"You remember the people here. They're your friends, and you want to help them."

Carmina

Carmina started with cherry blossoms. It was a cherry tree she so often found Dep leaning against- it was the farthest tree on the property, just on the edge between the ranch and the treeline. She knew it made her parents nervous whenever they saw Dep leaning against that old trunk, staring distractedly into the darkness of the forest. Hell, it scared Carmina plenty.

But Dep wouldn't run now. Not after Carmina's mother had asked them not to.

That didn't mean they didn't think about it; Carmina could practically see it in the air around their head as they leaned against the trunk of the cherry tree, unheeding of the twigs and leaves getting caught in their hood. She could feel it, an aura around them when she got too close, needling at the skin.

When Dep got like this the whole house seemed to grind to a halt. She'd caught her father with his hand on the doorknob, frozen between rushing out and leaving them be. Her mother's grip on the counter as she watched through the open window was white-knuckled and rigid. It was a storm brewing, demanding to be seen but too far away to be touched, too powerful to be warded off.

Carmina plucked a few blossoms from a low-hanging bough as she passed and held them to her nose, eyes never wavering from the dark figure. The tree rarely ever produced fruit these days; it was too old, too twisted, too broken by the bombs to do more than survive. Maybe that was why Dep liked it so much. They'd found a kindred spirit.

They were silent- so out of character!- as she stepped up beside them, but they accepted the flowers readily enough when she offered them.

"You should smell them," she prompted but wasn't too disappointed when they simply tilted their head at her. At least Dep wasn't looking at the dark anymore. "They're my favorite scent. Besides Mom's cooking, I guess."

Dep's fingers played lightly over the petals for a moment, as if memorizing their texture. They held them back out doubtfully. Carmina smiled, fondness tugging at her chest, and folded the gloved fingers gently over the flowers. "Keep them. They'll remind you of me."

Cherry blossoms meant renewal. Carmina figured Dep already knew that.

She gave them lavender next.

Ever since her mother had pointed it out, Carmina couldn't help but jerk awake every time she heard them creeping out at night. They never seemed to remember the floorboard to the right of the top stair creaked like something out of a haunted house.

She'd lay staring at the ceiling, wide-eyed yet unseeing, until the screen door's hinges whined again in the early hours and cat-like footsteps crept back up the stairs. Only then did Carmina's heart stop thumping so very hard against her ribs.

She dropped a sprig of lavender in their hands the next morning. "You're keeping me up," she told them, and refused to feel guilty about the slump of their shoulders. The bags under her eyes were heavy. "It helps sleep." They also meant peace, but again, these were unneeded explanations.

The apple and orange blossoms she actually felt a little bad about, seeing as they could easily have turned to fruit. But- well. The Dep was a little more important.

"For peace," she murmured when they looked up at her. The summery early evening was just beginning to chill, and Carmina could feel the tip of her nose numbing. The flowers in their yard were fragrant; Dep looked as at peace as she'd ever seen them. Not that that was saying much. "And family. Now come on, Mom's let Dad break out the grill and I need you around to help put the fire out."

Carmina didn't have to look back to know they were just a step behind her the whole way.

Grace

Grace found them crouching in the dirt. They were not trying to be sneaky now- she could hear them crunching around in the drying, dead leaves of the late summer. The whole yard around what used to be John Seed's ranch smelled of green and damp and growth; Grace suspected that just might be what Dep needed right about now.

(She had Nana help her with the flowers. The old woman was surprisingly patient, explaining every color, helping her with textures and structures and arrangement and Grace had never put this much thought into a bunch of dead plants in her entire life.)

It was quiet out in the yard except for the ambient noise of the wilderness. Dep liked birdsong; they used to go out in the early morning and sit on the porch of the Rye's home, just waiting to hear which bird would be the first to wake. Grace would come around with coffee sometimes.

"Do you remember the birds, Dep?"

They stilled and Grace could hear their labored breathing.

