Chapter 1: Prologue
It was a humid summer night. Miles and Rachel had retreated home hours ago, but not before Rachel very pointedly told Charlie to come home soon. Of course, she hadn’t been looking at Charlie. No, she’d been boring holes into Bass’ head, as if her feelings about him hanging around her daughter weren’t abundantly clear. He knew she didn’t like it. He also knew that he didn’t give a fuck about what she liked.
There were times that the fire threatened to die out, and Bass might have let it, at first. Charlie didn’t though. She threw a log on as soon as the embers started to dim. He did the next time. The night, one like many others, seemed so infinite before them, and a world outside of this night, outside of this fireside dream, didn’t seem to exist.
Charlie sat on the ground by his feet. He sat on one of the large logs around the fire. Her head rested on his knee, her long wavy hair draping over his thigh and hanging so it didn’t touch the ground. His fingers combed through her hair, it flowing silkily over his rough knuckles. Her eyes were closed, and she hummed in contentment. He tilted his face up toward the sky, his own eyes falling shut, and breathed in the cool night air. He wondered how he got to be so lucky.
There was nothing going on between Bass and Charlie. Not really. There wasn’t a name to it. They were friends but very close ones. He would even say that he was closer to her than Miles now. They understood each other’s scars and damage in ways that others could not. He wanted to protect her and care for her, and she showed him daily that she didn’t need him to. They were a unit, one that nobody else minded, but they were. Where he went, she went. Where she went, he went. All in ways that didn’t make anybody suspicious yet kept them together.
They hadn’t done anything physical or intimate. Their current position was about as intimate as they got. Touching wasn’t out of the question. Hands touching, his fingers brushing along her exposed midriff, her grip tight on his forearm. A kiss to her forehead just once. There’d been no real kisses, no earth-shattering embraces, no wild romps in the bedroom. It wasn’t like that with them.
Bass wanted that. Eventually. He wanted everything that she was willing to give him. Her body, her soul, her love. Because he loved her. There was nothing in his life that he was so absolutely certain about. His feelings for Charlie were real, and he would never stop loving her. All he needed to do was wait it out.
The fire was getting low again, but with Charlie against him as she was, he couldn’t move to add another log. And, judging by the steady rise and fall of her chest, she was on the brink of sleep. It was probably best to douse the fire and call it a night.
“We should get you home,” he said quietly.
One of her hands gripped his ankle, like it would tether him to this spot. “Let her worry.”
He smirked. “As much as I enjoy pissing Rachel off, you’re falling asleep.”
She whined. “Am not.”
He brushed a strand of hair off her face. “Yes, you are.” He patted her back. “Up.”
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes, casting her gaze up to his face. “You are just so comfortable.”
He wanted to comment about how comfortable it is to be with her, too, though he knew that wasn’t exactly what she meant. He didn’t. Instead, he went to stand, effectively removing her from his leg. “Come on, Charlotte. A real bed awaits you.”
“Don’t you miss those days?” she asked as she got to her feet and dusted the dirt off her jeans. “Travelling, sleeping by the campfire, just doing what we needed to do to survive.”
He chuckled. “I wouldn’t exactly call it fun. But, you certainly made it better.”
She bumped his hip with her own and started walking. “You mean, when I wasn’t trying to kill you?”
“That just made it more exciting.” His arm draped around her shoulders.
Her hand reached up and grasped his. “You going soft on me, old man?”
In a bold move, he pressed a kiss to her hair. “Never.”
Most of the journey back to the house, the house she shared with her mother, Miles, and her grandfather, was silent. A companionable silence, one that they were familiar with, one that they were comfortable with.
When they stood outside of the house, he found that he wasn’t ready to say goodnight. It had been one of those calm, normal nights, but for whatever reason, he knew it was one that he would always remember. One that he would hold close to his heart. He didn’t want it to end.
She stood in front of him, her eyes cast downward to her feet. “Bass…” she said.
Her gaze rose to his face, and before he knew what was happening, her hands were in his hair. Her mouth was on his, heated and wanting. His arms wrapped around her middle, drawing her in closer to him. Their tongues pressed together.
They stayed like that for only a split second, or maybe it was eternity. Whatever it was, when it was over, things were changed. Everything had shifted.
Once they were apart, she pressed her forehead against his. “I should go inside.”
He wanted to tell her to come with him. To come back to his place. He didn’t need anything more to happen; he just wanted to be with her longer.
He didn’t. “You should.”
She peeled away from him, and he watched as she stepped up onto the porch, waved back at him and disappeared inside.
That was the last time he saw her.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
Charlie comes back to Bass
Thank you everybody for the wonderful response to this story! I plan on updating this roughly once a week. I have the first nine chapters written. I still have no idea where I'm going with this, in the long run, but I have a few ideas in mind. We'll see where this goes!
Charlie comes to with a gasp. The world around her is quiet and a little dark. A canopy of trees helps shield the sun from her eyes as she lays on her back on the ground. Twigs and leaves crunch beneath her as she sits up, her entire body screaming in pain as she does. Everything hurts. Everything aches and burns and stings. Just breathing is painful.
The sound of snapping twigs makes Charlie jump and whip her head to look at what approaches her. A young boy, probably about the age of thirteen, smiles at her as he gets closer to her. “You’re awake! Thank god!” She doesn’t know what to do or say. The boy keeps approaching until he comes to kneel by her side, his backpack dropping into the space between them. “Here,” he digs a canteen from the pack, “have some of this.”
She shakes her head, but he still holds it out to her. “Come on, you’re probably thirsty.” Slowly, making sure that she doesn’t touch him, she takes the canteen and begins to drink. Slowly at first but once she gets a few gulps down, she greedily takes more. Never has plain water tasted so damn good.
Once the canteen is empty, she offers it back to the boy, who stuffs it back into his pack. “I’m Oliver, by the way. You can call me Olly. Everyone does. Except my mom when she’s mad, and she gets mad a lot.” He tips back to sit on the ground, legs crisscrossed, leaning his elbows on his knees. “What’s your name?”
The answer is there on her tongue. It’s simple. I’m Charlie. It’s all she has to say, and she wants to say it. But, there’s danger in words. Words are bad, words are what get her into trouble. Words hurt.
When she doesn’t say anything, Olly frowns. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. I think I know. You’re Charlie Matheson, right?” She gives him a wide-eyed stare, confused and scared. “That’s what I thought. C’mon, I know some people who will want to see you.” He gets to his feet and pulls his backpack onto his shoulders.
Charlie takes her time getting to her feet. Once a foot is flat on the ground, pain ricochets through the sole and up her leg. She whimpers and tries to steady herself with a hand on the ground, but it doesn’t help. Olly sees her struggling and comes forward to take her arm to help. The second he touches her, it’s like fire blazes up her arm, burning her alive. She screams and pulls away, tumbling back to the ground, and he can’t scurry back fast enough, his hands raised in surrender. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to help.”
