aw, so it technically was still a lesson, even if it was going in a different direction than normal. “Ok, um…just everything I’ve learned about you outside of your standards on discipline and importance of strength, it all felt shocking at first. It didn’t seem right, but that’s because I was just seeing you as a leader, a soldier.”

“I am one.”

“And you definitely try to only be seen as such,” Staci said. “But you’re more than that. You do have a sense of humor, even if it doesn’t come through very often. Your calm does break into anger. And other times it turns into…you get tired, is what I’m trying to say.” Here, Staci started to hesitate more. It was hard to tell how Jacob would take all his weaknesses being laid out in front of him. “You have nightmares…and you…you don’t view everything in just a measure of strength. O-otherwise you wouldn’t…wouldn’t feel regret for your fellow soldier. For Miller.”

And Staci finally backed down, the air so tense and thick. If a spark went off, Staci was afraid the whole room would go up in flames.

“You think that’s regret?” Jacob said. The sentence was slow. Each word was filled with danger.

Staci almost back pedaled. He’d finally done it. He’d overstepped his boundaries. He’d gone too fucking far. But…what if he hadn’t? Jacob had been building up his confidence, his sense of self, his ability to be a part of a pack but also his individuality again all in one go. What if this…was another test? Would it end with Staci being kicked out? With Jacob grabbing his head and slamming it against the desk as some form of punishment? He didn’t want to risk that. He didn’t want to lose this special honor, these private moments with Jacob.

But would not risking it be the more cowardly move?

When Staci spoke, he still wasn’t positive if he was making the right choice. However, he knew that rather right or not, he couldn’t say his peace half-assed. He pushed his shoulders back and stopped slouching. He met Jacob’s gaze head on. “I don’t think. I know.”

“Do you now?”

The thickness of the air seemed to increase, but Staci kept going. “You regret every day what happened over seas. It’s why you value strength so much. Not because your own strength kept you alive but because if Miller had been stronger, then maybe he would have lived too. It’s why you try to make us stronger and you didn’t just pick out the strongest from the beginning. You don’t value survival of the fittest. You want to create the fittest because you are dead set on not losing another soldier again.

“Yes, you value strength, but the true thing that keeps you going is your pack. You can’t bare to lose another member. It’s why you focus on strength but it’s the pack that’s most important to you.” Suddenly an idea came to Staci. “That’s…that’s why you chose wolves. Isn’t it? The symbolism of it. The leader guides the others but if the whole pack isn’t strong, then the alpha’s strength doesn’t matter either.”

And the air grew more intense. Jacob adjusted how he was sitting. He leaned against the desk and leaned closer to Staci. It was tempting to back up. Maybe even to run and get out of there. But Staci fought that urge and then he…he breathed. He finally just breathed. His shoulders relaxed and he stared at Jacob head on.

He knew Jacob by now. He’d seen parts of him that others had never glimpsed, that others wouldn’t dare express. He knew Jacob better than anyone in their compound, and that wasn’t knowledge he should fear. He should be proud of it.

So Staci kept his head high and stared back at Jacob, waiting for his response.

And Jacob? He stared and stared until finally a slow smile appeared on his lips. He clasped a hand against the back of Staci’s head, fingers tangled up in his hair. They were so close. The only other person Staci had ever seen Jacob get like this with was Joseph.

“And you are one of the strongest parts of that pack. You’ve exceeded all my expectations.”

So proud, his hand so warm, the slight smile. And then Staci had moved. It had been so long since he’d even been touched so intimately, and the air had just been so tense, their proximity closer than it had ever been before and—


 

Joey blanched. “You kissed him!”

Staci covered his face in embarrassment. “Urgh, I don’t even know why I did it.”

“Um, you just told me why, idiot. He was warm and close and—”

“Please stop!”

“No fucking way! Jesus, that’s more sappy than when you told me about kissing Ricky Wilson in twelfth grade. Which wasn’t as life threatening as this, but still.”

Staci had slumped farther in his seat, hands still over his face.

“What the hell happened next?”

“You mean besides how my heart stopped beating?”

“Obviously.”

“I mean, I pulled back just as quickly. Or at least I tried because believe me. I’d thought I’d fucked up. But then he grabbed me instead and…well I’m definitely not telling you those details.”

“Ah come one. Let me guess. He’s a power—”

“Don’t you dare fucking finish that sentence!”

Joey howled with laughter. Staci tried to keep a straight face but it only lasted for a few seconds before he was laughing again. He turned to look at her, a smile on his face, but that slowly dropped. He hadn’t expected any of these conversations to occur. He hadn’t expected to seemingly get anywhere with Joey, not with how they’d left things. But that had been four months ago and maybe…just maybe…

“I don’t think I can go back to just you trying to act distant,” Staci finally said when Joey’s own laughter had subsided. “I get that…it’s not easy for you. But if I’m being honest, I’d rather just not talk to you from here on out, if it is easier for you. Because it’s easier for me rather than doing this back and forth, friends one moment, glares the next.”

Joey didn’t respond. Not right away and after a little longer of silence, Staci tried again.

“I can get over you never forgiving me. I’m fine if you never become buddy, buddy with every person from New Eden that you meet. But I can’t deal with how unpredictable you are in our conversations, and I won’t stand for you bad mouthing Jacob or New Eden again. I know our sins. We all do. And trust me when I say Jacob is doubly aware of his own. I just can’t have this, us joking and laughing, only for you to go around and get upset—”

“We’re here.”

Staci let out a small sigh at the interruption. Another glance over didn’t give him anything. Joey’s face was impossible to read as she got out of the car and took out her gun.

He mentally promised himself this wasn’t over. Joey couldn’t just let him in and then block him out whenever she wanted. They would continue this conversation. It would just have to be after they dealt with the Highwaymen.

Staci let General out of the back and then prepped his own weapons. He pulled out his bow and arrows first.

“We’re going to try and do quick and quiet. Can your wolf handle that?” asked Joey as she spun a silencer onto her pistol.

“He’ll be fine,” Staci replied. He scratched Gen behind the ear and then followed Joey, letting her take the lead.

They moved up on the small area. Joey took out her binoculars. “I count twenty-six of them at least.”

She passed the binoculars over and Staci got a quick look.

“I was thinking I go around, use the brush as cover and sneak in through the old train. You take out their sniper and go in on the north side,” Joey said.

“Got it.” Staci handed the binoculars back and started to walk away only for Joey to suddenly grab his arm. “What?”

“Seriously? No other questions?”

“You gave a good plan. I’m not going to argue with that,” replied Staci. “See you on the other side.”

This time Joey didn’t stop him, and he clicked his tongue so Gen would follow. They moved swiftly. Staci paused so he could take out the sniper in a way that made it less likely he’d fall over the edge and make a racket. The Highwayman did as Staci had hoped, falling back rather than forward over the rail. Staci then told Gen to stay where he was before Staci went to find a closer hiding place. He stayed low in the bushes and saw three people gathered closely together. He knocked the bow and fired, once, then twice. The last guy managed a loud, “Hey!” but Staci downed him too before he could actually do anything.

Staci moved positions. He watched as a Highwayman moved near him, drawn by the former guy’s shout. Staci didn’t notch another arrow. He put the bow down instead and took out his knife. The Highwayman came closer and Staci jumped out, hitting the throat first to keep the woman from calling out. Blood spurted over the knife and Staci’s hands. He gently guided the choking woman to the ground before properly slitting her throat and moving on.

He picked up his bow again. He fired another arrow. Took down another person. He moved round. Took out another as he moved farther into the little encampment. He collected his other arrows and then pulled out his knife again when someone spotted him. He threw it, the blade landing right inside their skull. He then took his bow and took down two more before rushing over to grab his knife. He pulled it out as someone else came around the corner to see what the noise was about. He slit their throat too.

Eventually, he found Joey and both of them relaxed. “I got thirteen. You?”

“Thirteen,” she said. “That should have been—”

A gunshot sounded and they both quickly ducked.

“I’ll kill you! I swear to god I’ll kill you for what you did!”

“Only one guy,” sighed Staci.

“Shit, must have miscounted,” Joey replied.

“Doesn’t sound like there’s anyone else though.”

“No. It doesn’t. I—”

Staci grabbed her hand as she lifted her gun. “Hold on. I got this.”

He let out a loud whistle. General came running and both Staci and Joey stood up when they heard the quick scream of the Highwayman fade away.

“Let’s get Grace’s shit, any ethanol, and get the hell out of here.”

Staci nodded in agreement.

As they went to work, they didn’t talk much. They pillaged the corpses and only shouted to each other when they needed help pushing open a steel door or getting to a hard to reach place. They packed up the car with tanks of gas, Grace’s stuff, and anything they’d found on the corpses. The extra guns and ammunition would prove useful.

Staci thought they were almost done. He went to look for Gen. He found him quickly, chewing on a Highwayman’s face. Staci clicked his tongue and General reluctantly pulled back. As Gen came to his side, muzzle covered in blood, Staci looked around for Joey and found her staring at one of the Highwaymen. He almost called out to her to hurry up. However, something told him that might destroy a chance to continue their conversation from the car. Instead, he gestured for General to get to the car and approached her on his own.

He walked up beside her. He looked to her and then the corpse, trying to figure out what she was seeing in the dead man. He almost asked, but again, it felt like he might break the calm. He stayed quite instead. He listened to his own heartbeat, the sound of the wind, Joey’s breathing, and—

“Jacob taught you well. The Old Pratt would have shit himself, dealing with a fight like that.”

Staci snorted. “Probably.”

“But that’s the thing. You fight like a soldier, but you never were one. You just joined the sheriff’s department for a cushy job.”

Staci shrugged. He didn’t exactly know where this conversation was going, but he wasn’t going to deny that.

“I was a soldier though. And there’s something you have to learn as a soldier. You have to learn to dehumanize the enemy because if you’re thinking about their friends and family and children all while you’re blowing holes in their heads, then you’re never going to sleep again.

“The cult was the enemy Stacy. There was no gray because that’s not what being a soldier is about. You follow orders. You kill. You don’t think about the other side’s humanity.”

Staci remained quiet.

“And then here comes fucking Jacob! And fuck, he hid it well, but I could tell he was going through the same mental hurdles as me. And you know what? That just made me angrier. It made me angrier that me and him could have something to relate to at all. Because New Eden is all just a pile of psychotic monsters. That’s it.”

Still, Staci didn’t say a word, even some immediate thoughts were coming to his head.

“That’s so much easier to believe rather than thinking about how you all spend your free time. How you sit and chat. How you hold each other and laugh and kiss. Four months ago, you defended Jacob, so I lumped you in with them. A monster too. But monsters don’t sit down every morning to have breakfast, hold their hands in prayer. Monsters don’t look worried when one of their own doesn’t come back. Monsters don’t cry in relief, they don’t laugh. It was all so much easier when you were just the monsters. The bad guys, the targets to kill.”

“I’m sorry.”

Joey laughed. It was harsh and sad but still a laugh. “It’s not like it’s your fault. Not for this. I just didn’t want to be friends with you. If we became friends again, then I’d have to face that my view on you lot was wrong. You were the final nail in the coffin for that. And Jacob…”

“What about him?”

“The third time he saved my sorry ass, it was after that when we both were working together. Like, willingly. We even worked well together, up until he had to disappear. But on that third time, he ended up pulling me aside later, and he told me what those nightmares were about. The ones you mentioned in the story.”

Staci looked on in shock. “He did?”

She nodded. “From one soldier to another as he put it. He didn’t tell me to make friends or anything. It was all to make a point. He told me how he turned Miller into the enemy in his own head, someone not worthy of living because he wasn’t strong enough. He said it was hard looking at the familiar faces in Prosperity, that it was hard looking at me, knowing I’d helped to kill his brother. But the hardest thing was reminding himself that as he saw that, we probably saw the same thing. The blood of our own brothers and sisters and friends on his hands. I didn’t think I could ever get to acknowledging that though. Now I realize it wasn’t because I couldn’t, I just didn’t want to. Because then it meant I had to deal with my anger towards you.”

Very slowly, Staci reach out. His pinky finger gently touched Joey’s hand. Then he moved it so both his pinky and ring finger were touching her. Finally, she took his in hers.

“You’re not the enemy anymore, and as much as I’d like to change the past, you’re right. The past can’t be changed.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You keep saying that. What the hell for?”

“For leaving you.”

“Yeah, well…me too. But you had your reasons. I get that now. I can’t…I can’t forgive all of you.”

“I said you didn’t have to be buddy, buddy with us.”

“I know! I know. I just want you to know…I can’t forgive it all, but I’m done being angry. I’m done being angry with you. Really this time. We have a war to fight and it’s not with the Peggies.”

Staci nodded in agreement. He squeezed her hand. “Thank you.”

“You’ve gotta stop with how cryptic your fucking comments are and actually explain them.”

Staci snorted. “Thank you for helping us. And for not being angry at me. Or indifferent. I honestly don’t know how much longer I could have taken that.”

“Yeah, me too,” sighed Joey.

Her hand slipped out of his and she started to walk off. As Staci followed, he added, “Do you think Kim planned for this?”

“Planned for what?”

“For you to come out with me. For us both to clear the air so we didn’t do something stupid when it mattered most?”

“Hell if I know, but I wouldn’t put it past her. I thought if anyone, she’d hate you lot the most. But she’s smarter than me. She was already putting aside old wounds on day one while I was still hellbent on fighting Jacob.”

Staci chuckled again at that. They got back to the car. Staci let Gen back into the backseat and then got in the passenger’s seat again.

“I’ll help you find him by the way.”

“Wait. Hold on—”

“After we finish up our current plan, we regain some territory and open up the roads of course, but…I will.”

Staci slowly breathed, deep and long. “Once we finish this step, I need to go back to New Eden. Hopefully I can find where Joseph went, regain some order. At the very least, I need to talk some sense into Ethan.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand your guy’s politics. I’d say just take over. You got support, at least from your people at Prosperity, and you’re smart enough to figure out a way.”

“An entertaining idea, but not realistic.”

“I suppose.”

“If it helps, I still don’t fully understand the politics behind it either. And I know the number one person who got frustrated with Joseph was always Jacob.”

Joey laughed. “Siblings. Even when they're religious cult leaders, they’re still the same, huh?”

“I guess so,” chuckled Staci. “But after I go up there, at least once, then I’ll definitely take your help. If that’s still ok with you.”

“Yeah, it is. I know you’d help me, if I asked.”

“Always.”

“Yeah, so it would be pretty shitty if I didn’t help you find your partner, huh? Just tell me when you have time and we’ll head out then and there.”

“Thank you.”

Joey nodded as they drove back to Prosperity. They thankfully didn’t hit any major trouble on the way and by the time they got back, the sun had already gone down. They started to unpack everything, a few people coming forward to help. They were almost done when the gates opened again and Staci saw Carmina ride in with Selene behind her.

Carmina let out a low whistle as she slowed down and stopped next to the car. “Wow, you sure got lucky huh?”

“You could say-why are you soaked?” Staci asked, stopping himself as he looked at her stiff, still damp clothes. Joey raised an eyebrow at it too.

“Oh!” Selene quickly said with a small shout. “I dropped an important med kit in that big hole up by the Inquisitor’s Grave.”

“The what?”

“It’s what we call John’s old compound,” explained Joey.

“Gotcha-hold on! You’re talking about that massive, flooded opening? You jumped in it?!”

“Yep,” Carmina pleasantly said. “Wasn’t too hard.”

“Jesus, I’m glad I’m not the father of a teenager right now,” groaned Staci. He looked to Selene. “I can’t believe you let her do that.”

“Well I can’t swim so I couldn’t do it.”

“That’s not my point—”

Before Staci could continue grumbling about safety while Carmina likely came to her friend’s defense, Sharky suddenly came running up instead.

“Carmina! Holy shit, I mean your momma probably wants to tell you first but holy hell we’re gonna have to change some of our plans for it.”

“Wait, you mean for the big push in the next few days? Why?” asked Carmina.

“Well I’m sure your momma’s told you how we’ve been trying to track down your dad and how we had him pinned down for a bit but then they moved him before we could get to him, and just how the twins have been forcing him to fix up a plane for them and—”

“Sharky,” Staci interrupted. “Spit it out.”

“Right! Point is, they located your dad again. And what with how big of an operation our next push is going to be, going after him while the Highwaymen are scrambling is going to be our best bet. We’re finally gonna get Nick back!”

Staci looked to Carmina’s wide-eyed stare.

“Holy shit.”

“She’s making plans as we speak,” Sharky quickly said just as Carmina rushed off.

Staci put down one of the last containers of ethanol before hurrying after her, Gen and Joey both at his heels. When they rushed into the room, Carmina was already in her mother’s arms. She hugged her tight before pulling back and saying, “I want in on the operation.”

“Carmina, this is going to be dangerous. You can’t go alone,” Kim stressed.

“You literally just said it’s going to have to be a small op. If that means just me, then so be it.”

Kim shook her head though. “And what if you got captured?”

“You let me go halfway across the country!”

“This is different! I can’t have the hope of seeing my husband home again, only to lose him and you all in one go.”

“But mom, I—”

“What if I go with her?”

All eyes turned to Staci.

“We still keep it small. Just me and her. We go in, grab Nick while you guys are off causing chaos, then we leave. Simple,” Staci said.

“And what about your role in taking back the forge?” asked Kim.

“Joey can do it.”

“Oh can I?”

“You’re part of the team retaking the orchard, but it’s not like they need you. They’re already larger than necessary just to be on the safe side. Besides, your military background will be useful at the forge. And if you must, have one of my people take your original spot.” Staci looked around at everyone. Then he looked to Kim. “Unless you want Carmina to go off alone.”

“And let’s be real mom, even if you chained me to a bed post, I’d go after dad anyways.”

“Of course you would,” sighed Kim. She looked to Staci. “And you’re truly willing to do this for me?”

“Yes. For you and Carmina. Besides, considering Nick’s skill with engines, it’ll be a hard blow to the twins and a big boost for us. Unless you want someone else to go with Carmina.”

Kim hesitated. She looked at the other people in the room and seemed to weigh the pros and cons of this new operation. Then she looked to Staci again and said, “You went all the way to Texas and managed to keep my daughter safe. I suppose it would be silly to think you couldn’t do the same just a few miles from here.”

“Yes!” cried Carmina.

“And Joey, you’re alright with the change?”

“It’s no problem for me. Puts me in the center of the action.”

“Well then, Carmina, Staci, let me fill you in on what we know. Joey, go meet with your new squad.”

“Got it, Kim. See you all later.”

Staci nodded to her and then focused back to Carmina and her mom. “So, where exactly is Nick being held?”

Chapter Text

The next day, final preparations were made for their big push. Scouts were sent out to make sure their information was up to date and supplies were passed out. Grace had finished her latest invention by then too. Staci got a chance to try it out as Grace called him over from across the courtyard. Looking at it, he was a bit skeptical. It certainly looked impressive, but did it work? Not completely heeding Grace’s warning, he fired the sawblade.

He immediately had to duck as it ricocheted off the sheet of metal and lodged itself in a piece of wood behind his head.

“Holy shit!”

“Told you to watch the recoil,” Grace said with a smirk.

“I will take that into account next time,” Staci assured her. He ran a hand over his hair just to make sure he hadn’t grazed himself.

After testing the weapon, Staci continued to help where he could. All the information he needed for his own mission had been given to him and Carmina last night. Until they were to go out, he kept busy. It was almost nine before things seemed to be set and many started to move out. The different teams were to camp near their targets tonight so that way they could all strike at the planned times tomorrow morning.

For Staci, that meant driving out with Carmina towards an old water tower. Nick was being moved there tomorrow for some work the Highwaymen wanted to do on his old plane or something. Those details didn’t really matter though. What did was exactly how many guards there would be. Their current intelligence said eight, but Staci and Carmina prepared for more.

Before they left, Staci said goodbye to General even as the wolf tried to follow him. Staci promised again and again that he’d be back sooner than last time. Grace even gave her word that she’d look after him until Staci got back. It helped that Gen took to her when it became clear he wasn’t allowed to follow.

With a final look back at Prosperity, Staci got on his bike and Carmina behind him. They drove through the night with the headlight off. Before, that might have been difficult. Even Hope County hadn’t been spared the light pollution of before. Now, in the middle of the night, the Milk Way was perfectly clear and driving without their headlights was easy. It also meant if they had to quickly hide from a Highwayman’s vehicle, they could.

They got to the water tower sometime close to midnight and found a place in the brush to hunker down in.

Staci said he’d take the first shift which made Carmina chuckle.

“It’s almost like we’re back on the road again, huh?”

“A little. Just promise you’ll get some sleep tonight. I understand being anxious about getting Nick back, but I don’t want you to make any mistakes tomorrow.”

“My head’s on straight. You don’t have to worry about that,” Carmina replied as she folded her jacket into a pillow. “Besides, if shit goes sidewise, you’ve got my back.”

“True, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Carmina nodded in agreement. She laid her head down and shifted about, trying to get some sleep. Staci practically kept his head on a swivel. For the moment, he wasn’t afraid of Highwaymen happening upon them. It was more the wildlife that he was keeping his eyes and ears open for.

However, he never had a reason to immediately pull out his gun. When he switched with Carmina, he managed to sleep peacefully through the rest of the night too. Once morning came, they ate a small breakfast that they’d brought with them. During it, Staci regularly checked the position of the sun.

“We should be making the first push soon,” he commented.

“Do you think it’ll actually work?”

“I hope it will. I’m not gonna make promises though. We tried to plan for all eventualities, but you can’t plan for everything.”

Carmina nodded in understanding.

“We should be able to take back the forge at the very least. We put most of ours and Rush’s forces behind it. The other things, we can take those back later if necessary. But retaking the forge now and opening up the roads, that will be the real turning point for us.”

“A means of production. For bullets, right? And if they haven’t moved Rush yet, we’ll get him back too.”

“Exactly.”

They finished up eating and took position. The plan was to take down all threats silently and quickly. With any luck, Nick wouldn’t even know they were there until he turned around and saw Carmina and Staci standing in front of him. They waited.

They waited some more.

And waited.

Carmina looked worried. She almost spoke, but Staci held up his hand. She quieted, and Staci moved out of the underbrush. His ears had just barely picked up the sounds of engines coming from downhill. He took out his binoculars and looked down the road. It didn’t take long to find the three cars, all decked out in pink and blue with added metal grafted on. He couldn’t see Nick. However, he did manage to make out three figures that were still in the back of one of the cars. The one in the middle didn’t have any pink or blue armor on them, so that was probably Nick. The rest of the Highwaymen were out of the cars. They were talking to each other and talking on their radios.

“I think our efforts today have spooked them,” murmured Staci as Carmina finally came forward.

“What does that mean?”

“The twins don’t want to lose any more assets. They’re likely being told to go back. They don’t want an ambush from up here.”

“Well let’s get them!”

“We’d have to get in range first. By then, they’ll have at least gotten the car with Nick in it out of there. And we can’t risk shooting out the tires or anything once they start moving.” Technically speaking they could have. It was better to have an asset dead rather than in the hands of the enemy. But obviously that wasn’t an option for Carmina.

“Then we follow them.”

“Carm—”

“I’m not giving up! Not with him right there. Besides, they could lead us to a compound or something important to the twins.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“I’m not leaving him again!”

“We haven’t planned for—”

“Screw it! Jacob trained you, didn’t he? Come up with a plan on the fly. Weigh all our options when we get there and figure out the best way to attack. We can do this.”

Staci still hesitated, even as Carmina snatched the binoculars from him and gave a quick look. “They’re moving out already! Come on. We have to go before they completely disappear from view.”

She rushed to the bike as Staci looked up at the sky. It was a clear, sunny day, not an ideal time to follow someone. It wasn’t like they had trackers or anything. They’d have to stay within view so as not to lose them. It was risky. Kim definitely would have said no. Absolutely not. This was putting them both in danger as they’d no doubt be heading into a territory with even more Highwaymen. For Kim, Staci should have said no. On the other hand, his training told him to get close enough and shoot out the tires, damn the consequences. Then there was that other part of him. A newer part of him. It was the one that had spent so many weeks alone with Carmina.

Though he didn’t feel it was the smartest choice, that companionship won out first. Jesus, Kim was going to tear him a new one when they got back.

Staci put the binoculars up and rushed over. “Fine, but I’m driving. Scoot.”

He kicked them off and drove slowly down the hill. He was lucky they were on the bike and hadn’t taken a car. It would make following the Highwaymen at least a little easier. Once they were on the cracked, concrete road, Staci had to make sure they stayed as far away back as possible and just pray no one thought to look back.

“They’re too far ahead! We’re going to lose them!”

“We can’t get closer! Not an option!” Staci yelled back.

He returned his focused to their targets in front of them. His heart was hammering in his chest. Eventually the convoy turned onto some dirt roads again which at least had Staci feeling a bit better about their chances. He could look down and see the freshly turned dirt and gravel now without risking being in their line of sight.

They kept driving until it suddenly hit Staci. He started to slow down.

“Hey, where are we going?”

“This road leads to the old mines. They’ve got to be taking him there.”

“But what if they’re not? What if it’s just a detour and we waste too much time? What if we get there and the cars are already gone again—”

“Then we’ll have to wait for the next chance to save your father! I understand he’s your priority right now, but you’re my priority. Understood? We’re doing this, so we do it my way.”

With that, Staci pulled off on a detour through the woods. He waited for Carmina to argue, but she didn’t. He felt her grip him a little harder. The motion was both a comfort and an apology. Staci let out a small sigh. He was going slow enough that it was easy to stop so he could give her hand a quick squeeze. He understood her side. If it was Jacob? Staci would put himself through a suicide mission if it meant Jacob being ok. But Carmina was under his protection and he was already going against Kim’s wishes. Going back without her daughter just wasn’t an option.

Staci drove through the backroads and little stretches of woods. The reason for this was because the roads to the mines opened up and offered little to no cover. If they had a sniper present, which they mostly certainly would, he’d see Staci and Carmina coming.

To make their approach as secure as possible, Staci chose the woods. Then he eventually stopped and gestured to Carmina to get up. They walked for a bit, right up until they could see the mine through the trees. He could feel Carmina’s body relax in relief as they saw the convoy of cars parked out front. The freshly turned gravel and dirt right behind the tires also told Staci they were the ones that had been driving down the road. There also wasn’t any sign that any other vehicles had left the area recently. However, Nick wasn’t visible. They’d probably moved him into one of the shelters then.

Staci counted out the men he could see. As expected, there was a sniper. Two, in fact. One was closer to them, on top of the building, and the other was near the opening of the mines. Staci’s bow wouldn’t reach that one and the space was too open to take them all out quietly.

Was it impossible? No, but their odds weren’t looking great. They at least knew where Nick was being held. Of course, he knew what Carmina would say to that. What if they moved him elsewhere though? What if this wasn’t their usual spot, but they’d just come here for safety due to the raids that were happening today? What if—

But what if didn’t matter. Staci had already gone against Kim’s wishes. He couldn’t go any further. They had some new information. They’d have to count their blessings that their mission wasn’t completely useless and move out of Highwaymen territory. Staci reached for Carmina, planning on pulling her back to the bike and—

“Carmina!” The angry whisper was useless though. Carmina evaded his grasp and slid down to the gravel ditch by the road. Staci quickly looked up. One of the Highwaymen looked like he’d noticed the noise, but upon seeing nothing, he turned away again.

Fuck, he couldn’t blame Carmina! But that sure as shit didn’t mean this was going to be any easier. Staci’s eyes quickly took in the area. Alright, their best chance was for him to take out the first sniper. They would fucking notice, but hopefully as they looked in the wrong direction, Staci could make his way over so he could reach the other sniper and take him out. With the snipers down. They could start an assault. There weren’t enough places to do it completely in stealth, but they could probably get two or three guys before being spotted—

“Die you fuckers!”

God damn it! He’d thought Carmina could handle herself!

Staci couldn’t stop her as she lit a piece of dynamite and threw it at a group of three Highwaymen. All he could do was make sure she didn’t get shot from above as he quickly pulled out an arrow. He fired at the nearest sniper. Head shot. The woman fell off the roof as Staci quickly slid down into the trench too. However, instead of being able to defend Carmina, she’d already rushed to the left. She popped out, fired twice, ducked for a few seconds, and then made a run towards the building.

Jesus Christ! Just because Staci would have been stupid enough to commit a suicide mission for someone he loved did not mean Carmina could do the same!

Staci pulled out his gun and gave Carmina some covering fire before he pulled himself out of the trench too. He rushed to his next line of cover. He slid the last few feet before hitting a crate with a thud. He tried to get a look of where everyone was, only to nearly get his head blown off. The other sniper. He needed to take care of him first.