(Kim, when she led Grace outside, had quietly explained the Deputy was trying to build a garden. "It's the only time they've been calm out here," Kim had confided and Grace's throat had tightened at the strained tone in her voice.)

They must have been tilling the earth for the new seeds; Grace could smell the fresh soil. It was nice.

Leaves crunched underfoot as the Deputy stood slowly. Grace could almost see their shoulders, thin under such a large jacket ("Like a goddamn bear hide or some shit," Nick had told her over the radio once, months ago now), tensing up somewhere near their ears. They never liked to be snuck up on.

"Do you remember the bluejays?" She asked, loud in the uneasy quiet. Grace's ears were straining harder than ever, unseeing eyes darting from side to side; she felt them moving, unbidden, in her skull. But she wasn't scared of anything but the Dep running. They were so very good at running.

"They were your favorite, Dep," Grace said, something desperate and hot rising to the base of her throat at their silence. She had never hated the quiet so much as now. "You would point them out every time we hunted together- you- you liked when they were the first ones to sing in the morning."

A noncommittal grunt. A foot shifting in the dirt. The crunch of dry twigs. Birds singing, branches clattering in a slight breeze. A soft exhale.

"I brought coffee but you preferred tea because caffeine made your hands shake when you held a bow," Grace tried.

Footsteps padded towards her but stopped a few yards- too far, too far - away. She heard their breath hitch violently in their chest.

She couldn't cry. She never cried, not even at the end of the goddamn world. "You liked jasmine tea because the flowers were pretty. We shared it. You taught me about the birds every morning."

Nothing. The birds wouldn't stop singing. She didn't know whether that was such a good thing anymore.

Finally, heart in her mouth, Grace stepped forward and thrust out her fist. The flowers would be crushed at the stems, but she couldn't bring herself to care.

"Nana said you'd probably know what they mean," Grace's voice was too fast, too high, God she felt like an idiot. "But I think you need to hear it. So- so, edelweiss for courage and devotion, wallflower for faithfulness in adversity, hyssop for sacrifice, lemon balm for sympathy. And- and magnolia, for- for love of nature."

She came forward again and again and again and held up her hands when she heard them shift back. Fumbling, Grace caught one thickly gloved hand in hers and wished desperately that she could touch skin, just for a moment. The heat at the back of her throat was spreading, pushing at her mouth, the backs of her eyes, lighting her scalp ablaze. Her legs were gelatinous.

She curled her old friend's hand gently around the flowers and held their loose fist in both of hers. Grace wished that she could see, that they could talk, that none of this had happened.

"Maybe next you could teach me about the flowers," she whispered hoarsely, and ignored the lump in her throat at the soft sob coming from somewhere in front of her.

Kim

Kim gave them a flower for each day they stayed.

The first one she made a production out of, giving it in the exact same way they left hers for her all those months ago. Dep seemed surprised to come in from their early morning wanderings (it never failed to give Kim a heart attack, seeing their bed empty and made up, crisp cool air where her friend was supposed to be warm and safe- Goddamn Joseph Seed better be rotting in Hell ) and find a small bunch of pink and purple petals at their honorary place at the family table.

"Statice," Kim told them, carefully not looking up from the eggs she was scrambling, "there's a lot around here. For sympathy. And success."

The next day, it was peach roses. "Those were a little harder to find," Kim admitted. She didn't particularly want to remember that dirty, cramped trek through the woods, or the cursing, or the thorns. "You're supposed to give them to someone you miss."

Dep had trembled at that. They'd left the table and were gone for most of the day, the screen door banging shut behind them; for hours, Kim had thought that was it, she'd fucked it all up. But in the end, the sun's rays were scarcely fading when the Dep had stepped quietly into the kitchen and pressed an apologetic lily-of-the-valley in her palm. Kim kept still as they bowed their head.

"Yes," she said finally, having to violently tamp down on the overwhelming urge to reach out. "You're us you're leaving next time."