There’s no way for her to communicate to him that it’s okay, that it’s not really him. That the reaction to his touch had been knee-jerk and unintentional. Instead, she just frowns and focuses on trying to stand. Olly doesn’t offer to help this time, just waits patiently as she gets to her feet and finds her bearings. “It’s this way,” he says as he starts moving, hopefully heading out of the woods.
Slowly but surely, pain surging through her, Charlie begins to follow.
Bass had been done with traveling. He did his time in the war against the patriots, those long months sleeping on the ground and fighting the good fight. He helped Texas win the war, and now, after paying his dues, he’s supposed to be sitting pretty in an office in Willoughby. He’s supposed to be reaping the benefits of a cushy desk job, but he isn’t.
Because that one morning changed everything.
The window of Charlie’s bedroom had been shattered. An oil lamp was broken into a million pieces on the floor. The chest of drawers had been tipped over onto its face. The mattress had been pushed from the bed. The few framed photos around the room were broken or thrown around. Blood was on the window sill, too much blood for Bass’ liking.
That morning, Bass stood in that bedroom and felt like it was the entire world that was in disarray. “You heard nothing,” he said coolly, surveying the room.
Miles stood in the doorway, shifting from one foot to the other. “Not a sound.”
Bass’ jaw tensed. “Look at this place, Miles. She did not go quietly. You had to have heard something.”
Still, Miles shook his head. “Nothing, Bass. Maybe I was too drunk, but none of us heard anything.”
Out of anger, out of grief, Bass had flown at him. He beat on Miles and was beat on in return, as he spewed threats and accusations. He threw his heartache into motion, taking it out on his best friend, when he knew that it wasn’t his fault.
That night, Bass set off in search of her. Miles and Rachel went their own way, to widen the area. They would meet back in Willoughby in a month to report what they found.
Nothing. A big, fat amount of nothing. Nobody had seen anything, nobody had noticed a girl like her, nobody knew of anything suspicious happening.
After a few days rest, they all went out again. Same plan as before. They’d regroup in Willoughby in a month. And, like before, they found nothing.
It went on for months. Searching and silently begging the universe to give her back but getting nothing in return. It wasn’t long before Rachel quit. Claimed that it broke her heart too much to look for a daughter who was probably dead. Bass had snarled and shouted at her, but Miles, as always, stepped in to quiet them and admitted that he was done, too.
If anyone was going to find Charlie, it would have to be him.
Which brings him to now. Fourteen months come and gone since she went missing, and he’s no closer to finding her than he was when he started. All it’s done is made him world-weary and a little more broken than he was before.
As he strides back into Willoughby, worn down and defeated, he dreads seeing Miles and Rachel. They are always his first stop, always the ones that he goes to. Because he needs to get it over with quick, needs to tell them that he didn’t solve it or bring her home with him this time. He needs to rip off the band-aid before crawling into a bottle of whiskey for the next few days.
Walking along the main drag of town early in the morning, there’s not a lot of traffic. Most people are at their homesteads, getting things ready for the day or tending to their own animals. It’s only him out on the street, and so it’s easy to spot the figures up ahead when they first appear.
The sun is shining bright in Bass’ face so it’s hard for him to make out who it is walking toward him, but the silhouettes are vastly different. The slightly shorter one has to be only a kid, with a lean build, and an arm extended toward the person next to him. The other figure looks worse for wear. They stumble as they walk, barely able to stay upright, and the body is too thin for this person to be healthy. Their head is tilted downward to watch their feet as they move.
As Bass gets closer, a voice calls out to him, “Monroe! You’re back!”
He recognizes the voice. Olly, one of the local farmer’s kid, who has taken a shine to Bass for whatever reason. They keep walking toward each other, and with the distance becoming shorter, he can see more clearly.
His heart thuds hard in his chest. No. It couldn’t be. Not after all this time. “Charlie?”
She lifts her head at the name, and it sends him running, dropping his pack as he goes. He closes the distance in no time and sweeps her into his arms. She’s different, lighter and smaller but still distinctly Charlie. All that matters is that she’s here. Her hands grip his jacket as she presses her face to his chest, starting to weep.
Bass’ knees go weak, and he lowers the both of them to the ground. He pulls her into his lap and buries his face in her dirty and matted hair. He rocks her slowly as he says, “I thought I lost you.”
“I found her in the woods outside of town,” Olly explains, hovering near the two of them. “When I saw her, I think I just knew it was her.”
“Thank you,” Bass murmurs. The words are not enough. There’s no way to truly express how grateful he is to have her back, to be holding her again.
She clings to him as hard as she can, her grip weak. “It’s okay,” he tells her. “You’re okay. I’m here now. I’m here.” And, he promises himself, he’s never letting her go again.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
Bass helps Charlie get clean.
Bass leans against the wall of the living room, his knuckles pressed to his mouth as he watches. He observes and takes in everything about her. Her golden hair is dark after being unwashed for so long, matted and snarled at the base of her neck. Her blue eyes remain flat, a faraway look in them. Across one cheekbone lays a nasty burn scar. Her clothes are caked with dirt. She’s too thin, every bony protuberance too prominent. Ribs, vertebrae, collarbone, hipbones all too noticeable under her skin. Peeking out from the edges of her clothes, he can see other scars, ugly and red. He doesn’t doubt that there are more they can’t see.
Charlie has been set on the couch as her grandfather examines her. Tries to examine her. Every time Gene tries to touch her at all, she flinches and leans away. Sometimes she swats at him. Whatever she does, the message is clear: she doesn’t want to be touched.
Bass and Miles exchange glances. They both see it. She’s shutdown. As soon as Gene, Rachel, and Miles came pouring out of the house and Charlie was out of his arms, it was like she turned off everything. They both saw it enough in other soldiers, they can easily recognize it now.
But, Gene and Rachel don’t see it. They think she’s being obstinate, think that she’s trying to fight them. “Charlie, let him help you,” Rachel demands of her. “Just let him take a look.”
Charlie shakes her head and tucks her arms close to her body. She draws everything in to protect herself. Everyone is her enemy; she can’t trust any of them.
“Rachel,” Miles says, drawing her attention. “Let her be.”
Rachel puts her hands on her hips. “I can’t let her be. She’s taken from me in the middle of the night, lost for a year, and comes back looking like this. I can’t let her be, Miles. I need to do something.”
“Draw her a bath,” Bass says, not taking his eyes from Charlie.
Gene, Miles, and Rachel all pin him with looks of surprise or confusion. Bass meets each of their eyes and shrugs. “She’s filthy. Give her the opportunity to clean up, maybe let her feel a little more like a person.”