At that moment, Carmina threw another stick of dynamite. It was hard to tell if it hit anyone, but it acted as a good momentary distraction. Staci ran for the old mining belt that had once carried rocks out of the mines and down. He ran up it. The sniper noticed and started to turn. Staci rolled as he came to the flat stretch, took out another arrow, and fired again. He managed to hit the sniper in the shoulder. He dropped his gun and Staci followed through with an arrow to the man’s head before he hit the ground. Staci jumped off the belt and rolled. The drop had been pretty high up though and Staci could feel his body ache as he found his next area of cover. He took out his gun again and fired at the nearest Highwayman. As she fell, he spotted a glimpse of something shiny on her belt loop.

Staci ran for her and snagged the keys off the dead woman’s belt. They looked like the keys to the main building they were near. Staci yelled to Carmina and quickly threw them to her. “Go look for your dad! I’ll take care of the rest of them!”

Was he sending her into an area with an unknown number of enemies? Yes. But he’d taken stock of the vehicles and just how many people were outside. There couldn’t be that many people in there and Staci would be able to focus more if he wasn’t looking over his shoulder all the time to make sure Carmina didn’t get shot.

He put down some more covering fire so that she had time to get to the door, unlock it, and get inside. Staci then focused on the remaining Highwaymen.

Pull the trigger.

One. Two. Three.

Out of ammo. Most of it had ended up getting used for cover fire.

Take out the arrows then.

Shoot through the knee. Bring them to the ground. Second arrow in the head. An easy target.

Take another arrow out.

One. Two. Three.

And all the while, Staci thought breathe, assess, act. Their numbers started to drastically dwindle as Staci remained untouched and as ready as ever.

Then he reached for another arrow—

All out now. Time to get up close and personal.

There were five left. Staci moved in quick and fast. He used cover when he had to and took advantage of their reloading times. He came up close to one, drew his knife.

Four left.

He turned to the next one. One leg went out and hit the back of the Highwayman’s knee. The guy fell flat on his back just as Staci fell forward. His knee hit the guy’s chest and his knife got ready to go through the guy’s eye socket—

At the last minute, Staci stopped. He kept the knife there, a warning for if the guy tried anything. However, his free hand snatched at the metal around the Highwayman’s throat and pulled it out. The dog tags shined bright in the light of the sun.

A gun fired from one of the three remaining people. Staci quickly ducked and looked down at the man.

“Where did you get these?”

The Highwayman just laughed in his face though. “Like I’ll tell—argh!”

Staci had gotten up and with one carefully poised strike, he’d knocked the man’s knee out of place. He quickly did it to the other one before reaching down and grabbing the man’s gun. He then turned on the tree last fighters.

Pull the trigger.

One. Two. Three.

They all fell, and Staci threw the gun a safe distance away from the only living Highwayman. He walked over to the building and kicked open the door Carmina had gone through. His eyes didn’t leave the Highwayman’s who was struggling to crawl on the gravel ground.

“Everything ok!”

“I’ve got him! I’m just looking for the key!”

That was the answer Staci had hoped for. Carmina was safe. She was alive, and she’d found her father. There were no more Highwaymen. None except for the one desperately crawling to the nearest weapon.

With the mission accomplished and Carmina out of harm’s way, something inside Staci snapped. His priorities no longer needed to be split so he focused everything he had on the one Highwayman. Every ounce of cold rage that was building inside him started to spread all over.

He walked over and stepped on the Highwayman’s hand. The man screamed as Staci put all his weight on it. He could hear the crunch of the fine bones. It made Staci push just a little harder.

“Where did you get those dog tags?”

The man had to know he was going to die.

“I ain’t telling you—argh!”

Staci kicked the man over, hard enough that he probably broke a rib. He got down on his chest, straddling it as one hand came around the man’s throat and his free hand ripped the dog tags from the man’s neck. He held onto them in a tight fist as he gave the man an offer.

“You die quickly if you tell me the truth. But you say some shit like that again? Or you lie? Then a broken hand will be the least of your problems.”

His vision was going red. Everything inside him was brimming with hatred. With anger. If this man had done anything to—

“You want the fucking truth? I pulled it off a corpse!” The man cried with a broken shout, blood bubbling up between his teeth. The man grinned red, clearly deciding that he’d try to inflict some pain before he died. “Well, he became a fucking corpse pretty soon. Was still breathing when I pulled those tags off him, but kind of hard to keep going when you got a bullet in your head.”

Staci stared down. That cold rage finished slipping through the rest of his body. It rested in the tips of his fingers, in the pit of his stomach. It made it feel like his heart had stopped beating.

The Highwayman’s smile grew. He did know he was going to die. Staci could see that in his eyes. And now he was willing to spill the truth if it broke the person wanting to hear it. And oh, was it breaking Staci. “Ah, that get your fucking panties in a twist? What? You know him or something? Angry that I killed some—urgh!”

Staci punched the man in his teeth.

The man’s speech was even more garbled, but he still tried to talk. “That fucker thought he was something! Oh, and it was a fight for sure. But he didn’t stand a fucking—”

Staci let go of the man’s neck and punched him with the other hand. Both fists were curled and ready to strike.

“You won’t stand a chance against—”

And Staci punched him again.

And again.

And again.

And again!

No! No, no, no, no, no—

“Staci—”

A hand grabbed Staci’s arm and in a heartbeat, he pulled out his knife. He nearly struck the target. The knife was centimeters away from the arteries in the person’s throat. And then he looked up to see the wide, bewildered eyes of Carmina.

Staci’s mind still wasn’t fully catching up with his body, even as a different hand came out and ripped the blade from his hands.

“What the fuck Pratt!!!”

A boot connected with his chest. Staci fell back on his ass and off the body underneath him.

“Dad, hold on—”

“No, he fucking pointed a knife at you! What the hell is your problem? What the fuck did you think you were doing?”

Staci tried to even his breathing. The red started to fade from the edges of his eyes. He looked at Nick Rye for the first time in months. If Staci had thought his interactions with Nick had been awkward before, nothing came close to this instance. Carmina’s arm was on her dad’s, clearly holding him back. However, after a moment of silence, Carmina suddenly let go and rushed to Staci.

“Shit you’re bleeding!”

Nick looked tempted to grab his daughter right back. However, he frowned and growled out, “How the hell can you tell what’s his?”

At the comment, the cold rage started to slip from Staci’s fingers as well. It was replaced with actual feeling again. He could tell Carmina was trying to slowly pull his fingers apart. He’d been punching the Highwayman with both hands but only one really hurt. His knuckles were covered in blood, like his other hand, but the right one also had blood seeping from his fingertips. After some struggling, Carmina managed to get his fist open.

“Fuck,” muttered Nick. “Why the hell were you punching him with that in your hand?”

Staci stared at the dog tags that had cut into his skin. Now that the feeling was coming back, he didn’t want it. And not for the pain, the stinging blood. He could deal with that. No, he didn’t want the gut-wrenching feeling of defeat to come with it.

“What is-oh god. Oh…what did he say?” whispered Carmina. She must have read the name on the tags. Her eyes turned to the dead Highwayman and finally Staci looked too.

The face was gone. He’d pulverized it completely. Finally, he looked at his own clothes and chest. He understood Nick’s question now. Staci was drenched in the drying red.

“What the hell are you two on about?” asked Nick. “What’s so important about those tags?”

“A lot’s changed since you were captured dad,” murmured Carmina. She gently took Staci’s arm. “Come on. We need to get out of here before more Highwaymen come looking.”

At those words, Staci’s brain woke up a little more. A pained cry wanted to make its way out of his mouth, but he fought it. Instead, he looked around and tried to remember the words that Ja-the words that would help.

Breathe…

What were the other ones?

“Come on. We need to fucking go. Now,” growled Nick.

Right. The Highwaymen. They had to leave before more came their way. So then…then he just had to…

“I’ll take the bike back. You two steal one of their cars.” Staci said those words. He knew he did. Yet his voice felt so far away.

“You sure you’ll be ok?” asked Carmina.

“I’ll meet you back at Prosperity.” So far away. Everything was so distant, except for the pain his hand and in his chest.

“Well if you’re doing that, you need to bandage the wound.”

Carmina started to reach forward. She just wanted to help, yet Staci pulled back. He couldn’t bare for anyone else to touch the dog tags. He pulled them the rest of the way out of his fresh wounds and placed them in his pocket. He just had to breathe and…just keep breathing. “I’m ok. I’ll meet you back at Prosperity.”

“But—”

“You heard him. He’ll get back himself,” muttered Nick. Staci couldn’t blame Nick for his distrust considering the circumstances.

Still, Carmina looked worried. Staci had to push himself to wave her away.

“I’ll see you there. Promise.”

Nick took his daughter’s arm and started to pull her back. “Let’s get the hell out of here sweetheart.”

Staci nodded again. It was ok. He’d be…

Staci quickly turned away so he could go and start collecting his arrows. He grabbed some added pistol ammo too before he headed back into the woods. He collected his bike and took a short cut back to the road. By the time he got there, he saw that Nick and Carmina had already left.

His hand painfully stung as he got on the bike and twisted the throttle. The cuts were deep and bled faster than the wind could dry and scab the wounds over.

The dog tags in his pocket felt like rocks. Like they were slowing him down every foot of road he moved through.

He just had to pick apart the situation. He had to keep control. Breathe…assess. That was the second part. And then…what was the third part? What was Jac—what was the pattern?

Staci made it to the main road. He was in Highwaymen territory so it wasn’t surprising that he soon came across a small group of cars. He should have just sped up. His bike was faster. He could have easily broken their line of sight of him and could have gotten back to Prosperity. He should leave to fight another day—

That thought didn’t even finish as something internally just switched off.

He pulled out his gun and managed to shoot the driver of the first car. Red splashed against the windshield as Staci skidded to a stop. He went so quickly that when he got off, his bike fell behind him. He continued to advance, gun going off at the other car’s tires.

When he ran out of ammo, he put in another clip. When the arrows were gone, he managed to rip them from eye sockets and chests. Sometimes he fired them again. Other times he stabbed the nearest man or woman next to him.

For every ten wounds he inflicted, another wound was inflicted on him. Staci wasn’t invincible. His body’s natural wear and tear was catching up to him. His muscles strained more. Each hit or cut slowed him. Yet still he fought. Not even when another truck pulled up and more Highwaymen got out. He didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop—


Over a week had passed since New Eden and the other group had come up with a tentative peace. Staci still wasn’t sure what they were calling themselves. For the moment, the only thing that mattered was that New Eden would stick to the northern parts of what had once been Hope County. The other group would stick more to the southern area.

Many of the more useful ruins had ended up in the southern regions. People like Nick Rye seemed quick to take advantage of the warehouses, the forge, and other buildings in their area. For Joseph, that was just fine seeing as he was trying to push New Eden to a mentality of completely living off the land. They probably would have too, if not for Jacob.

Without Jacob as a center, his people likely would have succumbed to Joseph’s word. They would have left their guns and military jackets for the sewn together pelts and wooden bows. But Jacob was still alive and from the very first day of stepping out of the compounds, he’d made it clear he’d be buried with his rifle before anyone took it away, even his own brother.

Because of that, Jacob was still on edge about the temporary peace agreement. He didn’t like the advantage the other group had if war did come again. He’d argued about it with Joseph to no avail and had made sure to send his personal men out on scavenging missions to try and make up for the lost supplies.

The stress was piled up on Jacob despite how Joseph saw a clean, new beginning ahead of them. Jacob’s way of coping was of course to over prepare, to continue training his men, to workout himself. When those options had already been exhausted or weren’t available on a particular day, then Staci often found him pacing, his mind wrapped up in numbers and strategies.

He’d first gotten a gray hair near the end of their stay in the bunkers. Now only a couple of years after the collapse and Jacob’s ginger hair was speckled.

His thumb rubbed thoughtfully across his chin. He would have kept doing that if Staci hadn’t eventually walked over and forced his hand to stop.

“I would have thought peace would finally give you a reason to relax, not grow more irate.” Staci kept his voice light, even if his stare was a pointed one. During their time in the bunker, Staci and Jacob had grown in a way that they’d walked out of it different men than when they’d first entered.

Jacob would always be the man in charge, but now Staci was trusted. He was admired by the people of New Eden, his people. But more importantly, Jacob wanted him by his side. Staci had momentarily thought that after leaving the bunker, Jacob would have less of a reason to keep Staci around. No longer would he have such a limited pool of people for a new pet.

But Staci was more than the thing that had followed Jacob with his head down. He’d become more than a bitch of a secretary. He was something Jacob wanted, something Jacob wasn’t going to give up. Later, doubt would be a bare memory. At the time, there were still days Staci woke up and wondered, would today be the day Jacob realized he could choose better? But those days were already becoming fewer and for the moment, Staci felt confident as he grew closer to Jacob.

“Peace will be good for the community,” Staci added.

“For a time. And then they’ll grow complacent. They’ll forget what it means to truly fight. Why can’t Joseph see I’m trying to prevent that?” growled Jacob. He turned away, continuing the pattern he was pacing into the floor of their still new home.

The only way to stop Jacob in his tracks was to move into the pattern. Staci got in front of him and looked up. “No one can really speak on behalf of your brother. But I think he appreciates your work, even if he thinks it’s unnecessary.”

“That’s the irritating part,” sighed Jacob. He sat down, the pattern finally broken. He ran a hand across his face, pushed his hair to the side. “I never should have lived to now.”

“What do you mean?”

“You shouldn’t have saved me. I was always meant to die on the battlefield. Now I only cause my brother a headache in his paradise.”

“He’d rather you be a headache than a body in the ground.” Staci then hesitated. Later, he would be able to speak more freely. For the moment, he stumbled just a little over his words. “I-I wouldn’t be here if not for you. I’m glad you’re here.”

Only a slight sign of surprise moved across Jacob’s face. He asked, “And will you be sad when I’m finally downed by the enemy?”

Unlike Joseph and many of New Eden, Staci definitely had more of Jacob’s mindset. After all, the eldest Seed had rebuilt him. There would be more difficulties to come. Maybe the peace would break or someone else would invade their community. However, he said, “I wouldn’t let you.”

“Sweet of you Peaches, but you ain’t always going to be at my backside.”

Staci walked closer. He took advantage of the fact that Jacob was sitting and leaned over him. “Then I’ll kill everyone who was involved and then some.”

“Just for me, huh?”

“What? You think I’m not capable?”

“No. I know you’re capable. You’re more than capable,” Jacob replied, smile warm and his hand even warmer as it came up to rest against Staci’s neck.

He pulled Staci in, the motion slow and sensual as stubble brushed against the full beard. “I’d kill every last one of them,” whispered Staci. “Not that it would matter though. Because I’m not going to let you sacrifice yourself again.”

Jacob snorted. “Happened once already. Twice would be a fucking blue moon. But back to you not being at my side all the time…”

And from there, the conversation moved on to the first time Jacob was really sharing the power, sharing the control. The moment was an important one, both for how Staci was seen in the community and for their relationship. But even as Staci listened to the new duties that were being entrusted to him, he’d kept that promise in the back of his mind.

He knew Jacob was a solider and that dying out on the field seemed the logical end for him. Staci would do everything in his power to keep that from happening though. And if it did anyway?

Then he promised to paint the forest red in the aftermath.


Staci grabbed a Highwayman. He fired his gun right beneath the guy’s chin. Bits of bone and brain and blood flew into the air as Staci let the body hit the ground with a thud. His arm then straightened, gun pointing towards a new figure that had appeared in the pile of bodies and broken-down vehicles.

He almost pulled the trigger. Either another body would get added to the pile or Staci’s body would. It almost didn’t matter anymore. The pull for revenge had started to fade to just pain and numbness, to wanting all feeling to end.

If he fired, would this hell finally end? Before, Staci had never been heavily religious. Now, death seemed like the best option to see him again.

But before Staci could pull the trigger, the other person dropped their gun and said, “Really? You’re going to shoot me now? After all the shit we’ve already pulled on each other.”

Staci looked and the figure slowly transformed into Joey. The blind rage and bloodlust faded even more, being completely replaced with numbness and confusion. He slowly began to lower his gun, only for the movement to finally signal to his body that he was done. It was time to stop holding himself together.

“Woah! Staci! Don’t fucking die on me now damn it!”

Staci closed his eyes-just one, actually. His right one was stuck shut. He could feel Joey just barely supporting him against a car as the feeling of every minor or major wound came into focus.

“Jesus, how many did you take out?”

Staci tried to open both eyes. He only managed the left one as he really looked at the carnage he’d caused. His memories came in, blurry and mixed up. However, he could get an idea of what had happened. There had been the first convoy of cars. Then when Staci had taken them out, he’d moved a little down the road only to immediately kill the next group of Highwaymen that had come through.

He’d kept going. He’d wanted others to hear, to come check out the noise. And he’d just added more bodies to the pile. He honestly didn’t know how many people he’d killed. Instead of answering Joey’s question, he asked, “Did Carmina ask you to find me?”

“Pretty much. Nick wouldn’t let her come,” Joey replied. She helped ease Staci to the ground before taking out a canteen. “Looks like your eye is fine. Just blood from a head injury above it is what’s caused it to get stuck shut.”

Joey carefully washed it away, unsticking the clumps of dark red and brown. Flakes of blood fell away and eventually Staci managed to open that eye again. He could take in everything now, the broken-down cars, just how many people he’d taken out, all of it.

“So, Jacob’s dead.”

His head whipped around to Joey. A mixture of pain and anger flashed through him again.

“Sorry. I’m still trying to get used to talking about him or New Eden with some fucking compassion.” She let out a small sigh and carefully started to look at Staci’s next wound, rolling up his sleeve to better get at a long cut there. “Do you think he’s really dead?”

“The Highwayman had his dog tags. Jacob never would have let anyone take those. And the things the guy said…fuck! I don’t know. He killed the guy to get those tags. It had to have been…” Staci needed to say it. He had to admit it. “It had to have been Jacob.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not,” whispered Staci.

“Listen, maybe not for him. But I’m sorry for you. And I mean that. Ok?”

Staci nodded. Maybe before he wouldn’t have believed it, but after their talk he could now. “Will you still take me? To the place where he was last seen I mean.”

“You wanting to find out exactly what happened and do the same thing that you did here to everyone else involved?”

“Preferably,” sighed Staci.

“Jesus. With that attitude, maybe we can just have you be our one-man army.”

Staci got that she was trying to be humorous. She was trying to cheer him up. It didn’t work though as Staci just stared at the bodies in front of him. He’d made a promise long ago and now he’d find whoever else had been involved. Whoever had even touched Jacob. Then he’d rip them limb from limb.

He let out a shaky sigh as Joey cleaned a wound, another thought coming to his head. “Remember when we’d be called in to break up a fight? When some neighbor thought he’d been ripped off and wasn’t thinking? When some fucking local had brought their shotgun to a knife fight?”

“What the hell made you think of that?”

“But you remember those moments, right? The only exciting parts of working for the sheriff’s department here?”

“Well yeah—”

“You remember what you said?”

Joey hesitated for a second. She paused in patching Staci up. “It was a long time ago. But something like, whatever small amount of relief you’re gonna get now is not going to outweigh how shitty you feel later on. Something like that anyways.”

“Well I don’t. Feel shitty that is. I know I should. I did more than just shoot to kill. I maimed. I wanted them to suffer before they died. I wanted them to know every ounce of pain I felt,” Staci let out another shuddering sigh. “And I should be horrified by it, but I’m not. All I feel is good, and that shitty feeling that’s supposed to come hasn’t. It’s more than what you said, about having to dehumanize the enemy. I didn’t want to dehumanize them. I wanted to be aware of everything they felt until the end and I liked it.”

Joey finally stopped. They looked at each other as night stretched over them, darkening the blood to black. She looked like she wanted to get angry for a second, but she let that go and breathed.

“If he’s dead or alive, I’ll always hate Jacob for that. For changing you into this.”

“I survived because of him.”

“Doesn’t make me hate him any less for twisting your conscious like he did.”

“Fair enough,” sighed Staci.

Joey turned back to tending to his wounds as best she could. She finally wrapped up his hand which the dog tag edges had cut into before pulling him up.

“How did we do?” Staci asked.

“Better than expected. We didn’t get control of the warehouse, but we got the forge, Rush, and the orchard, and we managed to get rid of a good number of roadblocks. And obviously you guys got Nick back. We didn’t lose too many people in the fight either. I’d say it was pretty successful.”

Staci nodded. It was taking all his willpower not to demand he be taken to Jacob’s last known location now. He needed to finish them off, to kill every last one of those fuckers, but that wouldn’t have been the best battle strategy. He would have neglected New Eden in doing so. With most of the red haze gone now, Staci knew he couldn’t do that. If for nothing else, he couldn’t abandon it all because of what a disappointment that would have been to Jacob.

“Ok. So we re-coop, get in contact with New Eden, and then I’ll go up there.”

“You going to find out where the hell Joseph went and get your fucking politics sorted?”

“I’m going to try, for the betterment of us and Prosperity,” sighed Staci. He followed Joey back to the truck she must have driven up here. However, he stopped when he remembered something else. “My bike—”

“You sit down and rest damn it. I’ll go grab it.”

Staci wasn’t going to argue with that. He climbed in the passenger’s side as his entire body just went limp on the seat. If he thought he felt sore now, that would be nothing compared to how much his body would ache tomorrow.

Oh, Jacob would have laughed at that. For every slight tease or careful mention Staci had made before, Jacob would have said, “Who’s old now?” and would have dragged his ass up. He would have dragged Staci on a hunt, made him get down and do a hundred pushups. Anything to make a point and Staci would have dragged his body through it, groaning all the way.

Despite how little information the first Highwayman had given Staci, he couldn’t try to hope that maybe he was wrong. He couldn’t imagine the idea Jacob might still be out there. If he allowed himself to hope, it would only hurt farther down the road when he was proved wrong.

Jacob…

Jacob was dead.

Staci closed his eyes tight, holding back the tears as best he could as his shoulders shook. He wondered if he hadn’t gone with Carmina, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But then, would Rush and his forces been here to have their back? There was no point thinking about that what if.

He heard the truck bed being opened up. Staci quickly wiped at his face and opened his eyes. His hair was a mess, so he focused on pulling that back up as Joey finally got in.

“Camille said that with the orchard retaken, the people of New Eden should start sending Prosperity food again since you’ll have enough to feed your people too. Like Joseph promised before.”

Staci nodded. “They’ll stick to his word, not that Ethan will like that.”

“I haven’t heard a lot about Ethan, but from what I’ve gathered he needs a kick in the pants.”

Staci had to look away. “Jacob always thought so too.”

“Well I guess we agreed on that.” Either she didn’t notice the pain in Staci’s posture or she chose not to bring it up with him. Instead, she asked, “He does want the Highwaymen out of here. Right?”

“He has to. Ultimately. But right now I think he’s more concerned with being seen as a leader. Having myself and others follow Joseph’s word undermines him.”

“We’re not playing fucking Risk here. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge or has the most land or whatever.”

“Maybe you should go talk to him. You might do better than me.”

Staci glanced over, expecting Joey to laugh or nod in agreement. Instead, she winced. “You know I can’t go up there. Even with what we’ve said to each other…”

“Right. Sorry. I didn’t really mean it,” murmured Staci.

“I know.”

“I’ll deal with his bullshit as best I can. I’ll bring any and all of New Eden’s supplies and people that I can. We can start formulating how best to hold onto our newest territory, the next attack, and then…”

Joey nodded. “I’ll take you to the spot. And hey, even with Jacob dead, maybe you can at least find out what he was looking into. Why he’d want to get captured at all, right?”

Staci had to close his eyes again. The word came out broken and forced. “Sure.”

“Shit. Sorry, I’m just trying to—”

“I get it. I do. And…thanks for trying. But can we just…can we sit in silence right now?” murmured Staci.

“Yeah. Sure thing.”

Staci kept his eyes closed as he rested his head against the window. Tomorrow would come and with it, more planning ahead, more work. But until then, he simply mourned.

The moon was high by the time they got back to Prosperity. Joey drove inside the gates and Staci finally looked out of the truck. He pushed himself up and got out. His right hand stung as it supported him. He probably needed stiches on those cuts alone, but he didn’t feel like dealing with that now.

Camille was there, looking as relieved as ever with the rest of their people. “Sir, thank goodness you’re alright. When you didn’t return, Carmina seemed to take it as a sign for the worse.”

“I’m alright. I…” Staci paused. In that second, it hit him. He was the leader. Jacob wasn’t coming back to take control again. Staci was all his people had left. But would a leader tell them Jacob had died now? No. They’d just finished a great victory. Their spirits needed to be kept high and they needed to maintain focus for the time being. “I just felt like improving our chances down the road. There’ll be at least ten less Highwaymen bothering us in the coming fight.”

“Try twenty. Or maybe even thirty,” snorted Joey as she walked away. Staci appreciated that she was helping him keep up the lie and trying to evoke a casual feeling. Thankfully, it seemed Carmina hadn’t told anyone else other than Joey.

As she left to give him privacy with his people, Staci reiterated, “The point is, I’m fine. And I heard we managed a successful win today.”

“Yes sir,” Camille quickly said.

“Then rest easy for tonight. I think we all deserve that. We’ll start forming our next move tomorrow. You’re dismissed.”

“Yes sir,” replied Camille. She saluted and then turned away with the others. Staci didn’t get a chance to breathe though, not when Carmina came barreling forward in the next second. Staci stumbled. He almost fell over and it certainly didn’t help when Gen came running forward too. The wolf let out a quick howl and then insistently started sniffing at the pocket with Jacob’s dog tags in it.

“General, not-not now—” Staci couldn’t do this. Anger slipped in as he finally hissed, “Gen, sit!”

The wolf quickly did, confused that the demand was coming from Staci and not Jacob like it usually did. Staci immediately felt bad, but he couldn’t deal with that. Not now. At the very least he didn’t send General away and the wolf stayed by his heels, face wrought in thoughtful confusion. Staci’s focus was turned back to Carmina though as she spoke.

“I asked if you were ok,” she whispered as she finally moved back.

“I lied,” Staci replied. “You wouldn’t have left otherwise.”

“Damn right.” She looked over Staci and a pained look came on her face. “I only told Joey, well and my dad so he’d calm down about you pointing a knife at me. But he wouldn’t let me go after you so I had to tell Joey because I needed someone to. And she needed a good reason as to why she should go grab you, but…but is he really…”

“I want you to keep this to yourself for now. No reason to put my people in a dower mood.”

“Right. Right of course.” Carmina quickly hugged him again, this one being a little less desperate and a little kinder. “I’m sorry. I wish I could have met him again.”

“Me too.”

At that moment, Kim was coming forward. Staci half expected her to slap him and he tensed up for it. However, she quickly replaced Carmina’s hug with one of her own.

“What—”

“She told me everything,” Kim explained. “And I just want to say thank you for sticking by her and getting her and my husband out of what could have been a horrible situation.”

“Oh. It wasn’t really her—”

“No. Not another word Staci Pratt. It’s sweet that you’re trying to defend her, but she deserves every harsh punishment for so recklessly going in there despite you wanting to turn back. Isn’t that right young lady.”

“Yes mom,” winced Carmina.

“And Nick’s thankful too. He’s just still trying to cope with this idea of all of us actually working together. You understand?”

“I do. I’m glad he’s ok.”

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for my family. Whatever happens between us and New Eden, I mean that Staci. Now let me go grab Selene so she can patch you up—”

“You really don’t have to.”

“Are you kidding me? You look like you just won a war all on your own.”

“Tomorrow, definitely. But right now, I just want to sleep. I mean that.”

Kim let out a small sigh but relented. “Alright. But first thing tomorrow I’m having you checked up on. No reason for you to get an infection that could have been prevented.”

“Yes ma’am,” chuckled Staci as Kim rolled her eyes in response. “Tomorrow then.”

“Sleep well. You certainly deserve it.”

Staci nodded. It was so hard to keep that smile in place, but he somehow managed it. He clicked for Gen to follow him and quickly headed to where New Eden’s people slept. Along the way, Rush came into view.

“I hear I should be thanking you as well for my rescue. Seems Prosperity and your people were even more capable than you led me to believe.”

“It’s still only because we managed to get so many of your men here that we were able to be so successful today. Thank you for that,” Staci replied. He hoped that would be the end of it. He just wanted to lie down, but as he tried to walk by, Rush suddenly grabbed his arm.

“I was a soldier, before all this. Don’t forget that.”

Staci quickly pulled his arm back. His face twisted into a cautious, defensive frown. “And?”

“I know the look of a man that tried to go out in a blaze of glory, only to somehow walk out the other end. You got your head on straight right now?”

“Yes.”

“Do you really?”

Staci fought back the remark he wanted to give. He was the leader now. He didn’t have the luxury of losing it with one of their allies. He forced himself to breath evenly and smoothly as he replied, “I’m determined to see this to the end with the Highwaymen. You can trust me on that.”

Rush hesitated, but finally gave an approving nod and walked away. At least he hadn’t asked what had pushed Staci to his personal war.

Staci continued his path and beside a few approving and grateful nods his way, no one else stopped him as he got to his small bunk again. Fresh clothes had been left along with a water basin. Staci changed and put the ripped, blood stained ones to the side to be cleaned and repaired later. He washed his face and then took the dogs tags, washing his own dried blood from them.

