The cold woke her up in the middle of the night. It was really chilly at this time of year, yet autumn was just beginning. She glanced in the direction of the stove. The rest of the logs were still glowing but no longer burning, she would have to put in new ones to revive the fire a little and bring a minimum of heat into the room. Unfortunately, the fireplace was in Seed’s territory, and she wasn’t too keen on the idea of getting close to him.
She thought for a few minutes. The fact that she was stationed near the door had the disadvantage of being in a draft. Seed had to sleep in the warmth of the stove. She weighed the pros and cons before finally deciding to get up.
She walked quickly to the fireplace and put four new logs in the fire, shivering. The comforting warmth of the flames immediately reassured her, and she sat by the hearth for a few moments, not yet sufficiently warmed. She heard him stirring behind her, wrapped up in his blanket.
— Deputy, are you okay ?
— I’m fine. Go back to sleep, Seed.
— Are you cold ? You’re shivering.
— I said I’m fine. Just leave me alone.
— All right, all right. If you want to trade places, let me know. I’m boiling in here.
This little tip irritated her to no end. She wondered if he was doing it on purpose to provoke her or if he was really too overheated. She couldn’t tell from his voice. She stayed a few minutes in front of the stove, still cold, and finally turned around to see if he had gone back to sleep.
He was lying on his side, his face relaxed and his eyes closed. A few strands of his hair, longer on top, had escaped from the layer of gel he always applied to keep everything in place. They framed his face and gave him a soft look that totally contrasted with the usually hard look he transmitted.
This vision pleased her, so much so that she unconsciously stretched her hand to put back the rebellious locks in place. He did not react, which reinforced her idea that he had fallen asleep again. I’m so stupid. Nothing can happen to me, everything is under control and he has nothing to gain if he decides to betray me again. Anyway, she could reason as long as possible, the temptation was too great.
Without wasting another second, she silently lifted the blanket and slipped under it to snuggle up to him. The heat of his body quickly warmed hers. She fell asleep only a few moments later.
* * *
When she opened her eyelids, only birdsong broke the surrounding silence. She looked up to watch Seed. He was still sleeping, his breathing slow and quiet. He must have woken up during the night and noticed her presence, because he had put his arms around her to hold her against him. She herself embraced him with her left arm, the right one being used as a pillow.
It was chilly again, the fire had extinguished during the night. She carefully disengaged herself from John’s embrace to avoid waking him up, and silently moved towards the wood pile. She repeated the operation of reanimating the fireplace, this time obliged to strike a match to revive the completely dead flame.
When this was done, she hesitated for a moment and reviewed the different possibilities that were open to her. Either she would lie down next to him and wait for him to wake up, at the risk of receiving some unwanted comment. Or she would get up and noisily prepare some coffee to wake him up and pretend that nothing had happened, denying if necessary the fact that she had taken refuge near him during the night. Finally, she could also run away in silence and never see him again. This unbearable idea was quickly driven out of her mind.
She gave herself a few more seconds to think. John had opened his heart to her last night. He had confessed a lot of things that could make him even more detestable in her eyes or make him look weak. He had admitted his wrongs and, it seemed to her, also admitted that she mattered a little to him, even if this last statement had not really been clearly expressed.
She decided to return to snuggle with him and wasted no time in doing so. He was lying on the back and his shirt had remained open, offering her a plunging vision on his tattooed and scarified torso, just like the evening before. Lengthened beside him, in support on her elbow, she did not deprive herself of looking at him and putting a hand on his naked chest.
The sight of the tattoo that she had imposed to him amused her and she redraw the letters of her name with her finger. In an ordinary world, this inking would have been something horrible and unbearable. But in Hope County, it was almost laughable, especially since it was precisely the tattoo artist of Eden’s Gate who was wearing it. Her glance rested again on the horrible scarification at the bottom of his belly. She didn’t even dare to imagine the pain that he had felt by notching it a first time, then two more, whereas it wasn’t even healed. She wanted to look after this wound, to bring him a little comfort.
She gently approached her mouth to kiss it. She hardly touched it, fearing to cause any pain to the man who wore it. The lowest part of the last letters was inaccessible, hidden under the thick fabric of his jeans. She decided to loosen a little the clothing so that the wound breathes and that she can reach it.