Nobody seems to have any arguments to that so Rachel leaves her post by the couch and heads up the stairs.
“She means well,” Miles says to Bass. “She just… We don’t…” He rubs a hand over his face, and when he speaks again, his voice cracks. “I didn’t expect to see her again.”
Bass grips his shoulder and squeezes. “I know, brother. I know.”
Gene looks to his granddaughter, helplessly. “I want to help, Charlie. Let me help.”
She shakes her head, edging away from him.
“Just give her space, Gene,” Miles urges, gesturing for the older man to come stand with them. “Let her breathe.”
Gene does as he’s told and comes to stand next to Miles. “I don’t like this.”
“You think any of us do?” Bass hisses. He wants all of them to be out of the picture right now. Have them go off and do something else. Charlie let him touch her, she let him hold her. If there’s anybody that can get through to her, it’s him.
“Just off my initial findings so far,” Gene says, pointedly ignoring Bass, “she’s emaciated. I don’t know how long she’s been walking on those bare feet, but there’s a chance of infection there. And, I can see some burn marks. I don’t like odds of there being more.”
God, the man is useless. Nothing he’s said is something that Bass couldn’t figure out on his own. The girl is skin and bones. Her feet are bleeding. And, he would have to be blind not to see the burn marks. Especially the one across her right cheek. Skin stretched and pulled taut, seared into place. By the shape of it, Bass would guess that it was a flat of a blade of some kind, super-heated before being applied to her skin.
It all makes him think of one thing: she wasn’t just stolen, she was tortured.
He watches her as she peers over her knees at the three men watching her. While only ghosting over Miles and Gene, her gaze lands steadily on Bass. Even still, her hazy blue eyes don’t seem to really focus on him. They’re dull and almost lifeless, nothing compared to the shining bright blue they once were.
But, she’s in there. His Charlie. This is a mask, a protective shell, a way for her to hide and keep herself safe. It’ll come down. Eventually. And, then, she’ll truly be back.
Rachel comes padding down the stairs and stops at the bottom. “It’s all ready for her.” She puts on a reassuring smile and eases closer to Charlie, crouching down to be at eye level with her. “Charlie, honey, there’s a bath waiting for you. Do you want to get cleaned up?”
Charlie doesn’t look at her mom, she’s still staring at Bass. As if he’s keeping her tethered, together. She gets to her feet and only then does she look around the room at the other people around her. She hesitates, doesn’t head toward the stairs, just waits.
“Would you like some help?” Rachel offers, standing up and inching closer to her daughter.
Charlie’s eyes are searching again, going from one face to the next until it winds up on his again. She keeps her gaze steady as she comes over to him and grabs his hand. Or his fingers, really. Her thin, frail hand only wraps around the middle and forefinger of his right hand. The action is so childish, so unlike the Charlie he knows, and his heart sinks into the pit of his stomach.
“I’m not comfortable with that,” Rachel says stiffly, arms over her chest. “Maybe I should help you, or you grandfather. Just not Bass…”
Bass shuts his eyes against the words. Just not Bass. Well, despite what Rachel thinks, this is not some ploy to get into her daughter’s pants. This isn’t the way that Bass would have chosen to see Charlie without her clothes. Honestly, he doesn’t even want to be the one to go up there with her. But, Charlie has chosen him, and he’ll do anything for her. Before but especially now.
He opens his eyes and gets ready for an argument when Miles says, “Let him go, Rach. She wants him.”
Rachel frowns as she looks at where their hands are joined and nods. As much as she might hate Bass, she sees the need for him right now, and she’ll accept it, even if it’s only begrudgingly.
Bass helps Charlie up the stairs. She’s so light in his arms, so frail, like a baby bird. Her feet aren’t quite cooperating with her as she tries to maneuver them up the stairs. They keep catching on the edges of the steps, and it’s Bass’ steady hold on her waist that is keeping her upright. She’s weak still. All he wants to do is scoop her into his arms and carry her, but he knows that it’s probably too much. Her trust in him is tentative, and he doesn’t want to push his luck or push her away. So, he takes the hard way; he helps her, step by step, up the stairs until they reach the top.
Outside the bathroom door, Charlie hesitates, hands gripping Bass’ shirt tightly. Her eyes meet his, worry and fear in them. It’s the most he’s seen out of them yet. “What is it?” he asks, he urges. He wants her to speak. He wants to know the answers to so many questions. Her chin quivers, like she’s trying to open her mouth, but she doesn’t. He can see her face crack with frustration. “Hey,” he says, fingers brushing her chin. “It’ll come back, Charlie. It’ll all be back to normal soon.” It’s a lie, just a straight-up lie that they are both aware of, but it makes him feel a little better. He hopes it does the same for her.
She steps into the bathroom, and he follows after, clicking the door shut behind them. Experimentally, she dips her fingertips into the water and pulls them out abruptly. She shakes her hand and head, frowning down at the tub. Bass reaches past her and tests the water as well. It’s not hot, having cooled off a bit in the time it took them to get up the stairs, but he can see why it might be too much for her. A couple of her wounds look new and will probably sting like hell when in the water, let alone covered in soap.
Settling down on the edge of the tub, Charlie pulls her tank top up and over her head. Once it’s off and cast down to the floor, Bass tries to focus on it and not the almost half-naked girl in the room. The tank top is the same one she was wearing the night when he last saw her. Its fabric is full of holes and the places where Charlie gripped it to remove it are practically disintegrating. After a year exposed to dirt and blood and who knows what else, it’s ready to give up. Shortly, a simple bra joins it on the floor. It, too, is dirty and torn, but not to the same degree. Still, one of the straps is snapped and blood has stained one cup so much, it looks black.
Bass is trying so hard not to look at her. He wants to. He wants to take in the all of the damage, catalogue every cut and bruise and burn. He wants to see what she’s dealing with, wants to start to try to understand what pain she’s actually in. He wants to see what has been done to her so that he can try to help her heal.
Charlie’s hand wraps around his forearm, and he whips his head to look at her face. Only her face, he refuses to look elsewhere. Her other hand comes to his other forearm, and she uses the leverage to stand again. Her balance is wobbly as she works her jeans and underwear down her thighs. His arms hover around her, ready to catch her if she topples.
Once all of her clothes are removed, her hands return to his arms for balance as she gingerly steps into the tub. She hisses as the water surrounds her feet and ankles and then the rest of her as she sits. She doesn’t stretch out in the tub, her knees remain pulled up to her chest. Everything he shouldn’t see is covered, and so he is unabashed in looking her over.
Her back is a battlefield. There’s barely an inch of smooth skin, of unmarred territory. The most noticeable, the most stomach turning, is the series of large gashes that stretch from her right shoulder to the low left hip. They cluster in a jagged and angry diagonal across her back. It takes the breath from his lungs. Bass knows these injuries, he’s been on the receiving end of these injuries.