Freesia was next. "Thoughtfulness- I thought it was a good fit for you."

Yellow roses- "Oh, you know you're supposed to give them to friends. That was a pretty easy one."

White tulips, which she placed in a box on their windowsill. "For the worthiness part, not the seeking forgiveness part," Kim had had to justify quickly when the Dep's head swiveled around as if looking for an exit, "You know you've got nothing to apologize for."

But they didn't know, and Kim knew they didn't. Back to the drawing board.

"Dahlias," Kim told them later, "they're for lasting bonds."

Finally she settled, comfortably, on sunflowers. Hell knew there were tons of them around the house.

"You like yellow, huh?" Kim ventured one day, unsure if the question would cause Dep to flip out. Instead, she got a moment of consideration and then a slow nod. They were a child, unsure if they were going to be granted approval or disappointment. The acid in Kim's stomach roiled and she hoped the fire burning Joseph Seed's soul was blistering.

Kim grinned. "Good. They're supposed to mean happiness."

She kept a vase of sunflowers on the table after that, and put another one in their dreary bedroom- she'd have to get Carmina's help redecorating.

And if she had to plant even more sunflowers to keep up a steady flow, well, it'd be worth it when Dep finally took off that damn mask.

Hurk

"I didn't, uh- I mean, I just kinda thought this was better than trying to rip up some weird flowers and accidentally poisoning you or something."

Dep tilted their head the same as they'd always done- it was reassuring, almost, that the little things hadn't changed. It at least gave Hurk the strength to keep going.

He hefted the flower pot between his palms and wished the leaves were long enough to obscure his hot face. "Gina said this was fucking stupid, but then she said maybe it'd help you cause she was thinkin' you got fucked up, like really life-changing fucked up, and I mean, with Seed and all, and you runnin' around in that mask maybe she was right, right?"

Dep's mask did not look impressed. They shuffled back a few steps and looked like they were considering shutting the door on him. Somewhere in that house Kim Rye was thinking about throttling him.

"I'm talking too much," Hurk stated. Dep did not disagree. Their fists were clenching and unclenching slowly at their sides; they were fighting to keep still. "Um. Sorry. Here."

He shoved the flower pot into their hands unceremoniously. They fumbled, stumbled under the sudden weight, and finally got it secured against their chest. They huffed angrily at him when dirt spilled into their collar and Hurk was suddenly rethinking the whole 'let's-give-our-old-friend-who-is-now-a-little-crazy-a-bunch-of-plants' idea. Carmina had a good heart but Hurk wondered if she thought more with that than her head.

The Deputy shifted the pot in their hands, looking down at it before jerking their head questioningly at him.

"It's a fern," Hurk explained helpfully.

They blinked. It was weird to see the mask with only one eye lens in it, but the eyes weren't as disconcerting as the dried dirt and who knows what else smudging the white painted surface.

"I, uh, didn't know anything about flowers, so I got you a fern," Hurk repeated. He desperately wanted to slap himself in the face. "Like I said I didn't want to poison you or anything. Knowing me, I'd find the only Bliss left around and end up naked and hogtied alone on the bank of a river somewhere. Uh, not that I'm speaking from experience or anything. But yeah, I thought this fern looked nice. I mean, it is a nice fern. Do you like ferns? Am I saying the word 'fern' too much? I feel like I'm saying 'fern' too much."

The Deputy set the plant heavily on the floor between their feet. They tilted their head for a moment and slowly reached out to pet one of the fronds lightly. Then Dep backed up and crossed their arms over their chest tightly, like they were hugging themself. Hurk felt as if iron bands were squeezing his ribs.

"It means humility and uh- shelter. I think."

Dep paused and then nodded. They held themself tighter. Hurk wished fiercely for this all to be a nightmare- couldn't he just wake up and realize that none of this had ever happened and he was on his mom's couch waiting for the Dep to come by and take him to fuck up some Peggies just for kicks?

But what was done was done, and all that was left of his friend was going to shatter apart if he didn't give them this fucking fern.