She undid as silently as possible the huge Eden’s Gate belt buckle and gently unzipped the pants in order to lower it of a few centimeters. He sighed and stirred, interrupting her in her movements. She waited that he was completely inert again to continue, frightened by the idea that he would wake up and take her red-handed. The jeans somewhat descended, she finally could take possession of the scarification. As she contemplated his abdomen in its whole, a horrible shiver ran through her. His ribs, as well as his hips, were covered with bruises that she had not noticed the day before. Holy shit. Who did this to him ?
A strange but pleasant sensation pulled him from his sleep. He opened his eyes and searched for the source of the contact. The deputy was not only awake, but also her face was leaning on him, hidden by her long locks that tickled his chest. It took him a fraction of second to identify the sensation : she was kissing the skin of his lower abdomen, right where the scarification was. He sighed of ease and slipped his hand in wrath’s hair while rising himself. Surprised by the gesture, she quickly moved her lips away from him and rose her bust, looking guilty.
— You may go on, deputy…
He met her gaze and understood that she was uncomfortable that he had caught her in this awkward posture.
— We can pretend I didn’t wake up if you want, and you can continue. I’m all yours. Or, if you prefer, we can forget it and nothing happened. It’s your choice.
He added a caress on her face to his words. Dana had been particularly pleased with the first proposal. The problem was that he had never agreed to let go. Every time she had wanted to caress or kiss him without him having control, he had found a way to evade her somehow.
The idea that she could touch him any way she wanted was extremely tempting, although they had agreed that nothing would happen between them. She didn’t feel like forcing herself to listen to her reason. Either way, I’ll be the loser in this story, so I might as well enjoy the moment.
She uncurled her spine to reach Seed’s face and tenderly kiss his cheek. He closed his eyes and allowed her to do so, his hand still resting on her face. The deputy’s lips went down along his beard to his throat, which she covered with small wet kisses. She allowed herself in passing an incursion behind the lobe of his pierced ear.
She gently pushed him to lie down again. Her mouth went down to his chest, which she licked entirely, while delicately brushing his bruised ribs. She shyly caressed the scarification, still anxious to cause him any pain. Sensing her hesitation, he addressed some encouraging words to her.
— It is not painful, you can touch the scar, don’t worry.
She wanted to ask him where the marks on his sides came from. But it was risking to ruin this rare moment of peace. She gave up the idea.
Encouraged by his words, she greedily licked each of the letters that made up the “lust” word while her hands caressed his tattooed chest, occasionally meeting his hardened nipples. Her lips still glued to the wound, she brushed his navel and went down in a straight line along the fine row of hairs to take off his jeans.
He lifted the bottom of his back of the ground to let the deputy’s fingers go down the pants on his thighs, taking away his underpants on the same course. As her hands removed his clothes, they slowed to a crawl on his hard cock. John sighed and whispered.
— I’m sorry, it was unintentional, I swear. I can’t control this. What you’re doing to me is driving me crazy, but I promised you nothing would happen between us, so feel free to stop whenever you want, I won’t blame you at all.
This proposal excited her even more. I am certainly not gonna stop now that he finally gives himself to me without reluctance nor conditions. She shyly put her lips on the hardened by desire cock and covered it with hesitant kisses. He encouraged her with a moan which left no doubt as for his satisfaction. Without wasting time, she started a languorous caress, just as she had done it on the scar. John sighed under her tongue strokes, which emboldened her even more.
Her hands roamed over his body, from his chest to his inner thighs, caressing his crotch and the delicate skin of his balls. I’d like to prove to you that pleasure doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with violence or pain.
Her tongue went up from the base to the end of his cock so that she could take it in her mouth, which tore off a new moan from the Baptist. She gently tasted his dick as she caressed it with her tongue, while her hand tenderly but firmly palpated his balls. The more John panted, the more encouraged she felt. Soon, her mouth’s grip and tongue movements became more urgent.
I’m feeling good. Too good to be true. Am I dreaming ? It wasn’t the first time he had been treated this way, but usually the idea came from him and his one-night stand would hurry to finish so they could move on. The painful back and forth of her wet mouth on him drove him crazy.