She’s been whipped.
Seeing it on Charlie now, Bass’ stomach roils. He honestly thinks he’s going to be physically sick. The engorged skin, raised and raw, covers far too much of her once lovely skin. It is far from the only injury though. Burn marks similar to the one on her face litter her back, along with short but deep cuts. It seems like wherever there was space to inflict more pain, it was used.
Charlie is shaking in the water, small waves rippling off of her. Bass turns his attention to her face. Her gaze is far away, and he can tell that wherever her mind is, it’s not here. “Charlie,” Bass says softly. He thinks of reaching out to touch her but doesn’t. He doesn’t want to spook her. “Charlie.”
She gasps and turns to look at him, her eyes meeting his but still distant. He wants to ask her where she went, what she was seeing or thinking about. He wants to know what happened to her, all of the pain and agony that she went through so that he can find the person and rip them to shreds.
Instead, he asks, “Do you want help getting clean? I can help… If you want.”
At least the situation isn’t lost on her as her cheeks blaze at the question. She at least understands what he just offered. Yet, still, she nods. She nods to affirm that, yes, she wants his help washing her body. She wants help getting the dirt off and wants help discovering all the places where she hurts. In another lifetime, the idea of washing a naked Charlie would have been a dream come true. Now, it seems like a test that he’s being put through.
“Okay.” He comes to kneel by the tub, rolling his sleeves up past his elbows. “Just let me know if you become uncomfortable.”
Bass finds the bar of soap and a washcloth, creates a lather, and slowly starts rubbing the washcloth along her back. She hisses and flinches but doesn’t make him stop. He works the soapy washcloth over her back, around her neck. He’s as gentle as he can be while still removing the caked-on dirt. He takes a small pitcher from nearby and scoops water from the tub, pouring it over her and rinsing away the soap from her skin.
He scrubs down her arms and takes note of her Monroe brand. It’s been cut up again and again, new scarring trying to shape the burn into something new. Other burn marks overlap the top of it. Whoever did this wanted to mangle the mark as much as they could, to remove all traces of the Monroe Republic from her skin. Even still, the M stands out from the other scarring.
When he comes to her front, he doesn’t know what to say. Her legs are still curled up in front of her chest. It’s a defense, her last one before she is just completely exposed. He can’t ask her to give that up.
She sees him struggling. She sees his hesitation and the question in his eyes. Her bottom lip quakes, her eyes stay solid on his as she lowers her legs, exposing her body to him. He keeps his eyes up as tears start to streak her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he says, voice tight in his throat.
Finally, Bass lets his eyes dip to her body. The damage to her front is even worse than her back. A deep “X” is carved over her heart and a large, uncontrolled burn scores down her sternum. Dozens more scars and cuts and burns litter her stomach and chest. While the injuries on her back show the patient act of torture, the injuries on her front show rage. This wasn’t meticulous and planned. It was impulsive and angry.
His eyes dart up to hers again. She’s crying, still controlled, and her chin trembles with her trying to hold it back. “Charlie…” She shakes her head, hard. She doesn’t want whatever he’s about to say. Not that he knows what he’s about to say. Instead, she reaches out for his hand, the one with the soapy washcloth, and brings it to her body. She turns her head away from him.
Bass shuts it down. Every single thought and feeling, he just turns it off. He has a job, to get her clean, and he will. He does. He doesn’t think about his hands on her body, or the damage that has been caused to it. Clinically, he scrubs the skin of her torso and legs, noting the dark bruising around each ankle, before giving her the washcloth to take care of the more intimate areas of her body.
Charlie finishes washing her body and brings her legs back up to her chest, her shield fully in place. While Bass wouldn’t say that she looks good or fine even, she looks better. Clean can go a long way when it comes to injuries. He looks down at the murky water. It’s a step. “Does that help?” he asks her.
She rests her chin on her knees and shrugs. Her hands come to her hair, still tangled, matted and dirty. Her fingers toy with the ends. “Yeah,” Bass says, steadily, “we still need to take care of that.” She frowns, looks at him, and holds out her hand. He doesn’t know what she’s asking him for. When he doesn’t move, she points at his pants pocket. His hands rest on his thighs, and he can feel it there. She knows he always has one with him.
When he produces the pocket knife and flicks it open, he meets her eyes skeptically. “Are you sure?”
She yanks the knife from his hand, and before he can stop her, she’s sliced the blade through her hair. It’s a moment before she realizes what she’s done, and he can see when it hits her. Her hands fall to her knees, one gripping the knife, the other the handful of hair she’d just cut.
Bass looks at the damage she’s done. She managed to get rid of the worst of it. Her hair is now cut just below her ears, choppy and uneven. He figures that Rachel will do her best to fix it later. He holds his hands out to her, and she hands him the knife and clump of hair. “Can you wash the rest of it?” She nods.
He busies himself as she washes her hair. He tucks away the pocket knife and deposits the hair into a small waste basket. The sudden outburst, the need to mutilate herself in that small way, was sudden, but not unfounded. Miles and himself had seen plenty of soldiers with PTSD, plenty stricken down by the trauma of battle. Sudden bouts of anger or aggression weren’t uncommon. He knows that, for Charlie, they are far from over.
After a few minutes, Bass finally looks back at Charlie. Her hair is now wet and dripping, and she’s resumed her previous position: knees pulled up to her chest, chin resting on knees, eyes unfocused and staring off. He examines her from his short distance. Her face is gaunt, but the skin is mostly untouched aside from the one burn. As if whoever had her wanted to keep her face pretty.
It keeps hitting him over and over again, like he keeps forgetting. Somebody did this. This didn’t just happen. Somebody planned and executed and performed. Somebody cut her and whipped her and burned her. There was somebody out there who tried to destroy Charlie, and if it was the last thing that Sebastian Monroe ever did, he was going to find that person and kill them.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Everyone has questions for Bass
I just seriously want to thank everyone for the love that this story has gotten! I love writing for this fandom, and this story has certainly been no exception.
I'm going to try to post something for this every week, but as we all know, life sometimes gets in the way.
“I can’t get her to lay in her bed,” Rachel says, coming down the stairs.
Bass shakes his head and silently takes another sip of his whiskey. This day has felt like ten. The last few hours alone feeling like an eternity. Finding Charlie this morning, finally bringing her home, has been such an ordeal that Bass isn’t sure how any of them are still standing.
After he and Charlie got her dried off and dressed in loose but clean clothes, the same interrogation from before started. Gene tried to examine her and her different wounds while Rachel tried to get her to speak, to say anything. Neither attempt did any good. Charlie allowed Gene to look at the damage done to her arms, but when he overstepped and tried to touch the burn on her face, she’d screamed bloody murder and stumbled off the couch. And, when Rachel couldn’t stop questioning her or egging her on to talk, Charlie used her hands to cover her ears and curled in tighter on herself.
