"They speak only one language- that of violence."
After it was all over- the twins dead, Hope County saved, the Father neutralized- after everything, the Captain wasn't surprised to find the Judge had simply disappeared into thin air. They had knelt next to Joseph for a long time at the end; Captain could hear their sobs but couldn't tell whether they were of sorrow or relief- but they did speak of some unknowable grief. Captain had turned away, paced a few yards, and left them to it. They deserved to collect their thoughts, if only for a moment.
When the Captain turned back, arm already up to gesture that they could both return to Hope County, that they were both free from whatever hell they had fallen into, the Judge was gone. In their wake, they had left three small purple flowers. They were cut too early, barely blooming, and speckled with dirt and ash. They looked bedraggled and flattened, as if the Judge had smothered them into their coat for safekeeping- which they probably did.
The Captain recognized them as petunias.
They were left there, to rot or to burn with the body of the Father. The Captain had a vague hope that the wind would carry the petals away before the flames reached them.
It had been three or four weeks since the end of the conflict, and to Jerome it seemed as if he was even busier than before the war with the Highwaymen ended. He was needed from one end of the county to another, day in and day out, working to help refugees, go on supply runs, shore up defenses, provide faith and council to the hopeless- whatever the people needed, Jerome was determined to provide.
But he was hesitant more so now than ever to call these people his flock. He'd been burned one too many times he supposed. It never helped to get too attached to many in a place such as their world.
These thoughts, these anxieties-what if something else happens? One thing after another, who's to say there won't come someone else- someone worse that Joseph Seed and the Twins put together, we never catch a break do we- combined with the storm brewing that night had him wide awake. He sat quietly watching the rain lash at the muddied yard beyond his porch. There was a fire dying in the grate behind him- he could hear the fading crackles of the last bits of wood. Soon it would just be embers.
He must have been more tired than he realized- maybe the rain or the dying fire had lulled him into a doze, maybe he had been sleepwalking and had only dreamed that he had gotten up, maybe this was still a dream- he couldn't settle on a believable explanation for not seeing who left the bouquet on the top step of his porch.
Jerome jolted in his seat, heart pounding hard enough to break his ribs. The rain had gotten even worse now, mixing with the dark to make a gloom that was impenetrable. There was no way he could catch whoever had done it.
He approached cautiously, thoughts of Faith Seed flickering behind his eyes, but none of the blossoms on the worn wooden floorboards looked a thing like the Bliss.
The bouquet was obviously made by an amateur; the blooms weren't full- some of them were too young or too old, there were torn petals and browning edges, most of the flowers looked like they'd been drowned in all the rain, and pollen blurted out onto the toe of his boot when he went to nudge them. It was all held together with a rough piece of twine, threaded with another unknown purple flower.
Jerome bent closer, hand on his holster, afraid to inhale in case he did in fact have another Faith on his hands. But he recognized irises when he saw them. Bluebells -the low hanging flowers missing a few blossoms, as if they were pulled off the stem hastily- were there too.
It wasn't until he showed Nana the bouquet later the next (same? Jerome really needed to catch up on his sleep) morning that he found out the two flowers he didn't know were called bittersweet and magnolias. The one in the twine was verbana.
"What does it mean?" He asked her, rubbing the back of his scalp irritably. He was unused to feeling flustered by plants.
"Means someone out there thinks very highly of you son," Nana quipped flippantly. "Magnolia and bittersweet, those are nobility and truth, respectively, ya see, and bluebells are humility. Verbana's a strange inclusion though- usually means 'pray for me.' Guess they know you're a pastor. But the iris, now that's the interesting one."
"It is? Why?"
She tipped her head back, blew out a big breath and pushed her glasses up her sweaty nose. The storm had blown away in the early hours and now Jerome could already feel a sunburn starting across the tops of his shoulders. "Means a couple a things, depending on who gives em- faith, hope, those are probably the meanings this one's going for. Wisdom and valor, too, I suppose. If somebody you know gave 'em to you they can mean that your friendship means a lot too. Who's the lucky lady?"
"Nobody," Jerome hastened to answer. He shook his head in bewilderment, staring at the wilting flowers in his palm. Something deep in his gut flickered with warmth. There was a nagging at the back of his mind. "I didn't see who left it."
"Hm," Nana rejoined. She shrugged. "Captain said the Judge left flowers for the Father at the end. Petunias."