More and more excited by the situation and the sensations, he wanted to catch her hair with both hands to fuck her mouth. But he renounced, remembering Faith’s advice : express yourself to get what you want. Extremely embarrassed, he weighed the words to use for a few moments and finally dared to formulate his request. He very gently grabbed the deputy’s hair to clear her face and look at her.
— Dana… if you want it too… I’d like you to take all of me please…
Her heart suddenly raced. Did I hear right ? It was the first time he had called her name since they had bathed together. She didn’t look up, afraid to meet his gaze, but did her best to comply with his request. I’m terrible at this. I must try, for him. I want to please him so badly.
The crackling of the fire in the room was punctually interrupted only by sucking noises and John’s gasps, whose volume rose crescendo. He grabbed her hand as she came to caress his chest and intertwined her fingers in his, whispering loudly enough to be sure she heard him.
— I’m gonna come soon…
She gently withdrew her lips and replaced them with her fingers, continuing the caresses.
The Baptist quickly contracted into her palm. His shivering chest shook with spasms. She supported his glance without losing a bit of it, while he was having an orgasm against her and filled her hand of a thick warmth. Between two shaking breaths, he seized Dana’s face to kiss her on the lips.
It took him a few minutes to calm his heart rate and regulate his breathing. She had kept her hand on him, covered with his pleasure and happy to have been able to satisfy him. She had put her face against his chest. They stayed like that for a while, John caressing her hair and the deputy busy listening to his heartbeat. She was the one who interrupted the silence.
— Tie score.
— What are you talking about ?
— I said I loved you under the influence of bliss, you kissed me under the influence of ecstasy. “Kisses are for lovers”.
— Yeah. I’m sorry. I thought you’d like it and deserve it after the memorable moment you just gave me. Don’t worry, I won’t do it again.
— Shit. One can say anything in the heat of the moment or under the influence of any substance. I was just kidding. You should have kept your mouth shut. Stupid girl.
He wanted to tell her that he hadn’t broken his rule because of the orgasm but because he had wanted to. But she had just cooled his enthusiasm by implying that she herself had failed only under the drug effect and that it amused her.
She released herself from his embrace to go to the sink, where she rinsed her hands and moistened a towel. She returned to kneel beside him and cleaned delicately his skin everywhere where his semen had spread. He let her do it, observing with an amused gaze. She ventured to ask the question that had been burning her lips since the night at the ranch.
— Why you do not like that one touches your hair ?
— Answer. I got a right to know.
— Because of her.
— Her ?
— My biological mother.
She stared at him. He felt compelled to continue.
— When I was a kid, I loved it. She would run her hands through my hair when she tucked me in. She would comb it every morning. And that one day, she stopped caring. From one day to the next, it was like I didn’t exist anymore. She had forgotten me. She had forgotten all three of us. She gradually became a ghost, a distant and foreign shadow. She left us in the hands of this monster, without ever taking our defense.
Dana was hit in the heart by this intimate statement. She was stunned and at a loss for words. She remained silent as the Baptist stood up.
He got dressed and headed for the door.
— Where are you going ?
— I’m taking a few steps to wake up. How about making some coffee while I’m gone ?
When he left the tower, a bittersweet smile came over Dana’s face. What a horrible story. But he called me by my name. That simple little word out of his mouth made her happy. Then she’d felt bad for asking him that stupid question. This time she was the one who had ruined a good time. What an idiot !
She served two cups on the small table and sat down to wait, but he was getting late. The radio in the tower began to crackle, someone was calling. She hurried to answer, not wanting a call to disturb her time with John. It was Tracey coming on the news. Dana had turned off her own radio the night before not to be disturbed, and the resistance was worried about her. She reassured her that Joseph wasn’t there, but that she would stay a while to make sure she didn’t miss any opportunities.
When she hung up, Seed had not returned yet. A doubt came into her mind : if only he hadn’t left without saying goodbye to her after the clumsiness she had shown. The probability seemed low to her considering all the staging that he had elaborated the day before, but the doubt remained. She left the observatory to go to meet him. The fresh October air immediately came to take away her hair, forcing her to tie it up to avoid that it whips her face. Orange leaves swirled in all directions, dancing in the autumn wind.