The whole display infuriated Bass. He understood that they meant well, but couldn’t they see how much harm they were doing? Much more than any good that was coming out of it. All he wants to say to them is that they should all fuck off and leave her alone. Despite the outburst of cutting off her hair earlier, which Rachel hadn’t been happy about, Charlie doesn’t seem to be any sort of danger to herself. It won’t do any harm to let her be on her own.
But, Bass knows that he doesn’t have any say here, not really. He’s not Charlie’s family, not her blood, and all that has happened between them, all the time they spent together and all the special moments they shared don’t matter right now. Because Rachel isn’t going to listen to someone who’s not family. She’s especially not going to listen to Bass of all people.
About half an hour ago, Rachel agreed to let Charlie go to bed, to get some rest. While she took Charlie upstairs this time, Gene probed Bass about the injuries he saw. Which is why Bass is now on his third whiskey. Having seen the damage was enough, having to describe it made him ill. But, he did his best. Told all about the controlled assault on her back, with the whipping and the searing and the cutting, and told all about the rage that was present on the front with the burning and the slicing and the scarring. He tried to make it seem like he wasn’t bothered by it, but Miles saw through it and was the one that kept supplying new drinks to him.
Now, he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
“What was that?” Gene asks, turning to look at his daughter.
Rachel huffs as she descends the last few steps. “I’ve been trying for the last twenty minutes to get her into bed, but she refuses. She’s just sitting in the corner of the room and won’t move.”
Bass takes another pull of whiskey. She’s really not understanding this gentle touch thing. They can’t force Charlie to do anything she doesn’t want to do. She’s here; that should be all that they ask of her.
Before Gene can offer, and since he knows Bass won’t, Miles gets to his feet. “Let me see what I can do.” He ascends the stairs two-by-two until he’s out of sight.
Rachel comes to sit by her father on the couch, eyeing Bass at his place in the armchair. “Did she say anything to you?”
He gives her a bored stare. “Yes, Rachel, she was reciting Shakespeare.” He shakes his head. “What do you think?”
“I was just checking, Bass,” Rachel snaps, eyes narrowing at him. “There’s a lot that I’m not understanding here, and I want to make sure I’m not missing anything.”
“There’s nothing to miss,” he assures her, bringing his glass up to take another swig of whiskey.
“Have you slept with my daughter?” It’s accusatory and, frankly, comes from nowhere.
Bass chokes on his drink, coughs and sputters. “What? You’re asking that now? After all this time?”
She shrugs. “It’s a prudent question, given the circumstances.”
“The circumstances?” he repeats, coughing again. “What− No, Rachel, I haven’t slept with Charlie. Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“Why else would she want you with her then?” she demands. “When she was going to be naked and exposed and hurting.”
Bass has his theories, he has his hopes. Like, maybe, she wanted him with her because she remembers that she can trust him. That despite whatever shit she’s been through, he’s been the one thing that remains untainted in her head. He hopes that she still remembers what happened that night before she disappeared, but for certain, he can’t say what’s really going on in her head. “I don’t know. I don’t think any of us can know what she’s thinking right now.”
It’s obvious that Rachel’s not buying it. “None of it makes sense, Bass. She’s been−” She struggles and swallows hard. “Things have happened to her, and out of everyone here, it’s only you that she seems open to. I have a hard time believing there’s not more to the story than what you’re sharing.”
“The fact is that you’ve never gotten it,” he growls at her. “You don’t understand the relationship that I had with Charlie. We fought together, protected each other, and tried to kill each other on more than one occasion. There was a bond born out of blood, sweat, tears and brotherhood that I can’t even begin to explain. So.” He takes a deep breath. “No. I didn’t sleep with her, but I was probably much closer to her than you are.”
It’s only after he’s spat the words out that he realizes what he’s done: he referred to their relationship in the past tense. All during the missing year, he refused to refer to Charlie in the past tense. Charlie is, not was. Charlie does, not did. Charlie has, not had. Referring to her in the past tense meant that she was gone, and he’d not allowed that thought to even cross his mind. Now, he’s talking about their relationship as if it’s long gone. Because, he knows, it is. Whatever bond they may form again now is not the same as what they had, and their relationship as they knew it is gone.
Before Rachel can even formulate a response to Bass’ outburst, Miles is at the bottom of the stairs. “She wants you, I think,” he says to Bass. Miles holds up his wrist and gestures to it. “She keeps pointing at her brand.”
Bass tries not to take too much pride in that, Charlie wanting him, as he heads up the stairs. It must grind Rachel’s gears. Even after all this time apart, there’s something that draws Charlie to him. At least, he hopes there is.
When he opens the door to Charlie’s bedroom, he finds her curled up in the far corner. She changed into pajamas at some point, ones that hang loosely on her frame. Her forehead is resting on her knees. Shutting the door behind him, he approaches her cautiously. “Charlie,” he says calmly, quietly.
She glances up at him but doesn’t move.
He comes to kneel in front of her. Another time, he might have reached out to touch her. He wants to, but he doesn’t. “Are you tired?” She nods. “Do you want to get into bed?” She shakes her head but doesn’t make any motion to elaborate. He frowns. It doesn’t make sense to him, her refusal of her own bed. He would imagine that after whatever sleeping conditions she’s been in, a bed would be− Oh. He gets it now.
Getting to his feet, he pulls a pillow and a blanket from her bed and lays them out on the floor next to it. She watches him from her place in the corner, curious. When he comes back to kneel by her again, he says, “Do you remember those days of travelling together? Of sleeping by the campfire and feeling like hell when we woke up?” She nods. “And, when we finally got back here to Willoughby, we couldn’t wait to sleep in a nice bed?” She nods again. “Well, I don’t know about you, but for me, after sleeping on the hard ground for so long, a bed was almost too soft. Sometimes, I would just lay my bedroll on the floor and sleep there another night or two.”
Charlie reaches a hand out, grabs his wrist and squeezes. Bass gets the message. He’s right. The mattress is too soft for her after spending a year sleeping god-knows-where. “Come lay down here. I think you’ll be more comfortable.”
She slowly unwinds herself from the tight ball she created and scoots across the floor to where Bass has lain her makeshift-bed. The pillow gets pushed away, Charlie opting instead to rest her head on one of her arms. But, she does accept the blanket that’s placed over her. “There. Is that better?” he asks her. She nods. “Good. I’ll let you get some sleep then.”
Suddenly, she’s upright again, her hands gripping his, eyes wild. She’s tugging at his hands, desperate to communicate with him in her only way possible. He understands. Stay, she’s begging him. She doesn’t want him to leave her. “Okay, Charlie. Okay.” Untangling one of his hands from hers, he runs it over her hair. “Lay back down. I’m not going anywhere.”