"And confidence too, apparently. And like, sincerity. That part is about me, too. Cause, like, I'm sincerely your friend and shit."

Dep's head hung low; he couldn't tell if they were looking at the fern or not.

"Hey, Dep?" They shuddered. His voice was strained on the next words. "I, uh- I'm really glad you're back man. Wasn't the same without you."

Silence. He wasn't going to get anything else from them today. Heart like stone in his chest, Hurk turned and reached out to close the door behind him. At least he could tell Gina and Blade he'd tried.

A hand on the door stopped him from closing it. When Hurk turned around, Dep was standing only inches from him- it was always freaky how softly they could move.

Dep hesitated for a split second and then reached out to lay their hand lightly on his bicep. They patted a couple times and then stopped, seeming unsure of what to do next.

His vision blurry, Hurk reached up and closed his fingers around the other's, movements slow and exaggerated. They blinked at him. He blinked back and ignored the wet warmth on his cheeks.

"Yeah," he croaked, "I'm real glad you're back."

Jerome

"I once told you I didn't know how to speak to you, old friend."

Jerome came to a careful stop at the edge of the garden; he could sense a sacred space when he was near it, and this was the Deputy's. The earth was freshly dug in furrows, and holes pockmarked the yard here and there, heralding in a season of new growth for next year.

He hadn't known that Dep liked to plant vegetables as well, but Jerome could just spy a bag of what looked like pumpkin seeds sticking out of the basket Dep had by their side. A filthy trowel and a shucked pair of torn gloves lay beside them.

Dep looked up sharply at him before straightening (the lethality in that movement was all catlike grace and most likely completely unintentional) slowly. They dropped the last few seeds from their worn palm into the furrow and nudged a bit of dirt into place above them with a boot.

Jerome waited until he could see the glint of a single eye. "I told you our paths had diverged and that I could no longer think of what to say to you because of what you had done, what you had been through. And for that, Deputy, I can only sincerely apologize."

Dep's shoulders hitched upward by a fraction of an inch, but Jerome was watching too closely not to notice. They slid one foot back and ended up kicking their basket over. Jerome could see their hands starting to twist together, an old nervous tick he remembered stopping many a time with a calming palm on theirs.

His stomach flipped; it was almost a certainty that Dep would never let him do that now. Maybe never again.

Jerome sighed passed the tightness of his throat and raise a hand, palm out. "Please, let me finish. Please don't let your past- what he made you think of yourself, perhaps what I helped reinforce through my thoughtlessness, get the best of you. Can I ask that of you, my friend?"

The Deputy visibly wavered for a moment; Jerome could feel his position here, fragile as the last fall leaves clinging to the branches, ready to be swept away at any second. His tongue felt as dry as the Sahara.

After quite possibly the longest pause of the pastor's life, the person who had once turned out to be the most true friend he'd ever had nodded twice, quickly, as if they were pulling off a band-aid.

Jerome shifted on his feet. "May I-" He didn't know quite how to finish, how to communicate the deep urge to reach out, the need to be close to someone he'd thought lost long ago, the wish to make sure this wasn't some dream from which he would be ripped away at any second. The Deputy was sure to reject the confession, anyhow.

Instead, they beckoned with one hand, crossed their legs, and thumped down into the dirt unceremoniously.

Jerome suppressed the bizarre impulse to laugh. There was something softer about them now, surrounded as they were with flowers and gardening equipment. Their pale face- what passed for their face, anyway- tilted up at him expectantly; it reminded Jerome absurdly of a child waiting for storytime.

Cautiously, wholly frightened of appearing aggressive, he took a seat across from them Indian-style. He abruptly found it hard to meet their eyes over the row of leaves of the freshly grown carrots between them. Instead, he dropped his gaze to the flowers in his lap. They seemed a meager offering now, no matter how much time he'd spent finding them.