He could tell General wanted to come near. Staci finally clicked his tongue in a way that signaled the wolf could come closer. Gen quickly did, nose sniffing at the tags. He recognized them but didn’t understand why they were there, and Jacob wasn’t.

“I know. I know boy.”

Staci held them carefully in his bandaged hand. He couldn’t just throw them away. He didn’t want to shove them into his pocket again though and throwing them in some box seemed disrespectful. However, wearing them without permission felt wrong too. He finally looked to Gen and then carefully put the tags on backwards so the name couldn’t be seen.

The cold metal didn’t seem to bother him as Gen nuzzled against them. The wolf clearly found comfort in having them so close, even if he still didn’t fully understand the gravity of what that meant.

Staci slowly scratched Gen behind his ear. “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.” He didn’t really know who he was saying that to. Gen, himself, New Eden, Joseph, Jacob, he didn’t know.

He eventually laid down, allowing Gen to jump up with him. Staci buried his face in the wolf’s fur as it hit him. He’d never press his nose to Jacob’s back, never feel Jacob throw a protective arm over him in his sleep, never hear him grumble and complain as he got up early in the morning even while he argued he wasn’t old.

The tears started to come as Staci pressed himself closer to Gen. He’d never have that again.

Chapter Text

The next day, Staci got up with dried eyes. He’d keep their people going. He’d protect New Eden until the Highwaymen were gone. He’d kill anyone who he’d thought had been involved in Jacob’s death. Once that was all done, he would take time to mourn again. For now though, he had work to do.

That first day after their major frontal assault mainly involved taking stock of what they still had and making plans to make sure they kept their new territory. It was standard stuff, but Staci did have several interesting conversations throughout the day.

The first came in the morning. As promised, Staci did see Selene so he could get his wounds disinfected again and properly patched up. The process took a while thanks to just how much Staci had gotten hurt. Thankfully, he didn’t have to worry about small talk. Selene filled up the silence with her own rambling for the most part. Staci let it wash over him. He focused more on his own internal planning and thoughts for the day. However, he did get dragged out of his head when he felt her tapping on his bare shoulder. He looked down and saw she’d already begun to bandage many of the wounds and was currently working on running stitches through the cuts on his hand.

“Yes?”

“You really didn’t hear me? Well, that’s ok. I guess I was talking pretty fast.”

“Did you need someone to go with you on a run?” asked Staci.

“Oh no. I got enough supplies for that kind of stuff and Carm promised to go with me.”

She started to focus back on the stitches. Staci waited a few seconds before he said, “And?”

“Right, right. I just…you know I was wondering…if you know. You could teach me to shoot.”

Staci was honestly taken aback. “Didn’t you tell me you didn’t need to because you had Carmina watching your back only a couple of days ago?”

“Um…well yeah. And I mean, I better with chemicals and shit. That’s my thing. You know? But uh…Carmina can be brass and um…thanks. You know? Keeping my friend safe cause she probably wouldn’t have made it by herself. And I mean, I still trust her to have my back. I gotta. But if it’s just us two out there…well…you know.”

“Who would have hers,” Staci finished for her.

Selene nodded.

“I’m surprised you’re asking me though. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable being taught by Carmina?”

Selene quickly shook her head. “She actually enjoys practicing. I mean she’s asked me to go with her a couple of times. You know? But I’d probably just bum her out. I just need some pointers. And you’d just focus on teaching me. If you say yes.”

“I would,” agreed Staci. He looked her over as she kept her nose pressed to his wounds, still finishing up the stitching. She would never be a soldier, but it would definitely be better if she had at least a little training with a gun. She talked about having Carmina’s back, but there was always the chance she could get stuck out there by herself. And with her being their major medical expert, they definitely couldn’t afford to lose her. “I’ll do it.”

“Really!?”

“Yes, but you have to promise to try and stay focused. Alright? We probably won’t have a lot of time to practice in between everything else and I’m not going to waste five minutes just listening to you ramble. Got it?”

“Yes sir! Absolutely. Questions are ok though. Right?”

Staci let out a small, half laugh. “How else would you learn?”

“I…don’t know?”

He laughed again. “Yes, questions are fine. If I have time today, I’ll give you some basic pointers. Otherwise, I’ll let you know when I get a chance.”

“Thank you. Yes, that works…thank you,” she finished, quickly pressing her nose back to the needles and thread.

It didn’t take long for her to finish up the final snips. Soon, Staci was carefully opening and closing his fist. It still hurt like a son of a bitch, would definitely scar, but he was just fine with that. It was a good reminder. He couldn’t lose control again. He had to find out what happened to Jacob before he died, and he had to get rid of the Highwaymen. Only once that was over and New Eden and Prosperity were safe…only then…he didn’t know. He had no idea what he’d do next. But for the moment, he just focused on the moment.

He went around for a bit. He got more numbers on exactly what had gone down yesterday along with what they’d exactly gained and lost. That was when the second odd conversation came Staci’s way.

It was obvious whenever Nick was in the near vicinity. Everyone who knew him were still excited about his being safe and sound. They would all stop what they were doing to congratulate him again or just wanted to express how happy they were that he was ok. When Nick came by, Staci expected him to turn to someone, literally anyone else.

Instead, he jerked his head at Staci. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

Staci carefully hid his surprise. He ended his current conversation with a few quick words and then went to follow Nick. They walked over to a little garage that Nick had clearly already reclaimed as his own. He walked into the little side room and then stood at the door.

So clearly this was going to be a private conversation. Was that good or bad?

He walked through the door and Nick quickly closed it behind him. Right away, Nick was shoving a finger in his face.

“So help me, if you ever point a weapon at my girl again, I will end you.”

“It won’t happen—”

“I don’t give a shit why it happened. You just need to know that if I hear about that shit again, you’re dead.”

“It won’t—”

“Is that understood?”

Staci let out a tired sigh. Though the conversation itself felt pointless, he understood where Nick was coming from. It was his daughter after all, and Staci hadn’t been thinking clearly. What if he hadn’t stopped…

“It’s understood,” Staci replied. Then just to throw in an extra olive branch, “I’m sorry.”

Nick looked a little taken aback but quickly recovered. “Well, I’d say it’s Carmina that deserves an apology, but she forgave you in about point five seconds so…”

It wasn’t difficult to pick out the message in Nick’s tone. “You don’t like it.”

“Fuck no. But shit. She’s an adult now. Or nearly. Policing all her choices will just make me hate her.”

Now that was surprising.

“What? You think I was going to put on my protective fucking pants and threaten you until I was out of breath?”

“Yeah, kind of,” admitted Staci.

“Well don’t think I didn’t think about that. It definitely crossed my mind. But it’s been less than a day and already I’ve heard how much you and Jacob’s men have helped our people. You even went all the damn way to Odessa, Texas with my daughter.”

“She had my back as much as I did hers.”

Nick smirked, an amused look coming on his face. “I bet she did. Get’s it from her mom.”

“I mean it Nick. I won’t hurt her. Ever. After spending so much time with her…I care for her.”

For a split second, Staci wondered if he’d spoken too much. Nick did have that irked look about him again. However, he calmed down and shook his head. “Yeah, well she explained about Jacob and shit. Which, fuck. I could give two shits about that fucker but he did help here. He stuck with my people which is the last thing I would have expected. But of course Carmina said, what if it had been mom and…well, I’d probably go a little crazy too. Doesn’t mean I’m saying all is forgiven now—”

“No, of course not.”

“Well glad we’re on the same page then.”

“Good.” And then Staci held out his hand.

Nick stared at it.

“I don’t expect things to go back to how they were. Even once we kick the Highwaymen out. But we’re fighting for the same thing now.” Staci held out his hand a little farther. “If we can’t work together, we don’t stand a chance against the Highwaymen.”

Nick let out a disgruntled sigh. “You know, I really hate agreeing with a damn Peggie, right?”

“Not a Peggie,” smirked Staci.

Nick just rolled his eyes but shook Staci’s hand anyways. When he let go, he added, “So now that’s all out of the way, I wanted to see if you’d come on a run with me.”

“I know I just said we had to work together, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this soon,” Staci said with a chuckle. It was kind of hard not to. He was completely thrown by Nick’s suggestion.

“Yeah, well it ain’t all me. I’m planning on grabbing my old plane with Carmina. It won’t fly, but we’ll be able to move it down river and into our territory. They may not have me anymore, but I still don’t like them hanging on to it. Carmina wanted you to drive us up there.”

“I mean…I suppose I can in a few hours. But couldn’t anyone drive you up.”

“That’s what I said,” grumbled Nick. “But she thought it might be a good way to keep you busy and give you a chance to kill a few more Highwaymen.”

“Trying to look after me, huh?”

“Doing it with everyone. She gets that from Kim too.”

“I don’t know. I’d say she gets it from you too.”

“Well, thanks,” muttered Nick, clearly looking a little uncomfortable at the compliment. Still, he said, “Just tell me when you’re ready and I’ll grab Carm.”

“Alright. I will. Thank you for letting me.”

“Hey, don’t push it too far. It’s only because of Carmina that I asked at all.”

“Got it.”

And with that, the awkward conversation thankfully ended, and Staci got back to work. He continued for a while before the third odd conversation came up. This one was with Cap of all people. Staci was in the middle of looking over their logs when Cap said, “Hey, when are we going up to New Eden?”

Staci’s brow furrowed. “We?”

“Rush’s men are in the middle of this right now. We’re you’re allies and we should be involved if any major shit gets decided.”

It was hard not to laugh at that. “Prosperity can’t get their heads around how we do things. Sometimes I can’t either. Having you there is not going to change anything.”

“Yeah, well I’d rather be up there to report everything back to Rush.”

Staci raised an eyebrow. “What? Not trust me to tell the truth?”

“I don’t want you sugar coating anything if it turns out your community doesn’t have it together. Or who knows. Maybe you need an outside guy to help you out.”

Staci bit back the response that he really didn’t think Cap, or really any of Rush’s guys, would be able to effect what was going on with New Eden. Sure, they didn’t have the history that people like Nick or Kim or Sharky had when it came to New Eden, but in Staci’s opinion, that history was needed to fully understand how things ran. However, he said, “I won’t say no. You are an ally.”

Cap nodded. “Then when are you going up?”

“Not today. Still too much to do. I’ll keep you posted.”

Cap nodded. “You do that.”

Staci bit back his sigh and simply agreed. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Rush had asked Cap to spy on him a bit even. It was kind of like with Nick. Staci didn’t like it, but he understood their side. Cap and Rush didn’t know him, not really. They just wanted to protect their people and Staci could respect that. Even if the constant questioning of his abilities grated his nerves.

With that settled though, the next few days formed in Staci’s head.

Then they came to pass.

Staci used their main radio to talk to the people in New Eden, and thankfully Ethan didn’t interfere with that. They’d probably have a big enough blow up when Staci got home. For now, he’d avoid Ethan if at all possible.

Through the radio calls, it turned out that many from New Eden were going down to the orchard since they had cleared the roads and dispersed the Highwaymen. Even if only for a short time. It seemed they were already going back to Joseph’s promise of preparing food for both New Eden and Prosperity. Staci was sure that just grated Ethan to no end. It wouldn’t make talking to him any easier, but Prosperity needed the food, even more so with Rush’s men there.

Because of that, Staci was unable to head straight to New Eden. He had to work on making sure the roads stayed clear enough for his people to remain safe and for that food to get to Prosperity. Several days ended up passing. On the first day, he did go back out in the late afternoon to help Nick and Carmina get their plane back as promised. Since they were in a car, Staci also let Gen come along, the wolf taking the passenger’s seat with Carmina and Nick behind them.

The entire ride over, Staci could tell Nick was watching them. However, that didn’t deter Carmina. If anything, she chatted with Staci even more and seemed determined to show her father that they had become friends now no matter what was in the past.

By the time they got to the place the Highwaymen were guarding, Staci had managed to grow a bit more comfortable. Again, the key was focusing in on the moment. Not the what-ifs, not what had been and never would be, just now.

He even said, “We got this old man,” as he pulled out his bow and arrow.

“O-old man! I am four years older than you!” Nick exclaimed.

“Really? Cause the beard says at least ten,” smirked Staci.

“Glad to know that little shit of a teenager is still in there that I remember,” grumbled Nick as he pulled out his gun. “You did think I was too old for Kim.”

“Yeah, cause we were in tenth grade and a twenty-one year old was ancient in comparison.”

Carmina jumped into the conversation. “That is pretty old.”

“Told you.”

“Hold on a second, that means you think I’m ancient sweetheart?”

“Dad, I’ve always thought you were ancient. And for the record, you both are. But I don’t love you any less.” Carmina look out her own weapon and started to advance. “Now let’s go kill some fucking Highwaymen.”

“Language honey!”

“Let’s go kill some lovely Highwaymen?”

Staci snorted at that as Nick glared. “I take it you have not been helping that tongue of hers.”

“She’s eighteen. She can say fuck when she wants.”

“No she can’t. She’s—”

“Highwaymen?” asked Carmina.

“Right,” Nick and Staci said at the same time.

They all got closer and quieted down. General stayed low, his muscles coiling for the first strike.

“Go,” hissed Staci.

They all parted. Guns fired, arrows twisted through the air, and Gen ripped out throats. If Staci was a little more vicious with his attacks than usual, no one said anything as they finished up.

“Radio me if you get into any serious trouble. I’ll try to intercept you on the river and get rid of them,” Staci said.

“Will do,” Carmina replied.

“Otherwise I’ll see you at the shack.”

Nick nodded and they quickly started up the plane. Staci headed back to the car and Gen jumped in. Whereas the drive there had been rather boisterous, the drive back was a great deal quieter. Thankfully, he never got a call from Nick or Carmina, and Staci made it to the little boathouse without any difficulty. Not long after, Nick and Carmina showed up too.

They secured the plane and then jumped in the car again. It only took a few minutes to get back to Prosperity. When they all got out, Carmina rushed to Staci and hugged him.

“You doing ok?” she murmured.

“I am. Thank you for asking me to come out for the day.”

“I’m glad you came,” she smiled. “And I desperately need more stories about you and dad in your younger years.”

Nick gave a little harrumph at that.

Staci laughed. “We’ll see. I’ll talk to you later Carmina.”

“Night.”

That was how the first day ended. The ones that followed were even more boring. Staci focused on making sure their defenses were up now and that if anything happened, they managed to hold onto what they’d gained so far. In between the work, Staci occasionally got Selene to the side and began teaching her how to shoot.

For the most part, she managed to stay focused, and it wasn’t as annoying as Staci would have thought. He was also just happy that Selene had come to realize the importance of knowing how to use a gun, even if she still preferred not to.

A couple more days passed and when Staci got word a group from New Eden was coming down with food, Staci decided it was time to finally go home. He would meet the group halfway. Then they’d continue to Prosperity and Staci would continue to New Eden. He had most of his men stay in Prosperity, but he told Camille and Zachariah that he wanted them both to come with him. He of course let Cap in on when they were leaving too, and then he told Kim just so she would have all her ducks in a row.

Kim agreed with the plan, but she also said, “If Rush is having Cap go, I wish I could send someone. But Grace is working on a new invention, Nick is fixing up cars, Sharky’s off somewhere, and—”

“I could go,” Carmina jumped in.

Nick stood up. “Absolutely not.”

“Just hear me out dad,” she quickly said. “I’m not trying to sell myself short. I’m good with a car, I can help patch someone up in a jiffy, but I’m no expert in anything. And if we’re just talking spare hands, well you have plenty of those. You can spare having me go, but you can also trust me to represent Prosperity.”

Nick still shook his head. “You’re not going into that god damn bee’s nest. Right Kim?”

He looked to his wife for support and was clearly shocked when she didn’t respond right away.

“Honey…”

“She’s going to go either way.”

Mom,” whined Carmina.

“What?” asked Kim with a sad smirk. “Don’t want me giving away all your secrets to your dad?”

“What the hell does that mean?” asked Nick.

“Oh, open your eyes. She’s always been fascinated with New Eden. She’s trying to take this opportunity to finally see it, but if we deny her, we’re just delaying the inevitable.”

“I don’t want her up there,” said Nick.

“Neither do I,” Kim replied as she walked over and held her husband’s hand. “But she’ll find a way to see that place, with or without our permission. I’d rather us know when she’s going there, and I’d rather allow it at a time where we know she’s with Staci and one of Rush’s men too.”

“Well if you’re so keen on letting Staci look after her, what does he think?”

“My opinion on whether or not I want Carmina to go doesn’t matter,” Staci quickly said. “For what it’s worth, I do think she’ll figure out a way up there no matter what you say.” Carmina looked pretty pleased at that but Staci gave her a pointed look. Now was not the time to look smug. “But if you want a representative there, I think Carmina is a good choice. I can’t do anything if she ends up following us somehow, but if you don’t want her to go now, I won’t take her with me. I’ll respect your decision as best I can.”

Nick looked surprised but no less pleased with the answer. Still, he hesitated as he looked at Kim. Finally, he asked Staci, “How long are you going to be up there?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Well…Carmina, you radio us when you there—”

She immediately perked up.

“And you have to be back here within three days. No matter what plans Pratt has. And you have to radio us when you leave too.” Kim looked pleased with the idea as well. “I think that should satisfy everyone.”

“I can assure you, she’ll be back in Prosperity by the end of the third day at the latest,” Staci said.

“Then I think it’s the best we can do,” Kim said. She opened up her arms and Carmina went to hug her mom and dad. “Lord knows I don’t want to be doing this…but I know you’ll represent us well. And I know now Staci will look after you.”

“Thank you,” Carmina said. “I’ll be back soon. Promise.”

Nick and Kim both kissed her head. “And you’re leaving tomorrow morning?” Nick asked.

“Yes. We’ll head out early and we’ll be back as soon as possible. I’ll keep you updated if I see any new Highwaymen movement while I’m up there too.”

“Thank you,” Kim said.

“But either way, Carmina will be back here in three days,” Nick added.

Staci nodded in agreement.

“Then let’s hurry up and get you ready for tomorrow,” Nick replied.

“Dad, I know how to clean my weapons myself.”

“I know. I know. But I’m just saying…”

It was hard not to smile at Nick’s protectiveness. He knew his daughter was growing up, but even still he wanted to help her as much as he could. Staci and Kim talked a little more as Nick kept reiterating things to Carmina in a way that only a father could.

Then with plans set, Staci left to sleep one more day in Prosperity.

The next day, Staci got up before the sun did. He packed his weapons, sent Gen out to get some food of his own, and got his people together to make sure they knew their roles while he was away. Then came the time to prep the cars. They were taking two and the bike. Staci was going to let Carmina drive the bike up there so that way it would be easier for her to leave if they couldn’t go at the same time. The two cars were packed with some supplies from Rush’s people that would hopefully help with New Eden’s defense. Camille and Zachariah would take the second car. Staci, Cap, and Gen would take the first.

As General came back through the gates from his morning meal, Joey showed up.

“So you’ll be leaving for a bit, huh? Give Ethan a kick in the pants?”

“Something like that. Either way, when I get back be prepared to make our next move on the Highwaymen.”

Joey nodded in agreement. She glanced over to where Carmina was getting on the motorcycle. “I still can’t believe Kim and Nick agreed.”

“Carmina would have found a way up there on her own.”

“I suppose. I just don’t get why she wants to go so badly.”

“It’s the difference between living through the past and hearing about it instead.”

Joey shook her head. “When the hell did you become so poetic? You got D’s on almost every English paper.”

Staci rolled his eyes. “Which you only know about—”

“Because your mom was a damn hoarder and I think she showed me every single one of your school items that day I picked you up,” Joey finished. “Still doesn’t answer the question.”

“Read a lot in the bunker. Wasn’t much else to do.”

“You said that before, with the lessons. I honestly thought you just meant re-reading Joseph’s fucking bible.”

“Excuse you. I’ve read Shakespeare.”

“Oh, big man Staci, huh?” Joey laughed.

“I’m serious. We—” Staci had to stop himself. His chest tightened at the thought. He was finally going home…and without Jacob. That felt wrong. So very, very wrong. “The collected works are still in a box at home.”

“Never would have thought you’d hold onto something like that,” Joey said. Either she didn’t notice the hesitance, or she ignored it. Either way, Staci was grateful. “Promise me you’ll look after her while she’s up there though?”

“Of course. You really think Nick would allow this if he didn’t think I could keep her safe?”

“True enough. I’m surprised he was convinced so easily though.”

“Kim was more on Carmina’s side.”

“Ah, that’ll do it. Have the rest of the family team up against dad. Always works.”

Staci did manage a small laugh at that.

“Well, good luck and stay safe. And when you get back…”

Staci nodded. “We’ll go find out what happened to Jacob.”

“I’ll keep my schedule clear.”

Staci again chuckled at that as Joey walked over to say her goodbyes to Carmina. General padded up to Staci, muzzle freshly wet, probably from the nearby stream. Staci bent down and quickly scratched at his head. “Ready to go home?”

The wolf let out an excited howl and jumped in the open door of the car.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” smiled Staci.

He went around, made sure everyone was ready, and then got in his car. Cap jumped in next to him as Gen splayed out in the back. Kim walked up to his open window as Rush went over to talk to Cap.

“Good luck. Keep us updated.”

“I will,” said Staci. “I’ll radio you when we get there and be back soon.”

“Until then,” Kim agreed, backing up from the car.

Rush soon did the same and then Staci was driving through the gate. Camille followed behind him in the second car and Carmina behind them on the bike.

“So, from what I’ve heard, I should expect your leader’s a prick,” Cap said.

“Joseph is just.”

“Doesn’t sound like he’s the leader. From what I’ve heard, the people of Prosperity think he’s dead.”

“There’s a purpose to what he’s doing. And he’s not dead,” bit back Staci.

Cap shrugged. “Well it doesn’t really matter right now. Does it? Ethan’s what you’ve got and he’s who we have to deal with.”

“You’re not wrong,” sighed Staci, “but please, keep your comments to yourself. Ethan’s already not going to like having you lot there. Anything you say will make working with him harder.”

“If you say so,” replied Cap, his doubt still clearly in his voice.

The rest of the drive was mostly in silence. Occasionally, Cap would make other comments or ask things but most of the noise came from the sound of the car and General’s whines at being in it for so long. They did stop halfway to make sure New Eden’s people were making the journey alright and were safe to continue. Then they got in the vehicles again and finished the rest of the drive.

It was just getting into the afternoon by the time that they arrived at New Eden. For the most part, it looked the same as Staci had left it. The only big difference was the bridge that had once led into the place was broken down, and there were added spikes around the walls and entrance. It made sense. The Highwaymen couldn’t drive their cars through their gates if they couldn’t get over the water.

They parked the cars on the other side of the bridge and then Staci led them across to the gate. He could already see people in the guard towers seeing them coming. Eyes widened at spotting Staci as excited shouts could be heard from beyond the gates. Staci walked up to it. The slot slid open and the Judge stood on the other side.

“Hey,” Staci said with a small smile. He obviously couldn’t read the expression, but he liked to think Rook appreciated seeing him again.

The slot closed and the gates were quickly opened. Camille and Zachariah went about grabbing people so they could get all the supplies unloaded. Cap and Carmina stuck close while General clearly wanted to sniff around and get any new smells in his home down to memory. Staci gave him permission to wander and the wolf did.

The Judge fell into step besides Staci and lightly touched his hand. He looked over with a raised eyebrow. Did Rook want to explain to him what was going on? Or was that touch one of comfort, a promise that things would be revealed eventually? Staci didn’t know, but it still eased some of the tenseness in his shoulders as the Judge moved farther ahead and led them up to the main building.

Staci said hello to nearly everyone he passed, even those he wasn’t super close with. It was kind of like when Nick had come home, everyone simply excited to see him. However, Staci didn’t have time to stick around and chat, and he forced his face to turn away from his home.

They walked up to the church and the Judge pulled the doors open, moving to the side. Ethan was in there, head quickly turning around as Staci approached. Staci held back his hand, indicating to Cap and Carmina that they should remain back. Thankfully, they didn’t fight him on this, and Staci approached Ethan alone.

“You took your time getting here,” Ethan spit out.

“I was busy breaking the roadblocks and keeping them broken so I could get here at all,” Staci replied back. He took a deep breath and gestured behind him. “This is Rush’s captain of security. He represents his men, and Carmina Rye represents Prosperity.”

“Then they accept me as leader.”

“They accept what I say,” Staci hissed back.

“Oh. Oh so that makes you the leader?” Ethan sarcastically said. “You think just because you boned my uncle that makes you worthy of anything?”

Staci’s hands snapped forward. He grabbed Ethan’s shirt, but all the younger man did was tut and look over Staci’s shoulder. “Careful now,” he said softly. “The Judge listens to me.”

Rook was standing at the ready, a little stiffer and slightly inside the doorway now. Staci slowly let go but didn’t step back. “The Judge stands by you because Joseph asked for it. That still doesn’t make you any more of a leader.”

“You wanted all of our people, not just Jacob’s men, to fight the Highwaymen!” yelled Ethan as his anger finally broke through, plain and clear. “If they respected me, then I could make that happen!”

“Oh, so I should just vouch for you?”

“It would help if you did.”

“Joseph would have said—”

“The father is dead! His fucking attack dog is dead. If you’re not going to make a vie for power, then the only thing that makes since is following me!”

“We have more important things to care about at this moment!”

“Then where is your shepherd! Hmm? Either of you?” Ethan asked with a pointed look at Cap and Carmina. “Didn’t think so! Unless someone can light the fire again and prove Joseph is dead in the north, then it was pointless for you to come. Unless you declare loyalty to me, and then at least some of these people might follow.”

“These people are your people and I will not disrespect them, Joseph, or Jacob, by doing such a thing.”

“Then we have nothing to talk about.” Ethan shrugged and turned away.

“Hey! You may not be the leader, but you can still help to focus our people. They may not listen to you fully, but you are Joseph’s spokesman while he is away. The orchard is open again. Get your hands dirty and help show our people how far that food will go for all of us! And what exactly did Joseph’s prophecy say? We can work around it. He said I would bring the one so I must have! We can figure out the one who will light the flame and find Joseph—”

“He is dead! Until people realize that, I will help with no such thing!”

Staci’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t actually touch Ethan, but he was practically nose to nose with him before he stopped moving forward. “You don’t care about being a leader,” he hissed. “If you did, you’d do what’s right by our people.”

With that, Staci turned away on his heels. Ethan wasn’t going to help them. His priorities were twisted despite how the threat loomed in front of all of them. They had to work together! Community! It was what Joseph had been trying to create from the beginning. Not a dictatorship. How could Ethan have gotten it so wrong?

One glance at Cap showed that the man would try and continue talking with Ethan. Staci decided not to stop him. It seemed he would have to figure out for himself why that wouldn’t work.

As Staci walked out, Carmina followed him out the door and then stopped him. “We have to find Joseph.”

“I wish it was that easy,” sighed Staci.

“But it is! We complete the stupid prophecy, grab him, and then the people have a real leader they’ll listen to again.”

“Only one can complete it, and it’s certainly not me,” Staci replied, remembering Joseph’s parting words.

“Then we just go to the north and find him.”

“We can’t do that without knowing the path, and the path will be made clear when the trial occurs.”

Carmina groaned. “Come on! You’re way more rational than this. So was Jacob!”

“That doesn’t mean the rest of our people will follow if we don’t go through the right channels,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ll keep trying, but for the moment there isn’t much I can do.”

“Then I’ll talk to Ethan! I’ll…I’ll make him see! Or-or do something. I represent Prosperity damn it! I can’t go back empty handed.”

“I’m sure your parents would be very proud of you for saying that, but we all knew getting much out of this journey was unlikely. Judge.” Staci looked over and Rook walked forward. “Can you show Carmina to the radio?”

The Judge nodded.

“You’re welcome to stay longer. Who knows, maybe something will come of this. For now, I’ll be at home though.” Staci pointed. “It’s right there. Come talk to me if you decide to leave or need something else.”

“I’m not leaving that quickly.”

“Then you are welcomed to stay,” smiled Staci. “But trust me. All we’re doing right now is beating our heads against a brick wall.”

“Get enough heads beating against it together and it’ll fall eventually.”

It was hard not to feel a little cheer at her optimistic attitude. “Maybe. Either way, I’ll see you soon,” said Staci as he started walking back down and headed home.

People still said hello but as he was clearly heading home, many said words that were full of promises that Jacob would be found soon. Promises that were now lies on a chain that hung backwards on General’s neck. Staci couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t speak the truth. Not with the Father still missing as well and Ethan a shell of a leader. It made each step harder, his shoes filled with lead. So many weeks, months away. And now he was walking up to his home knowing Jacob wasn’t in it. That he would never…

Staci pushed open the door. It was unchanged. Considering what had been happening, Jacob would have been in Prosperity up until he disappeared. There was a layer of dust on everything except the bed where General had curled up.

The wolf whined. He stood up and walked in a circle on the bed. He sniffed at the covers, confused at the lack of Jacob being there. Staci sat down beside him and softly scratched him with one hand and ran a thumb over the dog tags at the same time.