She zipped her jacket up and walked quickly down the path to the forest, the only viable trail for a morning walk. It didn’t take her long to spot John’s silhouette. He was sitting in the dead leaves, leaning against a large ash tree.
She silently walked around him to mischievously surprise him as a child would, but she was immediately chilled by the sight. A tiny dagger in hand, he was carving the “lust” scar. The first three letters were dripping with fresh blood, and he was about to drive the blade into the top of the “t”. She rushed at him to rip the blade from his hands, screaming.
— What’s wrong with you ? Are you crazy ? Why are you doing this again ?
— It’s “deputy” !
— I… I have to absolve my sins if I want to enter Eden’s Gate… I already explained…
— You’re out of your mind, Seed ! Come on, we must clean this up.
She passed her arm under the Baptist’s armpit to support him and help him to rise. The blood that had profusely flowed was sticking his shirt to his abdomen. They slowly walked to the watchtower, the deputy supporting him the whole way.
Once inside, she sat him down on the cot and began to remove his shirt, which was now soaked with blood all over the bottom. He didn’t protest, but the pain could be seen on his face as she removed the cloth from the gaping wound. Once again in the same day, she had to undo his belt buckle and lower his jeans a few centimeters to reach the wound. The situation started to become recurrent, but she would rather have avoided having to repeat these gestures in the current context.
She took a clean towel and wiped off all the blood that was coming to the surface, while John grinned when she couldn’t see him. She pulled the first aid kit from the kitchenette and disinfected the spot before bandaging Seed’s entire abdomen. Securing the ties holding the bandage, she addressed him sternly.
— Don’t you dare touch or remove that bandage.
— Aye, Sir.
She stared at him with an evil look. He was trying to joke, but the situation wasn’t appropriate. Why did he always have to ruin the mood when they were having a good time together ? She couldn’t explain the way he worked. It seemed as if he didn’t allow himself to be happy and that he had to punish himself, and her, for the rare and brief moments when he was. She had to prevent him from continuing this self-destructive pattern.
She got up to empty the two cups of cold coffee into the sink. She filled a new one with the still-warm brew waiting in the filter coffee pot and handed it to him. Once he grabbed it, she picked up the blanket they had slept in and pulled it around him. She crouched down between his knees, on which she placed her hands. She looked him in the eye.
— John, you really need to realize how much you’re hurting yourself. And me.
— I’m trying to make up for my mistakes, deputy.
— No, when you “punish” yourself, you just destroy yourself a little more. It doesn’t save anyone’s soul, least of all yours.
— I am the Baptist, I must set an example for our devotees. We are all sinners, but we must admit it and fight the poison of sin to be worth Eden’s Gate.
He seemed convinced of his speech. Seeing him in such denial broke her heart. She thought back to the time when he had taken her away and planned to mark her and Hudson. He had told them about the abuse of his “parents” and the “Power of Yes” with the same twinkle in his eye. At the time, she had no pity for him.
But now that she saw him with new eyes, her hatred for him had turned to empathy, and then… her thinking stopped for a moment. She wondered : was it friendship now ? Was it understanding, coupled with pity ? Was it compassion ? It was extremely difficult for her to place exactly what she felt for him. Either way, she had grown attached to John and would do anything in her power to protect him from himself and the twisted ideas of his brothers. She got up to sit beside him.
— Can you explain to me when you think you have sinned and deserve to be punished ?
— You know exactly when. Just now, when you gave me…
— Is this lust for you ?
— Lust : “Inclination considered immoderate for the practice of sexual pleasures or for an uncontrolled sexuality without procreative vocation.”
— Immoderate ? Uncontrolled ? Is this how you see our relationship ?
— Dana… be realistic… when I’m with you, I can’t control myself. I want you all the time. I need to satisfy my urges.
Her irritation was escalating. She wondered if he was just playing dumb on purpose or if he really believed what he was saying. In the heat of the moment, she decided to speak to him without a filter and as if he were a kid she had to teach.
— Look, John, that’s your assessment of events. But I have another one : when two people get to know and appreciate each other, they naturally spend more and more time together, and they get closer. The more they like each other, the more intimate their contact becomes, until it becomes very personal. I feel that we have spent enough time together to agree that we like each other, and that most of the sex we have had so far has been consensual between the two of us, and has come from a sense of well-being when we are together, and not just from a physical attraction caused by some chemical reaction or uncontrolled urge. Although it is true that this is what may have triggered the first sparks.