"I brought you these," Jerome told them hoarsely, lifting the bunch halfheartedly. The Deputy was tracking his movements intently, and tipped their head to the side briefly, that single eye blinking slowly at him. It made Jerome's chest squeeze tight at the sight. This was what Nick meant about the Dep's old habits shining through at the strangest times.

He held the first one out over the carrots, watching the petals bob and sway in the breeze. It was a moment before ungloved fingers curled tentatively over the stem just above his own. "Gerbera, for loyal love, innocence, and purity."

There was a quiet exhale from his companion, but still Jerome refused to lift his eyes. "I should have tried harder to communicate with you; I should have known it was you from the start, or figured it out like Nick Rye did. But I think maybe I did know, or I wouldn't have pushed the notion away so vehemently. I didn't want to see what Joseph Seed had done to you- what he molded you into. I didn't think I could take knowing what had been done to so true a heart."

He passed two more flowers over. He had to wait a few moments before they were accepted. "Sweet William and sweet woodruff mean gallantry and humility. You- you were a hero to us, I hope you know that. You were a hero to me. And I- I wish I'd not turned away from you when you came out of that bunker. You needed us, and none of us realized it until it was almost too late. We left you to fight your demons on your own because you weren't fighting our battles for us anymore, and you cannot understand- I cannot express to you the shame that brings me."

Jerome was having a hard time speaking by now, vision blurred into a swirl of watery colors. He persevered, but not for his own sake. "Pink stargazer lily. I know it looks ostentatious, but it- it means honor, prosperity. Deputy-"

He tried to lift his head this time, made a herculean effort to withstand the grief threatening to drown him, but the current pulled him under and he could not meet their eyes. "The sacrifices you made before the bombs dropped, the torment you must have gone through for the sake of us, all to be rewarded with the time you spent under the ground with him - and to come back and help us, and then, to find the strength to fight back against Seed- the story of Job does you justice."

Finally, the last flowers seemed small, insignificant, a tiny drop of water in the ocean of things he need to spill out to the Deputy, the things they deserved to hear for which Jerome had no words.

"Bachelor buttons," He said tightly, breathing harsh. They were not accepted for a long moment and Jerome realized they might not ever be. But if this was the last thing he could say to a hurt friend, then by the Lord Almighty Himself, Jerome had better make it count. "For single blessedness. Whatever has been done to you, whatever Seed or I or anyone else has made you believe about yourself, whatever you think about who you are, know this , my friend. You have fought righteously, and you have stood in the way of harm that would have befallen innocents. You've withstood hell. Know that you are free now; know that in the eyes of your family and of the Lord you are not damned. You never were."

There was a moment where Jerome was alone, choking on the silence, drowning in shame and blame and self-flagellation. The garden was still and time could very well have stopped.

And then the flower was pulled from his grip and replace with a hand. Fingers laced with his, and their bare knuckles dropped to rest together on the sun-warmed earth.

Jerome sat with an old friend submerged in a place of growth and life, and let the wind lift the weight from his shoulders, let the sun dry the tears on his face, let the earth turn on and on, inexorably turning away from the past. He hoped the Deputy was doing the same.

They stayed with him (he stayed with them) until the light faded from a friendly sky.

Sharky

This was worse than that time when he was fourteen and bought his crush a bunch of flowers to ask her to the Spring Formal. Okay, so he'd swiped them from the neighbor's yard. Whatever. Point was, he was less nervous back then, when he'd been holding out the stupid flowers and staring her football player boyfriend in the eye, than he was right now.

The Dep's hood was up like always, but the height of their shoulders and the way they were leaning as far back in their chair as they could told him enough to guess at their expression. He was sweating.

Kim, sitting at the table in her kitchen across from Dep, looked ten seconds away from throttling him. Sharky recognized that vein beating a tempo in her cheek. " Chives , Sharky? Really?"

"The, uh, the book said they mean, like, usefulness and stuff."