"You think the Judge is giving out bouquets?" Jerome couldn't really wrap his head around such an imposing figure slogging through the storm in the middle of the night to give him flowers. But there were rumors…
Nick had said that when he saw their eyes there was something familiar-
"You see anybody else picking flowers these days?" She had a point there. "Besides, if it is the Judge, they think a hell of a lot more of you than the Father."
"Wh- that's not true. They loved the Father. They followed him everywhere. Captain said they grieved when he died."
Nana's glare was so sharp and hot he had to drop his eyes. "They cried all right- lots of reasons for people to cry, and not any of them very good these days. But the flowers say something different about those two than your image of their relationship, Jerome. Petunias- they're something you leave an enemy. Most of the time, at least. Anger, resentment- only good thing they mean is not losing hope."
Jerome didn't have anything to say to that. Nana huffed and walked away from him, shaking her head.
In the next few weeks he was on high alert; every crack of a twig and patter of rain outside his door was greeted with attentive eyes. If it was the Judge- if what Nick thought was true-
But he never saw anyone.
(He kept the flowers until they browned and cracked and crumbled away.)
Kim had already talked about the petunias with the Captain- they had seemed agitated, upset ever since the Judge disappeared after they helped take down Joseph. Kim wasn't sure what surprised her more; that the Judge really turned on the Father they loved so much, or that the Captain was so torn up about them leaving without saying goodbye.
Nana had also let slip that Jerome had received an odd gift from out of the blue a week ago, but she hadn't thought much of it. Jerome was an attractive man and a compassionate one at that- it wouldn't surprise her if he had more than a few admirers around Hope County.
Her flowers showed up on the kitchen table in the early morning.
Kim had been the first one awake; that in and of itself was a startling feat, given that Carmina was wont to be up at the "ass-crack of dawn" as her father put it. She'd decided to have an actual breakfast ready for her daughter and husband today; no cereal bars or stale bread crap for them today.
The kitchen was cool and welcoming in the soft morning light. Kim loved this time of day; everything seemed quiet and peaceful. The world was for the taking and Kim wasn't going to waste the chance.
She'd opened the back door, propped the screen ajar to get some nice air flow and gone into the pantry to check their stores. Her fringe brushed into her eyes. As Kim lifted an absent hand to stroke the strands out of the way, she heard that faulty floorboard two feet inside the back door creak.
There was silence. Her fingers twitched to her gun. Birds were singing outside the window.
There was a rustle of fabric. Kim pulled her gun. It caught on the calluses of her palms, slipping in her sweat. Should she call out to Nick? Take whoever it was on her own? How much time did she have?
There was another shuffle. The same floorboard creaked. She breathed in, breathed out.
"Hands up," she shouted, twisting around the corner, gun up, trigger finger itchy. Kim only caught a glimpse of the tails of a long coat whipping out of sight around the screen door.
There was a thump from upstairs, feet on the landing. "Mom?"
It took Kim a second to see the bouquet. It sat innocently before her chair at the table. The twine was tied in a lopsided bow.
The confusion Nana had mentioned Jerome expressed suddenly started to make sense.
"I'm fine honey," Kim called back while holstering her weapon tentatively, knowing that wouldn't assuage Carmina's worries in the slightest. "Just- thought I saw somebody. It's nothing. Go back to sleep."
She had to take a few more minutes to calm her daughter down enough to go back to resting, but once she did, Kim snatched up the bundle. Just like Nana had mentioned with Jerome's flowers, not a single Bliss blossom was in sight. They were all flowers Kim knew were native to Hope County, all ones Carmina herself had picked for her mother when she was little.
There was a book on flowers somewhere on their bookshelf; Kim remembered thinking it could tell them about which ones were good to eat before promptly forgetting it was there when she put it down.
She found it after a few minutes of scrambling, in which she tried to be as quiet as possible for the house's sleeping occupants. It was old and dusty, pages yellowed and crinkled with water damage. It took even longer to find all the right flowers inside.
Camomile she recognized from the front of the box of tea; apparently they were for relaxation now, but the old meaning was "energy in the face of adversity." Some 19th century bullshit.
Red poppies, like the ones that grew outside their home, meant "remembrance." (Something twisted in Kim's chest.)