She paused to think about the formulation she wanted to give to the continuation of her words. She didn’t want to say too much, but at this point, she might as well give maximum credibility to her speech by arguing it as best she could.
— I don’t know about you, but I personally care about you. I do enjoy the time we spend together.
He was surprised by her frank declaration and it took him a few moments to absorb the information. He put his cup on the ground and took his arms out of the blanket to embrace the deputy and put his forehead on hers. She did not dare to raise her head, fearing to meet his glance. He seized her face with both hands to force her to look into his eyes, as he approached until their noses came into contact.
— Marry me.
What ??? She suddenly stepped back to get out of his embrace.
— What are you talking about ? Are you crazy ?
— I am not. This is the only way. As long as we are not tied by a marriage, this relationship is a forbidden sacrilege.
She hesitated to laugh at his face, so ridiculous was the situation. Kissing him was forbidden, as it was only for lovers. But he had no problem marrying a stranger to condone his acts.
— Are you kidding me ?
— I’m fucking dead serious.
— You’re proposing to sign some stupid contract that would commit me to you for life, just so you can relieve your urges with a clear mind ?
— You don’t need to sign any contract. A commitment to God is enough for me.
— It just gets even better ! Look, I’m not a believer. However, I find it totally disrespectful to use religion to endorse something you don’t assume. I would never in a million years be a part of that.
— At least try to think about it. I’m having a hard time with this forbidden relationship. At some point, Joseph will find out about it, and we’ll both pay the consequences.
Ah. Here we are. This is the real reason. He is afraid of his brother’s reaction.
— No, I won’t. I don’t have anything to add. If that’s the way you feel and you think our activities are unhealthy, then let’s stop seeing each other, it’s not that complicated.
— Dana, I don’t want to stop seeing you. I enjoy our time together too.
A growl from the deputy’s stomach ended the discussion and gave her the opportunity to change the subject.
— I’m starving. Didn’t you tell me you brought food ?
— Yes, it’s a good thing I planned to impress you.
— Sit still, you must take care of that wound.
She stood up and rummaged through his backpack while he finally drank his coffee. On top of it, she found the shirt he had offered her the day before. She seized it and sent it to him.
— Here, at least it will be useful !
While he was putting on and buttoning the clean shirt, she continued her search and pulled out an eggs box, some bacon and a can of green beans, which she immediately prepared and served at the table. They were both hungry, and the food calmed the spirits.
The rest of the afternoon quickly passed, and they spent it tidying up and talking briefly about each other’s lives before Hope County. In the evening, they ate a few leftovers from their first meal, and then had to decide whether to say goodbye or spend some more time together.
Neither of them wanted to let the other go, but the time to say goodbye would come soon or later. She pointed out that he was injured and that it was better that she could watch the wound because she had no confidence in his way of managing it himself. The argument was good enough not to have to look for another excuse to spend an extra night with him. Aware of the move, he teased her.
— Do you want to sleep by the door again, or shall we switch this time ?
— In front of the door or the stove, or even outside, I don’t care, as long as it’s near you.
This frankness and complicity were new for both of them. It pleased John, who was not in the habit of beating about the bush. He continued his provocation.
— Over or underneath ?
She threw him an outraged glance but did not take it easy.
— Neither of these. I should remind you that you are injured, so the nurse will stay by your side but will make sure that you don’t get agitated so that your wound can heal in good conditions.
— You’re not funny, deputy.
— I was never meant to be.
She gathered all the blankets she could find, lit the stove and put in a large pile of logs, to make sure it wouldn’t have to be reloaded in the middle of the night. She looked at him seriously.
— You sleep in the bed. I’ll lie on the floor next to you.
— That’s not an option. What’s the point of spending the night here if it’s without you ?
— I’ll be close by. I’d rather you rest in the best possible circumstances, I really don’t like the way your scarification looks.
Not being able to share a bed with her upset him to no end. But he found that his sister was right : the power of words was far more powerful than a tantrum. He decided to put it to good use and to trick her. He sat down on the bed and put his hand to his stomach.
