3 March 2024

Winter Hope County Christmas tale


 Chapters list

  1. What the hell is going on here ?
  2. Secret Santa ?
  3. High tension
  4. Christmas spirit, are you there ?
  5. Complicated collaboration
  6. Final stretch
  7. Merry Christmas !
  8. Dilemma

Novel’s complete YouTube playlist

* * *

What the hell is going on here ?

 Suggested background music : John Williams – Home Alone main title

The snow had fallen heavily again all night, covering fields and roads throughout Holland Valley.

The thick white blanket muffled Mary May’s footsteps as she made her way valiantly toward the Spread Eagle. Still silent at this early hour, the small town of Fall’s End would quickly awaken. Soon, one by one, the inhabitants would leave their homes to attend pastor Jerome’s sermon or make a few purchases at the store. But for the moment, the quietness of the place invited calm and serenity, which she took advantage of by walking the few meters that separated her pick-up from the bar.

Suddenly, her eyes were drawn to an unusual shape on the other side of the road, across from the general store. She knew Fall’s End like the back of her hand and was certain that the object had not been there the day before. Intrigued, she approached to detail the figure.

It was a snowman that reached her waist. His paunchy body was crossed by two enormous dead branches making up arms that were strange to say the least. A big smile lit up his face with a carrot for a nose, and a cowboy hat sat proudly on his head. The author had even gone so far as to put a large rope on his head as a scarf.

Hands on the hips, the young woman remained a few minutes to contemplate the ephemeral work of art. She was categorical : it was not there when she had left the bar at about 01:00 this morning. She hardly understood how someone could have elaborated all this staging in so little time. Who could have given life to this character ?

She finally decided to join the Spread Eagle. For now, she had to finish cleaning up from the night before and set up for today’s service. But the snowman did not leave her mind, she kept wondering about him. This was the first time such a character had appeared in Fall’s End, yet she had lived there all her life. She decided that she would ask her neighbors about him as soon as the opportunity arose. However, a hunch led her to believe that he was not the work of any of the residents.

She threw her coat on the bar and headed for the jukebox. There’s nothing like a lively song to motivate you when you have work to do. She flipped on the jukebox and tossed in the coin she was saving especially for this occasion, while selecting her favorite track.

When the music resounded in the room, she was shocked. It wasn’t the song she had chosen, but a Christmas carol that wasn’t on the track list. What the hell was going on at Fall’s End this morning ???

* * *

Suggested background music : Graeme Revell – Siberia

The silence of the forest was only interrupted by the singing of birds, which woke Wheaty earlier than usual. He quickly dressed, still drowsy, to get out of the Wolf’s Den and enjoy the sunrise between the high bare and dry branches. The landscape was magical. Snow had covered the ground and the high trees, giving a soft look to the whole forest.

He particularly enjoyed winter in the Whitetail Mountains. Both animals and humans took advantage of this time to rest. The season was particularly conducive to introspection and deep thoughts, and it allowed those who wished to do so to prepare for a fresh start in the spring. The young man was grateful to the spirits who had ensured that the forest was spared despite the chaos that had reigned in Hope County for many months. The hope for a better world still seemed tangible to him and he refused to stop believing in it.

Straddling the line between the traditions handed down by his ancestors and the modern world, he sometimes had trouble finding his place. This conflict could be seen in his physical appearance. Every day, he would braid his shiny hair into two long braids, as the men in his family had always done, and then put on modern clothes that some people would call “hipster” style. There was nothing he loved more than a modern song recorded on vinyl, which sounded clearer and more melodious to him. Even this morning, he was enjoying the contradiction between the chilly air of the awakening forest and the comforting warmth of the coffee cup he was clutching between his numb, cold-bleached fingers.

When his body shook and told him it was time to warm up, he decided to go back to the bunker and get ready for the day. Eli was counting on him to find an old survivalist stash rumored to contain a bunch of weapons and supplies. He went to the room used as a locker room, where each militia member’s uniform was neatly stored.

He opened his locker, thought he had made a mistake and closed it again. Dubious, he observed for a few seconds the closed door of the cabinet. The family photo taken before the arrival of Eden’s Gate and taped in a hurry appeared well there. He pulled again the door of the locker and studied its contents more lengthily. All his personal stuff were well arranged there, such as he had left them the day before. Yet something inexplicable had happened. The uniform, decorated with the Whitetail militia patch, that he wore when he went on reconnaissance, was neatly folded in its usual place. However, the green camouflage pattern had been replaced by a similar pattern that varied in colors from black to white to different shades of gray. It was as if the uniform had also entered winter mode.

Wheaty rubbed his eyes, thinking he was still asleep and dreaming. He grabbed the garment to unfold it in front of him and examine it more closely. Was someone playing a trick on him ? He turned around to see if he was being watched, but found himself alone in the room. Dumbfounded, he decided to put on the suit and join Tammy, Walker and Eli in the main room to unravel the mystery.

As he stepped through the doorway, he was stunned once again to see his three friends wearing the same winter uniform. They exchanged bewildered looks. The surprise in their eyes spoke volumes : none of them was the author of the permutation. Yet there was no way anyone could have entered the shelter from the outside, everything was double-locked and inaccessible.

Wheaty began to wonder if this was a manifestation of the forest spirits. It was the only plausible explanation. If it wasn’t, then what was it ?

* * *

Suggested background music : Pellek – 12 Days of Christmas

The fucking snow was hampering Sharky’s steps as he made his way to the Moonflower campground. He had a holy horror of winter. Because of the cold, the girls were covering up and that didn’t help his already poor business. Moreover, the angels did not come as quickly as in summer, held back by the high piles of snow that had fallen in the fields.

Nevertheless, he had decided to go and have some fun by playing his favorite disco hits. But first, he wanted to get in the mood. He went to one of the year-round containers, took a bag of oregano out of a creaky drawer and dutifully filled the rolling paper before closing his cigarette. The idea of enjoying it in the fresh air seemed more appropriate, so he left the cabin to light it outside, using a blowtorch nonchalantly placed on a pile of uninteresting garbage.

He took a big puff, which gave him an instant feeling of well-being, added to a terrible dizziness. The first smoke of the day, on an empty stomach, was always the best. He began to laugh to himself, observing the detritus strewn all over the place. The debris of burnt-out vehicles competed with the rusty objects of everyday life. He was comfortable with the mess; he felt better at the campground than at Boshaw Manor. It was his playground, his outlet.

When he finished his cigarette, he went to the audio system to turn it on, putting the flamethrower he reserved for such occasions on his shoulders. As he pulled the lever down, Mariah Carey’s shrill voice echoed throughout the center. Stunned, Sharky began to swear.

— What the fuck is this ? Where are the Trammps ?

He turned off the system and then turned it back on. Despite this, the diva continued to cry out that all she wanted for Christmas was him. It only took a few seconds for Boshaw to switch to a “never mind, let’s have some fun anyway” mode. Finally, the idea of setting fire to angels to a Christmas song appealed to him even more. He ran to the main cabin to grab the old telephone receiver and call his cousin.

— Hey fatso, come on !
— What’s up, man ?
— There’s a fucking thing going on here, the disco has been replaced by fucking Christmas music !
— Woooooh ! A move by the Monkey King for sure ! Or the Whitetails hipster ?
— I don’t know, but come on, it’ll be fun !

He quickly hung up the phone to get into position. He was going to welcome the brainless from Eden’s Gate well. He imagined himself as a kind of Santa Claus who took out the flames of his hood to distribute them generously to the kids. The first angels arrived just a few minutes after he stood in the center of the campsite. He was happy to shower them with his sacred fire as the Drifters joyfully sang they were dreaming of a white Christmas.

Shortly after, his big fat cousin arrived on the scene, equipped with a rocket launcher proudly placed on his shoulder.

— Don’t mess around, buddy !
— What ? Isn’t the goal to do a lot of damage ?
— Yes, but not to destroy the campsite ! Take something else, help yourself to the box behind me.

Obeying Sharky’s instructions, Hurk Jr. plunged his hand into the container to randomly pick out a handgun, as if he was fishing for surprises. He pulled out a revolver and stood beside his cousin to shoot at the rampaging horde of angels.

The two men were hilarious. The magic of Christmas seemed to be working. Still, each of them wondered where those songs were coming from.

* * *

Secret Santa ?

Suggested background music : Hans Zimmer – Dream is Collapsing

Jacob was explaining to John how he went about training the captured wolves when a shouting noise was heard outside, attracting the attention of the whole family. The three brothers and Faith looked at each other in surprise, and then Joseph went to the door to identify the source of the shouting.

A handful of cult members were in the middle of the courtyard of the complex, singing and jumping up and down. They were strangely dressed : the rags they wore had been replaced by warm, new sweaters, and they all wore the same red woolen cap. When they saw Joseph, they rushed to him, overcome with joy and exultation.

— Father, thank you so much for these new clothes !
— You are welcome, my children. Put them to good use.

Joseph turned to address his brothers and Faith and confided to them, in a low voice :

— I had nothing to do with it. I don’t know what’s going on.

The family went back to the building to talk in private. John spoke up :

— What are they wearing ? How did these yokels get their hands on such quality clothing ?

Jacob continued :

— Who cares ? There is no clothing that can make them strong. They’ll stay weak, no matter what’s on their backs. And don’t be jealous, you don’t have a monopoly on clothing hype.

Eyebrows furrowed and lips turned up, as if ready to bite, John was about to reply when Joseph insinuated himself into the conversation :

— Come on brothers, that’s enough. John, your brother is right : envy is a sin. Don’t get lost along the way. As for you, Jacob, it seems to me that you are slipping dangerously on the slope of pride, which is not a good thing either.

Faith allowed herself to intervene.

— I would like to know where these clothes come from. All Eden’s Gate members seem to be wearing them. This delivery implies solid logistics and excellent organization. Resistance doesn’t seem to benefit from such means, so who had all this delivered ?

Joseph took the floor again :

— We absolutely must unmask this “Secret Santa”. If these outfits bring joy and motivation to our troops, we are winners. However, it seems to me that we must lift the veil on this mystery. We cannot allow a new faction to interfere with our Project.

The door opened with a bang and one of the well-dressed henchmen shouted to the father :

— It’s crazy all over the place! There are Christmas songs on all the radio stations, including ours ! My colleague reported that a snowman has mysteriously appeared overnight in Fall’s End ! And then the Whitetail militia got brand new outfits too ! What’s going on, Father ?

The whole Seed family was now staring at each other. They had to figure out what had happened in Hope County and decide what to do next.

* * *

Suggested background music : M83 – Midnight City

Meanwhile, at Fall’s End, a man was pushing open the Spread Eagle’s door. Mary May shouted mechanically from the storeroom.

— Help yourself, Staci ! I’ve already put out the orange juice and a glass for you.

Hearing no reaction, she hurried back into the room to realize that it was not Pratt who was leaning at the bar but a young man she had never seen around. She approached to talk to him.

— Can I help you ?
— I’d like a hot cocoa cup with cinnamon, please.

It was extremely rare for someone to order a non-alcoholic beverage, except for Staci Pratt. This request intrigued her. While slipping behind the bar, she observed the stranger attentively. He looked young and must have been close to thirty. His light hair and pale skin tone gave him an innocent look, but he looked worried or concentrated. When she had finished lathering the top of the cup, she handed it to him and tried to start a conversation, with a smile.

— You’re not from around here, are you ?
— No, I’m not. But I do know Hope County and its people well.

Mary May raised an eyebrow.

— You do ? How do you know this place ?
— Let’s just say I’ve spent a lot of time there before.

From the way he rolled his “r “s, she deduced that he probably wasn’t from the United States. She looked into the stranger’s green eyes.

— Where are you from ?
— That’s a long way. What brings you here ?
— It is important to me to help Hope County.
— What’s your name ?
— You’re very curious, Mary May. Could you hand me some sugar, please ?

Vexed, the bartender complied without saying a word. Things were definitely getting stranger and stranger these days in Fall’s End. How on earth did this stranger know her name ? Her ego made her give up asking him.

She went back to preparing for the evening service, not paying attention to the young man who remained silent and seemed to be enjoying his hot chocolate.

The door opened again. This time, it was Pratt who had come to enjoy his traditional daily orange juice. He barely had time to take off his jacket and hat when Mary May came running to him and dragged him into the kitchen, claiming that the gas stove had broken down.

— Staci, did you notice the young man at the bar ?
— Yes, why ?
— He looks suspicious ! He has a strong foreign accent and I have never seen him around here, yet he called me by my name and claims to know the inhabitants of Hope County.
— So what ? That’s not a crime ! Besides, everyone knows you around here.
— Listen to me Pratt, I have a bad feeling ! First, a strange snowman appeared, then…
— What did that snowman do to you ? Are you going crazy ?
— No ! I just want to understand what’s going on here ! Everything seems to be changing, and yet it’s nobody’s doing. I’m sure that stranger is connected to all these events !
— Okay, okay. But even if he is, what do you want me to do about it ?
— I don’t know ! You could call Whitehorse, Hudson and the new deputy. Maybe you could interrogate him “legally” and get him to confess. He won’t tell me anything.
— It would be more like a job for John Seed !

Noticing that the bartender was not laughing at all at his remark, Pratt took a serious look and continued.

— To arrest him, he’d have to have committed some kind of crime. You don’t arrest people for no reason, Mary May ! And now that the marshal is in the area, he’s the higher authority. We can’t decide anything without consulting him.
— But he’s still with Faith Seed !
— I know that. But we can’t pretend he’s not part of the equation.