Blue violets meant "faithfulness" or "watchfulness"; the book suggested that the sender was either saying they would watch out for the receiver until death, or that the sender believed that the receiver was a symbol of faithfulness. White zinnia was supposedly for "goodness," and white heather meant "protection."
But the last blooms, the ones that it took Kim the longest to define, were purple hyacinths.
"Pleading for forgiveness," Kim murmured aloud, and the knot in her chest moved to her throat.
She showed Nick the bouquet; he'd already heard from Nana who the old woman thought was giving out flowers and Kim knew who Nick thought the Judge was. She didn't say anything, just slid him the book across the breakfast table after Carmina had blown out the door to "get shit done."
He sat silently for a few minutes but Kim knew when he got to the hyacinths. Nick shoved the text away, pushed his hat back on his head and placed his face in worn hands. Kim couldn't think to say anything- what was there to say that would make this better? She just sat with her husband, held him around the shoulders, and stared at the crudely put together gesture on the table. The flowers were as ragged as Nana had mentioned Jerome's were. The twine was obviously pulled off of a larger rope. It looked like a child had made it.
(Kim put it in a vase on her bedside table and woke every morning for the next week afraid it would be gone when she looked over. She didn't want to think what they'd do once the flowers died.)
Blade showed up holding a bouquet out to his father with a note declaiming Hurk as the recipient. His son and cousin had been down at the river, hoping to catch something edible and not canned to eat for dinner. When Hurk jerked around to stare accusingly at Sharky, he simply shook his head.
"Kid went to take a piss in the woods and says he stopped to draw some shit in the dirt or something. Said a nice stranger from the trees gave him that and a cool stick to play with."
"You think it was the Judge?" Hurk asked uneasily. If Blade's mother found out how near to the Judge their son had been, he would be in deep shit.
Sharky's face was uncharacteristically stony. "Kid said they didn't say nothin'."
"Nick says- do you really think it could be them?"
Sharky paused before he shrugged. The Dep was always a rough topic with him, just like they were with Nick: talking about a man's only friend who died horribly did that.
"It was a pretty cool stick," Sharky admitted.
Hurk gulped and nodded. He pried the flowers gently out of his son's hand and dropped a kiss on the top of Blade's head. Sharky motioned to Blade to help him get the fish he had thrown over his shoulder to the kitchens. Hurk held out a hand to stop him.
"How am I supposed to know what the fuck any of these mean? Kim said they might be important but I know fuck all about flowers, man."
Sharky smirked a little and nodded at the note with Hurk's name on it. "Think they made it easy on you, idiot."
Hurk scowled at his cousin but flipped open the note, which was really a piece of notebook paper folded in half. He hardly registered Sharky herding Blade away once he stared matching the names and descriptions to the petals.
The handwriting was sloppy and jagged, trailing off and leaving punctures through the paper in places as if the person writing wasn't used to holding a pen. Hurk read it all anyway. And then he read it again, just in case he missed something. His stomach was sinking.
Red tulip- Loyalty. Weird start, but okay. He guessed he was pretty loyal to his family.
Daffodils- New beginnings. Was the Judge talking about Blade? Probably. Hurk hadn't exactly been quiet about his excitement about being a father.
Red Gladiolus- Strength, integrity. What the hell did integrity mean again?
Buttercups- childishness. Which, okay, that was fair he guessed.
Coreopsis- Always cheerful. Hurk swallowed thickly at that: Dep had liked him for his sense of humor.
Red/Yellow Zinnia- In memory of an absent friend.
That one threw him for a loop. Who was missing? A lot of people these days, but Hurk flashed on how torn up Kim Rye had seemed that day she muttered something about her own flowers dying, how Jerome had seemed pale for weeks, how Sharky and Nick were unable to speak from anger when they saw the Captain with that stupid old deputy outfit they'd found and donned on a lark. Yeah, okay. Maybe Hope County was missing someone pretty damn important.
The bouquet itself wasn't tied with anything but a few other flowers; these were long stemmed yellow flowers, keeping in theme with the colors of the bouquet itself. Hurk flipped the paper over and found one last line down at the bottom of the page like he wasn't really supposed to find it.
Rue- Regret, sorrow, repentance. You were a good friend.
"Well," Hurk said aloud. He was hoarse; it hurt to speak. "Fuck."
He stopped thinking Sharky and Nick were crazy after that.