Kim wrinkled her nose. "You busted into my house to tell Dep they're useful ?" Her tone was deliberately calm. Sharky's heart was beating so fast it might have simply stopped. He didn't waver from the Dep, though. He wasn't gonna give up his shot now.

"Hey, I know my best friend, all right? They like to be all helpful and useful to people and shit."

Their shoulders were lowering centimeters at a time. They'd begun breathing again, having stopped when the door slammed against the wall. Nothing like a dramatic Boshaw entrance to get the blood pumping. The hood moved in their classic head tilt. Their fingers twitched against the worn wood of the table.

"There- there's dill too," he piped up helpfully, ignoring the urge to scrub at the back of his neck. Drops of sweat rolled into his facial hair. "Just cause, that book- we've only got like one fuckin' book on flowers and plants and shit in the entire county, how fucked is that, huh?- uh, the book said dill means 'powerful against evil,' and I mean, that's you all the way man, so I thought, you're all flower power these days, maybe you'd like 'em! I dunno, I guess I should speak your language and shit."

There was a second of the loudest silence he'd ever heard. That usually didn't bode well for Sharky.

Kim let out a long breath. "Sharky, I think maybe you should-"

The Dep's chair scraped back so fast it tipped backward and landed upside down with a clatter. Kim jumped in her seat. The birds outside the windowsill took flight. The Dep's glass of water was upturned.

Dep took two large steps over to Sharky and threw their arms around his middle. They squeezed too hard and Sharky wheezed for a second, but when they started to withdraw in alarm he planted a firm hand on their back.

"Oh hell no man, you're good, you're good." They smelled like firewood and rich, healthy soil. At first they held themselves away from his body by a few inches until Sharky gently pressed down between their shoulder blades.

His friend almost collapsed boneless against him; Dep was shaking in his arms and Sharky felt the vicious need to dig Joseph Seed's body out of his grave and set it on fire . Instead, he held very still and let Dep tentatively rest their head on his shoulder. The skin of their forehead was warmer than any fire he'd lit in months; the warmth seeped through the mask and into the cloth of his shirt, burning pleasantly there.

Their shoulders were trembling, although Sharky was unsure if they were actually crying. He tried not to let the plants get crushed by leaning the fist with them in it gently against the back of Dep's head.

"I, uh." He croaked, cleared his throat. Kim was frozen on the edge of his vision, hand over her mouth. "I've got coriander too; it means 'hidden worth.' I thought it was funny, cause like, you hide your face all the time and you're super cool? But, I couldn't find any coriander flowers. So I put coriander powder on everything."

The Dep huffed against his flannel. Kim snorted.

"Wait til I tell Nick you got the first hug," she told him, shaking her head ruefully. "He's gonna be so pissed."

Sharky grinned wildly.

Nick

Nick barely had time to realize that he'd grabbed the wrong wrench and would subsequently have to haul himself out from under the truck to go get the right one when it appeared in his field of vision as if by magic. A gloved hand was wrapped around the handle.

"Oh," He said, suddenly realizing he'd forgotten how words worked. "Uh. Thanks."

In the three months they'd been staying with the Ryes, Dep had had trouble staying in the same room as Nick. They still couldn't look him in the eye. It made something dark and cloying claw at the base of his stomach most days.

The hand retreated and there was a shifting of fabric near his feet. Working mostly on memory and instinct, Nick continued to fiddle with whatever was jamming up the undercarriage of the truck, keeping most of his attention on the dark, dirt-covered boots he could barely make out beside him.

After a relatively companionable five minutes, he couldn't stand the silence anymore. Nick found himself wishing for the days when Dep knew just the moment to crack a joke to ease his tension. Maybe that was selfish. Yeah, it was probably selfish.

"Hey, uh." He cleared a suddenly clogged throat gruffly. "I uh, jumped on the bandwagon and got you something. They're over by the tools, you probably saw them. Go grab them for me, would ya?"