Bitter, the barmaid released Pratt’s arm, which she had unconsciously grabbed while arguing. Sensing his disappointment, Staci gently stroked her cheek.

— Does the fact that I can’t stop him cancel tonight’s date ?
— No, of course not.

She approached to kiss him tenderly, then they both headed for the bar. The young man was no longer leaning there, he had discreetly left the place, leaving a 10-dollar bill on the counter, without worrying about the change.

* * *

Suggested background music : Willy Moon – Railroad Track

Whitehorse was busy taking inventory in the armory when the prison phone rang. He picked up the receiver himself and was surprised to hear deputy Pratt’s voice on the other end.

As he sporadically answered “yes” or “well” with a frown, Tracey silently approached, waiting patiently for him to hang up so she could speak with him. As soon as he was available, she called out to him.

— Earl, you have to see this.
— What ? That all the radios are playing Christmas carols and our comrades seem euphoric ?
— How do you know about that ?
— Rumors are flying. And that was Staci Pratt on the phone. There’s some strange stuff going on in Holland Valley, too, not to mention a suspect has shown up there. Pratt wants us to meet at Fall’s End to discuss the situation.
— What about Burke?
— Right now we can’t do anything for him. We need to figure out what’s going on first. It is surely some Eden’s Gate plan to distract and better attack us.
— Whatever you decide, we will follow you. We must, more than ever, stay united.

She hesitated a few moments before resuming.

— I didn’t come mainly for carols and general merriment actually.

Earl looked at her quizzically, waiting impatiently for the next part.

— We also spotted a strange man wandering around. What makes me think he’s involved is that he’s been hanging around the radios and TVs.
— Can you describe this individual to me? Pratt told me about a young man with a foreign accent.
— Virgil actually met him. But he didn’t mention anything about a foreign accent. He offered him a Cougar badge, which the man declined.
— Go get me Minkler, please.

A few moments later, the young woman returned, accompanied by the mayor.

— You wanted to talk to me, Sheriff ?
— Virgil, could you describe the man who is lurking around the radio and television sets ?
— Average height, Caucasian, 30s. Short brown hair and wears a neatly trimmed beard. He told me he was a police deputy. I told him that I knew all the officers in the area and that I knew he was lying. Despite this, he was quite jovial and smiling and was not threatening, even though he was carrying a handgun. He mentioned to me about his children enjoying holiday season and told me Christmas wasn’t complete without Christmas specials.
— Anything else important ?
— …he was wearing yellow glasses, just like Joseph Seed’s !

This confirms my thought ! That bastard is behind this. Get everyone together. Tomorrow morning we leave for Fall’s End. Grace, call Eli Palmer and let him know, we need the Whitetails to be present or represented as well.

* * *

Suggested background music : Depeche Mode – Black Celebration

For the second time in two days, the Seed family had gathered at the compound. An idea had occurred to the father, and he wanted to share it and give proper direction to his siblings.

When they had all arrived and were seated around the large dining room table, Joseph stood up and spoke.

— My children, I thank you for being here today. As you know, the situation in Hope County has been very strange for the past few days. First, it is crucial that we determine the source of this unrest and change. To this end, I would like us all to travel together to Fall’s End, where it all began. We will then study the context on the spot.

He paused for a few seconds to take in any comments. The siblings seemed to agree with the suggestion, since no one reacted. He continued.

— The holiday season is special and conducive to serenity. It allows us to enjoy the magic that Christmas and the winter season bring.

Jacob fidgeted in his seat before adding :

— Winter is the best season for conditioning ! Recruits are even more weakened when they have spent the week in a cage in the wind and snow. They flinch immediately and obey without batting an eye. It’s ideal.

John’s face broke into a huge smile as he completed :

— I especially like doing baptisms in icy water. The sinners are a little more reluctant when I put them in, but the temperature triggers a special immersion reflex and I can keep them underwater longer to make sure they are well cleansed when they come out. Besides, there’s nothing more beautiful than a soaked miscreant shivering on the shore, blue lips and frozen hair.

Joseph’s gaze fell on Faith, but she had nothing to add. Shaking his head in disagreement, he continued, to the attention of his brothers :

— You guys are really disappointing. I thought I made myself clear when I explained to you, several times, that force and abuse rarely lead to the expected result. Of course, the sinners will eventually join us, but getting them to join our cause through gentleness and persuasion is infinitely more rewarding and fruitful.

He seemed to hesitate for a few moments before finishing his sentence.

— This is why I propose to you today to make a truce in our conflict with the non-believers.

Faith, Jacob and John opened wide their eyes while their mouths gaped as if their jaws were going to separate. The baptist intervened.

— A truce? You’re not thinking about it ! We’re in the middle of the harvest ! And what about the collapse ?

— I did not say that we would stop fighting indefinitely, nor that we would leave them totally free to do as they wish. I am simply suggesting that we put this war on hold. This will allow us not only to rest so that we can be even more effective, but also to study the enemy more closely, living side by side with them. This way, when the fight resumes, we will have a better chance of finishing off those who did not join us during the pause period. The collapse will happen anyway, no matter what we do. But this new deputy is at the origin of it, so if we stop them during a period, the collapse will be postponed.

Faith decided to finally speak up, clasping both hands to her chest.

— Oh, Joseph, I think that’s a wonderful idea ! I can’t wait to make new friends, I’m sure there are many good people among the resistance, who just want to be guided. Plus it will make Cameron happy to have a new sibling. He gets bored sometimes when I leave him alone, and I blame myself for that.

Jacob watched the scene, arms crossed over his chest. The way he nodded betrayed his disagreement with his younger brother’s plan. Nevertheless, he knew that Joseph would not take any notice of either of them, and that he would eventually enforce his decision in any way he could.

John’s frown also showed his annoyance. The idea of having to stop chasing that damned deputy was very unpleasant to him. Since they had arrived in town, he had made it his personal mission to settle their case. This hunt had turned into an obsession and caused him more and more insomnia. He kept imagining them at his mercy, etching their skin again and again with every possible sin, until their whole body was a gaping wound.

Joseph spoke again to close the session.

— Alright then. If you have nothing to add, I would like us to go to Fall’s End tomorrow. I have it on good authority that the Whitetails and the Cougars will be meeting there for an update. This will be a good opportunity to tell them my idea. We will go in unarmed to prove our good will. They will not attack a defenseless enemy.

High tension

Suggested background music : Depeche Mode – Sacred

The sun’s rays falling on Holland Valley were not enough to warm up the negative temperatures. Nevertheless, they were warming the atmosphere, which was already appreciable.

Nick puffed impatiently on the steaming cup of coffee in front of him as he was waiting for all the meeting participants to arrive at the Spread Eagle. Pastor Jerome, Mary May, and Pratt were already deep in discussion when Eli, followed by Tammy and Wheaty, made his entrance. He quickly shook hands with everyone before intruding on the ongoing conversation. Almost immediately, Whitehorse and Tracey arrived as well.

The discussion was introduced by the fact that the new deputy was conspicuous by their absence, which was a problem. However, Jerome noted, that they were certainly busy fighting the cult, so they couldn’t be blamed for not being able to join the group.

A quick round of discussion summarized the mysterious things that had recently appeared and highlighted the fact that no one knew where they came from. Shouting from outside interrupted the meeting prematurely. Sharky and Hurk Jr. stormed out, smashing the door against the bar wall. Boshaw started to scream :

— Eden’s Gate is coming ! A whole convoy is heading for Fall’s End, and the Seeds are in it !

The entire Spread Eagle clientele jumped up and down and rushed outside to see what was happening. Several of the cult’s vehicles had parked in the center of the road, perpendicular to the roadway to form a roadblock. In front of the pickups, about 20 peggies surrounded the entire Seed family. Hurk Jr. pulled the rocket launcher from his back to point it at them, but Jerome stepped in and signaled him to put the weapon away. Amidst the uproar of protest among the resistance, he addressed the father himself.

— To what do we owe the honor of the presence of Eden’s Gate’s leading lights ?

Joseph stepped toward him, benevolently pushing aside the men who had instinctively placed themselves before him to protect him.

— We are coming in peace, Jerome. Look for yourself, none of us are armed.

The supporters of the resistance exchanged surprised looks, before staring at the cult leader, who continued :

— We have noticed some strange happenings in the last few days. My men have reported to me that you have also witnessed unexplained apparitions. I thought it appropriate to come and see these phenomena for myself.

Jerome’s face now showed a puzzled look. He had obviously not expected this. There was no animosity in Joseph Seed’s tone, so he tried to answer him in the same calm, almost friendly tone.

— Well, look for yourself. This snowman opened the ball of strangeness a few days ago.

He pointed across the road, where the icy character was still proudly standing. Eden’s Gate’s leader turned his head to observe him, before addressing the pastor again.

— I see. From our side, you may have noticed the brand new clothes our men are wearing. These uniforms appeared overnight, out of nowhere. Everyone was given a complete outfit.

— Yes, the Whitetails have seen similar events.

At the mention of his militia’s name, Eli Palmer came to stand beside Jerome. Following his example, Sheriff Whitehorse moved to the other side of the churchman, to reinforce his presence.

The other three Seeds who had remained behind the father, especially his two brothers, stared at the members of the resistance. They may have owed Joseph obedience, but they did not condone this courtesy visit and the urge to eliminate all these sinners was hard to suppress.

Nick clenched his fists as he met John’s gaze. The recent memory of the flaying at the church was still painful and he would have given anything to have that bastard killed right there. If only that damn deputy hadn’t spared him after he got off his plane. If he had been there that day, he wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to finish him off with his bare hands. He was hoping that tempers would flare so that he could unleash the wild beast within him and all his rage on the younger Seed.

The tension was palpable and so tense that one word would have been enough to start a general riot, while the two factions looked each other straight in the eyes in silence.

* * *

Suggested background music : Troels Brun Folmann – Nepal 2

Jess had spent the morning looking for one of Jacob Seed’s henchmen. She had easily tracked him to the steep cliff she was now trying to climb. She was usually comfortable in situations requiring agility and stealth, but a bad feeling came over her when she looked up to estimate the height of the platform. No matter how difficult the climb looked, this man had to pay for his crimes and she had to neutralize him. She adjusted the protective bands on her hands before clinging to the rock and starting to move towards the top.

Halfway up, her foot suddenly slipped on a steep, ice-covered rock, causing her to lose her balance. She tumbled like a stone and her body traveled several meters downward, bruising her sides against the sharp rock.

She finally managed to grab the branch of a tree sticking out of a rocky cleft. She was now suspended above the void, her life hanging by the strength of her already sore wrist.

A scream from the ground below her reached her ears. Someone had witnessed the scene and seemed to be concerned about her fate, from the tone of the exclamation. Jess concentrated to make out the voice and the words that were being spoken to her.

— Hey, are you okay up there ?

She struggled to answer, gasping for breath.

— I would feel better if I wasn’t suspended above the void !

A short moment passed before the male voice, which was unknown to her, resumed :

— Don’t move, I’ll come up and help you.

— How the fuck could I move ?

Her body was dangerously swaying, increasing the pressure on her hand, which was tiring. She prayed that the man would come to her aid quickly.

A few minutes later, he was at Jess’s level and held out a wide open hand. She hesitated for a few moments, noticing the odd placement of his fingers, which seemed so flexible that they naturally bent back. Feeling that her wrist could take no more, she let go and clutched the outstretched hand with all her might.

The young man had an incredible ability to climb. He grabbed the rocks with his bare hands, hoisting Jess after him as if she were a rag doll. When they finally reached the top, she dropped to the ground to sit down, exhausted.

— I owe you one ! Thank goodness you were around. Thank you !

As the stranger didn’t reply, she tried to continue.

— This is the first time I see you here, where are you from?

— From France.

— Really ? What are you doing here, in the middle of a civil war ?

— I sometimes ask myself that question.

She smiled at his remark. The young man continued :

— And what were YOU doing, clinging to this wall without proper equipment ?

— I was following a man who did a lot of damage. As far as equipment is concerned, I could say the same about you, climbing with your bare hands.

— Oh, I’m used to it. It’s kind of a hobby for me.

The man watched carefully Jess as she tried to regulate her heart rate by breathing as quietly as possible. She looked back at him and commented, as if to herself :

— I don’t even know why I’m surprised you’re here. Everything is strange around here at the moment. For example, these new militia and peggie outfits.

— What’s so disturbing about them ?

— They came in God only knows how and we don’t know who sent them. It’s kind of suspicious, isn’t it ?

A smirk lit up the young man’s face and as he replied :

— I don’t see what’s suspicious about it. When you get something, you might as well enjoy it, right ? And then, you are also dressed in a suspicious way.

— Sorry ?

— What’s with the hood and the bow ?

— Oh, it’s just a style. A very good friend of mine from college once told me about a secret organization whose outfit was originally made of a hood. We had done some research on it, it was fascinating. Let’s just say that I kept this way of dressing in memory of him. I lost track of him after he left for New York. Last I heard, he was a bartender. Then nothing.

She looked wistful and stared sadly at the ground between her feet before adding :

— Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

— Sorry ?

— That’s what Desmond, my friend, used to say. I wonder what happened to him. Is his life as painful as mine ?

After a few moments of silence, Jess got up to continue her journey. She addressed the young man :

— Thank you for your help, but I must go on.

— I will accompany you.

— No, thanks, it’s dangerous.

— Don’t worry about me, I’m armed and I can handle myself, as you’ve seen.

She stared at him for a few moments, as if to probe the sincerity of his words in his eyes.