He kept Blade close the next few days because while he missed them something awful like hell was he gonna let his son anywhere near somebody who'd been brainwashed for years on end by Joseph fucking Seed. That didn't mean that he didn't try to look out for anybody living in the woods. Sometimes Hurk thought he saw somebody moving on the edges of his vision when he was out there, but there was no one whenever he turned.
(He kept the flowers on the windowsill- he couldn't take care of them for shit and his throat felt tight every time he realized that the only thing he had left of his friend would die in a day or two, but he just- he wanted them to know. To see. He is loyal, damn it. He is.)
The Dep and Sharky were good friends. They were best friends.
He didn't feel at all put-off that he hadn't received a bunch of stupid flowers from the Judge. Nope. Nuh-uh. They didn't even know that the Judge and Dep were the same person, really. The Judge could just be some weirdo in a mask with personal space issues. He didn't care if he didn't get a bunch of plants from some stalker psycho killer. Zero jealousy here. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
"Oh fuck yeah!" Sharky pumped his fist in the air when he saw the stupid not at all long awaited bouquet sitting on the hood of his truck. The same notebook paper as Hurk's bunch lay folded underneath the plants, so that the hot metal was buffered from melting the petals too easily. The heat wave was continuing, though, and the flowers were already looking more than a little worse for wear. He snapped them up eagerly and shoved his way into the truck before he allowed himself to read it. His hands were shaking.
His name- Charlemagne Victor Boshaw IV, not his nickname- was printed sloppily on the outside. (They remembered how to spell my name!)
On the inside, his note looked pretty much like Hurk's.
Morning Glory- affection. Don't make any jokes.
White clover- Thinking of you. Seriously, no jokes.
Purple Carnation- changeable, whimsical. His mood swings weren't that bad, come on.
Baby's Breath- purity of heart. Okay, that one wasn't really true.
Azalea- Take care of yourself for me. NOT that way.
Viscaria- Invitation to dance. We disco-ed pretty good, huh?
Then, at the bottom, it was signed with a shaky smiley face. It looked like they'd tried to cross it out a few times, but he could still make it out.
Hurk had told him about his note, and there was still at least one flower he didn't know the name of. His heart beat too fast in his mouth. This part was gonna suck.
Sure enough, there were three more lines on the back.
Don't try to find me, friend. Please.
"Oh, like hell," Sharky snarled at the paper. He crumpled it in his overeager grip, but just as quickly smoothed it back out. His friend- his only friend.
They weren't dead.
"Hang on in there, Dep," Sharky muttered, starting up the truck. The engine whined, rumbled, and turned over. He'd have to take a detour; Nick Rye would want to know about this.
He'd keep looking however fucking long it took. The Dep couldn't honestly expect to reappear having obviously been fucked up by Joseph Seed for years, turn on the fucker at the last second and then get away with just sending fucking flowers, could they? They couldn't really think he'd leave them out in the cold without putting up a good Goddamn fight.
"You just hang on in there, buddy. We're gonna getcha home safe."
(He kept the flowers in a loop of the same twine that tied them together hanging from his rear view mirror. They dried and crumpled in on themselves in record time, but he didn't mind. When they started to lose their smell Sharky dug out an old air-freshener from the glove box. It was all good.)
Grace had Nana explain her flowers to her when they came.
She knew that she might get some; hell, if Hurk radioed in to say he got a bouquet she sure as shit better get one if the Judge really was who they thought they were. God, this would all be a lot easier if the Judge could talk. If Grace could see. If the world hadn't gone to hell in a handbasket.
"If, if, if." She had no time for "if" these days.
The flowers smelled pungent; they must have picked the ones they did so she could find them in the dark. They were on her window ledge when she woke up in the morning. Grace was less worried about the Judge wandering around her land in the dark of the night than she thought she'd be. (she still closed the window.)
Nana took her hands and placed her fingers on the petals as she explained them. Grace kept her touch as delicate as she could; she could imagine it was almost as if she were touching the Dep's face instead of dying vegetation this way.
Who knew being blind bred loneliness?
"Black-eyed susans," Nana helped Grace finger the thin, long petals, soft like silk. "They're bright yellow, in pretty good shape. The Judge is getting better at picking flowers."
"What do they mean?"
"For you? Justice, most likely. Now these next, with the wide petals? Those are geraniums, pinkish-white, they mean determination, or refinement I guess, but I think it's the former. These layered ones are chrysanthemums, white and purple, so let's see, that'd be…truth and honesty."