The feet shuffled a bit before their body dropped down with a thump that jarred him badly enough that his knees jerked into the truck's underside. Nick hissed a little but shook off the concerned noise Dep made. "Nah, don't worry 'bout it- happens all the time. You got 'em?"

Two taps on his shin, and the skin there prickled under his jeans; they hadn't wanted to look at him, much less touch any of the Ryes in so long...

They were sitting quietly beside the truck now, leaning against the passenger-side door. He could just barely spy the bright splash of color he'd worked so hard on in his periphery.

It must have taken weeks to get the canterbury bells alone. Nick had been afraid he'd do something stupid- spill oil on them or drop 'em in the mud or something. It was a relief just knowing they'd gotten safely into Dep's hands.

"Listen," Nick paused when the wrench clanged loudly against metal. He stilled until the silence rushed back in.

There was a single tap on his leg to signify they heard him. This was the most they'd touched him since he'd tried to tackle them out of some misguided attempt at a peace-offering all those months ago. "I know this is the part where I explain all the flowers to you, but I got something to say first, yeah?"

A moment of quiet. Nick tightened a lug nut and ignored how slippery the wrench had become in a matter of seconds. Two taps on his shin.

"Cool," He replied, and had never felt this hot and agitated in his life. The car seemed to be bearing down on him, threatening to crush his lungs with its bulk. He focus instead on the hand tapping light patterns out on the concrete by his knees. "I ain't gonna sugar coat this, buddy- Joseph Seed got you fucked up."

A huffed breath and a light shove, barely enough to jostle him. In the old days, Nick might've grinned, wrapped an arm around their neck, ribbed them a little more. Now, his heart was beating too loud in his ears to even think straight. "I mean, there are probably better ways to say that, but it is what it is. And I just wanna say- I don't care."

Nick was struck with the acute desire to see what the Dep's expression was at this moment, but it wasn't like being out from under the car would help him much with that mask still in the way. He thought maybe the truck hiding his face was the reason Dep could even stand being so near him now- that night with the knife really messed them up. Seems like that blade did more harm to them than it ever did to Nick.

"Aw, I don't mean it like- like that, you know I- I'm not any good at this, at talkin'. You knew that a long time ago, huh?" Nick was wheezing, just slightly. A hand squeezed lightly around his ankle, and he focused on centering his breathing for a moment.

"Thanks. But I mean it, I don't care. I don't care what he did to you, or who you think he made you be. I don't care if you think you're dangerous or evil, because you know what? You're wrong. Seed was fucking wrong about you from the start, and he was wrong about you in the end, too. You didn't start out evil and you're not ending up evil either."

The hand withdrew, and over the roaring in his head Nick could hear them stand. For a moment cold fear drenched him with the certainty that they would run; but all they did was begin pacing.

That was pretty much the best permission to continue he was gonna get. "I don't care what happened because it doesn't change who you are to me. It don't change the fact I'm not gonna leave you alone in this- not ever again."

He wasn't seeing the undercarriage anymore, not really; in his mind's eye, Nick could perfectly render the last time he'd seen their face, all sweaty and grave and ready to bring the fight to Seed if it was the last thing they did. In a way he guessed it was, at least for a while.

"You're my family," Nick told them simply. "Pretty much always have been. That ain't ever gonna change, you hear me? Ever since you strolled in here with that stupid Deputy uniform and a smart-ass grin and told John Seed to go fuck himself, you've been one of mine. And I ain't never gonna give up on one of mine."

The pacing had stopped, and so had the wrench. It was time- he couldn't put it off anymore. Feeling incredibly undignified and not really giving a shit, Nick rolled on his back to the edge of the truck and scuttled out from underneath it. It took him a bit of a struggle to get himself upright, back twinging in protest all the while. But he got it done.

The flowers lay carefully abandoned by the tools Nick had discarded earlier. Dep was a few feet away, wearing a furrow in his barn's floor. When they heard him stand they stopped abruptly, back to him. Their shoulders were hunched inward, trembling. They usually cut a pretty imposing figure without even meaning to; now they just looked small, like a kid playing dress up with their parents' clothes. They were swamped in the black of their jacket.