— But stay behind me and be discreet.

* * *

Christmas spirit, are you there ?

“Why me ?”

This is my deputy, but feel free to imagine yours in the role.

Face to face between Eden’s Gate and the resistance had now lasted for many minutes. The last sentence of the father had left everyone doubtful. Jerome decided to break the ambient silence. He stepped forward to speak.

— You are right about the meaning of Christmas. However, we cannot respond immediately to such an offer. I propose that the members of the resistance meet to discuss it, and then we will give you our answer.

Joseph smiled and stepped forward to approach the pastor.

— I don’t mind. My family and I will be at the compound. Come find us when you have made your decision.

He held out his open palm to the churchman. Jeffries hesitated for a moment before moving his arm forward to shake hands with him.

The leader joined the retreating cult members, then they all got into their vehicles and drove away, leaving Fall’s End’ people stunned.

As soon as the Eden’s Gate pick-ups had left the place, voices started to rise, creating an unbearable chaos. Jerome tried unsuccessfully to make himself heard in the middle of the chaos.

A gunshot interrupted the hubbub and scattered the crowd, pulling them away from the young deputy who stood in the middle of the roadway, their rifle still smoking and pointed skyward. Now that the voices had died down, Jerome could speak.

— Deputy, there you are at last ! A number of things have happened in your absence. Come on in with us at the Spread Eagle, we’ll get you up to speed.

Once everyone was seated, the clergyman stood in the center of the bar so that everyone could hear him clearly. He began by recounting the latest events to rook, starting with the appearance of the strange snowman. They listened silently, without answering anything. Then he addressed the audience.

— My friends, believe that I am, as much as you are, stunned by Eden’s Gate’s visit and the offer Joseph Seed made to us. However, I believe that it deserves some reflection.

There was an immediate outcry from the entire room. The pastor motioned to his audience to calm down, then continued.

— Wait, don’t all speak at once. Take turns speaking so that we can hear all opinions clearly.

Mary May shouted from the back of the bar :

— We’re not going to collaborate with these fucking insane peggies, are we ? Let me remind you that they’ve kidnapped half the town and killed many of our family members. Jerome, have you forgotten what that bastard John Seed recently did to Nick and your church ?

— I haven’t forgotten, Mary May. But dwelling on the past will bring us no comfort. What’s done is done.

— Are you suggesting that we should turn the other cheek?

— I am not suggesting anything. I just want to remind you that Joseph Seed’s offer is simply a truce for a few days, not a surrender on our part.

Kim, who had been standing back, stood up to speak.

— Mary May is right ! There’s no way I’m giving birth to my baby in a world controlled by Joseph Seed and his freaks ! Let’s reject his proposition and continue to fight the cult fiercely. Having Rook on our side gives us a significant advantage, nothing will make them back down.

The crowd cheered the young woman’s intervention. Jerome had to calm the group down again to respond.

— Kimiko, I know you are afraid for your child, and rightly so. But refusing a peace proposal and responding with an attack would only make things worse in my opinion. By doing so, we will be no better than our enemy.

He looked around the room, examining each person in turn as he continued.

— What if this truce allowed us to understand what led these people to become like this ? What if we could engage them in a dialogue, maybe even bring some of them to their senses ?

People were now exchanging questioning looks. He continued.

— Our Lord teaches us to forgive. It will not cost us anything to accept this offer. At best, we will gain a few days of peace. At worst, the struggle will resume before the end of the truce.

The audience, calm and attentive, was completely silent now. Jerome’s wise words seemed to have hit home. Hurk Jr’s cheerful voice echoed through the Spread Eagle.

— Guys, let’s have a big Christmas festival, with lights, garlands, and lots of food stuff ! If the idiots want to take a break, then they should come and help us, it’ll show us they mean it ! I’ve got a lot of decorative crap in the boxes I brought back from my different expeditions, at least it will be useful !

Sharky added:

— If they do shit, we’ll spray them with a flamethrower, it will make a nice bonfire !

His cousin laughed, soon followed by many of the participants. Jeffries spoke up again.

— That’s a great idea, Hurk ! Let’s invite Seed family and their congregation to join us in creating this festival. It will bring people together and be a useful way to join forces. Does anyone have a problem with doing this?

The pastor was well aware that this proposal did not meet with unanimous approval. However, the people of Hope County were far too used to relying on others to solve their problems. They knew that a challenge would create an obligation for the opponents to propose a better solution to the problem, and no one wanted to take responsibility for that.

When no one asked to speak, Jerome concluded :

— Well, I think we’ve covered it all. Deputy, may I suggest that you go to Eden’s Gate complex to announce our positive response to Joseph Seed ?

— Why me?

— You are not a resident of Hope County. It seems appropriate to me that a “neutral” person should manage this. Besides, the fact that you are willing to go there despite all this damn cult has put you through will prove our good faith. And go unarmed.

Rook looked around the room. All eyes were on them. Once again, they seemed to be the only hope for the people of Hope Country. They nodded silently before walking to the door.

* * *

Suggested background music : Altın Gün – Ordunun Dereleri

As the deputy walked to the pickup truck, they whistled to their faithful companion, who immediately followed. Since they had picked him up from Rae Rae’s farm, Boomer had followed them almost everywhere. They enjoyed his company, he was always cheerful and outspoken, unlike many of the humans they’d crossed paths with recently. The spotted mixed breed dog used to run alongside the vehicle they drove. But this time, Rook forced him to get into the dumpster, as the journey to the complex was quite long. On top of that, the temperatures had dropped drastically in the last few days, making any walking painful.

Dep turned on the radio to keep them company. A Christmas song resounded in the cockpit. Strange, it was not the kind of music that was usually played on the channels owned by the cult. As the meters passed, the deputy was plunging more and more into their mind.

They didn’t understand anything anymore. When they had arrived about two months ago, the least crossed person vomited on Eden’s Gate and asked for their help to suppress some members, or at least to weaken the sect. And now they were asked not only to go and announce a truce to that asshole Joseph Seed, but also to invite his whole family of degenerates to a Christmas festival.

The sight of the large wrought iron gate in front of them snapped them out of their deep thoughts. Two peggies opened the doors wide to let them into the compound. When Dep stepped out of the vehicle, an unsympathetic-looking welcoming committee had formed in front of their hood, creating an alleyway to Joseph Seed’s chapel. Rook motioned to Boomer, who was grumbling nastily, to be quiet and stay in the car.

The closer Dep got to the chapel, the harder their heart pounded in their chest. Their lungs felt like they had lost their capacity, so short was their breath. Cold sweats ran down their back and temples as Rook concentrated on ignoring all the eyes on her. They hated being unarmed. This time was the worst, they were in the eye of the storm. If Joseph Seed decided to get rid of them, they would have no way out. They prayed inwardly, gathering all their courage as they pushed open the church door.

Four pairs of eyes immediately focused on Dep as they crossed the threshold, and a remark was immediately made.

— Wrath, we meet again !

Rook instantly recognized that rotten John’s voice. It was always necessary that he makes himself noticed, in a way or another. His arrogance was almost at the height of his cruelty. They hesitated to ignore the remark and address the father directly, but the urge to retort was too strong. Dep stared him straight in the eye before answering.

— I don’t talk to minions. I came to see Joseph.

The younger Seed didn’t reply, and none of his siblings came to his defense, much to his regret. The father took a step toward the deputy, while they addressed him.

— I’m coming to tell you resistance’s decision regarding your offer.

— Well, my child. You are welcome to join us. We are listening to you.

— We agree to a truce, under certain conditions. During this period, you must promise to stop your “harvest“, whether it concerns human beings, food or material goods. For our part, we commit ourselves not to harm any of your members and not to attack your outposts.

— I haven’t finished…

Rook looked dejectedly up at the rest of the siblings before continuing, embarrassed.

— Resistance is putting on a Christmas festival. Pastor Jeffries is asking that you take an active part in organizing it.

Dep stared at John as they continued.

— Given the financial means you have, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

This time, John was happy to spit out a nasty answer.

— You’re dreaming if you think I’m going to drop a dime on Hope County yokels !

Joseph rebuked him curtly, with a stern look on his face.

— That’s enough, John ! Deputy, we are happy to join this organization. John will be happy to help you with the financial aspects. Isn’t that so ?

His gaze went back to his younger brother, who was fuming with rage and did not answer. Joseph then looked at Faith and Jacob, who had remained silent until now. The elder one had raised his eyes to the sky and was nodding his head, incredulous. The father addressed him.

— What is it, Jacob?

— Are we really going to live together as if nothing happened, let alone do business with the resistance ? I’ve never seen such an absurd truce between two warring factions in my life, it’s ridiculous !

— Well, feel free to think so. For my part, I follow the directives the Voice gives me, and it ordered this pause.

— Couldn’t we let a little conflict remain, for sport ?

— Don’t push me, brother.

Jacob did not insist. The father held out his hand for the deputy to shake, which made them feel even more uncomfortable than they already were as they walked through the gate of the complex. Rook did not respond to his invitation.

— Sorry, just because resistance agrees to this compromise doesn’t mean I agree.

The father smiled as Dep turned to walk back to their vehicle. They had quite a temper. The moment when they would join Eden’s Gate would be all the more enjoyable.

* * *

Back at Fall’s End at dusk, Dep hurried to the Spread Eagle. They hoped that a cup of coffee would warm them up and help them forget this horrible day. But most of the resistance was waiting for them there, enjoying a hot meal prepared by Casey Fixman, the bar’s resident chef. As usual, all eyes were on them as Rook walked through the door. They sighed and rolled their eyes.

Dep recounted her encounter with the Seeds, leaving no stone unturned. Jacob’s remark about no competition being held seemed to be of particular interest to Chad Wolanksi, who for once made a point of speaking clearly.

— He wants a fight ? Let them come and compete with me in the kitchen !

The remark amused resistance, in particular Nick, who added :

— Excellent idea, you’d definitely crush them easily ! They can’t even make mac n’ cheese !

Rook raised an eyebrow. What was this pasta story again ? Obviously, resistance knew more about the Seed than they wanted to tell them. They discreetly slipped their question in between the laughter.

— What mac n’ cheese ?

Rye seemed offended.

— Come on deputy, I told you about that ! Didn’t I ? Well, Kim and I had a barbecue at our place, and as usual, everyone was invited as long as they brought something homemade. This was a few years ago, long before Eden’s Gate went crazy and got out of control. Well, as it turns out, the entire Seed family showed up to the grill ! They brought mac n’ cheese.

— So what ? That’s pretty sweet, right ?

— Wait till you hear the rest… of course, we wanted to be polite and nice, and we tried it. Disgustingly awful ! It was bland and watery, even Hurk would do better !

Drubman Jr’s voice rang out from the back of the room.

— Hey !

Nick replied directly.

— Don’t say otherwise ! Besides, it’s a compliment to you !

Once again, the audience was laughing out loud. Rook was also smiling as they imagined the four siblings arguing in the kitchen. They wondered which one of them had made the dish that was the subject of the controversy.

Interrupting the general joy, Sharky said :

— Guys, that’s a great idea, but I have an even better one ! Why don’t we have a Christmas cookie contest ? It’s something that’s done a lot, everyone would have a chance, it’s easier than elaborate food ! Adelaide makes some really good ones, with herbs. And then, Hurk and I can close the festival with another contest, the one for the guy who eats the most cookies in a given time !

Once again, his cousin’s voice echoed through the room. His clamor seemed to support Boshaw’s suggestion.

Jerome spoke up as well.

— I think that’s a great idea ! Let’s have a cookie contest. Chad can be our judge, taste each batch and award the title to the winner. We could hold the ceremony at Christmas so that all those who are lonely can join in and have a fun evening.

The audience cheered the proposal. Rook sensed that they wew going to be tasked with informing the Seed again, which exhausted them in advance.

Fortunately for them, their radio began to crackle. It was Joseph contacting to find out what was going to happen next. His call came at the right time and allowed Dep to isolate herself outside to escape the hubbub and the laughter that made their day even more painful. They briefly informed Seed of the latest discussions and invited him, in spite of themselves, to come to Fall’s End the next day, accompanied by his family of idiots.

When they hung up, they realized that they were at the end of their rope and had not even been able to drink the coffee they had promised themselves. Too bad, Dep was too exhausted and didn’t want to face the fat laughter of their teammates again. They walked to the abandoned house across the street and fell, stiff with fatigue, on the still-made bed in one of the rooms.

* * *

Complicated collaboration

Suggested background music : Pellek – Deck the Halls

As Dep walked through the door of the Spread Eagle, they were surprised to find that the entire Seed family was already seated in front of the resistance. However, the atmosphere seemed relaxed. A cup was placed in front of everyone. Jerome approached them.

— Dear, we’ve been waiting for you. Take a seat.

The smell of coffee and pancakes tortured their empty stomach, reminding them they had eaten almost nothing the day before. They ordered eggs and bacon from Mary May before sitting down with the others.

Once again, the pastor took the lead in presiding over the audience.

— Thank you all for coming. Today we’re welcoming Joseph Seed and his family, and I have the audacity to believe the collaboration between our two entities will bring something to everyone. Chad and I had a long talk last night. Here’s our suggestion : a team will decorate Fall’s End and the surrounding area and prepare the community hall for Christmas Eve.

He paused to let the barmaid pass who had just served the deputy. He took the opportunity to look at the elder Seed, who was staring at him, arms crossed over his chest.