"This is-" Grace felt the next stem, her fingernail accidentally slicing into it. "Isn't this a dandelion? I can feel the- the fluffy bit."
Nana snorted a laugh. "Yes ma'am it is. They mean overcoming hardship."
Grace's mouth went dry. God damn them. They could still get to her, and they didn't even have to give a rousing speech to do it this time.
Where the hell were they?
"What's this tying it together, Nana? It's not rope." whatever it was, there were crinkles in it like the Judge (Dep?) had tried to do something fancy with it but gave up halfway through. The knot itself was double or triple tied. It was probably cutting into the stems too much. Grace guessed the Judge moved around a lot on a daily basis; they probably wanted to make sure the bunch all stayed together.
"That's ivy, dear. Feel the leaves? Don't worry, I'll bet the Judge made sure it wasn't the poisonous type. It's got some wormwood woven in, too. That's the pokey bits."
"Why ivy? Why wormwood?"
Nana sighed softly. "Ivy means endurance, faithfulness. It's good for you, kiddo. But wormwood-"
Grace had heard from Jerome that not all the flowers were- she'd heard about this part. "What?"
"It means absence and bitter sorrow. The absolute worst kind, you know? The kind you don't really come back from."
Damn it. Damn them.
"I don't believe them," Grace decided suddenly. She wanted to slam the flowers down, to run away from this- how dare they put this on her? How could they just say something like this and not face the consequences?
(Her heart was squeezing too tight, wrung out like a sponge. How could they not come to me?)
"No, I don't believe it." Grace thinned her lips, narrowed unseeing eyes towards where she knew the breeze came in the open window. She hoped they saw her. "I can't believe that. They're coming back. By God, I'll drag them back kicking and screaming if I have to."
(She took apart the bouquet carefully and kept everything- ivy, wormwood and all. She dried the flowers and put them all in separate books on her shelf for safe keeping. They'd stay there until she could figure out how to catch the idiot and smack some sense into them. Maybe the flowers would still stay after that. Maybe always.)
Nick didn't care how long it took. He didn't care who thought he was right, who thought he was wrong, or who thought he was crazy. He'd known from the start, from the day the bombs dropped, from the day that the Dep took care of them when Carmina was coming. He knew the Dep was gonna survive. If anyone could make it through hell and back with a funny one-liner and a lopsided grin, it'd be the Dep.
He'd seen them when they were following the Captain through the countryside a few times. Something about the way they held their bow, shifted their feet, deliberated silently whenever they took a shot- it was familiar. At first Nick thought maybe he was remembering Jess Black but that wasn't it. Actually, he didn't start putting it together until he unsuccessfully tried to get the Judge to talk to him outside his home.
The Captain had been busy and left the Judge standing awkwardly by the porch. Nick had offered them a seat, nervous around someone with no discernible eyes, but was met with silence.
That was the first clue.
"Hey, you all right in there?" He'd ventured uneasily. The Judge (the Deputy, it was Dep, he knew they couldn't be dead, the tough son of a bitch!) hadn't answered, simply tipped their head in just the right way and-
"Holy shit," Nick could remember exclaiming. The Judge had shuffled back a step and he'd scrambled to recover. "Sorry, I- you remind me of-"
He never got to finish, though, because the Judge had veritably sprinted across the camp to where the Captain was beckoning for them. They'd been careful not to come near the Ryes ever since. Nick wasn't sure how to take that.
Sure, he knew, but Nick sure as hell didn't know what to do about the fact that he knew. Everyone else- even Kim- didn't seem to understand. They thought it was wishful thinking.
But Nick knew. He knew.
So when he caught the Judge stealthily sneaking a bunch of flowers into his barn, he didn't yell or attack.
"Ya know, you could just come in for a beer, man." He leaned against the doorjamb, trying to appear casual. The Dep had always been skittish, and that was before a madman had locked them in with him for seven years.
The Judge whirled so fast he winced in sympathy for their back. The flowers scattered a few petals. Nick raised his hands in alarm; the Judge was panting- nearly wheezing- behind their mask.
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare ya." He wondered if he should step inside. The Judge was darting looks over their shoulder to the nearest exit. Nick would either have to get real good at negotiation real fast, or he'd lose his only chance. "Heard you were making house calls, thought I'd check it out for myself."