She stares at him, brow crinkled in concern, worry over her face. All day, it’s as if she’s been clinging to him as her rock, her anchor, but the way she’s looking at him now, it’s as if she doesn’t believe he’ll stay. As if she doesn’t trust him to stick it out. His hand rests on her cheek, making sure her eyes are on his. “I won’t leave you.” She presses her free hand flat against his chest, right over his heart. “I promise.”
With that, she slowly nods her head. She lays down again, arranging her arm under her head. Her other hand is still gripping his tightly. It’s a long few minutes before her eyes fluttering shut, a few longer still before her chest begins to rise and fall steadily. He waits. About ten minutes after he’s certain she’s asleep, he peels his hand out of hers, eases to his feet, and leaves the room as quietly as he can.
All three of the others turn to look at him as he comes traipsing down the stairs. “She’s asleep,” he reports.
“Thank god,” Miles replies, letting out a ragged breath.
Bass makes his way to the small bar cart, where his empty glass and the bottle of whiskey wait for him. He pours himself a glass. “I’m going to crash here tonight. Charlie wants me with her.”
“Absolutely not.” Rachel stares him down, jaw tight and eyes narrowed. “I won’t allow it.”
Everyone goes still. Bass darts his eyes from Rachel to Miles beside him, who looks just as surprised as Bass feels. Nobody wants to be the first to respond, nobody wants to poke the bear.
Finally, Gene says gently, “Rachel, I think you should consider−”
She pins her father with a withering glare. “No. She is my daughter. It’s my job to take care of her. I don’t need any of you telling me what is best for her, especially Monroe.”
Bass flinches. She doesn’t call him Monroe often, but when she does, it’s because she’s angry with him and trying to remember him as the monster that he once was. His gaze turns to her, eyes pleading. “I promised her, Rachel. I told her I would be with her.”
“You shouldn’t be promising her anything,” she says, shaking her head. “She can’t handle promises you can’t keep.”
Miles approaches her. “It can’t hurt to let him stay. If she wants him here, it’s probably best that he’s around.”
Rachel purses her lips. “She will survive without him. She needs to learn that he’s not the only one she can trust.”
Anger bubbles up in Bass’ chest. Is she really going to deny Charlie of him just because she trusts him and not her? It’s petty and something that Bass thought even Rachel wouldn’t stoop to. Not with Charlie as she is. “Now is not the time for that lesson!” he barks at Rachel. “It’s been a day. Let her have what she wants.” He spits out the next part with as much venom as possible. “You can try to fix her later.”
“Fuck you, Bass.” She sneers. “You don’t know anything.”
“I know she’s hurting,” he says harshly, setting down his glass of whiskey. “I know that she wants me around. I know that kills you, and I know that you’re acting this way because you feel guilty. Because you gave up on her, and I never did. Don’t take it out on her now, just because you were a shitty parent.”
Rachel’s face is hard, her jaw clenched. “Get out,” she demands, fire in her eyes. “Get the fuck out of my house and don’t come back.”
The room goes silent. It’s a stand-off. It’s a matter of Bass listening to her or not, a matter of her forcing him or not.
The truth is Bass is tired of arguing. He’s just gotten back after a month searching for Charlie. All he wanted to do was go home and sleep it off. But, with Charlie suddenly reappearing, things had changed. The rest of the day he’s been put through the emotional wringer, wearing him down. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. He wants to do what’s best for Charlie. Barring that, he wants to give himself a chance to rest.
He lets Rachel win. Without another word, he brushes past her and out the door.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
Charlie's nightmares seem so real
I'm still simply overwhelmed by how many people are loving this story. I'd especially like to thank romeokijai and hayj for all their encouraging words. I cannot express my gratitude enough.
Darkness. Pain. Fire. Blood.
Darkness. Pain. Fire. Blood.
Darkness. Pain. Fire. Blood.
Charlie’s in her bedroom at home, curled up on the floor. But, she’s not there. Not really.
She’s back in that place. A cold, dark cellar smaller than her bedroom. Shackles tight around her ankles. Not that she has the strength to run away. All he feeds her is some liquid concoction, lumpy and tasteless. It’s enough to keep her alive but not much else.
A single oil lamp flickers in the corner of the cellar, sitting on a small round table. He stands next to it, his face covered by a simple white mask. The large combat knife is in his hand, hovering the blade in the flame of the lamp. When the blade is red hot, he turns and stalks across the room toward her.
She cowers in the corner, but he grabs her roughly by the hair, throwing her forward onto her front. He yanks up the back of her shirt and lays the blade flat on her back. She screams and thrashes, and he presses her down to keep her still.
Suddenly, her mom and Miles are there. The man is gone, but the pain is still there. She’s still in the cellar. Dark and damp and cold. She pushes herself back into a sitting position, looking around wildly. He isn’t there, the man isn’t there. She reaches out to touch the wall, to balance herself, expecting the cold stone under her fingers. Instead, it’s smooth plaster.
Her mom kneels in front of her. “Charlie. Charlie!”
Charlie hears it now. Screaming. Her screaming. How long she’s been doing it, she’s not sure. She can’t stop.
The room around her changes and shifts, and she’s back in her bedroom. Miles is standing behind her mother, hands in his hair. Her grandfather hovers in the doorway. Her mother is still crouched before her, concern knit over her features. When her mom reaches out and touches Charlie on the shoulders, she panics. The touch is like fire, hot and unwanted. The scream dies in her throat, out of fear, and she shoves her mother’s hands away. Tears begin streaming down her face. She scrambles away from her mother, tucking herself in the corner of the room. Her knees curl up to her chest, her feet stinging as they press against the floor. Her arms wrap around her legs, hugging them tighter to her chest.
Her mother backs away from her, a lost look on her face, and goes to stand next to Miles. Miles looks pale, eyeing Charlie like she’s about to spontaneously combust. “What do we do?” he asks.
“We just need to calm her down,” her mother says. “We need to get her back to sleep.”
Charlie knows what they’re saying, that she needs to be calm, but she doesn’t know how to do it. Her heart is pounding in her chest, and every single cell in her body is telling her that she’s in danger. If she could run, she would, but the door’s blocked and her feet sting like hell. Nobody here will protect her.
That’s when she notices that he’s missing: Bass. He’d promised her that he wouldn’t leave, but he’s not here. If he was, she would feel safe, would know that nobody would hurt her. She needs Bass.
She holds up her wrist, exposing the brand and showing it to her mother and Miles. They don’t react to it, just keep watching her like she’s some sort of caged animal. She clutches the arm with the brand, trying to hold it higher. It might not resemble the “M” it once was, but she knows they know what it is.
“She wants Bass,” Miles says, still looking at Charlie but talking to her mother.