— Speaking of which, the wound has been burning for some time. It itches like crazy.
— It’s normal, it needs to heal. It’s going to take some time.
— Couldn’t you just take a look, just to be sure ?
She had understood his little trick, but she was really worried about this wound, which was not a pretty sight. So she decided to play the game and inspect the wound. She helped him to remove his shirt, then removed the bandage with precaution. It did not look so bad, no sign of infection was visible. She had crouched down to inspect him in detail. When she saw him lustfully grinning, she understood that he had a plunging sight on her cleavage and immediately got up by closing her jacket.
— You are truly hopeless !
— What ? I did absolutely nothing ! Could you please take a closer look at this wound ? Without your jacket, you’d feel more comfortable doing it.
She took off her jacket and threw it on the back of the nearest chair. She walked to the kitchenette and grabbed a dish towel and a bottle of liquor from the bottom of a cupboard.
— What are you doing ?
— I’m going to disinfect that wound again, since it’s so itchy.
— I don’t think it will be necess…
Too late, she had put the alcohol-soaked cloth on his exposed abdomen, which made him cry out in surprise and pain.
— Damn ! You’re such a devil !
— Do you realize that you are whining about a little alcohol on a wound while you are inflicting tattoos and then skinning hundreds of people and expecting them to consent to this treatment and get satisfaction from it ?
The remark was so pertinent that he did not know what to say and capitulated. She was just as sharp as he was and he liked that. He wanted to continue to work her, in the hope that she would give in and agree to sleep with him. And also because he hadn’t had so much fun in a long time.
— Now that the wound has been checked and disinfected, I think you may have noticed that it is well on its way to recovery.
— It is.
— So there’s no reason why we can’t sleep together, then.
— John, I really don’t think this is a good idea. I don’t want to inadvertently open it by moving around in my sleep.
— Weird. I would have bet that the risks were in the period before falling asleep.
She stared at him to answer, tired of him always having a word to add, and met his smiling blue eyes. She melted every time he looked at her that way. This is a serious problem.
— Stop talking nonsense. I’m going to make you a new bandage for the night, please take off your jeans.
He complied without flinching or making any inappropriate comments. Once the wound was secured, she helped him to lie down on the cot and went to switch off the light before joining the blankets she had arranged on the ground for her. As she suspected it, he had slipped out of the bed and had already invested the places.
She did not want to argue with him anymore, he was old enough to take the good choices. She passed her arms around him to kiss his cheek and to wish him good night, but he had other plans. They finally spent little time sleeping.
* * *
For once, the sun was not yet up when she opened her eyes. Her first thought was that she would have to leave John today, which made her instantly sad. She pulled herself together. Since it was still night, she had some time to enjoy the moment before the world woke up. She stopped her thoughts to listen to the silence.
The low crackling sound of the flames in the stove accompanied John’s quiet, slow breathing. She had fallen asleep on him, her head against his chest. They were both naked under the thick blanket. She concentrated on listening to his heartbeat, and the skin of her cheek enjoyed the softness of John’s. He was taking care of himself and she liked that. She thought about the many cosmetic bottles in his bathroom and wondered how many products he used and if he had a little ritual every day. This idea amused her and made her smile. The fragrance bottle came back to her memory. She lifted her chin to smell the woody scent directly at the hollow of his throat.
She appreciated the feeling of serenity that emanated from him when he was sleeping. His whole body was relaxed, no tension remained between them. She realized that one of her hands had spent the night in John’s hair. She quickly removed it.
She wanted time to stop so that she could spend her whole life enjoying this moment of serenity. But the night was gradually fading, and the time to leave each other was approaching. She imagined their farewell in different ways, but none of them pleased her. One of them always asked the other when they would see again, and the other always answered that it was better not to meet again.
It was simply impossible to have a committed relationship, because no one around them would understand it and they would both be considered outcasts by their respective factions. Moreover, their encounters remained purely sexual and excluded any feeling. It was clearly out of question that she converted to Eden’s Gate or that she married him, and he would not leave his convictions either.
In a flash of clarity and courage, she slipped out of the blanket and silently dressed. She grabbed the revolver that was still near her clothes and placed it on John’s carefully folded shirt. She knelt down beside him and tenderly kissed his forehead before leaving.