They didn't seem pleased with that. They took two steps to the right and one back. Nick tried to step forward, but only succeeded in making the Judge leap back so far they slammed into the opposite wall. "Hey, hey, no worries, man, I'm not gonna hurt you- stop!"
They lunged to the side, towards the open barn door and Nick hurtled forward too, catching them around the elbow.
"Hey, stop okay- I know that's you, Dep!" They stilled for only a moment, but Nick thought- stupidly, maybe- that he'd won. "It's okay, you can come in now. It's over- you and Cap killed Seed-"
The Judge turned and shoved him back with the hand holding the bouquet. Nick probably could have done more to stop them, but between the fact that he didn't actually want to cause violence, and the fact that the Judge took his free hand and curled it over the flowers, he was left standing stupidly gaping, in an empty barn as they ran.
Nick Rye was never one to take shit lying down though, and he was hot on the Dep's heels a second later. (Maybe chasing them around Hope County didn't say "hey, it's super safe now and I promise I won't hurt you like the crazy guy you were locked up with for years on end," but he was flying by the seat of his pants here.)
They'd cleared half of the yard by the time he was done tripping over his own feet, but Nick was gaining fast, and the Dep still had a fence to clear before the woodline started.
"Dep," He screamed; his lungs felt like they were about to give out. He really was getting old. "Goddamnit Dep, stop running!"
They did not stop running.
The dirt was dry and cracked in the yard but the grass was still dewy from early that morning, and Nick saw them slip a little when they got to the fence. The entrance was actually on the other side of the barn but they probably didn't think they could cut around the barn fast enough to get away. He could have caught them from a side entrance to the barn if they'd done that. Dep had always been too smart for their own good.
Nick lurched forward, heart dropping to the pit of his stomach, unsure of whether he was lunging to help Dep up or excited that their slip gave him a few seconds to catch up and make them stay.
But the Judge righted themselves easily and flung a hand out in his direction. Nick was lower to the ground, hand out already to try to help them up, and the dirt that flew out of their palm struck him square in the face.
He twisted sideways, lost his footing and slammed his shoulder hard into the ground. It was the first time the Judge (or Dep) had ever done something to harm him.
"Fucking hell, Dep," He called, ignoring how raw his throat felt. Dust coated his tongue. "Christ, would you just listen?"
The fence jangled. Boots hit the ground. They were getting away.
He managed to regain his sight after a moment, although tears trailed down his temples. He was having a hard time not coughing up a lung. But when he raised his head feebly, the Judge hadn't disappeared into the darkness of the forest. They were standing stock still, head tilted to that same fucking angle as always, watching him through the fence.
For a long moment, they held each other's eyes. Nick's shoulder ached something awful.
Finally, his hip and knee told him they wouldn't stand being dug into the dirt any longer. He rolled over onto all fours and slowly, painfully, hauled himself up.
"That was a shitty trick, man."
The Judge shifted on their feet, took a step back. They let out a concerned grunt. Nick decided to think it was concerned, anyway. He chuckled lightly and dusted his hands off on his jeans. "Nah, I'm good. Just the joints- they don't work exactly like they used to, is all."
The Judge took another step back and joined their hands together at their middle, making sharp, small movements with them. It took a second for it to register with Nick.
"Aw hell, don't get so worried," Nick reassured them, rubbing the back of his neck. It was never easy dealing with a nervous Dep. "Ya didn't hurt me- stop wringing your hands man, you're freakin' me out."
Another grunt. The Judge gestured to the house.
Nick perked up. "Hey, yeah, I'll go in- but you gotta come with me, okay?"
They shook their head so vigorously there was an audible crack. Another step back, and they pointed to the ground, then Nick and finally themselves.
"I'm tellin' you, you didn't hurt me. You can come in, Dep. You can come on home."
The noise they let out was as close to a wail as anything Nick had ever heard; it bubbled forth from somewhere deep and warbled in the air. The pitch grew and grew for agonizing moments before the Judge dropped their head in their hands, shaking, and cut themselves off.
It was the worst thing he'd ever heard.
"Hey," he soothed quietly, shifting forward an inch. He held out his hands, palms out, and tried to make himself as non threatening as possible. "Hey, it's okay, see? You're oka-"
The Dep jerked their head up towards him and Nick froze. He was still holding the bedraggled remains of his flowers in his dirt covered right hand. They seemed to zero in on the torn blossoms, and they let out a low-pitched sob behind that damn mask. Their hands clutched the sides of their head for a moment, squeezing violently.