“He’s just not coming back Gen. He never is.”

The wolf whined again, resting his head against Staci’s thigh. Staci could feel the wolf’s heartbeat as he pulled his bag around and took out that one surviving book from his trip to Odessa. It all felt so pointless now.

Staci eventually got up and tossed the book into the chest of other books. He couldn’t look at them for the moment. His heart might stop if he did. He laid back down on the bed. General pressed his head against Staci’s thigh again. He tried to breathe it in, to feel Jacob there. But the bed had been empty for weeks. The only smell he picked up was General’s own coat.

He laid there for a while. He was too heartbroken to relax and fall asleep. Any energy he had before had disappeared though. This should have been a good moment. This should have been something to smile upon. He’d made it back home.

However, all it felt like was a building full of ghosts without Jacob there.

Staci heard a noise. His eyes opened and he turned his head expecting to see Carmina there. Instead, Cap was standing there with a sour look on his face. It was hard not chuckle a little at it.

“I told you, you wouldn’t get very far.”

“Your politics make no fucking sense.”

“Told you that too.”

“Jesus! We have our people, but we need more! We need all we can get before we make a real frontal assault against the twins.”

“I know,” sighed Staci. “I’m gonna stick around to make sure everyone here is ok. You’re welcomed to stay, but I’d understand if you feel more useful in Prosperity.”

“So you’ll take charge.”

“Not exactly.”

“Urgh! Ethan is your leader! Why can’t he make a damn decision?”

Staci pushed himself up into a sitting position. He patted Gen’s head so the wolf stayed pressed against him. “Ok, I’ll try to break it up exactly for you. The last orders Joseph gave his people were to help Prosperity with food, with tools to rebuild, things like that. He said if someone wanted to fight, they could follow Jacob.”

“And most of those people are already in Prosperity. The ones who are ok with carrying a gun. Yeah?”

Staci nodded. “Because of my…position, those people are willing to follow me. They know that in Jacob’s absence I’m the next choice. If I disappeared, then Camille would take over again. There’s a direct hierarchy for us. It’s militaristic because that’s what Jacob bases most things on.”

“I got that. That actually makes sense!”

Staci snorted.

“But I heard Joseph is Ethan’s actual father or some shit. Not just the Father. Why the hell can’t he make decisions?”

“Ethan is supposed to take over New Eden one of these days. He has already been declared Joseph’s successor, but Joseph made it clear he would return. He never said that Ethan was taking over now. Because of that, Ethan is only a momentary spokesperson for these people. He can’t make any major decisions like demanding everyone to fight or anything like that.”

“But he seemed pretty adamant on you vouching for him. Like that would do something.”

“It might honestly. Because of my connection with Jacob, I am seen as part of the family, more so than others. However, that also makes me a threat since I didn’t vouch for him.”

“So you could realistically try to take control?”

“I see where you’re going with this, and no. Some might be convinced to listen to me and I have Jacob’s men. But I would never have the pull to get all of New Eden to follow me. Still, I have to be careful with what I do here. I could begin to fully guide these people in how to proceed with the orchard and their sending of food to Prosperity.”

“Because Joseph ok’d that?” Cap skeptically asked.

“Yes, but in doing that, Ethan would also see it as a threat. Which for the moment, may not mean much, but it could make things more difficult down the road.”

“Fuck, it’s confusing.”

“Don’t I know it,” Staci sighed.

“But you could cause some of New Eden to take up arms, right? It wouldn’t be everyone, but more hands is more hands—”

Staci quickly shook his head. “I can’t.”

“But you just said—”

“I can’t dishonor Joseph or Jacob in such a way.”

“Can’t dishonor-what if the twins rolled up to your gates now!”

“That would be a different story. And as of right now, it hasn’t happened yet,” Staci replied. “I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”

Cap shook his head again. “So fucking confusing.”

“You going to stay?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll sleep on it. I mean, Ethan said if I brought the book back then that would prove me worthy and I could be guided to make the pilgrimage or some shit.”

So that was part of the prophecy.

“If I managed to prove Joseph was dead—”

“He’s not.”

“Then if I did all that shit and brought him back! That would change shit. Right?”

“Maybe.”

“Urgh, I’d say it’s worth a try, but I have no idea what book Ethan is talking about,” groaned Cap.

The book can only be one thing. Joseph’s bible. But I would have thought he’d take it with him.”

“So you have no idea where it could be right now?”

“No. Sorry,” Staci replied.

“Urgh. You obviously know this shit better than me though. Why can’t you do it?”

“Joseph said I’d bring them, some outsider. I’m clearly not meant to find him again.”

“Your politics give me a headache.”

“Me too,” sighed Staci. “Have you reported into Rush yet?”

“Not yet.”

“I’ll show you where the radio is.”

Staci walked Cap across his home and did just that. He left him there and told him to return to his and Jacob's home if he needed him. It was completely dark outside now. A great deal of time must have passed while Staci had lain on that bed before Cap had even come looking for him.

This time, walking around and hearing all the promises like, “Jacob will be back” and “He will be safe” were easier to deal with. But that was only because Staci was expecting them. He took his time going around his home, getting a real good look at everything and seeing if anything had changed. He eventually found Camille again and got the run down that all the supplies they’d brought with them had been dispersed.

Staci talked to her about ways they might be able to improve their defenses here and they walked around the wall, making notes as they went. Staci also had some ideas on the orchard which he confided to Camille. However, he didn’t have to explain to her why he was wary of giving New Eden new orders.

It was night time now, and in all that time, he only saw Carmina once, heading back to the church.

“You’re not really thinking of talking to Ethan again. Are you?” Staci called from across the way.

“I have to try.”

“Well good luck,” sighed Staci. He noted she was holding something, but in the low lighting of the torches he couldn’t tell what it was. He would have talked to her more, but at that moment someone distracted him and pulled him into another conversation.

He eventually got Camille and Zachariah to join him again, along with any of Jacob’s men that had been left behind to defend New Eden. Staci gave them some plans going forward and that while they were in New Eden, he wanted them to do some reconnaissance missions into the areas going east of there. If they could find out anything about the Highwaymen, at least they wouldn’t go back to Prosperity empty handed.

Staci found Cap and asked him if he wanted to join one of those missions. The man jumped at the chance, clearly not wanting to leave yet but still wanting to be useful.

Then Staci went looking for Carmina again. If she was going to stay, he might take her to the orchard tomorrow so they could plan some better defenses for it. However, he couldn’t find her.

He walked all the way up the hill and back down, to the gate and back. He started to ask everyone he passed.

“Have you seen Carmina?”

“The woman outsider?”

“Where did she go?”

“Where is she?”

Most said they didn’t know and eventually Staci made it back up to Ethan. He barged in, but for the moment he didn’t care about any added tension it caused between Staci and Joseph’s son.

“Was Carmina here when you told Cap about the prophecy?” Staci wasn’t an idiot. Carmina had been bent on helping New Eden so that way she could help Prosperity. Staci had straight up told her they could only change things by going through the proper channels. Had she—

“Of course,” Ethan said with a shrug and a smug look.

“You bastard!” Staci advanced, but as the Judge stood off to the side, Staci didn’t actually throw a punch.

“She brought the book back. She knew what I was talking about.”

“Wait-she what—”

“While you were moping and doing your little walk around,” sighed Ethan, “she left for the old church. On some feeling. Apparently, she knew what she was doing because she did find it—”

“Where is she now!” yelled Staci. “Where did you tell her to go!”

That smug smile stayed firmly stuck on Ethan’s lips.

“If she dies, all partnership with Prosperity is over! Where is she!”

“If she proves herself worthy, then she can go north and prove Joseph is dead. Then I can take control of these people here and I can give the people permission to fight.”

“She’s still a fucking kid!”

“She seemed capable enough to me.”

“You don’t care if she’s capable! You just want the fucking power! If you had to, you’d throw every fucking person here into the fire to try and prove Joseph is dead. Tell me where she is!”

“No.”

The fear and rage that had been steadily building up inside Staci just unleashed. Carmina was going to die. She was going to die because of him. The ground he’d made with Kim, with Nick, with fucking Joey! That would disappear. The truce would be broken. Joey would never take him to find out what happened to Jacob. They would only fight amongst each other and then the Highwaymen would pick them apart until they were all dead or slaves. He had to find Carmina! He had to keep her safe!

Staci punched Ethan hard. Before the younger man could even complain about the broken nose, Staci grabbed him and shoved him against a wall. He started to pull his fist back again, but a hand grabbed his in an iron tight grip. Staci’s hand that was still holding Ethan pushed him against the wall again. He kicked out but was pushed back hard.

The Judge acted quickly. Staci was thrown on his back hard and then flipped around. He was perfectly pinned in a way that only someone who had worked with law enforcement would know how to do.

His heart pounded in his chest as he hopelessly struggled against the Judge. He had to find Carmina! He had to get to her! If she died- She couldn’t die—

Staci’s struggling immediately stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He could feel the Judge’s mask practically pressed into his hair. With a voice hoarse from disuse, Staci heard Rook speak for the first time since before the collapse.

The words were soft, meant only for him, and it was the only thing that stilled Staci.

“As her godparent, do you think I would have let her leave if I didn’t think she’d come back?”

Staci had gone numb. It wasn’t difficult for the Judge to pick him up and drag him outside. Staci stumbled when the Judge finally let go and quickly turned back.

“Just tell me where she is.”

The Judge remained silent and still, like Rook hadn’t spoken at all.

“Please.”

And then the Judge pointed.

Staci turned, his eyes following the direction of the Judge’s finger. From where he was, he couldn’t actually see the remnants of the statue. However, he’d heard when he’d first returned to the valley that the Highwaymen had taken over the old statue and had dowsed the flame, probably wanting to break New Eden’s spirit. Camille had been the one to tell Staci that. But with that simple gesture from the Judge, he now knew it was also the pilgrimage that Joseph expected out of his chosen one.

Staci didn’t have to ask for directions. He simply ran all the way down and out the gate. His bike was missing so Staci jumped into one of the cars and sped off down the road before anyone could stop him. Even if the place wasn’t swarming with Highwaymen, it was night now. The animals would be out and more dangerous than ever. Despite the Judge’s words, Staci’s mind came up with every possible thing that could have gone wrong. He had to stop her before she hurt herself.

Staci’s foot was flat against the floor. He ran into a few Highwaymen trucks but quickly out ran them, twisting along the roads in a way that only a local could in the middle of the night.

He drove to the base of the hill and got out, only to suddenly be blinded by light above. He rapidly blinked. His vision cleared and he could make out the pink flames high in the night sky.

“Carmina…”

Staci ran.

He passed small piles of dead, broken Highwaymen and animals. He half expected Carmina to be in one of them, even as the fire raged on above him. However, she never was and Staci kept running. Round and round and round and—

At top of the hill, he finally paused. His breath came in shaky as he tried to get enough air into his lungs. He looked and saw several people from New Eden. Their heads were bowed, some on their knees, and in front of them—

Staci pushed himself up. He broke through their ranks and wrapped his arms around Carmina. His breathing was still shaky, the fear of possibly losing Carmina still there. Even when he pulled back, he stayed close with his hands on her cheeks.

“You stupid, stupid fucking kid,” whispered Staci. “How many Highwaymen did you have to kill?”

“I’m ok Staci—”

“You could’ve been shot.”

Carmina let out a a breathless laugh fueled on by adrenaline. “I wasn’t—”

“You could have blown yourself up! Suffocated in the fumes—”

“Hey, I still didn’t,” replied Carmina. She reached up and took his hands from her face. She squeezed them tight and then finally seemed to take note of the others behind him. “Um, you guys can stop bowing or whatever now. It’s ok.”

“You are our shepherd,” said one as he stood up straight.

“Yeah, well I’m just trying to get everyone to work together so we can drive the Highwaymen out.”

“As he said,” said another. “Our shepherd.”

“Uh…”

Staci quickly took her hand. “Just follow me,” he softly said. To the rest of the people, he said, “Well done on guiding her.”

“We’ll meet again when the Father returns.”

Staci nodded in agreement and then quickly guided Carmina back down the path. Once he was out of earshot of the others, he immediately said, “You can’t go after Joseph.”

“Hang on.” Carmina snatched her hand back and they stopped on the path. “Why not?”

“If your parents find out about this alone, they will kill me,” hissed Staci. “I can’t allow you to risk your life—”

“But you said if we were going to get all of New Eden to join the fight, we’d have to go through the right channels.”

“Yes, but—”

“I’m going through the right channels. I can get your leader back!”

“If you die, then that doesn’t matter! The truce with Prosperity will be over—”

“But Joseph prophesied this.”

“Well, technically—”

“The shepherd is like, meant to bring him back and end the Highwaymen. So what? Are you saying you don’t have any faith in his word?”

“It’s not that—”

“So you don’t have faith in me then?”

The way she looked at him had Staci stopping. The whole reason she was here at all was because her parents had realized she was growing up, that they couldn’t control her every move. Staci reached out and after some hesitance, Carmina took his hand again.

“I know you were supposed to see Jacob again,” murmured Carmina. “I remember you told me you didn’t fear in our journey because you knew you’d see him again. But you…you didn’t. But you can’t let that destroy all your faith. I can do this.”

“I can’t lose you too,” Staci whispered. “Not after everything we went through.”

“And you won’t.” Carmina stepped forward and initiated the hug this time. “I know the moment mom or dad find out, they will freak. But I have to do this. It’s the only way to change things.”

Staci couldn’t argue with that. When Carmina started to walk down the path again, he slowly followed. He could tell he was going to agree. Even if he didn’t, Carmina would have gone on her own anyways. He could only protect her so far. Still…

“How did you know Joseph’s bible was in the old church?” In fact… “How did you even know where it was? Your parents never would have taken you there.”

Carmina shrugged. “I can’t explain it. I just know…that it won’t go wrong for me. I’ll find Joseph.”

Staci let out a long sigh before covering his face with a groan. “Your parents are going to kill me.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll—”

“Carmina, they will find out eventually. And when they do, I would rather be put at the feet of the twins in chains, than face Nick and Kim.”

Carmina winced.

“You know it’ll be that bad.”

“Only for a bit. I’ll be ok. Promise. Besides, this way I can properly represent Prosperity and help New Eden.”

Staci let out another long sigh. However, it wasn’t like he could do anything now. They made it to the base of the path and both got in their respective vehicles. Staci guided Carmina back to New Eden. They only had to stop once to deal with some Highwaymen before they made it. When they got out and made it over the bridge, Cap was waiting for them.

“I was wondering where the hell you two went. Thought I’d got abandoned!”

“No, just…Carmina found a solution.”

Cap looked surprised. “You did the pilgrimage?”

She nodded.

“Well, I was out of my depth. Guess it helps growing up here,” sighed Cap.

“Not really. It’s only because of Joseph that I was able to do it.”

“Because of-did you find him?” Cap asked.

“Of course not,” snorted Carmina. “He went up north, remember? And that’s where I’m headed next.”

“But then how did he help?”

She shrugged. “He showed me the way I guess.”

“But how—”

“You can keep asking that, but trust me, you are going to run yourself in circles,” sighed Staci.

All three of them headed up back to Ethan. Unsurprisingly, Staci was not welcomed and Cap stayed by his side as Carmina went to talk to Ethan alone.

“She was messing with me. Right? Like, you knew what the book was, so you knew where it was. You just didn’t tell me because you wanted her to do the pilgrimage?”

“Cap, if I could have chosen anything in this, I would have chosen you in a heartbeat in order to protect her,” sighed Staci. “I didn’t know.”

“Fuck this is weird.”

“Weirder than a nuclear apocalypse that defied all logic, turned the wildlife crazy, and kept everyone underground for years when the radiation should have dissipated fairly quickly?”

“Ok, you got me there. But this is prophecy, religious shit! I thought you didn’t even believe in it.”

“I don’t necessarily believe it’s God doing all this, speaking directly through Joseph or anything like that,” Staci replied. “But I do believe in something.”

“Fuck,” muttered Cap.

“Yeah…fuck.”

They waited a little longer until the doors opened again. The Judge and Ethan quickly walked by, neither sparing a glance to Cap or Staci. Carmina quickly came up to both of them. “I’m heading to the boathouse and then I’m off. Hopefully I’ll be back some time early tomorrow.”

“And what did Ethan say?” asked Staci.

Carmina winced.

“What? What was it?” asked Cap.

She looked down the path, like Ethan would be there, threatening her to keep her silence. She stepped closer and whispered, “He told me to bring back proof of Joseph’s death.”

Cap started to say, “Well yeah, he already made that pretty clear—”

“By any means necessary.”

Staci’s eyes widened. His head whipped around, eyes finding the Judge and Ethan just before they walked into the boathouse and out of his field of vision. Ethan was many things, but murder…

“He said that?” whispered Staci.

“He did. But I won’t do it. You know I won’t. I’ll bring him back. Promise,” Carmina said as she quickly hugged Staci. “I’ll be back soon. Love you.”

As Carmina hurried down, Cap shook his head and muttered, “Joseph seriously has that guy as his official successor? Has he always been like this or what?”

“I honestly don’t know,” murmured Staci. When Joseph came back, because now that Carmina was going, he did have faith in her to finish this, he’d have to tell him of this. Ethan had lost all concern for New Eden as a community. For the moment though, Staci focused back on Cap and said, “I’ll show you where you can sleep tonight.”


Before the mist had grown and blocked off the north, Staci had gone to Joseph’s small home once. For the most part, the discovery and building of the place had been a very private affair, one that Jacob and Staci hadn’t been involved in. However, they were invited once. Jacob stood out of earshot, looking at the waterfall and the valley beneath. Staci stood beside Joseph underneath the tree.

He’d heard of the tree, of the fruit. Whether only symbolic or it actually did something, Staci and Jacob didn’t know. Jacob honestly didn’t care but then, he was there for Staci, not for himself.

Joseph plucked an apple from the tree and held it out to Staci.

“You are a part of our family now. You have done much to protect this community. I offer this to you as a gift for all that you’ve lost in order to get to here.”

Staci stared at the pink apple. On the walk up, Joseph had expressed the importance of the moment, what it meant for Staci’s soul and how he was seen by God. Having anything offered by Joseph was an honor. Denying was crazy. Who would ever deny Joseph, and yet…

“My soul isn’t as pure as you think,” murmured Staci. His eyes left the apple and returned to Joseph’s face. “I can’t accept this gift.”

“It is a great honor.”

“And I thank you for that,” murmured Staci. “But the sin inside me is too great.”

“There is sin in everything—”

“And it is how we combat that sin that matters,” Staci finished. He bowed his head though, looked to the old scars on Joseph’s body. “In regards to our community, I would sacrifice everything for it except…except for your brother. I wouldn’t be able to control the wrath I would feel if someone hurt him. I feel pride at standing by his side, at knowing he chose me. I have left the greed of the material world, but in its most basic form, greed, gluttony, and lust are sins of desire, and I desire your brother above all else. If he would ever slow down and rest, I would commit sloth with him, and I have always been envious that you know him in a way I can’t. You say my heart is pure, but my love for your brother is wrapped in sin. I can’t accept a gift such as this.”

Finally Staci looked up again. Would Joseph be angry? Disappointed? But all he showed was a small, unreadable smile.

“Then go in peace Staci. Your choice makes you no less my family. I’m glad you came this way and could see its beauty, even if you could not take a bite.”

Joseph turned away and it was clear the conversation was done. Staci slowly walked back before turning around. Jacob was already walking the path back down the waterfall and Staci quickened his pace to catch up. As he came up to Jacob’s backside, he paused and looked back.

“I think that was a test.”

“Everything my brother does is.”

Staci couldn’t argue with that and he had the feeling that he had chosen right. He came to Jacob’s side and added, “You could say everything you do is a test too.”

“Not with you.”

“Oh?”

“You’ve passed every test that matters,” Jacob answered.

The pride that welled in Staci’s chest at that statement told him two things. One, that he was right in denying Joseph’s gift, and two, that he was happier being at Jacob’s side to the end of their days than ever being one of Joseph’s chosen.


As Staci restlessly rolled around in bed, up north a man took Carmina by the cheeks and whispered, “I remember you child.”


Staci tried to keep busy the next day. However, his plan to visit the orchard wasn’t going to happen as he desperately waited for Carmina to return. He still had the reconnaissance groups go out but otherwise he was mainly stuck stalking around his own home. He couldn’t believe he’d let Carmina talk him into this. He never should have agreed. Or he should have at least argued he should have gone with her! He had guided her here. There hadn’t been anything arguing against him guiding her all the way to Joseph, right?

All he could do now was wait and wring his hands though, up until about midday when Ethan unexpectedly called a meeting. It quickly became clear what this was. He again declared the Father as dead and this time claimed the outsider would bring proof when she returned.

Staci stood in the back, watching the people murmur amongst themselves as Ethan yelled on top his perch. He could see some being waved by his conviction but most looked confused. They were so sure Joseph would return that they didn’t understand why Ethan would be saying these things.

But as Ethan continued, the sun rose a little higher. Staci’s chest started to tighten. Come on Carmina, where was she? Anytime now…anytime…

A hand touched his shoulder and everything inside Staci calmed. His lungs opened up and he could breathe. His eyes widened and his head turned.

“Joseph…”

“My children.”

As Joseph let go of Staci and continued forward through the crowd, Carmina came to replace the spot beside Staci. She took his hand and gave him a comforting squeeze. “I told you I’d bring him back.”

“That you did,” murmured Staci as Ethan was silenced, and Joseph stepped forward again.

Staci’s ears focused on Joseph’s words and he could feel the sigh of relief that ran through everyone.

“The time to fight is now. And God has sent us his sword. Here.” Joseph gestured to Carmina as everyone else moved aside to look. “As I promised, our beloved Staci brought the outsider that would lead us in the charge to drive this plague of locusts from us. Our shepherd is here. Her soul is pure, as proven by God and she will lead us and our allies towards the future God has promised.”

But then of course Ethan interjected. Of course he still argued and tried to pull the people to his side. But the people spoke. Joseph was their leader. They stood behind him and as Ethan bowed his head in shame, Joseph gently put a hand on his shoulder and murmured how he understood his difficulties in leading, but that sacrifice was sometimes necessary to follow God’s command.

“What have you ever sacrificed?”

Ethan’s words had Staci bristling. How could he say a thing like that? Knowing all that had died, that John and Faith and nearly Jacob had all perished in order for New Eden to exist at all. But Joseph still only gave a kind word and said, “Come, let us go together. We have much work to do.”

As Joseph walked away, leaving Ethan alone on the steps, Staci covered his face in his hands.

“Hey, you ok?” Carmina carefully asked.

Staci slowly breathed through his nose and let his hands fall. Joseph was back. He had called them all to fight. He’d been right in this promise so then…Staci still couldn’t bring himself to hope for Jacob. But maybe Joseph’s promise that he would see Jacob again went beyond the physical plane. Staci didn’t know how he felt about that. He’d have to deal with it later.

But for now, everything was fine. All of New Eden would now fight beside Prosperity and Rush’s men and they could move forward in their final approach. They could defeat the Highwaymen, just…

“Kim is going to kill me.”

Carmina laughed and put an arm around Staci. “I’ll protect you.”

“I’m serious. Nick is going to hold me down and she’ll stab me with a kitchen knife.”

“I can’t believe you’re honestly afraid of my mom.”

“You’ve clearly never pissed off a mother,” sighed Staci. However, that difficult discussion would come later. For now, he said, “We should go talk to Joseph.”

Carmina nodded in agreement and they headed after him.

Chapter Text

Staci and Carmina stood a couple of feet from Joseph. They waited until his current conversation was done before approaching.

“It is good to see you,” Joseph said as he turned to Staci.

“And you.”

Joseph put a hand on Staci’s shoulder, both at arm’s length, before Joseph pulled Staci into a hug. Though the Father was always compassionate, he rarely allowed people close in such a way. Staci could count himself as one of the lucky ones though.

Staci let out a shuttering sigh as they parted. “Jacob…”

“Trust in Him.”

“You haven’t seen what I have,” murmured Staci. “I found the dog tags—”

“Then trust in Jacob. I told you, you would see each other again. You shall.”

Staci quieted. He wanted to believe Joseph. The man had returned just as he’d said. But those dog tags and the Highwayman’s words… Staci wouldn’t argue, but he still felt a great deal of doubt. Instead he turned to Carmina and said, “We all need to start forming a plan to take down the Highwaymen once and for all.”

“I can guide all of our people to fight, but it will only work as a distraction at best. The majority are not built for a prolonged attack unlike those Jacob as trained.”

“Agreed,” Staci said. “We need time to decide the best place to attack, preferably with the twins being present when it occurs.”

“But if we can find a time where the twins and their main lieutenants are all together, we can use your people to distract their front and then come in from behind before they suspect a thing,” Carmina quickly added. She looked to Staci and when he nodded with approval, a smile lighted across her face.

“Then I will wait for your guidance when such a time and place is chosen. Until then, I imagine the fighting will only increase from here. Carmina, you are our sword. I give you the Judge as your protector in these dark times.”

The Judge stepped forward. Joseph whispered something until the Judge nodded and stepped over to Carmina.

“Hey, so I guess we get to work together,” Carmina smiled.

The Judge inclined their head towards her.

“You may go with my blessing again,” murmured Joseph. “Until then, I will make sure all our people are well fed.”

“Joseph, there’s something else.”

“Carmina has explained it to me—”

“Then you know Ethan needs to—”

“A darkness has gathered in Ethan, one that I fear may be my fault.”

“Then you agree something needs to be done about him.”

“I will talk to him.”

“Talk?! Joseph, he asked Carmina to kill you. That needs more than talk!”

Joseph let out a small sigh. He gently touched Staci’s shoulder again. “Jacob has taught you the value in violence, but violence is not what Ethan needs at the moment.”

“But—”

“Let me. You focus on what you are good at. Help guide Carmina in purging these locusts.”

“Yes Joseph,” murmured Staci. He felt like more needed to be done, but what that was, he couldn’t say. Just because Staci had been unable to talk to Ethan didn’t mean Joseph couldn’t find the right words. Staci should just do what he was good at, even if he knew he couldn’t forget about Ethan’s words any time soon. “We’ll make for Prosperity today then. We’ll keep you updated.”

“All will be right.”

“So you say,” Staci sighed. He blinked quickly and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t doubt—”

“No need. You have been through much. It is natural to doubt now, but all will become clear soon. Go in God’s grace in keeping our lands safe.”

“We will,” said Staci.

“Goodbye Joseph,” Carmina quickly said. “It was good to meet you. Again.”

“As with you my child. You’ve grown into a capable woman. Prosperity is lucky to have you.”

Carmina bowed her head a little and then followed as Staci headed towards his home again. The Judge automatically followed behind them.

“So if we leave about now, we should be in Prosperity by night time. Assuming no Highwaymen delay us.”

“Wait, you were serious about leaving so soon?” asked Carmina.

“You would have had to leave by tomorrow anyways. Besides, Joseph is back. He will guide my people while we plan our final push against the Highwaymen,” Staci replied. He walked into his home and clicked his tongue at General. The wolf came to his side as Staci grabbed his pack.

“But what about Ethan?”

“He won’t try anything right now. He’s too much of a coward,” muttered Staci. “We’ll just have to leave the worrying about him to Joseph.”

“Are you sure that’s the right thing to do?”

“It’s the only thing we can do right now. Staying here any longer would be a waste of time.”

“And what about the things Joseph said about Jacob? Do you think he knows something we don’t about his disappearance?” questioned Carmina.

“He almost certainly does. It’s not our place to question what that could be though. We do what we’re good at. Joseph will…do what he does,” sighed Staci. “Whatever he means, we’ll understand eventually.”

“If you say so. I was thinking though…”

“Yes?”

“When I get back, I should probably just be upfront with my parents. About going up north.”

Staci winced.

“Listen, they’ll hear about what happened eventually, either directly from one of your people or because they overhear something involving my name and dig harder. And they’re definitely going to question why the Judge is suddenly following me. If we get it over with now, we don’t have to worry about them blowing up in the middle of a mission or something.”

“You have a point there. Sooner is definitely better.”

“Yeah. Though I would suggest maybe you going out on…I don’t know. A hunting trip or something,” murmured Carmina. “Like right when we get back? Just so you’re not within strangling distance while I try to calm them down.”

“Now that I agree with. Joey and I have something we’ve been meaning to do anyways. If we get to Prosperity by tonight, Joey and I will probably be out overnight. That should give your parents enough time to downgrade my murder to them whacking me unconscious.”

“They may say they’ll kill you, but you know they actually won’t.”

“Apologies if I’m still a bit doubtful.”

Carmina rolled her eyes but didn’t try to argue more. “I guess I’ll go to the radio and tell them we’re headed back.”

“I’ll prep the cars. I sent Camille, Cap, and a few others out on some reconnaissance missions earlier. We’ll leave when they get back. And can you make sure someone tells Joey to be ready when we get there?”

“Sure thing,” Carmina replied before she quickly headed out with the Judge at her side.