“She doesn’t need him,” she says, stiffly. “She can calm down on her own.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Rachel,” Miles hisses. “You shouldn’t have sent him home. She’s too fragile for that.”
She doesn’t say anything to that, just keeps watching Charlie.
“I’m getting Bass.” With that, Miles ducks out of the room.
Her mother comes to crouch in front of her again. “It’s okay, sweetheart. You’re safe here with us.”
But, Charlie knows she’s not. She’s not there, she’s not safe. The room is shifting around her again, her mother and grandfather fading away. She’s back in the cellar. The oil lamp burns in the corner, and the man is there. This time, she’s turned to face the wall, her forehead and torso up against the cold stone. Her arms are stretched over her head, shackled from the ceiling. Her toes barely brush the ground. Her shirt has been removed, her bra snapped open, leaving her back bared to the man.
She can hear him pacing the floor behind her. He does this. It’s as if he needs to rile himself up before attacking her, torturing her. As if, he needs to convince himself to do what he’s about to do.
His feet still behind her, a couple of feet behind her. She knows what it means and braces herself for it. The whip snaps across her back, making her whimper and gasp. The whip comes down again, and she shouts this time, short and high-pitched. The next time it makes contact, she screams. Over and over again, the whip lashes across the plain of her back, and she screams. Tears are streaming down her face, she’s sobbing between each strike, and she’s just trying to brace herself for the next one. She wants to beg, plead for him to stop, to let her go, but words make him angrier. Words are when he lets open flame dance across her skin or when he carves into the flesh over her heart.
The lashings stop, and through her sobs, she can hear him approaching her. “You can make it stop, Charlotte.” His voice is rough and deep, and it sounds like he’s always holding back anger. “Give up the fight, and all of this will go away.”
She shakes her head, the stone scraping her forehead.
He sighs behind her. “That’s a shame. I don’t enjoy doing this to you.” His fingers pressing into the open lashes on her back, and she screeches in pain. “Charlotte…” he says. “Charlie, Charlie, CHARLIE!”
Charlie gasps, and suddenly, she’s back in her bedroom. Her mom, Miles, and her grandfather all hang back by the door. And, in front of her, Bass. He’s on his knees, propped up on his heels, and his hands are cupping her face. When she sees him, really sees him, she starts sobbing again. She launches herself toward him. Her arms wrap around his neck, her face pressing to his chest, and the rest of her body curls up on his lap. His hands release her face, one arm scooping under her legs, the other wrapping around her tiny waist. He shifts them around until he’s flat against the wall, her balled up safely on his lap.
She focuses on him. On the feel of his skin beneath her fingers, the tension of his arms as they hold her, his undeniable scent of leather and whiskey. His fingers clutch her tightly. He is strong around her, strong enough to protect her from whatever is out there.
“How long has she been like this?” Bass asks.
“About twenty minutes,” her grandfather says. “She’s been screaming off and on.”
Twenty minutes? Her time back in that room was only twenty minutes? It had felt much longer. Everything was so hopeless in those moments, it might as well have been forever. Her fingers curl into the hair at the nape of Bass’ neck.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers to her. “I should have been here.” She presses her face harder against his chest. “You can go.” He’s not talking to her this time, his voice stiffer and colder. “I got her.”
“I’m staying,” her mother insists. Her tone is so demanding, so harsh, that it makes Charlie push even closer to Bass.
“Rachel,” Miles says, comforting but strong at the same time, “let them be. He’s got this.”
Silence. And, then, footsteps as they all leave the room.
Charlie and Bass are alone now, and she relaxes into him a little. With him, she can let her guard down a bit; he’ll keep her safe.
She’s still crying but not sobbing like she was before. He rocks back and forth gently, soothing her and lulling her towards sleep. She stays grounded to that moment, focusing on Bass. His hair in her hands, his strong arms around her, his calming voice as he tells her again and again that he’s here, that she’s safe.
She eases her face away from his chest and looks up at him. He smiles down at her. The arm around her waist disappears as his hand comes up to brush a thumb along her cheek, over the burn scar on her face. “There’s my girl.” He dips his head down and presses a kiss to her forehead. “I’m never going to let anything happen to you again.”
It’s a vow, something he’d swear on his life. All she can do is nod and lay her head on his chest again, just resting it this time.
“I’ve got you,” he says, his fingers combing into her cropped hair. “You can sleep now.”
Exhaustion overwhelms her at his words. Her eyes flutter shut, and before she knows it, she’s faded off to sleep.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
The weight of the situation hits everybody.
Alright, so I've been super inspired on this fic lately, thanks to all you wonderful readers, and in the last few days, I've written three and a half chapters. I think this calls for an early update.
Bass doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t want to. Charlie’s safe in his arms, and he’s afraid if he sleeps then she might disappear again. So, he stays awake. She stays curled in his arms, her head resting on his chest. During the night, she whines and shifts, whimpers and struggles. He just hugs her closer, whispers her name and tells her she’s safe. He let’s her know that she’s not alone.
The night is long, and he’s bone-tired by the time morning rolls around. The day before he’d been put through a special kind of hell, and without a wink of sleep, not even when Rachel sent him home, he’s worn down. He’s not sure he can handle Rachel today, but he will for Charlie and the sake of her emotional well-being.
The bedroom door creaks open, and Bass is immediately on edge. He curses himself for not having something more on him besides his pocket knife; he’ll have to remember to keep something in here tonight when they come to bed. It won’t do to leave her unguarded.
As it is, it’s only Miles poking his head in. He looks at the sleeping Charlie, still in Bass’ lap, and frowns. Bass knows it’s not in a disapproving way, like Rachel. It’s concern. Her disappearance had been hard on Miles. He looks back at Bass. “You sleep?” he whispers across the space. Bass shakes his head. Miles’ frown deepens. “Food?” Bass nods. God, yes. He needs fuel to get through the day. What he wouldn’t give for a cup of coffee.
Miles nods and ducks back outside, easing the door shut behind him.
The exchange was short, but there was enough disruption for Charlie to stir against Bass. She shifts before opening her eyes, her gaze still dull and far away, even when she looks directly at him. She sits up quickly, realizing where she is, where she’s sitting, and wraps her arms around his neck. It’s like she forgot she was home again, and by how hard she’s hugging him, she’s glad she is. “I missed you, too,” he tells her.
The embrace goes on for longer than he expected, and she doesn’t make any move to release him. “Miles is making food,” he offers softly. “Are you hungry?”
She pulls away from him so that she can look at his face, but she doesn’t give him any indication what she wants.
He’s been trying his best not to touch her when she doesn’t ask for it, or when he doesn’t feel the need to comfort her. He doesn’t want it to come across wrong or push her too hard. Still, without it being wholly necessary, he reaches up and cups her face with one hand. She leans into it. “Why don’t you get dressed? We can sit down for breakfast after that.” She nods against his hand but takes her sweet time getting up.