— Jacob, you deplored the fact that there would be no competition during this truce. That is why we are proposing that the team that does not decorate take part in a Christmas cookie contest, with Chad Wolanski as the judge.

Joseph stopped him from continuing.

— Just a moment. I don’t think this is fair. If we’re going to compete against you, it’s not right that the judge is a member of the resistance. A judge should be impartial, and that’s clearly not going to happen !

Jacob interjected into the discussion.

— Especially since I burned his truck !

Nick decided to jump in too.

— You guys suck at cooking anyway, there’s no way you’re going to win anything !

He laughed cynically and gave John a scornful look.

Jerome cut the tension short.

— Joseph is right. So I propose that the teams of participants be composed of a member of the resistance and one of Eden’s Gate. That way, Chad won’t be able to favor anyone, and the collaboration will be effective.

Clamors rose from the room. Obviously, no Seed wanted to team up with the resistance, and vice versa. The situation amused Dep, who began to chew their bacon quietly as they followed the discussions.

Jeffries continued :

— I suggest that everyone who wants to participate write their name on a ticket. Someone will draw the pairs.

Joseph nodded.

— We’re all participating.

Beside him, Jacob and John were fidgeting on their seats, while Faith was smiling happily. Jacob wanted to argue, but finally gave up. When his brother had something on his mind, nothing and nobody could change his mind. The argument was futile.

Casey handed out the order forms from kitchen to everyone, while Mary May passed around a pen.

After only a few minutes, Jerome went around the table to collect the cards. He placed the Seed order forms in one bowl, and the resistance ones in another.

— Now we need an innocent hand to draw lots. What about Faith ?

No opposition was raised. The young woman stood up to join the pastor, a big smile on her lips. Her calm demeanor and the immaculate white dress she wore regularly gave her an angelic air. Her serenity in all circumstances did not fail to impress those around her, whether they were part of Eden’s Gate or the resistance. Her silent steps added a little grace to her movements. She dipped her hand into the fuller bowl to pull out a first bill, then pulled a second from the other container, and read aloud :

— Wheaty and… Jacob !

The young half-breed’s eyes were filled with fear. Jacob gave him a devilish smile.

The siren dipped her hands into the bowls again and pulled out two new names.

— Hurk Jr. and… the father !

Sharky patted his cousin on the back, he almost spat out his orange juice.

— Staci Pratt and… me !

She gave a big smile to Pratt, who looked away to read anger in Mary May’s eyes. He shrugged his shoulders and palms, as if to say “I can’t help it”.

Faith continued.

— And to finish… not too much suspense, only John is left. So, John and… Rook !

Dep almost choked on their fried egg. They stood up, fists clenched, to protest.

— I never wrote my name on one of those damn order forms ! I’m not entering your stupid contest !

Jerome motioned for them to sit back down.

— Calm down, child. I’m the one who signed you up. You’re part of our community now, so there’s no reason for you to be excluded.

Rook wanted to protest once more, but Kim intervened.

— He’s right, deputy !

Mad with rage, they retorted.

— You weren’t even drawn, mind your own business, Rye !

Joseph stood up to calm the ardor of the participants. In a stern but gentle voice, he spoke firmly to the assembly, looking at Rook.

— That’s enough ! If the deputy doesn’t want to participate, that’s up to them. We don’t want to force them. However, I would be disappointed to learn that they’re a coward and gives up so easily on a simple culinary preparation. It would prove how Jacob feels about them.

All eyes were now on Dep. They grumbled in a low voice, before finally answering, despite themselves :

— It’s okay, I’ll do it.

They raised their eyes towards John, whose icy glance of meanness also fixed them. This was going to be a tough case.

Pastor Jeffries closed the discussion.

— Well, we have our pairs. Now we just need to find a kitchen for each team. There are several abandoned homes in the area, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

John’s voice rang out to announce cynically :

— I’m not going to be able to participate, unfortunately my home was taken from me by the resistance, so I don’t have a kitchen anymore.

Rook inwardly welcomed the intervention of the younger Seed, intelligent for once. Eli Palmer replied :

— There is no problem, you can freely dispose of your ranch during the contest. In any case, the deputy will be watching you.

The Baptist’s defeated face showed his disappointment. Wheaty intervened in his turn.

— I’m not very comfortable inside a kitchen. Is it possible to find a job outside ?

Chad replied.

— You can use my barbecue and my mobile kitchen, son. You’ll feel right at home there, I’ve set up a work station in the woods.

Jacob didn’t bat an eye. The idea of working in the woods suited him perfectly, although he would have preferred not to have to do it in the company of a weak and stupid kid.

The participants got up and gradually left the bar, leaving only Jerome, Mary May, Pratt, Dep and the Seeds. As the latter walked out the door of the establishment, John, enraged, began to argue with his elder.

— Joseph, I’m not going to put up with that damn deputy !

— That’s enough ! I’ve warned you many times before, John ! If the deputy doesn’t reach the Atonement, the Gates of Eden shall be…

— … shut to me, I know !

— So if you know, stop being a child and take responsibility. Maybe this collaboration will make them reconsider their position. I’m counting on you. If you misbehave with them, I will strangle you with my own hands.

John swallowed hard before murmuring.

— Yes, Joseph.

Rook, who had come out right behind them, had not lost any of the conversation. A Machiavellian smile appeared on their face. The idea that John was at their mercy promised an interesting collaboration. They had a means of pressure on him now, and they intended to use it and abuse it well.

* * *

Suggested background music : Puretone – Addicted to Bass

Jess and the young man had been tracking the cultist for several hours but had not been able to catch up with him. The temperature was dropping as well as the light. It was obvious that they would not catch him today.

Jess decided to take him to the Wolf’s Den. She was a little afraid of Tammy’s reaction, but she couldn’t abandon her new friend in the woods when he had just saved her life. It was too late to take him anywhere else, and she was considering introducing him to Eli anyway. One could never be too many to fight the cult, any help was welcome. Noticing the change in direction, the young man questioned her.

— Where are we going ? Why are we changing course ?

— It’s too late to continue a chase in the middle of the forest. I’ll take you to the resistance.

— To Eli ?

— You know him ?

— Not in person, but I’ve heard a lot about him. I’m looking forward to meeting him.

As they walked cautiously through the woods, Jess tried to find out more.

— So, you’re from France. What do you do for a living ?

— I’m a student.

— Oh ! And you came to Montana to learn English ?

— But my passion is modding video games.

Black turned to look at him quizzically.

— And what do video games have to do with Hope County ?

— That would be a bit complicated to explain. Let’s just say that your county is an interesting playground.

— Are you still talking in riddles ?

— Believe me, I don’t have much of a way to explain what’s going on right now.

When they arrived at the Whitetails’ lair, Jess was surprised to find that the Wolf’s Den was completely empty. The young man held one of the new uniforms in his hands, examining it from every angle.

— What is it about this outfit that intrigues you so much ?

— Nothing, I’m just looking at it. It looks really great IRL.

— I don’t know what you’re talking about!

— Forget about it. What are we going to do now?

— I don’t know where they all went. The wisest thing to do would be to go to Fall’s End. Mary May and Jerome will certainly know more.

— I thought it wasn’t safe to walk around the woods at night ?

— That was when we were pedestrians.

She walked toward a grove of snow-covered shrubs. As she began to shake the branches, they fell off one by one, revealing a camouflage-colored Hummer with a huge automatic machine gun mounted on the back. She turned to smile at her friend.

— Can you drive?

— I’m only 14…

— … then we have a problem. I don’t have a drive license either !

— So what ? This is civil war, isn’t it ? Nobody will blame you for your lack of experience and papers !

— You’re right. Let’s go.

The two young people climbed into the car, Jess at the wheel. The first difficulty for her was figuring out which pedal was accelerating and which was braking. Fortunately for them, the vehicle was automatic.

The Hummer stalled several times while driving. Each time, it jerked forward again, giving the impression that it was a goat jumping from side to side. Jess and the stranger looked at each other and burst out laughing. The show must have been worth it from the sky.

When they finally arrived at Fall’s End, Jess narrowly missed hitting the fence and the flowerpots in front of the bar, triggering another laughter from both of them. The night was already well underway, but the Spread Eagle was still open and full.

Black was surprised to find almost all of the resistance there, including Eli, Tammy and Wheaty. She was stunned when they told her about recent events and the Christmas festival and cookie contest, which they invited her to attend. She flatly refused.

When the subject came up about her new friend, she told them about her misadventure. Eli walked over to the young man and shook his hand.

— Thank you so much, young man. Welcome to the resistance. My name is Eli Palmer.

— I know who you are.

— That’s fine. And you, what’s your name ?

— You can call me Wanderer. I have other friends around here. Maybe they could join you in helping out, even though they’re already doing a lot for Hope County.

— What do you mean ?

— It’s complicated.

Grace, who had remained in the corner of the room, stepped forward to offer her opinion.

— I think it would be cool to have more people at the cookie contest. We currently have four teams, each consisting of a Seed family member and a member of the resistance. We could consider adding more teams to make the event bigger.

Mary May responded to this comment.

— You forget that there has to be someone from Eden’s Gate in the pairing for the result to be considered valid…

— Who said the result matters ? The main thing is to participate, to give a little hope and joy to the people here and to share a convivial moment at Chrismas Eve party.

— You are not wrong.

— I know.

Wanderer intervened in his turn.

— I’ll see what I can do. I’ll ask my friends if they want to participate. But I can’t promise anything, we’re already very busy.

All eyes turned to him, waiting for a complement that he did not give. He glanced at Jess, before greeting her.

— Bye Jess, thanks for driving me here. I’ll get back to you as soon as I hear anything. See you soon.

He turned to walk through the door of the bar. The customers looked at each other questioningly. Who was this stranger ? What about his friends ? What was he doing here? Where was he going in the middle of the night ?

* * *

Suggested background music : Depeche Mode – John The Revelator

A few days later, it was time for the cookie contest teams to get to work. The Seed had come to Fall’s End to meet their respective pairs and take possession of workshops.

John, followed by the deputy, left the Spread Eagle at a brisk pace. When Boomer threw himself at them to celebrate, the younger Seed realized that Dep was planning to take him with them.

— There’s no way that filthy mutt is getting in my car and stepping on my ranch !

— There’s no way I’m leaving my dog alone. How should we proceed ? Should I ask Joseph maybe ?

Seed looked annoyed.

— He gets in the trunk. And he’ll stay outside the property, there’s plenty of room for him to run around without messing up my house.

Satisfied, Rook opened the trunk door for Boomer, who rushed in, then climbed into the passenger seat of the massive cult vehicle.

They stopped on the way to buy some basic ingredients for their recipe but didn’t talk about the recipe or exchange any other words.

Once at the ranch, Dep let go of the dog and agreed to leave him outside, even though they were not very happy about it because of the temperature, which was almost unbearable. Noting their embarrassment, the baptist told them :

— He’s a dog, he’ll handle it fine. The airplane hangar is sheltered, he can take refuge there if necessary.

They both went in, and this time he went after them.

— Take off your shoes, wrath. I want to keep my ranch clean, now that I’ve got it back.

— Not for long.

— What ?

— Where’s the kitchen ?

— Straight ahead and then right.

Rook started to walk towards the indicated place, but the baptist suddenly held them by the arm, painfully digging his fingers into their flesh, before calling out to them.

— No matter how, we must win this contest.

The tone and remark challenged Rook, but they pretended not to care and resumed their way to the kitchen. They put the shopping bag on the counter, then turned back to their host.

— Do you know a cookie recipe ?

— Do I look like a baker ?

— Of course, I should have expected it. I suppose you do have cookbooks though ?

— What for ?

Dep rolled their eyes. In their memory, a basic recipe required at least flour, butter, sugar, eggs and possibly cinnamon. They had bought all that earlier, but the difficulty lay in knowing how to measure the ingredients correctly. And then they would have to find an original flavor and decorate the cookies with a pretty icing. Surely, presentation would be worth as many points as taste with the judge.

Rook opened the cupboards one by one to find containers and a kitchen scale. John quickly stepped in.

— Hey, you’re not at home, don’t go through my stuff !

— Why, are you hiding some treasures in your kitchen cupboards ?

They nudged him to resume their search. Seed was exasperated. An unbearable urge to strangle them had taken hold of him, but Joseph’s threat hung over his head, so he didn’t. He set about getting the groceries out of the bag and unpacking them. They were soon ready to make pastry, utensils and ingredients clearly arranged on the counter in front of them.

John looked at Rook quizzically.

— What do we start with ?

— Flour, I guess ?

He grabbed the package he had opened earlier and handed it to Dep, which took it and looked at him in turn.

— How many cups ?

— How would I know ?

They sighed and poured out four cups, randomly. The white cloud that was released during the operation soaked the baptist’s shirt, who protested violently.

— Damn, be careful, wrath ! You mess my favorite shirt up !

— Are you serious? You’re really going to throw a tantrum over an article of clothing ?

— It’s not just a piece of clothing, it’s a collector’s item, and an expensive one at that ! But obviously, I can’t expect someone like you to understand that !

— What do you mean ?

— A person like you, who has no style and dresses like a potato sack, can’t understand what self-image is. You don’t look like anything, deputy. Even your hair isn’t styled, it always looks like you just got out of bed, it’s depressing.

Dep huffed loudly as they tried to ignore the remark, but it had hurt them. They could not deny the fact they did not take care of their appearance, but the personal attack had hit the bull’s eye. This pairing contest was really going to be an ordeal. Rook wished they could have magically moved time forward and met up with Seed at the end of the truce so they could kill him. They felt bad for sparing him, maybe he didn’t deserve it after all.