Nick hated something about that coat on them- all dark and furred and too heavy. It reeked of corruption, or dominance, and he could just fucking bet it was gifted to them by none other than Joseph fucking Seed. But mostly, Nick hated it because it kept him from seeing his friend in there.

Quietly, careful not to disturb the fragile peace, Nick scooped up the flowers. "Canterbury bells, 'faith, gratitude.'" He spoke passed the fear clawing its way up his throat, threatening to spill out from his lips. He could just see it, an oil slick down his chin and front, congealing and growing and obscuring his friend from his very eyes. But for every flower Nick took a step forward, surging passed that fear and swallowing it back in defiance.

Dep hadn't moved.

"Queen Anne's lace, 'sanctuary.' Tiger lilies, 'happiness, prosperity.'" The last stem Nick offer to them over their shoulder. It was a second before they accepted it. He let his hand fall tentatively- softly so softly, they were like a newborn fawn, ready to bolt at any second- on their shoulder. The coat wrinkled slightly under his fingertips and the fabric almost physically repulsed him.

Instead, Nick gripped just a little tighter, to remind them he wasn't going anywhere. His palm tingled- this was the first contact with Dep he'd had in- he didn't know. Hell, for all Nick knew, he could wake up tomorrow and find they'd actually done it, they'd actually run off in the night. Every day he realized it could be the last contact he had with them.

The thought ate away at Nick.

He squeezed lightly again, cleared his throat and in a gravelly voice explained, "Lilac. It's for family, and innocence. 'Cause that's what you are Dep. You're innocent. And you're family."

He couldn't seem to let go now. Their shoulder moved beneath Nick's grip, but not quickly, not violently. The muscles shifted, bone creaked. They put their hands to their face, still holding tightly to the bloom he'd given them.

With a larger effort than Sisyphus ever exerted on his stone, Nick dropped his hand; his fingers grazed their hood on the way down. His gaze fell, and he wiped a hand over his own face; he was so very tired.

"So, uh, I guess that's what I want you to know." Nick told them, as confidence fled. He kept his hand over his eyes. "I don't care what happened to you, I'm still with ya to the end of the line. And it's- it's okay if it takes a long time. I get it, if you can't- be around us yet. Be around me yet. I know it's- it's gotta be fucking tough as shit. But you're not alone. You've got me, however long you need, buddy."

When his hand finally fell from his eyes, Nick was almost too tired to register the eyes looking back at him.

The pair of eyes looking back.

All breath shot out of Nick's lungs but his body must have realized the importance of the moment, because his muscles locked up before he could ruin it by flailing. He stood, frozen like a deer in the headlights, feeling as if he suddenly acquired lockjaw.

Slowly, deliberately slowly, the Deputy lowered their hood. Their hair was rough, and long, and matted as a rat's nest; it badly needed a cut and it so dirty it could have been any color. Their face was streaked with grime, and pale from lack of sunlight, creating a resemblance to a raccoon around their eyes.

They looked tired.

Dep took hold of the hand Nick had placed on their shoulder and gentle pushed the mask into his palm.

" Fuck that ." Nick sputtered, hurling the mask to the ground. He didn't even look down to see it shatter to pieces before he'd swept Dep into his arms.

His hands were clutching too tightly to that damn coat, he was leaning too close, probably suffocating them engulfed as they were by his hug, but Nick wouldn't- goddamn couldn't - let go.

"You have no fucking clue how good it is to see you again," Nick told them, and meant it with his whole heart.

They huffed into his neck, hands coming up to hold on just as tightly.

Then the Deputy who had been still stiff, still scared- would that Nick could see the day Dep wasn't scared anymore- the Deputy who had fought and died and been reborn for them, the Deputy who had run and hid from them, the Deputy who had refused for so long to see the family waiting for them to come back, settled carefully into his arms.

And the Deputy came home.