Staci finished packing his few personal items, cleaned his gun, and checked his arrows. He took a moment to close his eyes and simply take in the feeling of home. He’d been back in the valley for well over a week, and yet he’d only managed one night of sleeping in his own bed. A night that had turned into the most restless one so far. And when he came back? What then? Could he still live here, knowing Jacob was gone? Obviously New Eden was still his home, but the house he was standing in right now, could he ever sleep another night after how abruptly things had ended?

Staci didn’t have the answers. The sense of anger and regret that settled in him had to be pushed down and out of sight. If he survived the Highwaymen, he would have plenty of time to think on those feelings. For the moment, he said his goodbyes to home again, and then went to prep the cars. Carmina helped him finish up with that and it wasn’t too long until the other groups came back.

“Find anything of note?” asked Staci.

Cap shook his head. “They’re clearly licking their wounds right now, but there also seems to be a lot of materials that are getting shipped out east. Any big ass structures that could house all them? Maybe make up for us taking the forge back and some of their other pieces of land?”

“The old prison immediately comes to mind.”

“Old prison?” asked Carmina.

“Right, it was technically in New Eden territory when we originally split up the valley. Made Nick pretty pissed because of the potential supplies that could still be raided from there. It stayed well in New Eden’s territory though after we made our truce so it makes since you wouldn’t really know about it.”

“I haven’t heard any of your people talk about that place. Wouldn’t it be like, the first place you’d look for the Highwaymen?” asked Cap.

“No one’s been able to get far enough into their territory to confirm or deny it,” explained Staci. “And considering the Highwaymen are all over the country, the twins could be based somewhere else.”

“But since we did just do a pretty big strike, if the prison is their base here, it wouldn’t be a big leap that the twins would go there, even if they’re not there now.”

“True. But besides the fact we don’t have blueprints on hand or anyone with a photographic memory of the place, we also have no idea how that prison might have changed since the Highwaymen took over,” Staci replied. “We could try to send someone in, but it would probably be a suicide mission.”

“Yeah, you’ve got me there,” muttered Cap. “If that helicopter that one guy has is fully working, we could try to fly overhead and get a feel for the area.”

“That helicopter would probably just get shot down and the whole thing would still be a suicide mission though,” sighed Carmina. “If it is their current base, then it’s going to be stock piled and they’d throw everything at any possible intruder.”

Cap nodded. “I get that, but that just means a suicide mission may be the only way. If the person going in had a radio on hand, at least they’d be able to contact us with what they could see before going down. It wouldn’t be much, but it would be better than nothing.”

Staci couldn’t deny that, even as Carmina said, “Mom would never allow it. Do you think Rush would?”

“Rush would lay down his life if it meant keeping all of us safe. I’d do the same.”

Carmina quickly bit back her words. “I didn’t mean it like—”

“I know. I know. We’ve all got our own standards and saying you’ll do is always different than someone else volunteering. But that doesn’t mean we’ll have a better option.”

“Still, it’s not like us three can just decide anything,” Staci added. “We should wait for the hypotheticals for when we get back to Prosperity and we can discuss things with Kim and Rush.”

“True. Are we ready to go?”

Staci nodded. “Should be now.”

He had a quick conversation with Camille and then everyone was getting in their respective vehicles and heading back to Prosperity. This time, Carmina led the way on the bike. The Judge ended up joining Staci in his car and a few quick glances back showed the uncomfortable way Rook sat there. The gloved hand that was pressed into Gen’s fur was clearly the Judge’s way of staying grounded while being forced to interact with something of the past. Staci wasn’t quite sure why the Judge reacted like that, but then he didn’t fully understand the mask, or the vow of silence, or the reason for becoming so distant from everyone. Staci supposed he would never fully understand. It was similar to how people like Kim and Joey would never fully understand his reasons for staying with Jacob even if they’d accepted it by now.

They’d all been broken in their own ways. They had their own ways of dealing with it and due to their own personal differences, even being in the same situation led to vastly different outcomes.

Though the thought was sad, Staci couldn’t help but smile a little. Joey would have lost her shit and made a stupid nickname for him for how much he’d analyzed that. He was pretty sure he was one old book quote or wordy analysis away from being called ‘the professor’ by her.

With those thoughts eased, Staci tried to focus on the road. He refused to think of how Kim would react to him. He’d deal with that later. And hypothesizing what him and Joey might find would likely lead to more overthinking and make any discoveries just disappointing.

So instead he hummed.

Cap gave him an odd look. Even if he didn’t know the name, he clearly recognized the song and definitely thought it an odd choice. In the back seat, General perked his head up at the familiar tune and the Judge twitched. No one said anything though, Cap’s eyes returning to the side mirror and the Judge’s eyes remained hidden from view.

Staci hummed through the entire tune, several times actually, before they finally came to Prosperity’s gates. The trip had been even easier than when Staci had driven to and from the old statue. That was a little worrisome. The Highwaymen weren’t the kind of people to just hide. They weren’t suddenly afraid of Prosperity and running from the area. They were preparing for an attack of their own. The trick would be if Prosperity, Rush’s men, and now New Eden could act before them.

When they all drove through the gates, Staci stopped and then gestured for Camille to come over. As Cap and the Judge got out, Staci told her to explain things to Kim and that she was New Eden’s spokesperson until Staci returned.

Camille gave a little salute after he finished and as she walked away, Staci turned to the backseat. General was still there and he asked, “You want to come with us?”

The wolf didn’t give a human response like a nod or anything. However, Staci could tell Gen wanted to. That was fine. He’d been planning on letting Carmina watch after the bike anyways.

Staci then turned his gaze outwards. He watched people unpack the other cars. Cap was of course going straight for Rush, and it seemed Sharky had intercepted the Judge before they could return to Carmina’s side. Staci unexpectedly snorted as Sharky took the reunion in stride. He was simply excited to see an old friend and immediately put an arm around the Judge before he could be stopped. Rook tensed for a second, but even from his distance Staci could see the way Rook eventually eased into the half hug.

God, that made Staci wish things would change between Prosperity and New Eden after this, but he certainly wasn’t naïve enough to put all his faith in such an idea.

As his eyes continued to roam, he also spotted Carmina going to meet with Nick and Kim. Damn, where was Joey already?

Staci started to tap at the wheel.

His eyes moved over the people again. Rush seemed satisfied after hearing Cap’s report, Camille was already listening to any developments that had occurred while they were gone, the Judge had managed to get away from Sharky, only to be intercepted by Grace now. Carmina was still talking to her parents and as Staci stared, Kim shot him a glance. He quickly looked away.

Carmina had said soon, but she wasn’t telling them right now. Right?! His eyes quickly moved around the open area again. Where the fuck was Joey? If she didn’t hurry up, Staci had a feeling Kim was going to stop the car from leaving with her bare hands if she had to. Come on…

“Jesus, you’re even antsier than I expected.”

“Thank God,” groaned Staci as he quickly started up the car again. Joey barely had time to close the door as he was already driving back out the gates.

“Damn. You’re more excited than I expected. Your expectations at what we’ll find rise at all?”

“No.”

Joey raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. Maybe. Fuck I don’t know.”

“Well what the hell happened in New Eden?”

Staci hesitated. Should he tell Joey now? It could prove bad for their expedition, but she would find out eventually. And if Staci hadn’t told her at the earliest possible convenience? Well, she’d probably be even more pissed. Besides, she could tell something was off and like a bloodhound, she probably wouldn’t let it go until she found out. Staci took in a deep breath before quickly getting out, “Joseph is back.”

“Holy shit.”

He slumped forward as all the air left him. “Yeah.”

One look over showed a variety of emotions going over Joey’s face. Unlike Jacob, she didn’t have anything like military experience or whatever to relate to. However, it was clear she didn’t put Joseph into the same category as John. So…

“Fuck.”

“You wanted him to be dead,” sighed Staci.

“I…I don’t know what I wanted.”

“I do. Your practical mind says it’s good because now we have the full force of New Eden behind us, but that doesn’t keep you from wishing he’d gotten what he’d deserved out in those woods. At least what you think he deserves.”

“Shit…yeah ok. I guess that is what I wanted,” muttered Joey. “I guess you’re happy though. Hmm?”

A small noise sounded in the back of Staci’s throat.

“What the fuck was that?”

“Well…”

Pratt…”

Oh, she was already prepping herself to be pissed. “Can you promise to hear me out?”

Joey’s eyes narrowed, but she still said, “Yes.”

“So I know you’ve heard at least a little about the coming of a shepherd and how Joseph’s disappearance was meant to be even though it took my people by surprise,” Staci quickly got out. He half expected her to throw in some comment, but she stayed quiet. Staci took it as his sign to get out the rest of the story as quickly as possible. “There was a trial that was meant to bring the Father back. It was supposed to be taken by the shepherd and I was supposed to lead the shepherd to New Eden. I didn’t know. I had no idea what was going to happen, and she was the last person on my mind when—”

“Staci Pratt if you fucking say what I think—”

“Carmina Rye is Joseph’s chosen one.”

“What the fuck!?”

If they’d been standing, Staci might have let Joey throw a punch. Lord knew he felt like he deserved it right now. As it was, he quickly held up his hand and shouted, “Fuck, I’m still driving! If you don’t want us both getting turned over—”

“Then pull over!”

Staci let out a long groan but did so. Joey jumped out before he even fully stopped the car. He turned it off and followed her, first pausing to let Gen out of the back. He had no idea how long this would take.

Joey was already pacing by the road. Her hands switched from covering her face to randomly throwing them up in the air as she muttered to herself. Staci stayed quiet, letting her make the first move.

“You told Kim you’d protect her!”

It was hard not to wince at the first words Joey threw his way.

“I can’t believe you let her do that—”

“Hey! I didn’t let her do anything.”

“You could have stopped her! You…you could have done the fucking trial yourself! Screw what the rest said.”

“I couldn’t have—”

“But you—”

“Even if I had, it would have gone against Joseph’s words! It would have done more harm than good!”

“But Carmina?!”

“If I had thought it would have done any good, I would have tied her to a god damn post. Ok?”

“How can you say that when you wanted Joseph back?”

“Because I missed out with her! I missed out on so much by choosing Jacob, and I don’t regret it. I don’t! But Carmina matters to me and if I could have stopped her, even knowing she would bring Joseph back, I would have. But the thing is, Carmina is an adult, and she has already been making her own path. Her parents know that too. It’s why they let her go at all because they knew she’d make it to New Eden with or without their help. She was going to attempt that trial, with or without me agreeing.”

Joey let out an unexpected laugh. “Fuck. That’s why you wanted to leave right away. She’s telling them now. Isn’t she?”

Staci nodded.

Most of the fight seemed to leave Joey as a smirk showed on her face. “Kim is going to fucking kill you.”

“Believe me. I already know that,” groaned Staci. He looked back and the moment of amusement had already left Joey’s face. However, she didn’t look quite as angry anymore.

“Just…just why her?”

“I don’t know. If I could have done it…if I could have grabbed Cap and forced him to do it—”

Joey laughed at that.

“I would have. Please, you…you know I would have. Right?”

She hesitated. Slowly, she closed the distance between them. She looked Staci up and down—

And then the punch flew into his face.

A pained noise escaped Staci’s throat. He held his now throbbing cheek before slowly standing up straight. That would bruise pretty deeply. He was lucky Joey hadn’t hit him closer to his mouth. He would have been spitting out a few teeth by now if she had.

“Yeah, I believe you.”

He focused his eyes back on her.

“And I know you feel bad about it because you didn’t even try to stop that punch.”

“I do feel bad about it,” muttered Staci. “But I couldn’t stop her.”

“No…you couldn’t. I couldn’t have, even if I’d been there.”

Staci nodded in agreement.

“Just…fuck. So what does this mean? Don’t tell me Joseph is going to try to fucking indoctrinate her because I swear—”

“No, it’s not like that. Trust me,” Staci quickly said. “Basically, with Joseph back, New Eden is whole again and we don’t have to worry about Ethan. At least for now. We talked a little and Joseph agreed the best use of our people is to use them to distract the Highwaymen. If we can choose a good enough point of attack, preferably with the twins around, then our people will pull the Highwaymen’s attention one way while us, the rest of Prosperity, and Rush’s men take the Highwaymen from behind.”

“Solid enough idea if we can pick a good enough place and time. But that doesn’t explain Carmina’s role in all this.”

“I don’t know.”

“Staci!”

“I’m serious! In Joseph’s own words, she’s the sword to drive out the locusts. Maybe she’ll be the one to actually kill the twins. Maybe she’ll play an important role in the final battle. I don’t know!”

“But how can you not?”

“It’s not like Joseph’s words are a god damn computer manual! I just don’t! I doubt even Joseph has a full understanding of it. Hell! Maybe he’s completely wrong and Carmina isn’t even involved in the final battle. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Joey shook her head and let out an exasperated sigh. “In that case, I wish you hadn’t even told me.”

“You would have found out eventually.”

“I suppose…and I would have been pretty fucking pissed at you if you hadn’t already told me.”

“Which is why I told you now.”

They stood there in silence for a bit. During the argument, General had wondered off but was back now. He sat down at Staci’s side and looked expectedly at both of them.

“So what about Ethan?” asked Joey.

“We don’t have to work with him for now.”

“I hear a but coming.”

“He did ask Carmina to kill Joseph. If she found him alive.”

Joey blinked in surprise. She opened her mouth a couple of times, trying to find the right words. “I mean…listen. In my humble opinion, it’s fucking karma coming back around for all the shit Joseph did. But…to have your own son just do that to you? Shit. I’m guessing you guys did like a quick execution or some shit before you came back?”

“Joseph said he’d talk to him.”

“You’re fucking with me. Joseph Seed, the guy who backed every word up with drugs and guns and a hundred crazy guys ready to kill everyone in his way, is choosing just to talk to Ethan?”

“We all change.”

“Or go fucking crazy when we get old.”

“I personally think it has to do with his time with the Judge.”

“I’m sorry. What?”

Oh fuck. “Grace…and Kim…they knew. I could tell they knew, but…”

“Knew what?”

“They must not have told you. Like how Nick didn’t tell you I was alive.”

The anger quickly returned to Joey, but it was clearly not directed at Staci this time. “What didn’t they tell me?”

“The masked figure that came with us? That’s the Judge. That’s…that’s Rook.”

Joey just stared. Her mouth had fallen open and she just stared. Staci tried to step closer. “I’m sorry.” He put a hand on her shoulder, but that seemed to break her out of her shock. She knocked his hand away and quickly backed up.

“They kept that from me!”

“Joey, I’m so—”

“Kim said Joseph killed Rook! She said she found the fucking body in the bunker!”

Jesus, that lie seemed a little extreme. “She really said that—”

“Rook’s alive!”

“Yes—”

“Rook is-is-what did Joseph do?”

“I…I don’t know. It was just Rook and Joseph in their bunker. I mean, we could communicate with him. From Jacob’s place. But it was essentially just them for all those years.”

“Fucking shit. I don’t…”

“I’m sorry Joey. This isn’t how I would have wanted to tell you.”

“Would you have ever?”

“What?”

“Well seeing as no one fucking else seems to think I can handle the truth, I want to know. Would you have ever told me?”

“Not on that first day, when we reunited,” admitted Staci. “But now? Yeah. Preferably after we kicked the Highwaymen out and all that but…you would have deserved to know. And I think…whatever is left of Rook in there would have liked to see you again too.”

“Jesus. And what’s the new fucking name? The Judge?”

“That’s the only name the people of New Eden know them by. Rook wanted to keep it that way.”

“I don’t know if I can handle this.”

“Joey—”

“No! No, it was hard enough getting around you but with Rook…and thinking Rook chose this…”

“We can’t control the actions of others,” murmured Staci. He approached her again, and this time she didn’t back up. “Sometimes we can’t even understand them. But…just think. Rook is alive. Joseph didn’t kill them in that bunker and…and yeah. I won’t lie. It definitely won’t be the Rook you knew when you meet them in Prosperity. But isn’t it better getting a chance to see them again rather than never seeing them at all? At least you have a chance to say a proper goodbye if nothing else. You both do.”

“I don’t know…”

“Aren’t you happy you saw me again?”

“Fuck…ok. You’ve got me there.”

Staci showed a sad smile and then went in for a hug. Joey let him. Her stiff posture slowly eased, and she rested her head against his shoulder.

“I just…I can’t believe they didn’t tell me.”

“Because you would have done what you would have done with me. Stormed in there, burned everything to the ground, and dragged us both out kicking and screaming before you even tried to hear our side of things.”

Joey snorted at that and it was hard not to smile a little at the overexaggerated image that had popped into his head.

When they finally parted, Joey shook her head. “Things aren’t going back to how they were. Are they?”

“You actually think so?”

“Well yeah. I mean, knowing you and Rook are there…and I’m sure Carmina’s fascination only grew after going to New Eden, no matter how much I hate that. And I’ve seen some of the younger people hitting it off, even if it’s obvious the background and world views are different. But…but I don’t think after the Highwaymen, we can just put a dividing line between us like we did before.”

Staci took a slow, shaky breath. “You know…I was kind of wishing that wouldn’t happen. I didn’t…I didn’t want to lose you again. But I honestly didn’t think you’d want me around after all this.”

“I don’t,” muttered Joey. “But I also do. Like Jesus! I’m still angry, will probably die angry, but you’re right. I don’t want to fucking lose you again. Even if you piss me off constantly too.”

“Thanks.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “What has this world come to?”

“You’re asking that now? Seventeen years of crazy and it’s now—”

“Yeah, yeah. So are we ready to go find out what the hell happened to Jacob or what?”

The air around them grew somber immediately. Before Joey could apologize though, Staci murmured, “Yeah. Let’s go.”

He went to let Gen back into the backseat as Joey said, “So what did Joseph think about his missing brother?”

“He said it was meant to be.”

“Wait. Do you think—”

“Whatever Joseph said to me, the Highwayman’s words and the dog tags are the most concrete pieces of evidence that I have right now. I can’t think about if Joseph is right because that will crush me far too much otherwise.”

Joey nodded in understanding. She got in and quickly pointed out the route Staci needed to take. They managed to drive for a little over ten minutes before their radio crackled to life.

“Staci, Joey, respond please,” came Kim’s voice.

“Oh shit,” muttered Staci.

Joey went ahead and answered it. “We’re here. Going out on a quick run. Should be back by tomorrow. We’ll contact you if it looks like it’ll take longer.”

“Well when you return, make sure Staci knows he needs to come talk to me. Immediately.”

“Got it Kim.”

“Good.” The radio went dead and Joey let out a sharp laugh at Staci’s downcast face.

“She’s going to straight up kill you.”

“Believe me. I know,” sighed Staci. He tried to focus on the road again. “Here?”

“Turn left.”

Staci did and they drove on in silence for a little longer. Joey only spoke to give more directions and she eventually said, “Ok, you’re going to have to pull over about here. Then we head into the woods. Shouldn’t take more than an hour, hour and a half to get to the area.”

“Why the hell were you guys this far out anyway? You never fully explained that to me.”

“Because I figured telling you more would have just made you focus on finding Jacob and not fighting the Highwaymen.”

“You’re not wrong—”

“Of course I’m not! I may still not understand it, but you obviously care about him. If I’d told you all the details, you probably would have started searching on day one.”

Staci pulled over and turned off the car. “So tell me now. You mentioned he saved you.”

“Yeah. At the time, we came out this way to try and spy on the Highwaymen.”

“I’m surprised you agreed to go,” said Staci as they both got out. He let Gen out and he quickly fell in step beside Staci. “Since it was just you two.”

“This was after the whole fight thing,” sighed Joey. “I’m not going to lie. I still thought this was some elaborate ploy to kill me.”

“Seriously?”

“Ok, technically it didn’t make sense as my disappearance would have just caused issues between Jacob’s guys and Prosperity and clearly he didn’t want that, but still. You never know with a Seed!”

Staci rolled his eyes.

“Point is, he gave me details on what we were going to do. Even added that he would have preferred Grace because she had been a sharpshooter like him, but with her eyesight gone that obviously wasn’t going to happen. He fucking laid it out and in retrospect, I should have known something was off. There was way too much information there and it was even more obvious later on that he was trying to make it seem like I wasn’t his first choice when in reality, I was his only choice.”

“Why do you think he chose you?”

“I don’t know. Like, he obviously knew I’d been your partner from before. Maybe he believed I’d come to trust you again.”

“So what exactly happened?”

“We came out here and along the way, he told me that whatever would happen was meant to. Weird right? Like, he’s a military guy. He never seemed like he was trying to be like Joseph so the line immediately stood out. I thought he might mean something involving God’s will, but it didn’t fit. Instead, I ended up figuring he meant what was about to happen was by his design somehow. So even if I got confused, I needed to know that it was by his plan. Then we finally happened upon a small group of Highwaymen.

“I could smell something was fishy right away. They weren’t doing anything specific and there was jack shit out here. It almost felt staged. Then before I could even get any real intel, Jacob told me to describe it as missing in action. I didn’t understand what that meant at the time and I didn’t have time to think about it because after those words, Jacob was already firing on them. It confused the fuck out of me, but I’m not one to run from a fight so I started killing Highwaymen. You know? But they ganged up on me. It was too many too quick and then Jacob blasted this guy right before he could take my head off.

“He said something that sounded like, remember, and then kicked me down a hill and away from the battle. It shocked the shit out of me and I hit my head too which didn’t help. By the time I was able to push myself up and get back to the little valley, everyone was gone. Except the bodies. And Jesus. It seemed like almost every Highwayman was dead but Jacob was nowhere to be found and I never heard anything else. I told people that he’d been missing in action, just like he’d asked.”

“I’m a bit surprised you followed his wishes, despite not knowing what he was doing.”

“Yeah, well I sure as shit didn’t trust him because he was New Eden. It was ultimately his damn dog tags that convinced me. He could have just been a crazy old man, but more likely there was a purpose that I just wasn’t seeing. Anyways, I came back out here a few times, but I didn’t find anything. Never heard any specifics about where Jacob might be either. I was honestly shocked when you found those dog tags. I may not give a shit if he’s actually dead, but I am sorry Staci. And I hope whatever he was doing was worth it and we can figure it out.”

“Me too,” sighed Staci.

They continued through the night, eventually making it up to that little valley. Considering how much time had passed, all the bodies would likely be gone, along with any tracks. Maybe there would be a sign left by Jacob, or maybe standing in the area would give Staci an idea of the most likely direction Jacob would have gone from that area.

However, as they cleared the trees and saw the patch of land, all plans left Staci’s head. They both froze before quickly ducking into the bushes.

“Who the fuck is that?” hissed Staci.

“Just some fucking Highwayman! How should I know?” Joey said as she jabbed him in the ribs.

“Oh, I don’t know. Because this is the place Jacob disappeared and on the one day you finally take me out here, there’s just a fucking Highwayman hanging out there!” Staci shot back.

They both paused to get in a better look of the area.

“Well it looks like he’s alone,” Joey said.

“He’s been here a while. Long enough to have a temporary tent and fire pit.”

“So what? Some Highwayman retreat? Survive a day in the wild and you’re allowed into the club?”

“I don’t know. Just…you stay here. I’m going to check no one else is in the immediate vicinity and then take him from behind. You take him from the front.”

“I’m lighter than you. It’ll be easier for me to move around without making noise,” Joey shot back. “You stay here with the wolf, and I’ll do that.”

“Alright. I’ll move forward when I see you’re on the other side then.”

“Got it.”

Joey quickly disappeared into the trees. Staci motioned for Gen to stay at his side. He took out his pistol. His eyes roamed the area, waiting for Joey to appear. After several long minutes, she did. He could just barely make out her motions. It seemed the rest of the area was clear and this guy really was out here all by himself.

Joey started to move forward and after she was close enough, Staci quickly revealed himself. He rushed forward, gun drawn. General ran right up to the Highwayman, teeth shining in the moonlight as Joey pressed her gun to the back of the guy’s head.

“Don’t even think about it.”

“Ok! I’m not thinking! Just don’t shoot the messenger. Or are you too young to know that song?”

Staci ignored the attempt at a joke. “Who the hell are you?”

“Irwin Smalls. Highwayman.”

“Yeah, we can see that dipshit,” growled Joey. “What the fuck are you doing out here?”

“I guess you guys don’t know the song—”

“One more crack and I sick the wolf on you,” threatened Staci. Gen growled for emphasis.

“I’m the messenger? Alright? Get it now! But I’m not supposed to show it to just anyone.”

“Show what?”

“Hey! I said not just anyone. I was told only to hand this over to some weirdo named Peaches.”

Staci’s eyes went wide. He dropped his gun and holstered it. Joey still kept hers aimed at the guy’s back and Gen stayed on alert. Staci held out his hand. “Give it to me.”

Irwin peered at him. “Huh, I guess you do kind of look like the description he gave me. Though you certainly don’t seem sweet enough to be a—”

“I said give—”

“Ok! Jesus, don’t have to blow my brains out over a slip of paper. Here.”

Staci quickly snatched it. He walked closer to the fire, leaning over it so he could better read it. The message looked to be written on some shit kind of fabric. Bandages maybe? The writing itself was also incredibly crude and dark. It looked like dried blood. A paperclip or something equally small tipped must have been used as the writing utensil.

He started mumbling the numbers off to himself, and boy were there a lot. Each number was next to a little title. Shotguns, turrets, ammo and the different types, some simple directions and placements of things, number of people, ranks and specialties, positioning of rooms…

“Hey.” Joey broke him out of his focus. “Share with the class.”

Staci’s eyes quickly looked to Irwin’s. “Was there another message with this? Anything?”

“Yeah. Just, give that to Peaches and don’t tell Ethan.”

“Don’t tell Ethan what?”

“I don’t know! Everything? Anything? He just said don’t tell Ethan.”

“Staci, what is it?”

“Statistics from the prison. Everything…everything we would have needed to see inside it,” he murmured. He looked up sharply as a realization came upon him. “When did you get this?”

“About two weeks ago. After Mickey and Lou failed to keep Rush’s men from getting in, but they had at least kidnapped Rush and killed off some of them. I certainly didn’t see why that action meant now was the time to send out a message, but he gave instructions to stay in this area and wait with it. Said someone called Peaches would eventually figure out to come here, but damn I gotta admit I’m surprised. I thought I’d be stuck here until the end of my days before anything actually happened.”

Two weeks ago. So when…when had that other Highwayman’s story taken place? He bent down and carefully took the dog tags off. “These. Do you recognize them?”

“Oh yeah. Took that necklace from the guy.”

“They’re dog tags, dipshit,” growled Joey as she knocked him in the head.

“Ow! Ok, dog tags. Whatever.”

“What do you mean you took them?” Staci asked.

“Uh, prisoners can’t have shit on them. That includes jewelry, or uh dog tags. Later lost them in a bet with some guy. Never knew what happened to them.”

Then the other Highwayman’s story…it wasn’t…it wasn’t related. Jacob could still be…

Staci forced himself to focus on the situation in front of him. He put the dog tags back on Gen and stood up.

“Why the hell is he a prisoner?”

“Uh, he wanted to be? Listen! I know it’s weird too, but he’s the one who made up the whole deal!”

“He really did plan it then? Getting captured? Disappearing?” asked Joey.

Irwin finally turned around. Joey tensed and didn’t drop her gun from the guy’s face but he said, “You were there. Weren’t you?”

“You were there too?”

“Yeah. I’m the one who managed to get everyone to this place. Gave them a lie about you being a big shot or something so they had to take you alive. That way the big fucking guy could have a good reason to push you out of sight for a bit when you got overwhelmed, kill the rest, and then I could take him to the prison.”

“So saving me was a fucking ploy,” Joey snorted. She shook her head, maybe a little disbelievingly but not quite angry. She focused back on Irwin. “But why the whole charade? From your end, this still doesn’t make since.”

“Yeah. You would have willing killed tens of your people. For one of us?” questioned Staci.

“First off, didn’t do it for you guys. Trust me, this is just as beneficial for me,” Irwin said.

“How?” demanded Joey.

“Listen. Those top lieutenants are assholes and a little while ago they replaced me with this guy named Frank even though he’s a fucking asshole and pretty useless and—”

“The point?” Joey and Staci said at the same time.

“Listen. At first it was just to fuck with Frank and some of the people there. Which boy, did that guy. I didn’t ask why he wanted in, just that he make some noise while he was there for me. But clearly things aren’t fucking going well for the Highwaymen in general so now I figured I’d help you guys a bit, then grab my shit, a few people, and leave. Like, if you actually manage to take on the twins, no one is going to be able to take their place. All Highwaymen’s shit is up for grabs and I intend to take what’s mine. So unless you need something else, I’m probably just going to leave—”

“Not so fast,” murmured Staci.

“Ah come on. What now?”

“I’m going to need you to find out when the twins are going to be at the prison next.”

“You know, that’s going to be a little hard—”

“I wasn’t asking.”