The afternoon was laborious, and the acerbic remarks fused on both sides. The atmosphere was clearly not relaxed, far from it. As for the recipe tests, they were not conclusive. The cookies were either undercooked, floury or watery. They had barely made three batches, but none of them were edible.

Dep was relieved when night fell and they were able to find an excuse to finally leave.

* * *

Suggested background music : Crazy Town – Butterfly

As John was leaving the bar with the young deputy, Faith approached Pratt to grab his hand under Mary May’s stunned eyes, which struck her instantly. She interposed herself between them.

— What are you doing, bitch ?

— I’m picking up my partner for the contest. Don’t worry, you have nothing to fear from me.

— You can play all you want, I know your true nature ! You’re just a malicious liar.

Faith seemed hurt by the barmaid’s aggressiveness. With a sad look, she replied :

— I am only interested in the father’s love for his children, of which I am one. You do not have really any concern to have, Staci is only a brother for me.

Pratt, caught in the crossfire, didn’t know which way to turn. He didn’t like the idea of teaming up with the siren, but it could have been worse : he could have been assigned to his tormentor, Jacob. He didn’t want to stand up for Mary May, because that would only make things worse when he would be alone with the Seed’s adopted sister. He finally intervened, pushing Faith away to grab the barmaid’s hands.

— You have nothing to worry about, Mary May, it’s okay. You are the only one in my heart. I’ll see you back here tonight.

Mary May quickly removed her hands from Staci’s, still offended. She threw a last incendiary look in Faith’s direction, as they left the Spread Eagle.

Once outside, Pratt asked the siren where they would go to create their cookies. She shrugged her shoulders with a questioning look and then turned her attention to the snowman standing on the other side of the road and ran barefoot through the snow to observe it. When she had gone around it, she wanted to catch the falling snowflakes, then she commented on the sleeping nature, still humming.

Staci tried to bring her back down to earth and suggested they move into the abandoned mansion next to the Spread Eagle. At least they wouldn’t have to waste time commuting and he could quickly meet Mary May again tonight. The siren nodded wordlessly.

The house seemed to be in good shape, apparently the electric and water bills had been paid. A good thing when you need an oven to bake cookies. As Pratt went around the kitchen looking for utensils, a commercial Christmas tune blared over the living room radio. He glanced across the room to find Faith dancing and singing. He shook his head. He would probably have to rely only on himself for this mission. She beckoned him to join her but he ignored her and continued his research.

While the utensils were plentiful, the refrigerator and pantries were empty. Pratt decided to go quickly to Fall’s End general store to gather some basic ingredients. Hand on the front door handle, he addressed Faith :

— I’m going shopping. ‘You coming ?

She smiled blissfully at him, without answering, while turning around. He decided to go alone to the store.

When he pushed the front door of the establishment, he almost collided with Joseph Seed, who was coming out. The father addressed an enigmatic smile to him while holding the door. Staci ignored him and went straight to the shelves to get the basic ingredients and some food for the day.

At any moment, he was glancing behind him, fearing he would run into Mary May, who must still be mad as hell. The barmaid had quite a temper and didn’t let herself be pushed around, which had immediately attracted Staci when he met her. But sometimes this quality could be problematic and complicate banal situations.

He hurriedly paid and returned to the house, wondering what stupid thing to do Faith had found during his absence. He found her quietly sunken in the living room sofa, reading a book she must have borrowed from the library. As soon as he had put the groceries in the kitchen, Staci joined her in order to motivate her.

— Come on Faith, we have to get going ! It’s already late and we haven’t done anything yet.

— So what ? Cookies are easy to make, don’t worry about it ! We can enjoy the moment a little.

— They may be easy to make, but if no one makes them, they won’t magically appear !

— You’re really no fun, deputy Pratt. I’d like to finish my book.

— How about you and I reading a cookbook instead?

— … I don’t feel like it !

Pratt spent several minutes unsuccessfully trying to convince her to get up. The clock was ticking and, apart from shopping and putting away the groceries, nothing had been done. And more precisely, nothing had been done by Faith. Staci was nevertheless motivated and had put all his heart into convincing her, without success.

He was sighing with weariness when the entrance door opened on a henchman of Eden’s Gate. He came to seek the siren to bring her back to the complex. Pratt was happy to get rid of this useless weight. He was nevertheless disappointed of this lost day. The idea to spend a few days in a festive and cordial atmosphere had pleased him, and here that the youngest of the Seeds, in addition to sowing discord between Mary May and him, came to spoil the only pleasant moment of the year.

* * *

Suggested background music : Muse – Uprising

Wheaty was talking with Eli about the after-truce. How would it work ? Would the Seed immediately go on the offensive again as soon as the holidays were over ? Would they use the Christmas festival to gather sensitive information about members of the resistance ? The mere thought of them discovering the exact location of the Wolf’s Den gave the young man creeps.

He gasped with fright as the Spread Eagle’s door opened to reveal Jacob Seed himself, which addressed to him in a direct way.

— Come on, kid, let’s get this charade over with !

Wheaty looked fearfully at Palmer, who nodded in affirmation. When the two men were outside, the young man realized that Seed was not alone. A huge white wolf was waiting for him at the door. It was the first time Wheaty had seen one up close, and it was enough to give him goose bumps. The animal’s gigantic face was painted with a cross of red paint that went all the way to its chest, bringing out its disturbing lightning eyes. The left one was steel blue, while the right one was yellow.

When the young half-breed took a few steps in the direction of the road, the beast, rushing in the middle of his trajectory, rolled up its lips on sharp fangs. It growled aggressively, freezing Wheaty in place. Jacob burst out laughing. The idea of his pet terrorizing a Whitetail was infinitely pleasurable and he relished the situation. When he’d had enough, he put his hand on the wolf’s head to pet him, which calmed him instantly. Seed couldn’t help but throw a sharp remark at Wheaty, a devilish grin on his face.

— Now you’ve been warned about the consequences if you misbehave with me.

He looked up at a pickup truck parked on the other side of the road and pointed to it with his chin.

— You drive.

Still in shock, Wheaty complied without question. He didn’t know who owned the car, but his past as a juvenile delinquent had taught him to start any vehicle without keys. The owner would certainly understand, given the circumstances.

The two men and the wolf, lying in the back seat, quickly drove into the woods to Chad Wolanski’s food truck. The situation was more than tense as the silence was heavy.

The cook-judge was already there, waiting for them. He was also surprised by the presence of the tamed wolf but kept his composure in front of the elder Seed, not wanting to show weakness. He quickly explained to the two men where the utensils and ingredients were, before leaving.

The task appeared complicated. If cooking in the open air was already a challenge, baking was almost mission impossible. But Wheaty was motivated and willing, despite the alliance with Jacob that had been forced upon him.

The wolf was lying behind the redhead, watching his every move, as if to protect him. Wheaty glanced at him from time to time, fearing that he would attack him by surprise.

The two men discussed about a recipe. They quickly realized that the basic ingredients were not in Wolanski’s assortment. It was far too late to go back to town now, night had fallen and the stores had probably been closed for some time. Jacob used his radio to contact one of his henchmen and ask him to go grocery shopping first thing in the morning and bring it to Chad’s food truck. Jacob and Wheaty agreed to mention the necessary ingredients in a list that seemed coherent, although they had no clear idea of the basic recipe for making cookies :

  • Oil
  • Cream
  • Cornstarch
  • Cheese

Jacob cut off communication with his man and gave Wheaty an intimidating look.

— Take me back to my bunker, kid.

The young man complied, the wolf still in the back seat, before heading to the Wolf’s Den, taking care to make sure he wasn’t followed. He found himself alone in the Whitetails’ den, the other members having remained at Fall’s End. The memory of the canine’s gaze on him continued to give him chills and made his blood run cold. He took a hot shower to warm up, but nothing helped.

Being alone in the den had never been a problem for Wheaty, quite the opposite, but tonight he sorely missed the company of Tammy and Eli.

* * *

Suggested background music : Muse – Something Human

Wanderer walked silently through the snow. He still couldn’t believe it : he had done it, he had succeeded in integrating himself into Hope County. The welcome he had received from the residents was quite nice, and he liked the idea of participating in a challenge with them. The fact that he would have to stand up to the Seed, however, worried him a little. He knew what they were capable of and that they showed no mercy to those who stood in their way.

He was brought out of his thoughts by a familiar voice calling to him. Richard was happily approaching him, waving.

— Hey, where have you been ?

— I was in the Whitetail Mountains. And I ran into Jess Black !

— Seriously ? Tell me everything, bro !

The young man recounted the events to his friend, and then wanted to know what had happened on his side during that time.

— Well, I went to Henbane River. I would have liked to run into Faith to see if she is as twisted as they say. Unfortunately, not a single hallucination on the horizon. On the other hand, Minkler fell on me while I was installing a new video on the local channel.

— Minkler?

— Yeah, Virgil Minkler, the mayor !

— Ah, yes. So what did you tell him ?

— I was as vague as possible. But I think they’re suspicious. He wouldn’t believe I was a deputy.

— That’s annoying.

Richard put his arm around Wanderer’s shoulders in a friendly manner and they walked east, where the American’s camper car was parked.

Arman was already waiting for them there, leaning against the door of the vehicle.

— You are late ! Where have you two been?

The two friends looked at each other, astonished by their boss’s tone. Realizing the harshness of his words, he resumed, in a calm and soft voice.

— I’m sorry, I’m a bit on edge. I didn’t think we would meet the people of Hope County. Before I came, I promised myself I wouldn’t interfere in their lives, but I couldn’t help myself. Out of curiosity, I pushed open the door of the Spread Eagle. Mary May was there, and then Pratt showed up. I feel like they’re dating, it’s funny, I never would have imagined it. Anyway, they noticed me right away and I intrigued them. What about you ?

The two friends also told him about their encounters with the people of the Whitetail Mountains and Henbane River. Wanderer spoke about the Christmas festival.

— I didn’t tell you guys everything. In fact, the locals are having a Christmas festival, and during the festival they’re going to compete against the Seed family in a cookie contest. They’ve asked me to join in to bolster the ranks…

Arman and Richard looked at each other with wide eyes, incredulous. The boss intervened.

— So what ? You didn’t accept… did you ?

— … I told them I’d talk to you about it, but I wouldn’t guarantee anything.

The Czech looked annoyed. Richard, on the other hand, seemed excited about the situation. He jumped into the discussion.

— But this is great ! Guys, we have the opportunity to change the outcome of history by actually participating in its destiny ! You can’t turn it down, no one ever gets this opportunity, we’re so lucky !

Arman still had a reservation. Prudence led him to think that it was not necessary to interfere in the events. The creations they had made for Christmas had already disturbed the people here enough.

The Frenchman in turn began to smile and added :

— Jess has been great to me ! I’d really like to help them. Come on Arman, please ! It doesn’t commit us to anything ! We’ll just give them a hand, make cookies and then leave as we came, discreetly.

The boss looked at them in turn. He shrugged his shoulders before concluding.

— Well, it’s OK I guess. Let’s go to the Spread Eagle to tell them about our participation.

* * *

Suggested background music : Jan Hammer – Crockett’s Theme (Miami Vice)

As Joseph exited the general store, he almost ran into Staci Pratt who was entering. He held the door for him with a polite smile before heading back to the bar where all the sinners were waiting for their partners. He located his.

He was impossible to miss, even from a distance. The man was wearing a horrible outfit made up of sweatpants in the colors of the American flag, a garish red tank top on which once again appeared the patriotic flag with an eagle and a bandana hiding his shaggy hair and part of his large forehead.

Joseph sighed heavily before approaching the man.

— It looks like we’ll have to work together for the contest.

— Yeah ! I’m super honored to be with you, great guru !

— I’m not… well, anyway, let’s go !

— Where we goin’ ?

— I suggest we go to the Eden’s Gate complex. There is a very big kitchen and everything we need to prepare cookies.

— Sounds good ! I’ve always wanted to visit a cult ! Woah, my cousin will die of jealousy !

The father rolled his eyes before heading back to his vehicle, followed closely by the chubby, vulgar individual who was talking to himself.

All along the way, Hurk Jr. asked Joseph all sorts of questions, most of which he didn’t answer because they were so stupid and irrelevant. Hadn’t this kid been educated?

When they arrived at the dining hall, they had no trouble getting to work. The kitchen was very well equipped and the cupboards were full. The only difficulty was getting creative, which was not Joseph’s strength, as he was used to being guided by voice. Hurk Jr. again launched into a stream of words that was difficult, if not impossible, to interrupt.

— Why do people call you father ? I already have a father. But uh, I don’t mind you being the second one ! Anyway, you can’t be worse than mine, he’s not proud of me at all, he thinks I’m just a big loser. He might be right. But that’s okay, he’s my dad and I still love him !

Joseph didn’t know what to say to his partner. There was a lot of nonsense in what he was saying. But the last few sentences he had said had caught Seed’s attention. How could a father think that his child was worthless ?

The face of his little girl came to mind. He had done what he thought was best for her. But deep down he often thought about her, wondered what she would look like today and what his life would be like if she was still with him. He refused to admit it openly, but he missed her terribly. The emptiness created in him by the death of his wife had grown over the years, so much so that he sometimes wondered if he had not imagined that voice that had always guided him. However, the cruelty of the world always reminded him of his duty, and he quickly regained the upper hand to continue to invest himself in his divine mission.

He returned to the present moment, observing the man’s every move as he worked to mix the cookie dough. Joseph saw his lack of experience and decided to help him.