Then the Judge turned and sprinted for the forest. They were gone in seconds.
"Shit." He muttered, pulling his cap off and running his hand through his hair. "Fuck. Shit. I fucked that up."
Kim was kind enough to only glare a little when he presented the torn up blossoms and grumbled out the details. She thumped the book down in his lap and stormed off to the kitchen. That was fair enough he guessed.
Nick wrote the meanings out this time- he knew Kim hated that her flowers had died months ago. He'd caught her flipping through the book just to read the same descriptions over and over again. She did it when she couldn't sleep.
Myrtle meant love or affection, and peonies wished the receiving party a happy marriage or life. Snowdrops meant hope. Bells of Ireland, which took him forever to find, were meant to tell him good luck in life. Pine needles, which were threaded through the stems, could mean either hope or pity. Nick hoped it wasn't the latter.
The last flower was something called a rainflower. It didn't look very intimidating, but Nick's throat still closed when he read the description.
Rainflower- often taken to mean "I must atone for my sins, I will never forget you."
"Goddamnit Dep." He pushed shaking fingers through his hair again and tugged, letting the burning in his scalp turn his thoughts from the burning in his eyes. "Why can't you just, for once, let someone help you?"
(He put the flowers in the same vase Kim had- she hadn't moved it from their bedside table. Maybe she'd been waiting for his turn. Maybe she'd just been hoping that if the vase stayed, the Dep would have to come back and give them more flowers to fill it. Nick knew that's what he'd been naive enough to wish for.)
Carmina found them paying unexpected respects at Rush's grave. There had not been any sightings of them, hide nor hair, since her father tried to convince them to come back.
They were still wearing that thick, furred coat even in the heat. Summer was in full swing. She worried about heat stroke.
(Heat stroke wouldn't matter if she couldn't get them to listen. They'd die of exposure or bears or starvation if they didn't quit this stupid running schtick.)
"Deputy," Carmina called softly, letting her footfalls sound louder than they usually did. She wasn't eager to get shot full of arrows because the person her parents told her so much about got jumpy.
The Deputy was standing over Rush's grave silently in the fading light. She couldn't see their hands- they were standing with their arms held in front of them, maybe clasping their hands. She didn't know if they ever prayed.
They stiffened at her voice but didn't turn. They didn't run.
"Deputy, we all know that's you in there." She inched forward cautiously, as if the person in front of her was the scared child, not her. They shook their head and made a rasping groan of denial.
"Yes, you are." Carmina admonished gently. "You're not the Judge. You're not anything he made you."
The Deputy looked at her then and Carmina's heart clenched tight. Their mask was covered in grime, caked in dirt and blood. There were cracks and fissure in the material (was it wood? Plastic? She could never get close enough to tell). Their neck was stained with what was either tear-tracks or sweat. Maybe both. Their jacket was spattered with gore and stank to high heaven- the Dep probably hadn't bathed in at least a few days, simply hunting and foraging and picking flowers instead. They were holding a few lilies- flowers for a grave.
One of the lenses in the mask was missing. Through the hole it created Carmina could finally see one bright eye. It blinked at her. The Deputy shook their head.
"He's gone," Carmina stepped even closer. They didn't move. She risked a hand on their bicep; she could feel them trembling. "It's over. You made sure of that."
With her other hand, Carmina pressed the bunch of flowers she'd brought into the Deputy's palms.
"Rose leaves say you can hope," Carmina explained gently- unneeded, to be sure, but she had the idea that if she stopped talking the Dep might just book it. "And tea roses say we'll never forget you. Stock, for the bonds of affection and to remind you you'll always be with us. Star of Bethlehem for "reconciliation." White jasmine for "sweet love," and goldenrod for "encouragement." And finally-"
She pulled one stem from the rest and reached to tuck it, safe and sound, into the hood and behind the Deputy's ear. "White daisies: for rebirth."
The Deputy moaned quietly and dropped their head. Their shoulders quaked as they sobbed weakly behind the mask. Carmina held them lightly, carefully, against her shoulder. She turned her head to speak directly into their ear. "It's okay now, Dep. It's time to come in from the cold. It's time to come home."