“Yeah, well thanks to you guys their usual routine is all messed up and—”

Staci walked closer and grabbed Irwin by the back of his neck. “I don’t think you understand,” whispered Staci. “If you don’t get us that information, I will find you and slit open your stomach so that you’ll either bleed out slowly with your innards falling out in front of you, or an animal will come along by that time and you’ll be eaten alive.”

“Jesus! You fucking learn that from the big guy? He basically threatened me with the same shit if I fucked things up for him.”

“Good. Then you know I’m not fucking around either.”

“Ok. I’ll get you the information. Give me the wavelength you want to communicate on, and I’ll contact you.”

Staci did so.

“Then get the fuck out of here and hurry up with that information,” growled Joey. She kept her gun out but lowered it a little and backed up to give Irwin room to leave. General stayed near Staci and growled threateningly anytime Irwin came near.

“I’m hurrying. I’m hurrying! You people really don’t fuck around huh?”

Irwin kicked down the makeshift tent and folded it up quickly. Joey and Staci waited for him to gather his shit together and leave first. When he finally started to head away, Staci warned, “Remember—”

“Believe me! I get it. Big guy fucking told me he’d rip my head off and feed it to his wolf if I double crossed him and after some of the shit he managed to do even while a prisoner? Let’s just say I believe him and I ain’t stupid!”

And with that, Irwin disappeared into the woods. Joey immediately came over and said, “Let me see what he wrote.”

Staci handed it over and Joey looked at it over the fire.

“This is…holy shit. He must have…it would have taken him months to gather all this information,” muttered Joey. “This is everything we could have possibly wanted to know.”

“It’s a fucking miracle.”

“But…hang on. We’ve only just now talked about the prison being a hub. Back then, we had no idea. Why would Jacob have risked his life going in there?” asked Joey.

“He must have known something else. Or at least suspected something that gave him reason to go in. Gave him reason to stay for so long,” murmured Staci. He took the bandage back. His thumb carefully rubbed across the crude letters. Jacob could be…there was a chance…

“If you say Joseph was right, I will hurt you.”

The laughter came out, breathless and maybe just a bit hysterical. Joey’s own laughter mimicked his and she shook her head. “That fucker’s still kicking. Shit!”

Staci laughed again, pushing his hair back as he continued to stare at the letters.

“Well now I really can’t deny it.”

“Hmm?”

“You love him. I hate that you do but…when you thought he was dead, I just saw anger and loss. I could still kind of tell myself it was some fucked up thing that wasn’t real. You’d just rationalized it. But that look on your face just now? When you were finally given information that gave you hope? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so happy.”

“I am right now. I really am.”

Joey shook her head. “Shit. Well, let’s get this information to the others and find your fucking boyfriend. Huh?”

They were going to find Jacob. They would—

“Will you get that goofy as shit grin off your face? You’re over forty. Not twenty-six,” groaned Joey as she kicked out the fire.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. Just…you know me by now. Stuck between being happy for you and then still wanting to kick a Seed’s teeth in. You know?”

“I know Joey,” Staci kindly said as he followed her out of the little field. He gave Gen permission to hunt on their way back and the wolf took off running.

Joey then brought up the only thing that really took him out of the high mood he was in. “All this, him going to the prison in the first place, I bet it has something to do with Ethan.”

Staci thought about it for a second and then nodded. “He did single Ethan out. And the vagueness of, just don’t tell him? Could…fuck. Do you think Ethan’s been helping the Highwaymen?”

“You know him better than me. But remember. One of the ways Jacob tricked me into his little thing at all was him mentioning someone might be working with the Highwaymen. At the time, I thought it just some nomadic group they’d pulled into their ranks, but now…”

Staci hesitated. He didn’t want to believe it. Yet his most recent visit had made it clear. Ethan would rather be king of the ashes than king of nothing. “Fuck! What the hell was he even trying for with wanting Carmina to bring back Joseph’s head then?”

“Maybe he’s playing all sides? Trying anything so that he can get even the littlest bit of power and respect out of it,” tried Joey. “Either way, you have to tell Joseph. Right?”

“Not a chance.”

“Seriously?”

“He’ll probably try to talk Ethan down and if Ethan finds out that we know—”

“Then there’s a chance he could go ahead with whatever deal he’s been working on with the Highwaymen and give them a head start.”

Staci nodded.

“I can’t believe that fucker betrayed all of us!”

“Well there was that one guy, Mark, from Prosperity that gave the twins all that information so they could burn down the place at all.”

“True. Just can’t always trust who’s watching your back.”

Staci nodded in agreement as they finished their trek back to the car. Once there, all Staci had to do was let out a long whistle and General came running back.

As Joey got in, she said, “At least you can look on the bright side now.”

“Which is?”

“Kim’s less likely to kill you what with all this information we just got.”

“Thanks for reminding me,” Staci sarcastically said.

“You’re welcome.”

Staci let Gen in and rolled his eyes. He got in and then quickly headed back towards Prosperity. This time, he was even more careful with driving and instead of fighting any Highwaymen head on, he took side roads or at least pulled off into a ditch in the hopes of hiding from any oncoming cars. They couldn’t risk getting killed or losing the note in some fight before they got back to Prosperity.

It was early morning when they were almost back at Prosperity. Joey glanced over and blinked back her shock. “Maybe it’s just the morning light, but you look like shit.”

“Well I was up with you all night.”

“Yeah, but I at least got some shuteye since Carmina contacted us and said you wanted to leave last night. You look like—”

“I didn’t sleep last night either.”

“Wait. At all?”

“Carmina was heading north. I was fucking worried.”

“Staci, you’ve been up for three straight days!”

He shrugged.

“Ok, first off, you’re never allowed to drive me anywhere again. Second, you’re lucky you haven’t started hallucinating.”

“Joey, since when did you have three eyes?”

“Ha, ha,” she grumbled. “And third, you’re really lucky we didn’t end up fighting anyone because you would have run on a burst of adrenaline for about five minutes and then just fucking collapse. You need to take better care of yourself.”

“Well that’s ironic.”

“How is that ironic?”

“Because you were the one who actually took the sheriff’s job seriously and I was the one who was late half the time from sleeping in late.”

“Huh, that is true.”

“And it was me who was always dragging you to the bar and telling you to take a break.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “Whatever. You’re going to bed when we get back.”

“We need to plan for things.”

“Yeah. We will. You’re fucking sleeping.”

Before Staci could argue more, they were pulling into Prosperity and the gates were closing behind them. As Staci got out, it quickly became clear from all the stares that news had circled around about Carmina. He doubted Kim had exactly been shouting the news from the rooftops, but as expected, people had probably heard from Jacob’s people discussing it and it had just spread.

Then his eyes finally spotted Kim coming his way. Looking pissed was an understatement.

Before she could say or do anything though, Staci quickly took the note out of his pocket. “Before you kill me, which you completely have the right to do, we got information on where Jacob’s been.”

Surprise broke on Kim’s face. Whatever her personal feelings were, she immediately turned professional. “I’ll pull the main people together.”

Staci and Joey followed Kim to the main room where they’d been doing most of the meetings recently. Nick and Carmina came in next with the Judge acting as Carmina’s shadow. It was also clear Nick had some choice words for Staci. However, he kept quiet as Cap, Rush, and Camille also joined them. Joey also took note of Rook but just made it a point to look away for the moment.

“I don’t want anyone outside this room to know how we got this information,” Staci quickly said, starting the discussion.

“What do you mean?” asked Rush.

“With this information, Jacob had one request. That Ethan not know.”

“So Jacob Seed’s alive?” Kim said.

“It seems so,” Staci replied. “Joey and I still don’t fully understand what his goal was, but he got a lot of information for us and we can’t risk knowledge of this information getting to Ethan. We’ll tell our groups to prep in whatever way we need them to, but I think we shouldn’t tell them exactly where we’re going with this until practically the day of. Ethan could be working with the Highwaymen and we can’t risk him letting them know our plans.”

Out of everyone, Camille of course looked the most shocked. However, it was telling that she didn’t immediately try to defend Ethan. It was clear no one had a good image of him and though shocking, Staci’s words weren’t exactly a stretch.

“Well, let’s see this information,” Kim said.

Staci took out the message again. They all quickly went over it.

“I’ve got a cartographer who could probably map out a blueprint from this. And if you have anyone that remembers the prison well enough, they could fill in the blanks,” said Rush.

“We can start planning exactly how much ammo and stock we would need too,” Nick put in. “If done right, this could be the final battle. We need to have as much support as possible.”

“Then let’s start deciding duties and splitting them up,” Camille said.

“First,” Joey interjected, “Staci out.”

“I’m not going to miss out on—”

“You’ve been up for three days. You’re going to bed damn it.”

“But—”

“Three days? It’s amazing you’re still on your feet,” Kim said with a pointed stare. “I’ll walk you over.”

Staci winced. He wanted to argue that he needed to be there to help plan, but exhaustion was finally setting in and he wasn’t going to argue with Kim if she wanted to talk now. “Ok…yeah fine. Camille, let me know what’s decided.”

“Of course.”

Staci started to leave. At the last minute, Kim took him by his arm and basically pulled him the rest of the way out.

“Kim, I’m—”

“Don’t. Just don’t right now.”

He quieted and they quickly walked across the space. In the area where New Eden’s people had been sleeping, it was completely empty which made since as everyone was now up and moving around.

General had headed straight for the bed Staci had been using and was already lying on it when they walked in. Staci stopped and turned to Kim, head down.

“Staci, don’t lie to me. Not right now. I just…I have to know. Did he hurt her?”

He looked up in surprise. Instead of blowing up at him, she was asking… “No. No of course not.”

“You say of course not, but I don’t see Joseph how you do.”

“Right. Kim, you have my word. He didn’t hurt her. He wouldn’t. He sees her as a sign from God or whatever. He’s not going to want to anger Him.”

Kim shook her head. “Just some of the things she said she saw up there…letting her go was a mistake.”

“I wish I could have stopped her. I really do.”

“I know.”

“Wait, you do?”

“Carmina did a pretty good job of defending your ass,” sighed Kim. “She straight up said that if you’d tried to fight her, she would have just snuck out and gone anyways.”

“Same way she would have gotten to New Eden at all if you hadn’t agreed.”

Kim nodded. “And now Rook is back, just hanging around, but it’s not Rook…”

“I know.”

“I just…I need you to promise me something. I don’t care if it goes against Joseph or New Eden. If there ever comes a time, a real time when you think what is being asked of her is too much, that the danger is unreasonably high, protect her. Don’t let her do whatever it is, or at least don’t let her go alone.”

“Of course,” whispered Staci. “I’m surprised you didn’t just hit me.”

“Well Joey clearly already did that for me.”

He touched his bruised cheek. “Right.”

“And I was angry. So…so angry at first. But she is grown. If she wants to continue to act as…as New Eden’s figure, I can’t stop her. I can’t just go and stop all of New Eden from seeing her how they see her now. As much as this makes me want to. All I can do is ask that this path she’s chosen, she doesn’t walk alone.”

“She won’t walk it alone Kim. She won’t.”

“I know. Because you have proven yourself. You’ve proven how far you’ll go to help her, to help us, and despite how upset I was at seeing you walk in this morning, I can tell how much you’ve already torn yourself up over this. That does mean something to me.”

“I’ll have her back. I promise.”

“I know you will,” sighed Kim, “and thank you for that. I mean it. Now please, get some rest for now. You really do look like shit.”

He gave a tired, half laugh. “Thanks.”

“Sleep well,” murmured Kim.

She turned and left and Staci finally kicked off his shoes and put his weapons down. “Scoot,” he told Gen.

The wolf shifted and Staci forced himself onto the bed and rolled over. One of his hands took the dog tags again and carefully ran his thumb over the name on the tags. Staci had a chance to find Jacob again. He wasn’t going to take that new found hope lightly.

Chapter Text

Staci managed to get in a few hours of sleep before he was forcing himself up and getting to work. Right away, Joey looked ready to grab him and tie him to the bed, but he assured her he was at least a little better and would get back to a normal sleep schedule.

He immediately went to Camille and got an overview of how the meeting had gone. Everyone had their duties now. The only information that had been passed to New Eden was to continue sending food and to protect their home. It wouldn’t be until they chose to go after the prison that they’d ask New Eden’s forces to act as a distraction. If Ethan tried to warn the Highwaymen, doing it at the last minute would hopefully not affect their plan or at least minimize the damage. Everyone else that were being assigned duties were simply told they wanted to overprepare before the Highwaymen’s next attack. No one besides their small inner circle knew the specific details.

With the plan’s secrecy still intact, Staci put his hands to good use. He managed to get into a semi-normal sleep cycle, though he kept as busy as possible to keep from thinking of Jacob.

He could be alive…

But he might not…

But he could be!

The not knowing was overwhelmingly frustrating. If it wasn’t for the enemy army that was sitting at their borders, Staci probably would have drove himself mad. As it was, he remembered his training. He wanted Jacob to be alive, more than anything. But Jacob being alive didn’t matter if there wasn’t a home to return to. He couldn’t abandon what Jacob had fought for, the people of New Eden, or Prosperity now too.

So Staci worked. He hunted and brought food in for the community, participated in watches, went around to the reclaimed locations and helped defend them, whatever he could do. He ended up even acting as a bodyguard, helping Grace gather more materials at one point and watching out for Selene when she needed to grab some more plants for med kits.

During their days of preparing, he also got word that Joey had talked to Rook, sort of. Staci had a chance to hear about it when they got a long enough break that gave them time to eat. Those that were in Prosperity were mostly around the fire with a few watching the walls. Joey and Staci sat off to the side.

“How’d the conversation go?” Staci started.

Joey scoffed.

“What?”

“More like a monologue than a conversation,” she grumbled. “From my side anyways. How the hell do you deal with that?”

“It took a while,” Staci admitted.

Joey angrily stabbed at her bowl. “Yeah, a long fucking time I’m sure. And if Rook doesn’t say shit, how the hell do you know this getup is ok and not fucking Stockholm Syndrome?”

Staci shrugged. “Rook’s always had some crazy will. Broke through Faith, the bliss, almost killed Jacob. Would have, if I hadn’t been there. The name doesn’t matter, the Judge or Rook, whatever. Rook wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to be.”

“I guess…you got me there,” sighed Joey. She glanced across to the fire pit and let out a small snort. “At least the whole getup doesn’t seem to have put Sharky off. He’s as friendly as he always was.”

Staci chuckled at that. He glanced over and saw where Sharky was throwing around a cup with one hand and his free arm was thrown over the Judge’s shoulder. He just seemed happy to have an old friend back, no matter the name or form. The Judge also looked far less stiff than when they’d last met.

“Well, once all this is over, maybe you’ll have time to figure out your own feelings,” Staci tried. “Or you can just throw up your middle fingers and say fuck it.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “You know me so well.”

Staci smiled in return as they continued to finish up their meal. He took advantage of that small moment as the rest of the time was just work. The only other times he got a chance to breath were in his dreams, and those weren’t exactly easy. If he got lucky, he didn’t dream at all. Most nights, the dreams came in confusing forms though. Memories and fantasy mixed together to form nightmarish visions that only left him feeling more tired than when he’d gone to bed.

The repeating feeling of needing to chase Carmina had changed.

On their way back to the valley, Staci hadn’t been able to fully remember the dreams. Now he could though, and he wondered if they’d been trying to warn him about her becoming New Eden’s shepherd, about Jacob’s capture. It was a ridiculous thought, but…

He’d dealt with a lot of ridiculous things since the end of the world. And now the dreams…he wasn’t chasing Carmina. It wasn’t like he couldn’t reach her. It was more…she couldn’t reach him. Chains…something holding her back. Holding him back. And…and where was Jacob? Jacob was still missing somehow. If there was more information in the dreams, Staci could never remember it when he woke up.

All he could do was focus on the plans. Right up until he got radioed by Carmina.

He was in the middle of hunting with Gen at his side when he heard her.

“Anyone! Anyone come in! Please! I’m south of the old radio station. Near Nadine’s Junkyard!”

“I’m close by,” Staci immediately responded. “I’ll be right there.”

He clicked at General. They went running back to the car and jumped in. As he drove, he heard other responses coming in, people saying if they were near or not. Kim’s voice came through and she said, “Carmina. Carmina what’s happened!”

But Carmina didn’t respond. She hadn’t even responded to Staci’s promise that he’d be there. It made him drive all the faster as his heart got stuck in his throat. All this was supposed to be over soon! He couldn’t lose Carmina in the last minute of it.

Staci spotted the old junkyard. He couldn’t see Carmina anywhere or any familiar vehicle. He jumped out and clicked at Gen. “Find her. Quick!”

The wolf reacted immediately to the command. His nose scrunched up as his head went around. After a moment, Gen took off running and Staci with him. They went into the trees. A path appeared in front of them and they quickly hid as Highwaymen vehicles drove by. Staci spotted the twins in one of them. Lou was on the back of the truck next to a mounted gun. There weren’t enough of them to be here for some assault. However, Staci’s eyes went wide all the same at the blood he could see sprayed across the pink twin’s armor.

No…please God no…

“Go,” he whispered to General. The wolf moved at a quieter pace and Staci followed.

It only took a few minutes until Staci spotted something. The Highwaymen were long gone so he took off running again. Off to the side of the road was Carmina. She was holding a kid from Prosperity tight in her grip. It was an attempt hide his face from looking at the scene in front of them. She held the other two kids back as well.

“It’s ok. It’ll be ok.” Her voice shook as much as her arms did as she pushed herself up. She started to move the three kids forward. “Just don’t look and it will be. I promise. Go…go to General. The wolf is sweet. Just go to him.”

The kids did as she asked. General sniffed around cautiously, probably picking up remnants of the Highwaymen. However, since the kids smelled like Prosperity and clearly weren’t a threat, Gen didn’t push them away. Staci left the children there and walked towards Carmina.

“Are you ok—”

“They were out here with Bean,” she softly responded back. “They thought…they thought it would be safe. Because of the territory we got back. They didn’t think the Highwaymen would get this close.”

Her voice was still shaking, but now that he was near, he realized it wasn’t fear or trauma. She was shaking with rage.

“What happened?” murmured Staci. “Why were the twins here?”

“To send a message.” Carmina looked to the thing she’d been trying to shield the children from. It was a body that lay near their feet.

Staci looked over the face for a moment before he finally recognized the older kid. He’d seen him around Prosperity but had only talked to him once. He’d had this weird idea, called it Wiki-Bean. The whole meta nature of it had made Staci’s head hurt and he’d left the conversation quickly. It had been clear the kid wasn’t a fighter, even less than Selene.

His eyes fell on the bullet hole in his head, and Staci found he couldn’t bring himself to feel any real remorse. He felt worse for Carmina and Prosperity as a whole. He hadn’t known Bean, but he knew there would be people back there that would be significantly hurt from this.

“What kind of message? Why not kill all of you?” Staci said, still talking in a whisper so the children couldn’t hear.

“They were making a point, of what would happen if we continued fighting, but they didn’t want to make a martyr.”

“A martyr?”

“Out of the children. You know how people would immediately go to war over that. But…but also out of me. They…they knew. They knew about the title New Eden put on me.”

“Ethan—”

“I’ll fucking kill him. I swear to god-any god! If he hadn’t—”

“Carmina, not yet,” hissed Staci. “We’ll take care of Ethan. We will. But the Highwaymen and the twins are the real threat right now. If we cause chaos within the ranks, then that will only open us up to them!”

“Bean is dead because of them! If they hadn’t known…then maybe…maybe—”

“What? They would have killed you?”

“Maybe!”

“And how the hell would that have been any better?”

“It…it…fuck!” Carmina’s voice finally broke out of their angry whispers before she shot a look towards the children. “Don’t repeat that word and keep your eyes pointed that way.”

“Yes Ms. Carmina,” they all mumbled out.

Her shoulders relaxed a little as she covered her eyes. “It shouldn’t have been him. He wasn’t a threat at all. I’m more of a threat—”

“But if New Eden had heard that their shepherd had been murdered by the twins, if Prosperity had heard its favorite daughter had been killed, then you know everyone would have been up in arms in seconds. We would have gone to war.”

“We’re going to war anyways!”

“Yes, but an unplanned attack built on rage is far different than the assault we’ve been planning. And from the twins’ point of view, they think they’re preventing an attack of any kind. They’re trying to scare us into submission because using us as tools is better for them than both our groups killing each other. They think their little act here, killing Bean, scaring those kids to death, has stopped us from fighting, and we need to let them believe it worked.”

“But—”

“No!” hissed Staci. He grabbed her shoulder and pulled her close. “We still aren’t ready yet. I know you’re upset. Believe me. I want to wring Ethan’s and the twins’ necks as much as you. But we can’t throw caution to the wind. They may think they pulled the right move, but they’ll soon learn how wrong they were.”

Carmina breathed through her nose.

“Are we good?”

She didn’t respond.

“Please Carmina—”

“Yeah. Yeah we’re good.”

Staci finally let his shoulders relax. “Thank you. Now I see you brought the bike out here. Do you know where the vehicle is that Bean used?”

She shook her head.

“I parked by the junkyard. Go there with the kids and Gen and get them back to Prosperity.”

“But what about—”

“I’ll bring the body back. Promise,” Staci said. “Just get the kids out of here before they have to see any more of this. I’ll use the bike to get back.”

“Ok. Please come back soon.”

“I will.”

Carmina quickly went back to the kids. She guided them away and motioned for General to follow. The wolf looked back, but Staci made sure he knew it was ok. He then waited and only turned back to the body when he knew for sure the kids were out of earshot.

“Now, how the hell to get you back?” he murmured.


Before the collapse, murder had been rarer than diamonds in Hope County. However, that hadn’t meant Staci’s time at the sheriff’s department had been unblemished.

One day, he and Joey got an anonymous call about a car accident up in the mountains. They’d hurried out, the drive taking over thirty minutes. On the way there, they laughed and joked. The caller hadn’t identified themselves, but they hadn’t seemed too concerned. They hadn’t said the driver was in any danger. There was probably some traveler with a flat that had gotten stuck on the roads and their phone was out of range. Joey hadn’t even told the ambulance to hurry. The paramedics were dealing with an accident down in Fall’s End anyways that was more important.

Then they pulled over to the broken railing.

The laid-back mood had completely disappeared. Joey ran to the broken barrier first and skidded down to where the car was. Staci had followed close behind, only to freeze and double over.

While Staci was trying not to puke, Joey was already calling it in, voice calm and steady.

“The…the ambulance…”

“It’s too late for that. Even if we’d known the severity, the ambulance wouldn’t have made it in time anyways,” Joey murmured. She focused on the face. “I think I know him. Yeah…yeah that’s Earl’s kid. Goes to school around here.”

“He-oh god.”

And Staci had puked his guts out, the image of the kid’s cold, bloody face seared into his brain.

Joey had walked over. She gently put a hand on his shoulder and tried to steady him a bit. “Sorry you had to see that Staci. But it gets easier. Trust me.”

“I…don’t want that to get easier. I never want that to get easier.”

That day was the first day, besides when the cult had come, that Staci had questioned his decision for an easy job at the local sheriff’s department.


Staci cocked his head to the side. If the bullet hole was replaced with a shard of glass instead…yeah. It almost did look like old Earl’s kid. Wow, Staci hadn’t thought about that in years.

The memory easily slipped from his mind as he tried to figure out the best way to get the body back for burial. It would have been easier to take him back in the car, but he wouldn’t have forced the kids to drive with that in the back seat.

He ended up picking the body up and balancing him on the bike. He carefully pushed the bike and body back to the junkyard where he managed to scavenge some tarps. He tightly wrapped up the body and then used rope to tie the kid to his back. On the bike, it was like Bean was sitting backwards with his back pressed to Staci’s. If you ignored the hole in his head and the tarp he was wrapped in.

Staci drove back, thankfully avoiding anyone on the way. By the time he got back to Prosperity, news had already spread. There were already tears in some people’s eyes and one person let out an anguished wail. With the help of someone, Staci got the body on the ground and quickly backed up.

He found Joey who was looking at the whole scene with a hard expression on her face. Staci glanced between her and the crowd a few times before he finally nudged her. She looked over.

“You were right.”

“What about?”

“About how it gets easier.”

Joey hesitated before looking at the ground. The memory clicked in her head. “Do you feel guilty? Not caring more?”

“I think I got past that some time ago.”

Joey nodded in agreement. She looked away and Staci followed her gaze. Carmina seemed to be in a heated discussion with her parents. “She cares too much. Which I’m glad she does. I’d hate if this world had already turned her as callous as us. But…”

“She still has to be careful. Now is not the time to be reckless.”

“No,” Joey agreed. Her eyes then turned back to those grieving in front of them. “I need a fucking drink after all this. Let’s see what shit Sharky has hidden in his workshop.”

“Agreed.”

It ended up that all work stopped for the rest of the day. Those at their other outposts came to Prosperity to give their respects. That night, Bean was buried out back.

The next day started slow, but with gentle urgings from some and a need to forget for others, everyone started to get back into their previous routines. Staci didn’t get a chance to follow up with Carmina as the workload increased again. However, he did have Selene, Kim, and Nick all come to him on separate occasions on her behalf.

With Selene, she asked, “Has Carmina talked to you?”

All Staci could respond with was, “No.”

Kim asked, “Carmina hasn’t done anything unusual. Right?”

“I don’t know.”

For both of them, Staci didn’t really have any answers. Nick didn’t ask a question though. Instead, he said, “Carmina just went out hunting by the river near us. I want you to go down there.”

“Well I need to finish up—”

“Please. Now, before she goes somewhere else.”

Staci frowned. “Kim and her friend seemed worried too. Is there something you all know that I don’t?”

“No,” Nick quickly said. “At least, I don’t think so. But-and I can’t believe I’m saying this-I think she’ll be more willing to talk to you. And she needs to talk to someone.”

Staci softly sighed. He’d hoped his talk right after the incident would be enough to calm Carmina. However, it seemed clear that she was still close to the edge of doing something risky. He hadn’t even thought she and Bean were great friends, and maybe they hadn’t been. Carmina simply had too big a heart for her own good.

“I’m guessing you’ve already tried talking to her?”

Nick nodded. “I think if it comes from someone that isn’t her parent, she may listen just a little better.”

“Yeah, probably. I’ll go. Can you finish this for me?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks Nick.”

“Thanks for doing this.”

“It’s no problem.”

Staci left his work for Nick and quickly headed out. General was with Grace so Staci let him be. He simply grabbed his bow and headed through the woods. Assuming Nick was right about where his daughter had headed, Staci wanted to try and catch her before she moved on. He’d rather not waste time tracking her.

Thankfully, she was still by the river. Staci paused, watching her take down a deer before he approached.

“It’s just me Carmina,” Staci quickly said, not wanting to sneak up on her.

She didn’t even look back. “Ah, so it’s you this time.”

“Hold on—”

“Which parent sent you?”

Well, it seemed Staci hadn’t been the first choice. Though that wasn’t too surprising coming from Nick. “Your dad.”

Carmina let out a small groan. “Why can’t they see I’m just trying to work? The faster we get this done, the sooner we can call Ethan out on all his bull.” She walked over to the downed deer and started tying up the legs to make it easier to carry back.

“Who else did they get to talk to you?”

“Joey. Grace. Selene. Hurk. The list goes on,” sulked Carmina. It made her almost sound like a sulky teenager if the context was ignored.

“Jesus, I should have talked to you sooner then.”

“What does that mean?”

“Clearly they’re seriously worried about you. I should be too—”

“I’m fine,” pressed Carmina. “And just because they’re worried doesn’t mean you have to be too.”

Staci let out a small sigh. “Carmina, I know this is a delicate time. I’m sorry for your loss. But you know you can’t act rashly, don’t you?”

“You already told me that.”

“I know. I’m just trying to make sure—”

“They think I may get into trouble because I’m talking less. I’m not sitting down to have a meal with them. But I’m just doing this to try and make this whole process go faster. I know what’s at risk. I’m not going to throw all of it away for my own personal vendetta. I’ll only do something if I know I’ll succeed. That we’ll succeed. It’s not my fault they don’t seem to understand it.”

Staci let out a small sigh. He watched her attempt to throw the deer over the shoulder, but he stepped in. “Let me carry it. That way you can hunt a little more.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not going to change my—”

“I’m not going to try to,” Staci replied.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Carmina was silent for a moment. She let Staci take up the deer and only started to talk again as they moved through the forest. “Joey said she didn’t want me to become too callous.”

“She doesn’t,” agreed Staci. “But after hearing what you just said, I don’t think you’re going to become callous.”

“No?”

“You want revenge, but you’re focusing that revenge. You’re not just acting out, like how you nearly did when the twins first took your father.”

She winced. “Yeah, that would have ended pretty badly if you hadn’t stopped it.”

“Yes, but I trust you now to understand that. And I understand how socializing can seem so pointless and like such a waste of time when a threat like the twins sits at our boarders. The others may not understand, but I do.”

“So you’re not going to tell me off?” Carmina slowly said.