— That’s not how you do it, son. I’ll show you.

Seed grabbed the spatula to mix the ingredients more efficiently, while Hurk Jr. looked on in disbelief. Drubman couldn’t help but question the father.

— Wow, you know how to cook ?

— I have some skills.

— Where did you learn that?

— Let’s just say that during our childhood, my brothers and I had the opportunity to cook and do various chores.

— So cool ! Can you teach me if I join the cult ?

Joseph smiled as he rolled out the dough in equal circles on a baking sheet. The situation was somewhat ironic : while he wanted to attach people to his cause, there were certain types of people he preferred to keep out of Eden’s Gate, and it was just such a weirdo who wanted to join voluntarily.

However, this big boy made his heart ache. Even though it wasn’t speaking to him at the moment, he had a feeling that the voice wanted him to care for and protect him, despite the fact that he didn’t fit the criteria it had told him about at the beginning of the project. Joseph decided to remain open to his feeling and to see how things would turn out before making any decisions.

The strange pairing, mainly carried by the father, worked surprisingly well. By the end of the afternoon, several batches of cookies were ready. Hurk Jr. was happy to taste one from each plate, just to make sure they were all the same. The verdict was in : a real treat !

Drubman was already certain that he and Joseph would win the contest. Sharky would swoon with jealousy, and his parents would be very proud of him. He was looking forward to it and could see himself holding up a huge cup, all gold and weighing a ton, in front of a crowd of cheering spectators. Adelaide would shed tear and Hurk Sr. would be telling everyone in Hope County that his son made the best cookies in the country. No, in the world.

Before leaving the compound to return to his father’s house, Hurk Jr. gave Joseph a hug, holding him close and thanking him repeatedly for his fatherly kindness. Seed wasn’t sure how to react, it was the first time he had experienced this kind of gratuitous tenderness from a stranger who could almost have been his son.

He hugged him back, thinking about the man’s parents. How lucky they were, to have a child like him. Not very smart, but so grateful and needy. Joseph would have given anything to be able to hold his daughter close to him as he did with Hurk.

A bad feeling came over him. Was it envy he just felt ?

Final stretch

Suggested background music : Depeche Mode – The Sinner in Me

It was a little after noon when Dep, accompanied by Boomer, set off in the direction of the Seed Ranch. They hoped that the afternoon would be less catastrophic than the previous one, but knew that they should not expect any compromise from the baptist.

Against all odds, he was almost smiling as he forcefully opened the door for them.

— I’ve started doing some test decorations on the other day’s batches. I think it’s pretty good.

They went straight to the kitchen to see the results. Rook couldn’t help but squeal in amazement when they saw the colored icing on the cookies.

— Oh, but they’re so pretty !

— You say that like I can’t do anything right.

— Not at all, stop interpreting my words without knowing me.

— But I do know you, Wrath ! We’ve spent a lot of time together in the last few weeks.

— You don’t know me. Stay in your place and I’ll stay in mine.

Dep had spoken to him in a polite but firm tone. The animosity, however, seemed less present than the day before. Seed’s ability to bake was unexpected, but they were genuinely pleased. They tried to follow up, so as not to let the atmosphere deteriorate.

— You told me that you absolutely wanted to win this contest. May I ask why ?

John seemed to hesitate. Rook clarified.

— I need to know, if you want our team to work and be effective.

— It’s because of this mac ‘n cheese thing. Everyone is still bothering me with this story.

— So you were the one who cooked them ?

— No need to insist. Anyway, I’d like to make myself look good about it, I’m sick of everyone bringing up that fucking story at every opportunity.

— Everyone ? I’ve only heard Nick talk about it…

— Once Joseph ratted me out in front of a whole bunch of journalists and would-be cultists.

— I get it.

They went back to the dosing tests, more motivated than ever, batch after batch, until John threw another fit when some flour accidentally landed on his vest. Dep couldn’t take it anymore. This time, they were the one who burst.

— You’re a pain to work with ! You want to win, but you make sure it doesn’t work ! I can’t take your repeated tantrums. You keep calling me wrath, but really, wrath is your sin, not mine ! You blame everyone for what your parents did to you, including people who can’t help it !

John looked surprised when they mentioned the Duncan. Noting his discomfiture, Rook clarified.

— I read your brother’s propaganda book. I know what they did to you, and I’m sorry, no child should have to go through that. But that doesn’t excuse your hateful behavior, your mood swings and the monster you’ve become. It’s up to you to let go of your past and move on. Being a jerk and blaming your parents’ abuse on others is not the way to get out of it.

The baptist was flabbergasted and did not know how to respond. He quietly and calmly dusted off his vest and returned to his cookie icing workshop without speaking to them. Dep resumed their dosage tests. The ranch was deathly silent until evening.

When night fell, Rook headed for the front door, relieved to be out of that heavy atmosphere. Unfortunately, they were quickly disappointed by the sight. The snow had been falling hard all day and was almost waist deep. Their pickup truck, parked further away, was clearly blocked and unreachable. They stood in the doorway for a few moments, distraught, until John joined them, challenged by the breeze that flowed through the ranch to the kitchen. When he saw the pile of snow, he knew immediately. Tired by the day they had spent to shout at each other, then to keep quiet each one on their side, he did not want to fight with them any more for this evening. He let go nonchalantly :

— It’s OK, I understood. You can spend the night here, there’s a guest room.

With a discomfited look on their face and a heavy heart, Rook decided to follow his advice and closed the door, letting Boomer in as he shook himself happily, covering the floor and wall with drops of muddy water. John sighed loudly before saying :

— I’m going to bed. Your room is the second on the left. Don’t you dare touch my stuff or else, Joseph or not, I swear I’ll gut you. And don’t let your smelly bastard climb on my leather sofa.

Dep didn’t answer. They too were far too tired to argue with him again. Anyway, he always found a way to have the last word. Rook went upstairs to bed, after filling a bowl with water and another with unsuccessful attempts to make cookies for Boomer, who didn’t touch a thing.

Rook tossed and turned for hours, unable to sleep. Sleeping a few feet away from a man who had tortured them and wished their dead was probably part of the reason. Annoyed by their insomnia, they silently left the room to join Boomer in the living room, but stopped dead at the top of the stairs.

Suggested background music : Depeche Mode – Waiting for the Night

The living room was bathed in the subdued light of a fire burning in the fireplace. Dep’s eyes went to the sofa, on which Seed was sitting, elbows on his knees and face in his palms, between his knees. He seemed absorbed. Boomer, lying at his feet, was calmly licking his shin through his jeans. The baptist didn’t seem to mind, which surprised Dep considering how much attention he usually paid to his clothes.

Rook slowly walked down to join him, causing him to jump when he realized they were there. He quickly straightened up to look confident.

— What are you doing here, deputy ?

— I couldn’t sleep. I guess you couldn’t either ?

— I guess not.

Rook sat down next to him, leaving as much distance as possible between them. Even so, they could make out his reddened and swollen eyes. They felt bad about it. Their sharp remarks about the Duncan had certainly affected the baptist more than they’d thought and were undoubtedly the source of his condition. It was a strange situation, and they didn’t know how to handle it. They decided to be humane and try to forget, for a moment, who they were dealing with.

— John, I’m sorry about what I said about your parents. I didn’t mean to hurt you, I spoke out of anger. But I meant what I said about leaving the past behind and moving on. I’m sure you can be a good person, it’s up to you. Your parents were monsters, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow their example. You have the right to be imperfect, you are only human. Perfection doesn’t exist. Why do you put so much pressure on yourself ?

He didn’t answer, just stared at the flames dancing in the fireplace. The fire brought a welcome warmth to the room, whose temperature was raw. Seeing that he didn’t want to argue, Rook changed the subject.

— It’s damn cold in here ! I’ll make myself a hot chocolate, shall I bring you one ?

He looked at them with a sad and dark look and nodded. They smiled back at him and went to make two hot chocolates with almond milk and cinnamon.

When Dep returned to the living room, John was still sitting, but his chest and head had slipped to one side. He had dozed off while they were in the kitchen. Rook placed the two cups as quietly as possible on the coffee table and grabbed a blanket to lay over the sleeping baptist’s body.

They watched him more carefully. Strands of hair fell across his forehead, making him look like an innocent child. It was hard to believe that he was the monster they knew, as the softness of his sleeping face contrasted with the hardness of his character when he was awake. But they were not fooled and knew perfectly well that the devil knew how to use the best stratagems of dissimulation.

Rook sat back on the sofa, petting Boomer, and sipped their hot chocolate as they gazed at the flames in the fireplace, paying attention to their comforting crackle. Their eyelids quickly became heavy. The warmth of the fireplace and the drink quickly put them to sleep as they let their head gently fall against the back of the sofa.

* * *

Suggested background music : Empire of the Sun – We are the People

Daylight was tentatively breaking in the forest when Wheaty arrived at the workstation Chad had lent them. Jacob and his wolf were already waiting for him there. The elder Seed seemed upset that he had to wait, stamping his feet with his arms crossed over his chest.

— Ah, finally ! My men have gone shopping. Let’s hurry up and get started, we’ll be done faster.

The minnow-eyed beast stared again at the young half-breed. This time Wheaty took it upon himself to approach it and brave his fear. As he approached the animal, it curled its lips and growled menacingly, which drew a sadistic laugh from Jacob, who was amused to see the situation.

Nevertheless, the young Amerindian slowly stretched out his hand in front of the wolf’s muzzle, which sniffed it. He then put it gently on its collar to caress it. Against all odds, the animal seemed to appreciate the touch and raised its muzzle to the sky, closing its eyes. Reassured and satisfied, Wheaty turned to Jacob.

— What’s his name?

— He doesn’t have a name. He’s not a pet, he’s here to work.

The young man did not take notice of the elder Seed’s unpleasant remark. He considered all living things to be equal, and as such the beast did not have to serve anyone. His grandfather had also taught him that the wolf was the spiritual leader of his people and should be especially respected, just as a brother or sister would be.

He petted the animal once more and then walked over to the barbecue where the bag of food was sitting. He emptied the contents onto the camping table.

Seeing that the Whitetail was turning the empty bag over and looking incredulous, Jacob intervened.

— What’s the matter?

— Where’s the flour?

— The flour…?

The redhead grabbed his radio to call the henchman who had dropped off the groceries.

— The flour is missing !

— What flour ?

— The flour we need to make cookies, you idiot !

— It wasn’t on the list…

— Of course it was !

— …

— Go get me some, and hurry up !

— Yes, Sir.

Jacob turned to Wheaty to comment.

— That’s what you get for employing weak people. You have to rely on yourself.

The young man hesitated to reply. The former soldier apparently had too much pride to admit his mistake. Wheaty, on the other hand, was humble by nature and easily acknowledged his responsibility. He decided to answer Jacob calmly to end the subject.

— It’s my fault, I didn’t think of it.

While waiting for the henchman to bring the long-awaited flour, Wheaty found himself enjoying the company of the white wolf, lying next to him now that they had gotten to know each other better. As he stroked the red hair on his chest, he began to search for a name that would fit him. Amused, he said aloud.

— Marley, that’s nice !

The elder Seed couldn’t help but react.

— What’s that ?

— Marley !

— What’s that, Marley ?

— The name of your judge.

— … call him whatever you want, but shut up for five minutes, I need some quiet.

Wheaty was very annoyed by his partner’s attitude, but his calm and gentle nature kept him from expressing his feelings. He waited quietly, petting Marley, and did not speak to Jacob again until his henchman finally arrived with the goods.

The two men then began to discuss the recipe. Given the ingredients they had written down on the list, the cookies were bound to be salty. Wheaty suggested they be spiced with herbs they could pick in the forest. The idea appealed to Jacob, who liked to spend time alone in the woods. They set off, accompanied by Marley, who never let Wheaty out of his sight.

As they walked deeper into the woods, the young man couldn’t help but comment.

— I love the smell of the forest. Nature is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Jacob did not answer. But he felt exactly the same as Wheaty, which surprised him. Nature had always been his last refuge when everything oppressed him. As a child, he spent hours building cabins and exploring the forest at the edge of which was his family home in Rome. When Old mad Seed was on the rampage and Jacob had taken blows to protect his brothers, he would regularly go into the woods to cry, out of sight. The lullaby that the wind sang through the leaves would calm him and comfort his grief, something his mother did not do.

The young Native American may have been a weakling, but he at least knew how to recognize true riches, and that pleased Jacob and made him a little less grumpy.

The elder Seed stopped to examine a tall green clump next to a tree trunk. Pointing to it, he said :

— Mint ! We could put it in our cookies !

Wheaty walked over to see. Was Jacob making fun of him ? In doubt, he answered calmly.

— I think it’s oregano.

— It’s not.

— Mint doesn’t have leaves that long…

— It’s mint.

— Jacob, I promise you… look at the characteristic serration of the leaves… and the fact that there are consistently five leaves per stem…

— Shut up, kid. I know what I’m saying. Help me pick this mint.

Wheaty relented and helped Jacob pick the oregano and stuff it into a burlap sack, then they went back the other way to finally start making their cookie dough.

* * *

The three strangers arrived in Fall’s End late in the morning. They were amazed to see that the streets had been decorated. Strings of lights had been placed on the door frames and eaves of buildings, and figures of elves, Santas and reindeer lined the roadside at regular intervals. Wanderer commented :

— They told me about a team that was in charge of the festival while the rest of the group was focused on the cookie contest. These are probably the people who did the decorations.