“No. Not as long as you know that revenge isn’t going to change anything—”

“I know that won’t bring Bean back, or anyone else.” she quickly interrupted. “But if the twins don’t die, then more could. Then Prosperity and New Eden will suffer. That’s why I’m so determined to speed this process along. Not for some unbridled rage but for a better future.”

“Good.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Your parents will understand that eventually. And believe me. I’m happy to have you in my corner. Joey does too. I just don’t think she fully understood your reasons when she first talked to you.”

“Yeah…I guess so. Thanks Staci. Do you think you could explain this to my parents?”

“That’s all on you kid.”

She groaned.

“I’m serious. Even though their worry is a bit ridiculous, hearing you explain it to them will mean a lot more than if it came from me. You can afford a few minutes to do that.”

“I could be doing something more important in those few minutes,” muttered Carmina.

“We can afford to risk the dip in productivity,” Staci sarcastically said, albeit not sounding unkind. “It’ll calm everyone down anyways.”

“Fine, fine. Just help me finish up with this hunt.”

“Sure thing.” Staci shifted the deer so he could carry it a bit easier as they went deeper into the woods. They managed to find a few rabbits that had got caught in some snares and Carmina shot a squirrel and a bird. They brought the good haul back to Prosperity, dropping it off before parting. Staci watched Carmina reluctantly walk towards her mother. It made him breathe a little easier. He didn’t have to worry about her and now everyone else who cared about her would be appeased too.

The days continued to pass.

A week went by.

No sign of the Highwaymen.

They probably thought their scare tactic had worked. Which was good. Hopefully it would lull them into a false sense of security.

Then Irwin got in contact with Joey. She met with him in person and they finally had a schedule for the twins. It seemed that with their scare tactic, they felt comfortable moving in a regular pattern again. Perfect, the plan’s likelihood of success was only increasing.

With a date in mind, they just needed to continue gathering enough resources to support their attack. Everything was going right for what would hopefully be a final assault.

Until it wasn’t.

Staci was getting a few hours of shuteye when Kim came bursting in. He woke up immediately, pushing himself up in his cot as Kim got down beside him and grabbed his shoulders.

“Where is she?!”

He didn’t have to ask who. “I don’t—”

“Don’t say that Staci. Don’t! You’ve been the person who she’s been closest to since coming back. You’ve been the one she’s wanted to work besides all the time. She’s your fucking shepperd! So don’t tell me you don’t know where she is!”

General growled a little at the tone but didn’t attack.

“I don’t know,” whispered Staci.

“Fuck!”

Kim shot up, anger and fear rolling off her. Staci jumped out of the cot, grabbing his shirt and pulling it on. “She could be out with someone. Let’s not immediately—”

“She isn’t. I know she isn’t!” yelled Kim. “I thought she went to bed around the same time as Nick and I, but her bed hasn’t been slept in all night. Her weapons are gone, her usual clothes still here. She took dark cloths, things that would help her disappear in the night. No one saw her leave last night either and whatever she had planned, she hasn’t returned from it. Where is she? Where is my daughter Staci!?”

Staci ran a hand through his hair. What could she possible…where had she…

His mind flashed back to their conversation days ago. She’d said she’d only act when she knew she would be successful. She didn’t specify the current plan. She hadn’t said she’d only act when their assault was going forward. She’d said she’d act when she knew she would be successful.

“She’s gone to find the twins. To end this for good.”

“Fuck Staci!”

“Oh God. Oh God, oh—”

“She could be captured right now! In one of their fucking jail cells or worse! We have to go. We have to go save her—”

“Now hold on Kim—”

“Don’t you ‘hold on Kim’ me! This is my daughter we’re talking about! I thought she was ok. I thought-I thought—”

Staci grabbed Kim and hugged her for the first time in years. It was the only thing he could think to do. “I know,” he whispered. “I know, but think about Nick. Think about this community you’ve been leading. You can’t throw it all away now. You can’t risk getting yourself killed.”

“She’s my daughter!”

“I know. Just…get the main people together. I…I have an idea.”

Kim wiped at her tears. “You promised. You promised she wouldn’t go this path alone.”

Staci’s chest hurt and he had to close his eyes for a minute. “She won’t. Just get the people together. Please.”

When he opened his eyes again, Kim had left. Gen looked at him with large, wet eyes. Staci scratched behind his ear but the wolf didn’t seem to find any comfort in it. Staci could understand the sentiment. He quickly finished getting dressed. He left the tent to go to the usual room where they’d been holding meetings when privacy was necessary. Gen followed close behind.

Joey was one of the first people there and she quickly went to Staci’s side. “What the fuck is going on? Kim is a ball full of rage. Nick is broken. What the hell—”

“I think you just answered your own question.”

“What-oh fuck! Staci—”

“I know. I…I’m still trying to figure things out. Wait until everyone gets here.”

Joey turned silent. She stuck by his side, her face wrought in worry with her arms tightly crossed. The others filtered in, Camille, Cap, Rush, Rook, Grace, and then Kim and Nick. Staci stayed silent at first. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize what was going on, and predictably Rush said this development couldn’t affect their plans.

“She brought you here in the first place! You can’t abandon her!”

“One woman versus ending the Highwaymen? Versus the safety of your home and New Eden? The math isn’t exactly hard!”

“I’m not going to abandon my daughter!”

“If this plan falls apart—”

“No. Kim’s right. We can’t abandon one of our own. What would that even make us?”

“As part of New Eden, it is our duty to make sure she is safe. We must go after her—”

“There will be no Prosperity or New Eden if you all don’t think rationally for a second! I like Carmina, but we can’t risk everything just for her. We can’t!”

The shouting went back and forth like that for a while. Only Staci and the Judge didn’t give their two cents. Staci just took in all their concerns, their fears, the things that were at risk, and then he—

“We were planning to attack five days from now,” Staci finally said. Everyone quieted. “We still need more bullets, more med kits…but if we moved forward with our assault right now, it wouldn’t be completely foolish.”

“It’s a risk which we could avoid all together though,” Cap replied.

“Yes, but not without risking one of our own. Which…if there was no possible way we could win this, I would say we’d have to trust that Carmina knows what she’s doing.”

“Fuck you!” yelled Nick.

Staci’s eyes narrowed as he turned to him. “I could have fucked off long ago to try and find Jacob. But doing so wouldn’t have helped us win this fight and would have only taken away two working hands that Prosperity and New Eden needed. I had to put aside my hope of finding him in order to fight for the greater good. I didn’t do that lightly. What I say about Carmina is not said lightly Nick. But…I may have a way to bring the two sides together.”

Everyone was quite for a moment. Joey said, “Well?”

“I don’t think Carmina is already dead,” Staci finally said. “She can be a little rash sometimes, but I know whatever plan she had in mind was a well thought out one. I don’t think she’s been captured either. If she had, the twins would have likely used her as a bargaining chip. I honestly think that last night, she probably didn’t even confront the Highwaymen. If I had to guess, she stayed near the prison on her own and is planning to sneak in their today or tonight. Doing an assault on her own wouldn’t make since. But we know the twins are there now, so I think she plans to sneak in, take them out, and then disappear before a single Highwayman knows she’s there. We all know that the twins are the metaphorical head. Carmina knows that too. If they get cut off, the body will crumble.”

“Yes, but that place is so jammed packed, even going in solo you’d likely get caught,” Rush replied. “It’s why we didn’t come up with this plan in the first place.”

“I know,” Staci replied. “I’m just explaining that this hypothesis gives everyone hope that she’s still ok.”

“But if you’re right, she’s still planning to go in there,” Kim said. “And we still don’t know exactly where she’s hiding! We can’t go and get her and risk making all that noise in Highwaymen territory—”

“Exactly. Which is why we’re moving the assault to tonight.”

“I don’t like this. We’d be better off waiting,” said Cap.

“Not by much. And with the element of surprise on our side, we’ll still have the upper hand,” Staci replied.

“So what’s the new plan?” asked Grace.

“There isn’t one. We start moving troops into position just as we agreed weeks ago. We will leave some to make more bullets throughout the day and then we send them out with the rest before the moon is at its highest. The only difference is that I’m going to try and go in before we attack. If I can find Carmina first, get her out before the firefight really begins, then I will. I’ll radio you to signal to start the attack then. But if you hear gun fire before I can get to her, you go ahead with the execution of the plan. At the very least we can take advantage of whatever chaos starts happening inside the place. Camille will then lead the rest of New Eden into a distraction at their front. Rush, your men will take out all the snipers. Then we all converge and take down the Highwaymen for good. Just like we planned.”

“I still think we should wait,” Rush tried.

“Our victory would be more secure,” agreed Staci. “But New Eden and Prosperity can’t agree to wait longer. It’s not perfect, but my idea is the best compromise we have.” When Rush still hesitated, Staci added, “When do you think you’ll have another chance to take down the twins?”

“Fuck. Ok. We’re in. I’m guessing everyone else is too?”

Everyone nodded or murmured yes.

“Then we all know the plan too. We have less than a day to get all this ready. Let’s move!”

People started to hurry off, but Kim and Nick immediately came to Staci.

“Please—”

“Whatever happens—”

“I will do everything in my power to find her,” whispered Staci.

“That’s not good enough.”

“You have to promise to get her back.”

“I can’t promise I will find her. I can’t because I don’t know if that will happen. All I can promise is I will use every skill that I have to get to her.” Staci took a deep breath and looked down. “And if…if I can’t bring her back, I can at least promise I will tear apart every fucking person who touched her.”

“You better,” Nick whispered, voice broken and desperate.

Staci’s heart hurt as he turned away, but his eyes stayed dry. He wanted Carmina to still be ok…but if not…

He got to work.

Prosperity, Rush’s men, New Eden, everyone was sent into a frenzy as orders were barked left and right. No one knew exactly what had occurred. They would be given specific orders when it got closer to their strike, but everyone could feel something big was coming.

Staci helped where he could as the day passed by far too quickly. The last thing he did as the sun started go down was ask Joey to watch after Gen for him. He could have ordered the wolf to stay at Prosperity, but he had picked up on the frenzied nature of everyone. He was excited to rip out any throat that got in his way and probably would have followed them anyways.

Joey agreed and then pulled him into a hug. “Don’t you dare get yourself killed.”

“No promises.”

“Staci!” She hit him in the arm.

“I’ll try. Ok?”

“Fuck. I know. Just don’t take any unnecessary risks.” She hugged him hard before pulling back. “I’ll see you soon.”

“You too.”

And with that, Staci was finally able to do some final preparations for himself. He changed out some of his clothes for darker ones, checked his weapons, and then took his bike out of Prosperity. The sun continued to dip lower as he drove closer to the prison. It finally disappeared beneath the horizon when he got there.

He hid the bike and then made his way through the dead woods to the prison. There was less foliage to hide in, but the dark night helped. In between helping the others that day, he’d looked over their map of the prison. He’d figured out where the best entrance would be, and he hoped Carmina had used it too. He silently made his way up to the old prison. He avoided the spotlights and made sure not to move so fast that he didn’t pull their attention his way. There was a vent that was one of the best places to use to enter in silently. He was ready to break it open, but he was surprised to find it had already been broken from the outside.

Then Carmina had possibly…

Staci slipped inside.

He knew where the twins’ office basically was. Carmina had to have headed there. He was in a storage area right now, but he’d soon be amongst a lot more Highwaymen. He needed to figure out a way to sneak by or perhaps even kill one of them and put on a disguise. He’d just have to see what worked best.

Each step was carefully planned. Staci kept one knife out, always ready to strike if necessary. There seemed to be more Highwaymen out in the yards and on the roof which was good. He also managed to find a work room that was currently empty except for one Highwayman. He snuck up behind her and put the knife through her neck.

Staci decided not to stop. He kept heading to the upper levels. He killed one other Highwayman and avoided the rest as he finally came to the twins’ office. He half expected to go in and see an empty room. The twins were probably somewhere else anyways. Carmina’s plan was probably different. Maybe she wasn’t even at the prison, though Staci didn’t know where else she could have been. He opened the door—

The knife in his hand was quickly sheathed and he pulled out his gun.

A Highwayman lay bleeding out on the floor, possibly one of the twins’ lieutenants. Carmina had her gun pressed to Lou’s head. Mickey was standing across the room, her gun having gone from pointing at Carmina to pointing at Staci.

“Now what do we have here?” asked Mickey. Her sister laughed.

Carmina looked shocked but quickly refocused to the gun she had pressed to Lou’s head. “You shouldn’t have come.”

“I couldn’t just abandon you,” Staci replied, eyes not moving from Mickey. This situation was even worse than he’d expected. If someone fired, the only certainty was that Lou would most likely die. Everything else was up in the air. No way would the twins let them walk out of there, and Staci could already tell they wouldn’t be able to use Lou as a pawn. Mickey would just shoot Staci. Carmina would then shoot Lou…

And what if they surrendered? They’d probably just kill Staci but they would use Carmina. At least Prosperity’s forces would drop their weapons. New Eden might as well which would leave Rush’s men to fight for themselves. They would be slaughtered and lose this war.

But at least if their people heard the ensuing chaos and the gun shots, then the plan would go as follows. Staci and Carmina could die, but their people would eventually win. They’d even start the fight with a better upper hand since one of the twins would most certainly die.

He didn’t want Carmina to die. He didn’t want to die either. He still had to find out if Jacob was alive. Carmina still had a life ahead of her. They both had people, communities they wanted to get back to.

But the herd couldn’t survive forever without sacrifice.

Their self-preservation didn’t matter if it destroyed everything. It was them or their communities. They had to do what was right for everyone else.

Staci looked to Carmina. Her gaze hardened. She’d been ready to die if it meant taking out the twins. Maybe that had even been her plan from the beginning, to go from shepherd to the people’s martyr. Exactly what the twins had originally been trying to avoid.

“Carmina,” murmured Staci. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry you got pulled into this. You shouldn’t have followed me.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’d rather be by your side than anywhere else right now,” murmured Staci, and he meant it.

“Stop with your fucking sobbing and just give up,” Mickey said.

“You fire that gun and all our men are going to rain down on your ass,” Lou shouted out. “You ain’t got no hope in making it out alive.”

“No, I suppose we don’t,” sighed Staci. Then his gaze hardened.

“Shit! Lou—”

Three guns fired almost simultaneously. Staci hit the floor.


The first time Staci met Jacob, it was in the cages. He’d heard from his captors where he was going. He knew he was up in the mountains, but it wasn’t until he’d stayed over a week in the cages that he actually met the guy in charge.

Staci had been put in there, forced through the trials and brainwashing, probably meant to be cannon fodder for a stronger prisoner. But Staci had somehow survived. He’d hated it, cried god knew how many times. He smelled like piss and blood, was half starved, but he was still alive. When so many others had died, he’d made it for whatever fucking reason.

Jacob seemed just as surprised by that as he stopped by the cage. He stopped, leaning in only for Staci to flinch away. Jacob shook his head with a disgusted sigh. “Weak.” He looked again. “But still useful.”

He gestured for someone to open the cage. Staci had no idea what they were planning. What if it was more trials? Harder trials? What if they were going to feed him to the judges? He didn’t want to die! Dear god, no! He didn’t want to die—

But he should have already died.

The look on Jacob’s face…no way had he expected Staci to make it this long. He’d survived when others hadn’t. Maybe he could survive whatever Jacob threw at him next.

Staci slunk out of the cage, only to be kicked to the ground by a Peggie. His body was weak. He coughed, his bones aching as he tried to push himself up onto his hands and knees. He heard some people laugh, but all Jacob said was, “Soft as a fucking peach.”

A peach? Was that what Jacob thought of him?

Well maybe Staci was. A decaying peach with pieces of flesh getting torn off daily from the torture. But eventually that would be gone. And what would be left? A hard, sharp seed.

Staci picked himself up. Jacob could call him whatever he wanted to. He’d survived this far. He’d do it again. He would…he would prove Jacob wrong. He’d get out of here and kill Jacob with his bare fucking hands if he had to.

“Move it Peaches. I’ve got a job for you.”

Staci pushed himself onto his feet. He would survive this.

He would.


Staci’s eyes flashed open.

With a wheezing breath, he pushed himself over. He couldn’t see through his right eye. Why couldn’t he see through his right eye—

Staci pushed himself onto his hands and knees. One hand touched it and realized it was just drying blood that had forced it shut. It hurt a little, but he eventually managed to get his other eye open. He felt woozy as he pulled himself up. Looking down, it was easy to tell why. He’d lost a shit ton of blood. It covered the floor, his clothes, filled his beard. He felt his head. Drying blood came away.

He’d been shot, but it must have missed his brain. Otherwise he wouldn’t be standing here. Still, it had certainly done more than just graze him considering the blood everywhere.

Staci turned himself around, still using the wall to support himself. He looked at the room around him. Lou lay dead on the floor. Old blood had pooled around her head. There was no sign of Carmina or Mickey though. Only blood spatters behind where they’d been standing. Judging by the placement, Carmina had been shot somewhere in her upper torso. Possibly her shoulder considering there wasn’t too much blood. Mickey must have been shot lower, possibly her stomach.

Carmina had probably thought him dead, or at least didn’t have time to check if Mickey had still been kicking. He picked up his gun and pushed himself out into the hall. His ears strained, picking up soft sounds of yelling and guns firing around him. Most of it seemed to be coming from outside, the barest sound of the fight echoing down the prison halls.

Staci tried to quicken his pace. He needed to figure out how the fighting was going. Who was currently winning? Where was Carmina? Mickey? Were either of them alive?

He pushed himself around a corner, towards the gun fire—

A Highwayman ran right into him. Staci’s gun went skidding across the ground before he could fire it.

“You fucking people!” The Highwayman launched himself at Staci.

Despite losing his gun, Staci normally would have easily taken the man. However, the blood loss only made him woozier as he hit the ground hard. The highwayman got on top of him, hands wrapping around his throat and squeezing harder and harder.

Instinct took over and Staci grabbed at the hands. He would have kept fruitlessly trying to pry those fingers from his neck but some rational thought managed to dig its way through his skull. As one hand still pried at the fingers, his other hand reached for his sheathed knife. He pulled it out and stabbed twice but both times hit armor. His vision was beginning to tunnel, his lungs burn. He stabbed again.

This time the knife found a break in the chest plate. It slipped through and the Highwayman flinched back, cried out, but his hands didn’t let up. Staci tried to pull the knife out but it became suctioned to the skin. He couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t—

It happened in slow motion.

The metal glint of a sledgehammer connected with the side of the Highwayman’s head. His fingers loosened as his body started to move to Staci’s left. The plastic on the mask cracked first. Bits broke away before the skin and bone started to break too. The guy’s right eyes started to be pushed out of its socket as his skull became flatter and flatter.

And then the sound seemed to finally register in Staci’s ears and time caught up with him. He heard the wet, crunching sound being immediately followed by concrete cracking. Even more blood covered Staci now, including bits of brain and an eye. He flicked that off, head turning to see the red circle left in the wall. The sledgehammer fell against the floor with a thud and the now headless body fell with it. As the weapon started to be pulled back, Staci managed to turn himself over and began to push himself up.

Staci’s eyes fell on the shoes. As he slowly dragged himself back onto his feet, his eyes took in the figure before him.

He wore an orange jumpsuit, just like all the prisoners the Highwaymen had taken. However, it was zipped all the way down with the sleeves tied around his waist. There was a white tank top that left nothing to the imagination. Staci could see the old and new scars that littered his body. Fresh cuts rolled along his muscles without hesitation. Either he was ignoring the pain or honestly didn’t feel it.

Staci stood on both his feet.

The white hair and beard were longer and more unruly than Staci had ever seen it. Some of the hair hung lose in front of his face, but Staci could still see a dirty bandage that was covering up one eye. Despite the damage though, he was in his element. Power and adrenaline radiated off him as he pulled the sledgehammer up and rested it on his shoulder like it didn’t weigh a shit ton. He was happy, and that showed through the slightly manic smile that formed on his lips.

“Hey Peaches.”

Chapter Text

The first time Staci saw Jacob, he swore he would kill him.


When Staci made Jacob proud, something turned in his gut, both painful and not.


The Miller story shocked Staci, both in its gruesome description and how nonchalant Jacob could tell it. But worst of all, it almost made him pity the man.


Staci’s hands became as red as Jacob’s. When he finally realized that, it didn’t bother him as much as it should have.


Looking at Jacob’s broken body, he could have offed him so easily. He had planned to from the very beginning. But something had changed. He had changed.


In the bunkers, Staci finally saw Jacob as a person, not just a leader.


Staci became more than just familiar with his new life. He became comfortable being a part of the former cult. He became comfortable with Jacob.


When it was safe to come back to the surface, Staci’s transformation was complete. He was a new man with a string tied between him and Jacob.


Staci had once promised he’d kill Jacob. Now he knew he would kill anyone for Jacob.


So many changing dynamics to their relationship. The power had constantly shifted. Their understanding had grown. And Staci had feared that journey had been suddenly cut short. He’d had no chance to even say goodbye, and for some time had believed that would be the end.

“What? Is it really such a shock?”

Jacob’s words broke Staci out of his thoughts. His image of Jacob modified to fit what he saw in front of him. Despite the ruffled, unkempt look, he seemed so alive. So much more alive than the months that had led up to the fist Highwaymen attack. During those times, he’d simply been existing, but now the energy of a much younger man was running through his veins.

“I’m hurt. You really thought these pieces of filth could—”

But Jacob didn’t get a chance to finish the thought. Staci pushed forward and kissed him. It felt like he was melting against him, or maybe that was just the blood loss. He didn’t care as Jacob easily supported him.

“Missed you too,” Jacob murmured against Staci’s lips. He could feel his smile there. Sort of.

“Way too much beard.”

Jacob actually laughed. “I’ll make sure to cut it when all this shit is over.”

“What is all this shit? Who currently has the high ground?” asked Staci. It was a bit difficult focusing on those words. What he really wanted to do was just hold Jacob. However, he just barely kept himself above the haze that was still trying to pull him down.

“Our people came in, beautifully coordinated I might add. When I got free, I helped to release the rest of the prisoners here and started to cause chaos from within. The Highwaymen are just barely holding out. Now we just need to kill the twins, and the rest will either surrender or run away.”

“Lou’s already dead.”

Jacob didn’t look surprised. “So, this is what this fuss was about.” He carefully put the sledgehammer down and turned Staci’s head to look at the bullet wound. “Decided to go in and try to take down the twins before this battle even started?”

“It was Carmina’s idea,” Staci replied. “Came in after her to try and get her out before the real assault began, but…but we figured it was a no win scenario. The best we could do was try. Lou was at least killed but when I came to, Mickey and Carmina were gone.”

“Then I’ll go find them and end this fucking thing.”

“Don’t you mean we?”

“You’re staying behind me.”

“I can fight—”

Jacob finally moved his hands away from Staci’s face. They came away red. Was he really still bleeding? In one smooth motion, Jacob ripped apart the tank top he was wearing. He dropped some pieces to the floor and made the rest into a makeshift bandage. Staci winced as it was tied tightly against the wound.

“You’re staying behind me,” repeated Jacob.

“You don’t have your glasses,” Staci replied. Jacob wouldn’t be able to see too far in front of him. And it was dark. It wouldn’t do them any good if they were both stumbling around in the dark. Huh…Jacob falling over himself. He never would allow something so unseemly to happen, but… For whatever reason that made Staci laugh pretty hard. He didn’t really follow the worried look that passed over Jacob’s face either at that reaction.

“I know pink and blue fucking armor from normal clothes.” Jacob went over and with a squelching twist, pulled Staci’s knife out of the dead Highwayman. He handed it over to Staci. He picked up the gun as well but pushed it into his own waistband and picked up the sledgehammer again.

With Jacob no longer so close, Staci found it difficult to stay completely still. He faltered a bit. Ok, maybe that was something he should be worried about too.

Jacob walked past him and grabbed his wrist. He pressed the hand to his back. “Stay right there Staci. I’ll get you out of here.”

“I got it. I’ll stay close. I will,” Staci managed to get out.

Jacob started moving and Staci tried his best to keep that hand pressed to Jacob’s back. They moved quickly. With some difficulty, Staci managed to hold himself above the haze, and below that darkness, that wanted to envelop him. It wasn’t long before they came into contact with the next Highwayman. The fighting was everywhere.

Staci and Jacob dropped down behind some cover. Jacob changed to the gun and took out those he could. It seemed that Rush’s men, Prosperity, and New Eden had infiltrated the area pretty well. For the Highwaymen, this was their last stand and they were going out in blood. Mickey had to still be alive then. If she wasn’t, the fear and admiration that drove these people to follow the twins would be gone. Sure, maybe a few would still fight, but most probably would have run to live another day. The battle would already be won. But since Mickey was still alive, where was she?

They managed to get out of the maze of hallways and into the courtyard area. What had once been the shitty conditions that the prisoners had lived in was now strewn about everywhere. The fighting was close and chaotic. Guns still went off but a lot of it fell to hand to hand grappling. Jacob and Staci found cover again.

“I’m going to clear us a path. There’s a gate that leads outside right down there. We’re making it to that alley and then you’re getting the hell out here!”

Staci should have argued back. He wanted to argue back, but it was taking all his concentration now just to keep his vision clear. He gave a slight nod.

Jacob continued his own personal assault. Staci focused on sweeping the area. Where was Carmina? There was a chance she wasn’t even over here but…

There!

Carmina was on the guard’s old walkway. She punched a Highwayman and kicked him off the ledge. He crashed to the ground and didn’t get up. She pulled out her gun and fired at another Highwayman before she ducked down and started to fire across the way. Staci’s gaze followed the bullets and he finally spotted Mickey. She looked bad but still very much alive. There were Highwaymen around her, defending her as best they could.

Staci’s eyes went back to Carmina. She managed to take down another Highwayman and it was clear she was gunning for Mickey. He had to help her!

A new burst of adrenaline ran through Staci. It focused his mind. He slipped his knife out and quickly broke cover. He stabbed into someone’s chin and quickly took her gun. He fired at the next person behind her.

“Staci! Shit.”

For the moment, he ignored Jacob. They were so close to the end. Someone just had to take out Mickey and with Carmina being ok, Staci knew he had to be there to protect her if needed.

There was a ladder nearby. He just had to clear a path. Staci flipped the knife in his left hand so it was in a more comfortable grip. He kept the gun in his right. As he came close to someone, he slit their throat, used their body as cover, and then fired out at those farther away. He managed to take down several. Then something was thrown, and he ducked out of the way. He glanced over, expecting it to be a rock or some other projectile.

It most definitely was not.

Before he could be killed by the blast though, Jacob came out of left field and threw it up into the sky. He grabbed Staci and pulled him down into the mud as the grenade went off. Shrapnel still hit some, but Staci didn’t think it actually killed anyone.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Jacob yelled over the noise of the fight.

“Mickey’s up there! We take her out, the rest will follow.”

Jacob surveyed the area. He pushed himself and Staci up. Sometime between when Staci had run off and now, Jacob had stolen an automatic rifle from someone. He put down covering fire until they were both safely behind another structure.

“You have a plan other than running in blindly?” growled Jacob.

“Um—”

“Christ, you take the information I gave you, make this brilliant plan, and now blood loss has you running around like a god damn idiot.”

“Hey-woah!” Before Staci could fully express his hurt at that comment, Jacob grabbed his shoulder and shoved him to the left. He fired and a body hit the ground beside them. Jacob let go but had to grab hold of Staci again as he very nearly went face first into the dirt. The sudden vertigo had his head spinning.

“You are in no place to continue fighting,” Jacob said, his voice going softer for a moment. “And there’s no point in you becoming cannon fodder either.”

“I can’t leave Carmina up there alone! She’s already been shot once—”

“And you were shot in the fucking head!”

“I made Kim a promise. I’m not leaving her!”

Jacob let out a tired sigh. At the same time, he picked up a nearby shard of glass. He sliced through a Highwayman’s achillea’s tendon and then jabbed him in the neck as he fell before turning to Staci with an exasperated look. His eyes then swept over the battlefield once more. If Staci’s head had been clearer, he would have realized Jacob was coming up with a new strategy. As it was, all he could focus on was the need to jump towards that ladder and get to Carmina and Mickey. It was the only thing keeping his head clear.

“Fine. Stay here a moment,” Jacob commanded. He grabbed the assault rifle again. He laid down a bit of covering fire before grabbing Staci and pulling him up. “Ladder! Now!”

Staci did so. The adrenaline was the only thing keeping him from passing out then and there. He scrambled up the ladder. A bullet grazed his arm, but he kept going and managed to get to the walkway before any other wounds could occur. He pulled out his knife again and went at the nearest enemy. Once his immediate area was clear, Staci got down and looked for where Mickey was. She’d moved, but where to…

He caught sight of the blue armor and braided hair. She killed a man and then hurried up a ladder, climbing onto a higher part of the roof. Staci ran after her, being careful to move around or take out any Highwaymen in his way. He got to the ladder and followed her.

As he got up, he ducked as more bullets whizzed by. He spotted Carmina who must have come up a different way. She fired at Mickey again and again. The woman got in her own shots when Carmina had to reload and vice versa. Staci dove to cover. He’d managed to grab another gun on his way there and now took out other Highwaymen, mainly focusing on any that tried to come up behind him or where Carmina was.

With the extra support, Carmina started to move forward. She stopped firing her gun altogether and ducked from view. Eventually, Mickey’s head came out of hiding. Her eyes tried to find Carmina, but she disappeared again as Staci fired at her.

Then Carmina and Mickey both fell out of hiding. Carmina had managed to come up on Mickey’s side and had presumably tackled her to the ground. Mickey kicked her off though and managed to stand up. Both their guns were out of reach, so Carmina followed with a hard punch to Mickey’s face. Staci tried to aim at her, but with how quickly they were blocking and hitting each other, along with his own blood loss, he couldn’t get in a clear shot.

Staci turned away and took out several more Highwaymen instead. There were already those that were trying to converge on their location. If this didn’t end soon, Staci and Carmina would be overwhelmed.

The fight between Carmina and Mickey continued with Carmina progressively pushing her closer to the edge. Staci started to run towards them as Mickey finally managed to dodge under one of Carmina’s strikes. It had Carmina stumbling forward. She started to turn back around but was too slow as Mickey kicked her hard in the back. She faltered more, her body’s momentum starting to take her over the ledge—

Staci crashed into her on the left. Her momentum changed and she and Staci hit the ground hard. Staci kicked out at Mickey. She hit the ground too. Staci moved to try and keep her down. Mickey kicked him hard in the chin. She got up and grabbed Staci by his shoulders, pushing him up and back. Carmina was just getting up as Mickey tried to push Staci over the edge. However, he locked his grip into Mickey’s clothes. Staci managed to stabilize his stance. He pushed himself towards a still intact section of the guardrail, planning to use that as support so he could finally throw Mickey over.

In the moment, his main thinking was ending this, to protect Carmina, to protect Jacob, New Eden and Prosperity. Ending it was the most important factor, no matter what happened afterwards.

And as Staci used his momentum to pull Mickey back and over the ledge, her own grip tightened.

So, this was how it was going to be. Huh?

 “No!” Carmina tried to push herself up faster. Her hand reached for Staci but it was too late. His momentum had already started to carry Mickey over the edge, but it was clear she was bent on taking him with her. He was going over the railing. Their hands finally slipped from each other as they both started to fall—

Staci’s right shoulder felt like it was almost yanked out of its socket as a hand grabbed him. His entire body hung over the ledge. The sudden jolt had also caused Mickey to desperately grab and then jerk his leg down as she hung there. He looked up.

Jacob was bracing himself, muscles straining as he kept all three of them from going over. Carmina came into view and fired at Mickey’s swinging form. It hit her in the shoulder and with a final cry, her hand slipped free of Staci. She hit another section of railing before crashing into broken wood and metal. Carmina holstered her gun and grabbed Staci too after the loud crash was heard. She and Jacob pulled Staci up with a huff, all three hitting the ground with various groans and gasps of pain.

“Oh you’re alive. I can’t believe you’re alive. You’re both alive!” cried Carmina as she was the first to push herself up. Staci and Jacob both stayed firmly on the ground, still trying to catch their breath.

Jacob then pushed himself up next. “Hear that?”

Carmina looked at something out of Staci’s line of sight. “Holy shit.”

As Jacob and Carmina looked, Staci just closed his eyes and continued to breath. The adrenaline was leaving him just as quickly as it had come. He felt even worse. He carefully moved his fingers around the wound in his head and his hand came away with fresher blood. Well the makeshift bandage had done absolute shit.

He squeezed his eyes shut again, but then slowly opened them as he started register what had caught Carmina and Jacob’s attention.

It was getting quiet.

There was still some shouting here and there, but not the sound of an ongoing battle. A couple of gunshots fired, but they were more spread out, no longer continuous.

Staci finally propped himself up on his elbow, but that was as far as he could go. Jacob and Carmina noticed and quickly helped to pull him up. He finally saw what they were seeing. The Highwaymen were finally giving up.

It looked like at the sign of their last leader finally falling over, some had immediately begun to run. There would be a lot more Highwaymen around, living or dead, if they’d all stayed. It looked like some that had still tried to fight had been shot. A few had their hands up, had fallen to their knees. A look in the distance showed figures disappearing into the dark, having taken advantage to get out while they still could.

“Oh fuck, she’s still alive,” whispered Carmina.

Jacob and Staci both looked down. Mickey had crashed into several things on the way. There didn’t seem to be any risk of her getting up, but she was definitely withering in pain down there.

Carmina quickly slid down the ladder. Jacob and Staci followed with Jacob making sure Staci didn’t fall on his ass. Normally, Staci would have brushed him off. For the moment though, he really needed all the help he could get. Thankfully he managed to get to the ground without doing any of that and the three of them slowly approached Mickey.

She was pulling herself up into a sitting position but as she did it, Staci realized her legs weren’t moving at all. Had she hit her spine on that piece of railing? Was she paralyzed?

“I knew it. Tried to tell Lou but she never did believe me. Tried to,” huffed Mickey as she finally leaned against a piece of debris.

“What did you know?” asked Carmina.

“That you lot were a lot crazier than you put on. Fucking farmers my ass, but Lou thought you were just rabbits to be put in line. Shouldn’t have let her convince me.” Each word was clearly painful for her. Besides the fall damage and numerous cuts, she’d also been shot in the side and shoulder. They didn’t look fatal, especially since she could still talk. However, put together along with the other wounds? It was hard to tell how long she would last.

Her eyes turned to Jacob. She almost looked impressed. “And you. Causing so much fucking trouble. Should have seen it was all planned. That you were looking for excuses to be marched around. Take in as much information as you could. Even let us take your fucking eye, just to get a little more information. Huh?”

“It worked,” Jacob said, and his tone had Staci turning to him in surprise.

He almost looked impressed with Mickey too. But then…Staci supposed that made since. Even though Staci had seen the twins little, it had been pretty clear Lou was more the brawn and Mickey the brains. Jacob could probably separate himself enough to be pleased with their own victory, but still acknowledge the strengths of his enemy.

Carmina didn’t seem to think so though. She pulled out her gun and took a step towards Mickey.

“Huh. Fitting, I guess. You fucking killed my sister. Took her out without a hint of hesitation. Willing to put down your life for your fucking people? That…that wasn’t something me and my sister could do. Reminds…reminds me of my mom. You know…I miss her. I’d ask you to let me go find her, make this ending have some fucking point. You know? I wouldn’t come back, but I don’t think my legs are going to be working anytime soon anyways.”

Carmina cocked her gun. “I’d say no anyways. You’re too dangerous to live.”

Mickey laughed. That laugh quickly became a cough. “Lou would have liked that,” she managed to get out. “Only half a twin, and a fucking broken one at that, and you still see us as a threat. Can’t help but be a little proud of that.”

Carmina looked ready to pull the trigger. Her finger was right there—

“Just one last thing then? Let me die next to Lou. We entered the world together. If I’m leaving it now, I’d rather leave it with her.”

Carmina looked like she wasn’t going to agree. And to be fair, why would she? Mickey had helped to destroy nearly everything Carmina held dear, had kidnapped her dad, killed Bean in front of her, caused her so much heartache. Staci thought she would pull the trigger.

But then, of all people, Jacob stepped in.

He gently took Carmina’s hand and pushed the gun down. The only one who didn’t look surprised in that moment was Staci. Even in his weakened state, he still knew Jacob better than anyone. He knew he respected honor, a soldier’s code. He knew he could admire an enemy and still want to kill them in one breath. Staci also knew that if he’d been able to, he would have liked to die right next to John too.

Mickey checked all the boxes to give Jacob a reason to show mercy. Even after the twins had tortured him and taken his eye. If anything, all that probably made him respect Mickey more. She could do things others weren’t willing to for order.

Jacob moved forward and pulled Mickey up with ease. Her legs really were hanging there limp as he completely supported her. Carmina’s gaze stayed hard.

“Don’t think you’re getting out of this,” she said. “I’m still going to kill you.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Mickey replied with another wheezing laugh.

Jacob started to take Mickey to her sister as those in their vicinity stared with wide eyes. It was hard to say if they’d heard the conversation or not, but it had to be strange seeing Jacob carry Mickey back inside. Carmina went to supporting Staci, just as orders started to be shouted. A head count was occurring, to see who was alive and who wasn’t. The remaining Highwaymen were being gathered into one group.

Carmina helped pull Staci towards the gathering. She stayed by his side, even as they both spotted Kim. If Carmina had run to her, Staci was pretty sure he would have finally collapsed. Thankfully, Kim ran to them instead.

“Oh thank god!” Kim hugged her daughter hard. “You are lucky I am so god damn thankful to see you standing here that I can’t be mad right now.”

“I’m guessing I’ll get yelled at later?” winced Carmina.

“Absolutely young lady.” Kim then pulled out her walkie-talkie. “Honey, she’s ok.”

Nick’s voice came in practically breathless. “Sweetheart, if you ever do anything like that again—”

“I know dad.”

“Anything—”

“I’m sorry! And I love you too.”

“Damn right, you better be sorry. But thank god you’re ok too.”

“I am, really. You know mom would be yelling right now if I wasn’t.”

“I know, I know.”

The Rye family all breathed a sigh of relief. Kim and Nick passed some logistics back and forth at each other before Kim put the walkie-talkie aside. “Obviously this wasn’t all the Highwaymen in one night. I’m sure there will be some groups sticking around that we’ll have to scare off if not kill. But the worst battle is done and with their leadership gone, they’re no longer coordinated. We just need to figure out what to do with the remaining Highwaymen here.”

Staci looked to where their current prisoners were. There weren’t many. Most were probably dead, and the rest having made a run for it. He forced his mind through the haze that was trying to thicken around his head. He murmured, “We need to execute them.”

Kim’s face hardened. “Fighting for our lives and shooting unarmed men are two very different things.”

“Staci has a point.” Kim’s face dropped at hearing her daughter say that. “If we don’t get rid of them now, they could come back.”

“And what if they don’t? That’s innocent blood on our hands.”

“I hardly think they’re innocent.”

“They’re unarmed. We can’t-this is a conversation for our communities to have all together. Not just us,” Kim finally said. Staci wasn’t sure if she really meant that or if she was saying it simply because she didn’t like her daughter’s stance. Either way, she finished with, “I’m organizing parties to go through the Highwaymen’s existing supplies. It’s better to treat the wounded here and secure this area for the night.” Her eyes fell on Staci. “You especially need to be patched up.”

He was too tired to argue.

“That’s an understatement,” Carmina sighed. “I’ll help with finding the supplies after I get him sat somewhere.”

“Ok. Check in regularly sweetheart.”

“I will.”

And with that, Carmina guided Staci out of the courtyard and back inside. Their own men and women were already moving around freely, the prison officially theirs. Though Staci wanted to help, he didn’t argue when Carmina finally found the barracks and put Staci in a bed.

“I’ll be right back. Try not to die before I find some meds.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” sighed Staci. He watched her leave his side, but Carmina wasn’t even out of the room before he passed out.


As Staci started to come to, he felt something wet on his hand. He peaked open any eye to see General lapping at it. He moved his hand to scratch at the wolf’s muzzle before looking around. Jacob was sitting right next to him. This time he was in some old jeans, a t-shirt, and some military jacket. His hair was still long and unruly, but someone had changed the bandage on his eye to a fresh one.

“And right when I was getting into the whole shirtless, unzipped jumpsuit, getup,” murmured Staci.

Jacob rolled his one good eye. “You’re fucking crazy. You know that?”

“Learned from the best.”

Jacob shook his head. “Carmina told me what went down before I found you. You both could have died.”

“We also could have taken out the twins in one go. You would have done the same.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t proud of you.”

Staci’s heart swelled.

Jacob’s eyes glanced down and he raised an eyebrow. With a somewhat amused tone, he said, “You put my dog tags on General.”

“Sorry,” winced Staci. “I just—”

“No need to explain Peaches. I’ve gotten the rundown from a few people. If I knew where Irwin fucking was, I’d kill him for losing those damn things.”

“Ditto,” sighed Staci. He tried to push himself up, but even with a clearer head he felt weak as shit. Jacob helped. “What…happened? I vaguely remember it all, but…”

“You mean besides the fact that you ran around like an idiot, and I had to keep you from getting your head blown off?”

“Sorry.”

“You’re just lucky it worked out. You were completely set on helping Carmina, ending Mickey, so I finally decide to let you. I protected the area, killed as many Highwaymen as I could so you both wouldn’t get overrun. Then I saved your ass before both you and Mickey could go over the side.”

“Right. And all this…why let yourself get captured? The information was invaluable but how could you trust that I would even find Irwin?”

“I knew you would comeback period. That I didn’t have to question. I also knew the moment you knew I was missing, you would come searching.”

“But how were you sure when I did arrive? When did you know to send Irwin to that spot?”

“Heard about the sudden chaos on that one railroad that leads outside of town. Also heard of the new people that had apparently appeared. I knew you and Carmina had succeeded.”

“But if I hadn’t?”

“I could have escaped at any time. But again, I needed information.”

“Also on whether or not we had a snitch, right?”

Jacob nodded. “Which I found out eventually. But upon realizing how important this place was, I also decided to stay and take note of everything. Both paid off.”

“So, what’s the plan now?”

“You were only out a few hours, but everyone has gotten settled here. The big discussion is whether or not to kill our current prisoners. Everyone’s been in debate over it for a while. Mickey’s even still alive.”

“What—”

“You really think Kim was going to let her daughter walk over and shoot her when she found out?”

“Point taken,” sighed Staci. “What was it like? Taking her there?”

“She was born first. Considered herself the older sibling.”

“Ah.”

“Ah?”

“Just another thing to add to the list of factors that are similar between you two. If things had been different, I think you both would have worked well together.”

“You think?” chuckled Jacob.

“You’re both alike in all the right ways. And I’m sure you would have both seen your differences as an advantage for the other too.”

“You’re probably right. Not that it matters now.”

Staci nodded in agreement. “So, after this mess is settled. Or postponed or whatever, what next?”

“We take care of Ethan.”

“Do you think he was working with anyone?”

“It’s possible, but I’m fairly certain he was on his own. Either way, I’ll kill him for putting New Eden at risk.”

“Joseph won’t like this.”

“I don’t care.”

Staci was honestly a bit surprised. Even if Jacob and Joseph butted heads on certain subjects, Jacob typically relented or worked around Joseph’s words. He never outright ignored them.

“He crossed a line there’s no coming back from. We can’t trust a power-hungry fool like that. On his own, he’s dangerous enough. But if another group came through? We couldn’t trust him to not try and sell us out again.”

“I agree. I just think it’ll be difficult.”

“I’ll walk in and shoot him, point blank. And then I’ll leave New Eden forever, if that’s what Joseph wishes. As long as I know my brother’s place will be safer in the long run.”

“You’d do that?”

“It’ll keep the people safe. Joseph’s dream won’t be destroyed. That’s what matters the most right now. Besides, I don’t think I was ever really meant to be a part of it.”

“You know I’ll come with you. If it comes to that,” murmured Staci.

“I already knew. That’s why I didn’t ask you.”

Staci smiled and held his hand open. Jacob took it, both holding each other for a moment. Staci looked up when someone started to walk towards them. His smile widened. “Joey, you’re ok.”

“Of course I fucking am. I was always going to make it out of this. It was your reckless ass that I was worried about.”

“It seems that is something we also agree on,” Jacob said.

Joey groaned. “Of course it is. How are you doing Staci?”

“Still breathing. How are talks going? About the prisoners?”

“Nowhere. It’s about split fifty-fifty. Not like, clearly though. By group or anything. I mean, I…fuck I can’t believe I’m saying this. I agree with you guys, that executing them is better. But there are those that are a part of New Eden that say we should set them free or just keep them as prisoners. Mickey straight up said that at this point she would shoot her own men in the head and then herself if it got her out of all this bickering.”

Jacob laughed at that. It was kind of amusing, in an incredibly morbid way.

“How’s Carmina doing?” asked Staci.

“Well her bloodlust has kind of disappeared along with the adrenaline from the battle,” Joey sighed. “I think she’s starting to support the idea of letting them go, but it’s hard to say. I don’t think she wanted to see them as people. But with all of them trapped like that, with Mickey fucking paralyzed, it’s a bit hard not to.”

Staci nodded. They could all understand how difficult it was to jump that hurdle. In a way, Staci kind of hoped she wouldn’t get past it. But that still didn’t solve what to do with their prisoners.

“The masses still don’t know Ethan was involved,” Joey then said.

“Good. We still don’t know for sure that anyone else was helping him,” Jacob replied.

“And what are we going to do about it?”

“Kill him.”

“Well, I fucking agree with you again Jacob,” Joey muttered, “but is your brother actually going to allow that?”

“Joseph won’t,” Staci tried.

“But it doesn’t matter. I saw him. He was ready to burn all of New Eden, Prosperity, everything to get what he wanted,” Jacob replied.

“Wait, you actually saw him here?” asked Joey. “Before all this?”

“Yeah. Spit in my face, the little shit.”

Staci shot up, only to immediately regret it. Both Jacob and Joey grabbed hold of him to keep him steady.

“Jesus, you’ve got to be careful,” muttered Joey. “Selene is saying you’re lucky you didn’t bleed out. Don’t rip your damn stitches.”

Staci shook his head though. “I thought you’d overheard that Ethan was working with them. I didn’t…Ethan knew you were alive. He stood in front of me, knowing you were caged in here, and said you were fucking dead to me!”

Jacob shrugged. “Did you expect anything less?”

“I-I don’t know. But if Ethan actually knew, I’m surprised he didn’t warn the twins about you. About what you were probably doing here.”

“He didn’t have a clue either. Thought I was old and senile. Certainly, tried to make that my image and it did work.”

“How the hell did you manage it?” asked Joey.

“Made sure to stumble, to crash seemingly every second. Got in fights that everyone thought I couldn’t win. And I didn’t win them. On purpose. Rambled out nonsense, but slowly. Didn’t want to seem like I was putting too much on too quickly. Lou never expected a fucking thing. Mickey was always suspicious though.”

“And the eye?” asked Staci.

“Taken for not being a good little soldier. The irony in that was too sweet. Laughed through the whole procedure which just made them think I was even crazier.”

“Of course you did,” sighed Joey.

“But who took it?” Staci asked.

“Lou.”

“Good.”

Jacob cocked an eyebrow.

“If you had said Mickey, I would have fucking marched out there and slit her throat now, regardless of what Kim or anyone else would have said.”

“Course you would,” Jacob said with a warm smile.

Joey made a face, either at the moment itself or the gruesome promise Staci had made. Maybe it was both. Either way, she said, “I need to get back to organizing the remaining shit here. We also need to start planning how to take out the remaining Highwaymen cells. Those that aren’t smart enough to leave anyways.”

“I’ll come with you,” Jacob replied. “I need to make sure my people don’t tell New Eden too much. I don’t want Ethan to know the twins are gone. Or that I’m alive.”

“Make him fucking sweat, huh? He sure as hell deserves it,” said Joey.

“I’ll come to—”

“No!” Joey and Jacob immediately said. Even Gen barked at him for even attempting to get up again.

“You are going to stay here and rest,” Joey said.

“I’ve already ordered General to keep a watch on you,” Jacob added. “You’re not getting up until I say you can.”

“Fuck. I can’t let you do all the work.”

“You’ve done plenty,” Joey said.

“Rest. You’ll need your strength for when we confront Ethan,” Jacob added. He squeezed Staci’s shoulder before standing up. “Sleep well. Please.”

Staci really didn’t want to. However, with both Jacob and Joey about ready to chain him to the bed, he relented. “At least promise to come tell me if something develops. Even if I’m asleep.”

“We will,” replied Joey. “See you soon Staci.” She bent down to pet Gen. “And you rest too. You deserve it after all those throats you ripped out.”

Gen let out a contented sigh. Jacob grumbled as he and Joey walked away. “You spoil him too much. You’re as bad as Staci.”

“Ah come on. It’s not that bad,” muttered Joey.

For Staci, he had to blink hard to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. Joey and Jacob walking away side by side…it seemed wrong. Then again, whatever it looked like, Staci didn’t know what they were both thinking in the moment. It was probably just as strange for them, and Joey was probably only putting up with it considering their recent victory. There was no telling what they would be like tomorrow.

Whatever happened between them, their two communities, Staci just knew he would hold that image close in his mind. He moved a little, trying to get comfortable. Gen made a noise in the back of his throat, but Staci made sure to ease him.

“Don’t worry. I’m not leaving,” he murmured.

He looked around, taking in those that were near him. The former Highwaymen barracks had been turned into a temporary infirmary. There was a good mix from all groups. Selene and a few others were acting as nurses and helping those that immediately needed it. Staci laid back down and gestured for Gen to join him. The wolf hesitated.

It was hard not to smile as he whispered, “I promise not to tell Jacob.”

Gen seemed to take a moment to think it over before jumping in beside him.

Staci had slept little in the past weeks, months even. Half the time his dreams had made the momentary rest completely worthless. He’d woken up feeling more exhausted than when he’d passed out. Then there were the days where he hadn’t slept at all, or at least as little as possible. There had been so much to do, to plan. He’d constantly been worried about something. Thoughts of Jacob, him being dead, maybe alive, or Carmina and all that she’d gotten herself into. It had all kept him awake.

But not this time. Most of the fighting was done. Ethan was still a difficult situation. Staci wasn’t sure how he was going to resolve that. However, he was determined not to let it bother him now. Whatever happened with Ethan, New Eden had been spared and Staci had Jacob back. It was all he could want.

General nuzzled in close and Staci gripped his thick coat. For the first time in a long time. He managed to sleep peacefully.


When Jacob and Joseph argued, Staci could usually figure out where Jacob had gone based on what they’d argued about and the time of day. It usually only took two guesses max to find him. Staci managed to locate him on the first try this time.

Staci walked to the trees. He heard the water before he saw it. Jacob came into view too, sat at the riverbank. The area was a little farther north than New Eden. On the other side, you could just barely see the mountains that Jacob had once used as his hunting grounds in Hope County. It was the closest you could get to them without slipping into the radiation zone.

Staci knew Jacob by this point. He knew him well. But he wasn’t quite sure what made him miss the mountains so much. He would have guessed it had to do with the occupation of the area before the collapse. There’d been seemingly unlimited guns, unlimited ammo, and Jacob had ruled the area with an iron fist. Did he miss that time? When such tools and equipment could so easily be reproduced and gathered? Or was it something earlier in his life? Did he simply miss the lush, dangerous mountain environments that he’d grown up with, that he was familiar with? It was hard to say. Staci only knew the spot drew him sometimes when he needed to unwind.

Jacob’s jacket was off to the side. His hair ruffled slightly in the wind. The wolf he’d been training lay obediently beside him. Staci had recently begun to throw out names for her, but Jacob had been knocking them down every time. As he liked to remind Staci, she was a killing machine. Not a pet. But Staci was sure he would find one that fit, no matter how much Jacob hated it.

Staci sat beside him, taking in the scenery. He’d once been such a talker. Silence had once been boring or awkward. Now he could sit like this for hours. He appreciated nature more than ever now, not just because of Jacob but also after being stuck underground for so long.

Eventually, some thoughts did want to bubble out of Staci’s lips though. He was curious what Jacob’s reaction to Joseph’s latest ideas were. But he could tell Jacob was too irate to talk about it directly. This was the place he always came when that was his central mood.

Instead, Staci’s eyes carefully moved over the radiated trees on the far beach. So far, it seemed nothing could live in those zones, but it didn’t stop Staci from carefully looking over the area. Besides, maybe a mutated bear as big as a tank was back there somewhere. The world was now crazy enough that Staci could see it happening.

However, when he couldn’t see any movement, mutated bears or anything else, Staci finally nudged Jacob with his arm. “What do you think the rest of the country is like?” he murmured.

“Depends on the number of bombs. Where they dropped.”

Staci’s lips quirked upwards. Of course Jacob would give such a practical answer. “What if Death Valley is completely green?”

Jacob laughed. “Then this apocalypse truly is insane.”

“And the rest of the world? It would be odd to think London is moving along normally while we’re all fighting orange wolves and giant pigs.”

The female wolf near them narrowed her eyes.

“I of course don’t mean you,” Staci quickly said. He paused for a second, mind quickly deciding on one, and then he threw out another name. “Valeria.”

“No.”

“Ah come on. That name isn’t half bad.”

“We are not giving her a name.”

“Her ears perked up. I think she likes it.”

“Her ears did not. Stop imagining things.”

Staci rolled his eyes. “You’ll approve of one of my names eventually. Or I’ll just pick one myself and call her that regardless of what you have to say.”

Jacob let out an exasperated sigh. He didn’t try to argue further though, not in the semi-amused manner he usually fell into. He must have been very irritated.

Staci changed the subject back to the world. “Would you ever go and see it?”

“You know I can’t.”

“Well sure. I’ve always known that. Just like you know why I wouldn’t leave. But I guess…I’m just curious if you ever would.”

Jacob let out another tired sigh. His hand moved to scratch behind the wolf’s ear. He certainly liked to pretend he didn’t care about her as an individual, but little moments like this showed there was some sentimentality there. Jacob’s eyes didn’t leave the river. His hand didn’t leave the wolf’s head.

“If Joseph asked me to leave. I would leave.”

“He would never ask that of you. You’re his family.”

“He has his family.”

“His blood family,” amended Staci. “You’re his older brother, and he almost lost you before the collapse. He would never ask you to leave.”

“Hmm, I’m not so sure.”

“Like what?”

“Imagine a death had to occur in order to keep everyone safe. But the person that needed to die belonged to New Eden. Joseph would likely preach forgiveness. Maybe banishment if it was a particularly heinous crime. But no matter how convincing he would make his argument, I would have to go against it,” Jacob replied. “Ever since the collapse, my purpose has still been the protector. That includes protecting Joseph from his idles.”

“Do you really think a situation like that will occur in New Eden?”

“There are greedy, self-serving people everywhere. Even within New Eden. The sins of the world haven’t disappeared just because of a couple of bombs.”

“I don’t think Joseph believes they have.”

“No, but he does think he can control them. At least within New Eden’s walls. He’s perceptive of a lot, but he isn’t perfect. He’ll slip up eventually.”

Staci looked down at his hands. Jacob’s words weren’t too shocking. Even if he had faith in Joseph, he’d joined New Eden because of Jacob. Staci wasn’t blind to the younger brother. But still, it was surprising just how certain Jacob seemed to be. “Well, hypothetically speaking, when the day comes when Joseph kicks you out, what do you think we’ll do?”

At least that gave Jacob a reason to smile. No matter what happened, he knew Staci would follow him. “Where would you like to go?”

“I don’t know. Texas maybe? Never been, and I would be curious what it might look like now.”

Jacob slumped over. It was hard to read his expression. Staci tried to lean closer, to understand why, only to nearly have Jacob slam into his nose. Thankfully Staci managed to move out of the way as Jacob threw his head back and bellowed with laughter.

“In our hypothetical adventure, you choose Texas. Texas!”

“Hey! You know I haven’t really been outside this area. I’ve never really seen the US,” grumbled Staci. When Jacob didn’t stop laughing, he huffed out, “Fine then. Um…Canada! That’s something more exotic. Right?”

“Canada!”

“I’m shutting up now.”

Jacob still couldn’t fully stop laughing. “Canada.”

“Where the hell would you go. Hmm?” sighed Staci.

Jacob’s laugh changed to momentary heavy breathing before disappearing entirely. He looked up at the sky and smiled. “Somewhere across Russia. Maybe Mongolia.”

“Really?”

He shrugged. “I hate the fucking heat. Don’t want to see another desert ever again. And I am curious how its landscape might have changed. If it has at all.”

“Hmm, you have always been a mountain man at your core,” replied Staci with a small smile. “Would be hard to get across the ocean though.

“We would have a shorter distance if we traveled from Alaska to Russia, but the weather could make any shortage of distance pointless. Crossing the ocean in general with only two people would be near impossible. We would need a full ship. A crew to run it.”

“You would make a good pirate. I can see it now. Eyepatch and everything.”

They both laughed and Staci reached out to pet the wolf. She liked Jacob more, but she’d finally allowed Staci to pet her too. “Hmm, you said you wanted to go to Russia. Why don’t we call her Babushka?”

“That is fucking ridiculous. And she’s not that old anyways.”

“Fine, fine,” chuckled Staci. “I’ll figure out a name sooner or later though.”

“Sure you will.” Jacob looked at the sky then. “We should probably start heading back now. It will be dark soon.”

“What will you do about the argument with Joseph?”

“Nothing for now. I’ll probably go on a run looking for guns and ammo though.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“You know Joseph disapproves.”

“Let him keep disapproving. If it weren’t for you, New Eden wouldn’t be half as safe as it is.”

“Thanks Peaches.” Jacob gave him a quick kiss before standing up. He helped Staci to his feet and clicked his tongue, indicating the wolf to follow. As the sun fell ever slower, they made their way through the forest and back to New Eden.