Arman continued :

— In any case it is nice ! Think that a simple snowman, some warm clothes and friendly music are at the origin of this general euphoria…

— And the truce ! added Richard.

As they approached the Spread Eagle, they noticed a group had formed outside. Joey Hudson spotted them and came to meet them first.

— Are you the friends Jess told us about ? Welcome, we are eager to strengthen the resistance.

— We’re not here to fight… just for the cookie contest.

— Of course. For that too, we accept any help that will enable us to crush that damned Seed family.

They joined the customers crowded in front of the entrance. Some of them were smoking a cigarette while others had simply gone out to enjoy the sunshine. Intrigued by the presence of the three strangers, they followed them as they entered the bar.

Wanderer was surprised :

— Isn’t Jess here ?

Grace answered him.

— No, she’s gone back after the man she’s looking for. But I’ll let her know you’re back, she’ll be glad to hear that.

— And Mary May ?

— She’s with Pratt on the second floor, bringing down boxes of decorations.

As she spoke to Wanderer, her eyes drifted to the teen’s two friends. When she glanced at the one who appeared to be their leader, her heart leapt in her chest. His fair complexion and chestnut hair set off beautiful green pupils that seemed to sparkle with curiosity. He looked slightly younger than her, but even so he was a head taller. It took her a few seconds to regain her senses and focus on the situation.

Pratt and Mary May’s footsteps on the stairs interrupted the dialogue. They were both loaded down with large boxes, which they set down at the foot of the bar before turning to realize the strangers’ presence. The barmaid pointed to Richard, then said :

— Hey, I know this guy ! He parks his camper bus around here. And he regularly participates to karaoke parties here. Besides, he’s not really brilliant !

Richard raised his eyes to the sky.

— Well thank you, nice welcome !

His two friends laughed discreetly. Wanderer spoke up.

— My friends and I are willing to help you with the cookie contest, although we don’t necessarily have any special skills in this area.

The entire audience applauded. At least people were happy they were there. It was comforting to them because they felt guilty about interfering with Hope County’s destiny. Mary May took the lead.

— Well, the other pairs have already begun their preparations. You need to catch up quickly if you want to succeed. The competition is in three days ! I suggest that, to avoid wasting time, you make your products here. I leave the Spread Eagle kitchen at your disposal.

Arman intervened:

— Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you. Shall we compete together ?

Grace hadn’t missed a thing when he spoke. Not only was he charming, but the slight accent with which he had pronounced these words had given her shivers. She continued to observe him as the barmaid continued.

— No, that would be unfair. The basic idea of this contest and the festival is to bring people together. I suggest that each of you collaborate with one of the members of the resistance.

Grace stepped forward and looked Arman straight in the eyes.

— I want to participate.

Casey Fixman, who had been silently following all the exchanges, came out of the kitchen to intervene as well.

— Forget it, Grace. Given their delay, they need something heavy to help them. You’re a great sniper but they need an elite cook.

He then turned to Arman.

— I’ll help you, young man. I have a solid knowledge of cooking, that can be useful.

Arman’s disappointed gaze fell on Grace, then returned to the cook. He liked them both, but it hurt him to disappoint the young woman who seemed motivated. He thanked Casey and accepted his offer.

Pastor Jeffries stepped forward, heading toward Richard.

— Let’s get to work, bro.

Wanderer looked around desperately for Jess, but she did not appear in the bar. Eli Palmer, who was silently watching, put his hand on his shoulder.

— I’ll team up with you, son. If Jess arrives in the meantime, I’ll gladly give up my place. In the meantime, you can count on my help.

The teenager gladly accepted and shook Palmer’s hand to seal the deal.

Nick Rye, sitting in the back of the room with his wife, exclaimed :

— Well then, what are you waiting for ? Get to work, we’re going to beat the shit out of those bastards at Eden’s Gate !

Laughter erupted throughout the room, and the three strangers and their partners moved together towards the kitchen.

* * *

Staci Pratt was determined to finish his cookies in time for the contest. It didn’t matter if the siren didn’t show up or if she was just going through the motions, he used to like finishing what he started. He went early to the abandoned house that served as their work station, more motivated than ever.

Preparing the dough, putting the cookies in the oven, taking them out and decorating them himself, not to mention all the dishes to clean up afterwards, were big time consumers. Staci began to doubt. Would he be able to manage everything by himself?

As if God had heard him, the door opened at the same moment on Faith, followed by marshal Burke. The deputy rushed to the federal agent to check on him. Cameron was in his world, certainly still under the influence of bliss. However, his general condition was quite good, which pleased Staci.

Burke’s company was not to be refused, he would certainly contribute more than Faith to the creation of the cookies. Surprisingly, she willingly got to work when Staci explained to Cameron the different steps. They organized themselves so that everyone had a defined task : Staci prepared the dough, Faith decorated the cookies and Cameron took care of the dishes and the order in the kitchen.

The turnaround was incredible : that evening, several hundred cookies had been made and decorated. They weren’t exactly pretty in appearance, but they tasted great. Pratt was amazed at the change in the siren’s attitude. He wondered if Burke’s presence had anything to do with it. Maybe she really did like him and that friendship encouraged him. In any case, he hoped that she would agree to release him after the contest. Seeing him under the influence of bliss was hopeless.

The three companions carefully packed their cookies in different boxes before greeting each other politely and leaving.

* * *

On the Whitetail Mountains side, things were moving along nicely but surely. Wheaty, Jacob and Marley, back at the Grill Streak, had added the mint to the salt dough mixture. The young half-breed persisted in standing up to the elder Seed, telling him it was oregano. The redhead maintained that he was right and refused to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Marley was permanently glued to Wheaty. Maybe it was because he was discreetly giving him a cookie every now and then, raw or baked. When Jacob realized this, he barked furiously at the young man.

— What’s wrong with you ? Why are you giving that wolf cookies ?

— I just gave him one or two…

— I forbid you to do that ! Again, it’s not a pet but a soldier !

— So what ? Maybe if you rewarded your workers a little instead of punishing them, they would be more devoted to you !

— What do you know about leading soldiers ?

— Not much, but I know that if Eli barked at me like you do at your men, I would never have followed him and I wouldn’t be so devoted to him.

Vexed, Jacob didn’t answer anymore. When the sound of the timer gave him a good excuse to cut short the discussion, he rushed to the barbecue to take out the overcooked cookies. This made him even more angry.

Wheaty approached him, putting his hand on his shoulder, as if to comfort him.

— Look, it’s okay. We’ll make another batch. The important thing is not to win, but to participate. I think this break will only be useful if we take advantage of it to forget our grievances towards each other. I, for one, have shared some nice moments with you and Marley so far.

Jacob stared at him in disbelief. How could this kid approach the situation so calmly while standing in front of his worst enemy ? The elder Seed knew that he inspired deep fear in some members of the Whitetails, especially the one standing in front of him.

He considered the situation in a new light. Maybe the young man wasn’t such a weakling after all ? It seemed to him that a certain strength of character was necessary to dare to declare such things to his worst enemy, looking him in the eye.

They got back to work, patiently mixing the dough, shaping the cookies and baking them plate by plate in Wolanski’s not-so-large barbecue.

It was evening when they took the last batch off the grill. Jacob looked at it, proud.

— Finally, we did it ! How many plates do we have ?

— Five or six, I think… I’ll check.

Wheaty went to the camp table to count the cookies. He let out a shrill howl that startled the redhead. Jacob rushed over to him.

— What’s going on, kid ? What are you yelling about ?

— The cookies ! There are only two left, plus the ten you just took out of the grill !

— What ??? How could this happen ?

Their eyes turned to Marley, who was lying on his side with his belly full.

Enraged, Jacob yelled.

— Damn beast ! You ate all our cookies !

Then he turned to Wheaty.

— I told you not to give him anything ! It’s all your fault !

— I’m sorry ! But since it’s not a pet, we had no reason to think that it would come and help himself !

Disgruntled, Jacob picked up the remaining cookies one by one and put them in a carrying box.

* * *

While Jacob and Wheaty were busy in the woods, the newly formed teams at Fall’s End were catching up.

Richard and Jerome had agreed right away that their cookies would be cranberry and brown sugar flavored. They had borrowed a recipe book from Mary May’s kitchen and were happily preparing their batches, humming along. Noticing the wedding ring Richard was wearing, the pastor questioned him.

— Do you have a family?

— Yes, I have been married for many years and have beautiful children. In fact, I miss my family very much. I can’t wait to hug them all.

— I know what you mean. Love is the greatest happiness one can have in life.

— Isn’t it ironic of you to say that when you are a churchman ?

— Young man, love can come from many sources. Mine is the one that binds me to God.

— I know that he has not been the only one in your life… I don’t understand that your sin is greed, it should be lust.

Richard winked knowingly at Jerome, who seemed confused.

— How do you know so much ?

— Let’s just say I have an overview of Hope County.

— I hope my little secret doesn’t get out.

— I will be as silent as a grave.

At the other end of the kitchen, Wanderer and Eli were quiet and seemed very focused. They too had taken the opportunity to borrow a recipe book and were making rapid progress on their praline cookies.

The silence was interrupted when Wanderer put in too much praline for Eli’s taste, and he yelled across the room, pulling the other pairs out of their concentration. The young man, shocked, wanted to know what was making Eli jump so much.

— You’re putting in too much praline !

— Not at all ! It has to taste good !

— But not too much !

— Yes ! You have to be generous !

— We must be thrifty !

— No, we don’t !

— Yes, we do !

Attracted by the argument, Grace slipped into the kitchen. In reality, she was more interested in coming to see what the charming stranger was doing, but the shrug was a perfect excuse. When she saw the two men arguing, she raised her voice even louder than they were.

— That’s enough ! We’re not here to fight !

The eyes of everyone present were raised in disbelief. They were amazed that such a loud voice could come from such a calm woman. Arman was intrigued, he didn’t know her to be so bossy. Glancing discreetly in his direction, Grace was pleased to see that she had caught his attention.

She left the kitchen smiling, leaving Eli and Wanderer amazed. After her intervention, calm returned and neither of them took the other back.

Arman, a little confused, returned to his partner to continue preparing their cookies. They had opted for a caramelized apple fondant with walnut slivers and raisins. Casey’s culinary expertise was clearly a plus for them, saving them the trouble of pulling out any books. Arman’s creativity did the rest. His fresh, untrained eye allowed him to innovate without any particular effort.

At any given moment, the cook would pick from the pile of cookies and take a bite. Noticing his habit, Arman couldn’t help but comment.

— We won’t have any left for the contest if you keep this up.

— Don’t worry, there will be plenty left.

— I understand better why you are not slender.

— Are you saying I’m fat ? I was in the war, Sir. I know what it’s like to have to ration food. When I got out of the service, I promised myself that I would never go without good food again.

— Do as you please, but it’s not very good for your health.

Casey reached into the box and pulled out a new cookie, which he devoured as he watched his partner talk.

By the end of the day, all three pairs had produced a great number of cookies. Over the next few days, they would just have to make more, and they would be ready to compete. As for how good they were, only Casey, who had been stuffing his face all day, sometimes dipping into other people’s batches, could judge.

* * *

Suggested background music : Depeche Mode – Clean

When Rook opened their eyelids, they immediately noticed that it was daylight and the fire was out. Yet they were not cold, far from it. A stabbing pain in their neck reminded them that they had fallen asleep on a sofa, certainly in an uncomfortable position. John’s voice finally roused them from their sleep.

— You snored, deputy. I hope you didn’t drool on my satin shirt while sleeping !

Rook sat up abruptly, realizing that they were under the blanket, snuggled up against the baptist, hands clutching at his vest. Their cheeks flushed instantly, and they wasted no time in getting up. Hoping to dissipate this moment of deep shame, they changed the subject.

— We have to get started, we don’t have much time left ! I’ll give it another try right away.

The younger Seed slowly stretched his arms to the sky as he replied.

— Do what you want, but I’m not starting my day until I’ve had a shower and changed clothes. I’ll meet you in the kitchen afterwards.

He stood up and walked up the stairs to his room. Dep decided that a little grooming wouldn’t hurt either. They spent a few moments petting Boomer and talking to him, then headed for their own room. As they passed John’s door, they smiled when they heard him humming. At least, this day was going to be better than the last. Plus, the recipe was almost perfect. A few more adjustments and they would have a good chance of winning the contest.

When Seed entered the kitchen, Dep was busy trying to decorate a batch of cookies. Hearing him approach, they said with an amused tone :

— Finally ! What have you been up to, cooped up for hours in your bathroom ?

— I’ve already explained it to you, it’s impossible to understand for someone like you.

He approached to look over their shoulder. Seeing the disaster, he couldn’t help but comment.

— That’s not the way to do it ! You won’t get anywhere this way.

Rook wanted to turn around to answer him but didn’t have the chance. John had moved his arms to either side of them to put his hands on their, which held the piping bag.

— To begin with, you need to tilt your bag a little bit, otherwise it will flow too fast, and you won’t get any accuracy.

Turning his words into action, he gently tilted the Rook’s hands. He was so close that the heat of his chest radiated their shoulder blades. His breath in their neck disturbed Dep. As he pressed their hands together to get the frosting out, he whispered softly into their ear.

— Let go, deputy. You have to let go completely.

Rook’s heart pounded in their chest. They tried to focus on the tattoos on John’s fingers to ignore the situation and stay in control, to no avail.

They backed up abruptly, dropping the piping bag and shoving the baptist to rush to the patio door.

— I need some air !

Once outside, they took a deep breath of oxygen, trying to calm the tremors that ran through them. Dep had been overwhelmed by the situation, by far. They never thought they would let one of the Seed get so close to them, much less enjoy the contact. They were terrified. It wasn’t John that terrified them, but themselves and their weakness. When he had whispered in their ear, he could have asked them anything. They would have said yes to anything. They had let their guard down without even realizing it, considering the younger Seed as a simple human being when he was nothing but a monster, an executioner and a murderer. Rook stood in the cold for a few moments to give their heart and mind time to calm down.

John had remained frozen in place when the deputy had run off. He hadn’t understood what was happening. He had simply wanted to be nice by helping them apply icing to their cookies, in response to the attention they had given him the night before. Yesterday, they would blame him for being short-tempered, and today they would run away when he tried to be nice. No matter what he did, he never lived up to people’s expectations.

The situation had also confused him. When he had leaned against them, the smell of their freshly washed hair had wafted up to his nostrils like the scent of a sweet flower, which had unnerved him. He had feared that they would feel the acceleration of his heart rate when he had approached his lips to slip a piece of advice in the hollow of their ear. For a split second, he had wanted to let go of their hands to hold them against him.

But this desire had instantly disappeared as they moved away. Now he realized that he had been weak and that his old vices were lurking in the shadows. The killing machine that stood on his front porch was in no way a being worthy of consideration. They were nothing more and nothing less than a sinner whose only objective was to distract him from his goal and his brothers. He would never let himself be manipulated by their schemes. Enraged at himself, he grabbed the first thing he could reach, the jar of flour, and sent it crashing to the floor with all his might.

Dep crossed the threshold with a confident look.

— Shall we get back to it ? I think we’ll be more efficient if we each stick to the part we know best. I’ll do the preparation, and you do the icing. There’s no point in dragging each other out, it’s just slowing us down.

Everyone went back to their workstations, taking care to keep the greatest possible distance between them.

By nightfall, the last batch had cooled and been carefully decorated. They looked at their work with a satisfied look. Rook grabbed the cookies and slid them into large carrying boxes, commenting.

— We did a really good job. I really hope we win this contest. Either way, I don’t think anyone will be able to make fun of you after this.

— I only made the decoration, you are responsible for the basic recipe.

— We’re a team, we couldn’t have done anything without each other.

Dep stretched their palm in the air in the direction of the baptist for a high five. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then reluctantly complied.

* * *

Merry Christmas !

Breaking news : an important message from the father himself for modding community

 Suggested background music : Frank Sinatra – Let It Snow ! Let It Snow ! Let It Snow !

The long-awaited day was finally here : December 24, the date of the cookie contest. The festival decorating team was busy making final preparations. Fall’s End Community Hall had to be perfect to host the event.

Many tables were set up, along with plenty of food and drink (non-alcoholic of course), kindly donated by John’s men. The locals had put their hearts into the decoration of the room. Many strings of lights made it warm, with big red satin bows and touches of fake snow. The team had gone all out and even provided many spicy scented candles.

The competing pairs gradually arrived in the late afternoon, some together, some separately. The room was quickly filled and a joyful hubbub arose. A huge table had been set up for Chad. The contestants took turns placing a plate containing one or more cookies on it, out of sight of the judge, who was not to be influenced.

Early in the evening, Jerome Jeffries spoke, instantly bringing the chaos of the room to a halt.

— Dear Sisters and Brothers, first of all I would like to thank you warmly for your presence. Some time ago, if someone had told me that we would make peace with Eden’s Gate, even just for a truce, I would never have believed it. Nevertheless, today we are happy to share this evening together, with joy, love and compassion. Everyone has put aside their resentments for this event, and I am deeply grateful. I would like to turn the floor over to my counterpart from Eden’s Gate, Joseph Seed.

The father joined him on stage to speak.

— My children, like Pastor Jerome, I am pleased to welcome you all together tonight. Communication can be difficult at times, and it is not always easy to empathize and understand one another. However, we are all simple human beings, sinners. We all have the right to redemption and forgiveness. I hope that this timeless episode will make you realize the importance of the mission I am dedicated to and that you will consider my proposal to join us. But for now, let’s get to the contest!

The crowd cheered the two churchmen before gathering around the table at which Chad had already taken his seat. He rubbed his hands together, as if he was preparing for some kind of athletic achievement.

— … well… I’ll… taste ! Taste these cookies. I hope they’re good !

As usual, he stammered and pronounced some words more audibly than others.

He reached for the first plate and grabbed a beautiful cookie, evenly coated with caramelized sugar. He stuffed it into his mouth, chewing it to distinguish each aroma. The audience was completely silent, waiting with impatience and suspense for the judge’s comment.

— … good ! It is good ! Very good ! Apple, caramel… er… raisins.

Without further ado, he helped himself to the second plate. This time, the cookie didn’t look like anything, it looked like a simple pile of dough put on the plate without care.

— … really ugly. But hey, taste counts too.

Staci glared at the mermaid. After a few seconds, the verdict fell.

— It’s ok. Not bad in fact.

He seized a third cookie. This one had already been noticed by the audience, as its icing was so neat and sophisticated. Wolanski admired it for a few moments before devouring it.

— Very nice. Very good. Not original.

He quickly moved on to the next plate, on which three perfectly circular cookies were arranged.

— Mastered presentation. Let’s see if the taste is also worth it… mmmhhh. Delicious !

The judge licked his fingers to not lose any crumb.

— … banal, very banal. Presentation and taste to improve. Sorry.

Richard’s gaze met Jerome’s. They both shrugged, disappointed, as Chad grabbed the next plate.

— Wow ! Way too sweet ! Too hard ! I don’t want to break one of my teeth, thanks !

Eli whispered to Wanderer :

— See, I told you so ! In moderation !

— Moderation is not the same as greed !

Someone shouted at them :

— Shut up ! We can’t hear what the judge is saying !

Wolansky looked at the last plate, doubtful.

— Is that oregano on it?

Jacob wanted to shout “It’s mint, you idiot !” at him, but the fact that the sinner knew the author of the cookies would have blown his chances of winning, so he remained silent.

The judge bit into the cookie, savoring every bite.

— Pretty good… original !

As he chewed, his eyes lit up and he looked happier and happier, until he began to blather on even more than he usually did and to utter nonsensical words. Worried, Jerome grabbed the plate and brought it to his nose.

— It’s oregano ! Who dared ?

The audience remained silent, while all the pairs were sizing each other up. No one pointed to themselves.

Not wanting to spoil the mood, Jerome changed the subject.

— So, which cookie is better, Chad ?

— … well… I’d say… pffff… the one with the apples !

He pointed to the plate in question, which Jerome grabbed.

— Who made these cookies?

Casey stepped forward, proud, pushing Arman toward the stage.

— We did !

Very quickly, clamors rose in the room, coming from the members of Eden’s Gate.

— It is cheating ! Fixman is a cook ! And then, the foreigner with whom he teamed up is a friend of the resistance !

The father went up on the stage to calm down the ardors.

— Calm down my children. Indeed, it seems to me that this team is not entitled to receive the reward, although their participation is welcome. Let the judge designate another winner.

Wolanski complied without delay, pointing to another dish containing two more perfectly circular cookies.

— These are perfect ! Who made it ?

Hurk Jr.’s shrill voice rang through the room.

— Me and my new dad ! Well, uh, Dad, no offense ! Let’s just say he’s my second father ! But you’re still my favorite!

Jerome went on stage to close the contest.

— Well, congratulations to all and thank you for your participation. The winners are Hurk Drubmann Jr and my colleague Joseph Seed. Congratulations to you all. The festival organization teams have already distributed the remaining cookies on the tables in the hall. Everyone can help themselves as many as they want, except for the oregano Fortunately, there were only a few of them.

The crowd clapped and cheered for the father and Hurk Jr, then quickly spread out across the room to sample the cookies and concoctions that the teams had made.

John had spotted Rook as soon as they entered. For once, they weren’t dressed like a tramp, far from it. He headed toward them.

On the way, he noticed that Joseph was holding one of the beautiful cookies he had decorated himself. He interrupted his journey to discreetly observe the scene. The father put the cookie in his mouth and ate it. He closed his eyes, appearing to enjoy the treat. His pleasure was confirmed when he said in a low voice, certainly to himself : “These cookies are delicious. They would have deserved first place as much as mine.

The baptist’s eyes lit up with joy. It was the first time he had received his brother’s approval and Joseph was proud of him, without even knowing that he had made the cookies himself. A warm feeling came over his heart as he set out again to meet Dep.

— Good evening, deputy.

— Hi John.

— I see you made an effort to dress up for once.

— I know how to listen and consider “constructive” remarks that are made to me, sometimes.

— I can see that. You look great anyway.

— Oh, a kind word from you. Thank you.

The party was in full swing, Sharky had improvised himself as a DJ, much to the chagrin of the guests who were not all into disco music. Fortunately, Wheaty was watching and quickly took over.

When he took the risk of playing some softer tunes, couples formed on the dance floor. Jerome watched the scene, his eyes shining. The dancing couples were sometimes composed of a member of Eden’s Gate and a member of the resistance, sometimes the two people were from the same faction. It was a pleasure to see that such different people could meet and spend the holidays together.

Grace finally dared to approach Arman.

— Good evening.

— Good evening.

— Would you like to dance with me ?

— With pleasure, Grace.

He gently embraced the young woman to take her to join the other dancers. Not holding on any longer, she tried a more direct approach.

— Are you moving to Fall’s End ?

— Oh, no.

— Aren’t you interested in the people here ?

— I’m sorry, Grace. I value Hope County, but my life is elsewhere. I have to get back to work. Besides, there’s already someone in my life.

— I understand.

He felt her tense up at his last sentence. He was sorry to have to disappoint her, but it was inconceivable to give her false hope.

At an already late hour of the evening, Jerome spoke again.

— One last surprise for you all. The decoration team of the festival, whom I want to thank warmly, has installed a huge tree next to the Spread Eagle. I propose that we decorate this tree all together. Boxes full of ornaments have been provided for this purpose under the tree.

The crowd applauded the festival team and the initiative Jerome proposed, then rushed out of the community hall to the designated place.

Indeed, a high and magnificent fir tree was proudly standing next to the bar. One by one, the guests took turns to take the ornaments out of the boxes and place them on the tree, in a cordial agreement and total mutual aid.

The tree was soon decorated with shiny glass balls, warm garlands of lights and delicate homemade hangers. The evening reached its climax when Sharky, who had climbed on the roof of the Spread Eagle and then on his cousin’s shoulders to reach the tree, placed the luminous star that served as the tree’s top.

Silence reigned for a few moments. All eyes were fixed on the majestic tree. The three strangers exchanged a knowing look. It was time for them to discreetly slip away.

* * *


Suggested background music : Shigeru Umebayashi Yumeji’s Theme

Knocking on the door of the house woke Rook up early in the morning. It took them a few moments to get out of bed. Who could come and disturb them so early after an evening that had ended so late ?

They dragged themselves with difficulty to open the door to the visitor. They let out a weary sigh as they opened the door to find John Seed standing on the front porch. Unlike them, he looked quite fresh and ready to start his day. He looked at them with an amused expression.

— Did you sleep in your clothes ?

They had indeed not taken the time to do anything when they got “home”. Exhausted, they had slumped on the bed, happy that this story of truce and contest was finally behind them. What would happen next was unknown, but they didn’t care. For the moment, they needed to rest. They would think about it only then. Realizing how long their reaction was taking, they finally answered, eager to get it over with.

— What do you want ?

— Do you want to come and take a few steps outside ?

Dep leaned their head outside to take in the temperature and the weather.

— What for ? It’s cold, it’s snowing. It’s Christmas morning. Do you really have to come and provoke me now ?

— Don’t put on a bad face, deputy. The weather is beautiful, there’s not a soul outside.

— Yes, normal people don’t get up at the crack of dawn to go freezing in the winter cold.

Weary of replying, they grabbed their jacket with a sigh and quickly put it on before leaving the building.

They started walking towards the Spread Eagle. Apparently, John was in the mood for conversation today.

— The party was very successful.

— Yes, it was.

— I have to thank you.

— What for ? We didn’t win the contest.

— We didn’t, but Joseph tasted one of our cookies and liked it. It’s the first time he’s ever shown any pride in me. It was very important to me.

— It was ?

— I was up all-night thinking. Family is supposed to be supportive, it’s not supposed to degrade its members when they don’t do what it expects of them.

Dep looked at him, bewildered. What was he getting at ? He continued.

— In the time we’ve spent together, you’ve listened to me and supported me more than my brothers have in many years. I love them with all my heart and I don’t blame them, but I find this depressing.

He paused and watched Dep as they walked. They had apparently not planned to participate in the discussion. He tried to liven it up as best he could.

— We made a good team, didn’t we ?

— I have to admit, it went better than I thought it would, in the end. In spite of your temper…

— You’re not bad yourself, in a strong personality kind of way !

They had arrived in front of the majestic tree that both factions had decorated together the night before. The younger Seed stopped and Rook followed him. He looked them straight in the eye and seemed to hesitate for a moment before starting to speak again.

— The truce is over, deputy. Doesn’t that mean we’re parting ways here ?

— It does.

— Actually, there’s something I’d like to give you.

Rook’s eyes widened. What was that all about ? As they were slow to answer, John seemed to become impatient. He insisted.

— So, will you take something from me, despite what you think of me and everything I’ve done to you lately ?

They hesitated a few more moments before answering :

YES                                                         NO

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