Finally, when she’s on her feet, Bass pries himself up off the floor. His back screams at him as he stands, achy and hurting from sitting in such a weird position all night. It’s taking a moment for feeling to come back into his legs, and he takes a seat at the foot of Charlie’s bed. Another night on the hard floor is going to kill him, but it’s worth it for Charlie.
Bass watches her intently as she pulls clothes from her dresser. Just a simple tank top and a pair of jeans, her usual uniform. She turns away from him, just for a bit of privacy, but when she does, she comes to face herself in the full-length mirror on her wall. She stills and stares at herself for a moment. He’s pretty sure that this is the first time she’s seen herself, really seen herself, since she got back. There’s a lot to take in.
She tilts her head to the side, looking at her face. With slow, controlled movements, she pulls her sleep shirt over her head and lets it drop to the side. Bass doesn’t look away. He should, her being topless and all, but he wants to see her face. He needs to watch her and make sure she’s okay.
Her face is blank as she examines herself in the mirror. Her fingers come up to touch the wild burn over her sternum. It’s healed, long left alone, but when she touches it, she flinches away and gasps. Her hand creeps over to the X over her heart. This one has been done recently or reopened again and again. It’s red and raw, tender, and she can barely touch it. Her other hand comes up, mapping out burns and cuts as well, both hands moving across her torso. Her fingers bump over her pronounced ribs, coming to rest on her jutting out hip bones.
As she tucks her arms over her chest, her face breaks. It crumbles, and tears start to roll down her cheeks. She folds in on herself, as if she’s trying to hide the damage done to her, but she doesn’t collapse to the ground.
Bass is off the bed in an instant, coming to her. She quickly turns to face him. She holds her hands out, making him keep his distance. “Charlie…” She gestures angrily to her body, pinching at burns and cuts to show him. Her hands lay against the burn on her sternum, and she shakes her head wildly. She points at the X on her chest and shakes her head again. She knocks her knuckles against her ribs before folding her arms across her front.
He thinks he understands, he thinks he knows what she’s saying. “They will heal. Some of them will go away.” How many, he’s not sure. A lot of the cuts are deep, and the skin of the burns will never quite be the same. That X will be there forever. She will always have reminders of what happened.
She hates it. She hates her skin and her body and what has become of her. But, to him, she’s still Charlie. “You’re still beautiful.”
Her teary eyes meet his again, her face drawn, her eyes sad. Then, she turns away from him.
He stands there, feeling like a fool, as she starts to put on her clothes for the day. She stays turned away from him until she’s dressed. The jeans are far too loose on her frame now. Her belts aren’t able to go tight enough to hold them up so Bass uses his pocket knife to punch a new hole into one of the belts, so it can work. She isn’t looking at him all the while, and he hates himself a little. He shouldn’t have said that, should have held his tongue. He just wanted to make her feel less broken. It was the wrong way to go about it.
When they start walking out of the room, he notices her struggling on those torn feet of hers. He hesitates. “Do you want help?” She doesn’t answer him, just focuses on taking each step out of her bedroom. When they reach the top of the stairs, she pauses, looking at the railing and the steps like they’re just one more thing to bring her down.
It stings. Bass only wants to help her. “Do you still trust me?”
She looks at him, face stricken. She obviously didn’t expect the question, and when the surprise passes, she gives him a sympathetic smile. Her hand comes up and rests on his cheek. The message is clear: of course, she does.
“Then hold on,” he tells her before scooping her up in his arms. Her arms go around his neck. He takes his time going down, trying not to jostle her too much. They make it down, but he doesn’t let her go until they’ve made it into the kitchen.
Miles glances up when they enter but looks away just as quickly. Rachel is sitting at the round table in the corner of the room, glaring daggers at Bass as he brings Charlie over. He sets her down gently in one of the chairs before taking his seat next to her.
Rachel gives her daughter the best, most reassuring smile she can muster. “How are you feeling this morning?”
Charlie meets her eyes, hesitant and scared. Her lip quivers, and she turns away before she can even try to answer.
Bass keeps his gaze on Charlie. “It’s been a hard morning.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” So much for reassuring.
He clenches his jaw. “Drop it, Rachel.”
She scowls and looks away from him. “I just want to know what is happening to my daughter.”
Charlie’s hand finds Bass’ under the table and squeezes it. Her grip is weak, and he returns the squeeze gently.
Miles comes over with two plates of food, placing one down in front of Rachel, then one in front of Charlie. Some scrambled eggs and two slices of bacon wait for her. She waits. Miles comes back with a plate of his own and one for Bass. They all pick up their forks and start eating, but Charlie doesn’t move. Bass frowns at her. “Charlie?” She meets his eyes. “Are you okay?” She nods. “Are you hungry?” She nods again. “Well, go ahead and eat.” With that, she picks up her fork and starts eating.
The weight of it hits Bass like a bus. She was waiting for permission. She needed him to tell her to eat for her to do it. Because she wasn’t allowed to eat on her own. He was certain that there was punishment if she did. His chest tightens. It’s just one more thing on the list of many that Bass will kill this bastard for.
Bass’ appetite is pretty much gone, and he finds himself watching Charlie instead of eating. She takes tiny bites and spends an inordinate amount of time chewing. It’s like she’s forgotten how to eat, like she’s relearning it. He stares at her for a long moment as she eats, making sure that she’s able to keep it down.
“I want to take you to Gene’s clinic today,” he says, cautiously, gingerly. Her fork stills, and she looks at him with wary eyes. A slight shake of her head, and she’s looking away again. “You need to be checked out. We need to get some of those wounds stitched. Your feet need to be wrapped at the very least.” She shakes her head again, dares another glance at him, and pokes his chest. “I’m not a doctor. I can’t take care of you like your grandfather can.” She sets down her fork, pushes her plate away, and nods. It’s an easy victory, but Bass wishes that there wasn’t the fight for it in the first place. “It’s for the best, Charlotte.”
Suddenly, Charlie’s gone. She’s still sitting at the table, but she’s not there anymore. Bass can see when she goes. She’s stock still, her head and shoulders slumped slightly, and her breath shallow. He glances up to Miles and Rachel to see if they see it too. They don’t. “Charlie…”
Charlie lets out a strangled cry, her hands launching out in front of her. They meet the edge of the table, and despite her weak body, she shoves it a couple of inches. Bass, Miles, and Rachel all jump to their feet, Miles and Rachel shocked at the outburst. Bass eases towards Charlie. “Charlie…” She swings her fist wildly toward him, but he dodges it easily. He rushes forward and hugs her to him, pinning her arms between them. “Charlie. Come back to me.” She struggles against him, crying out as tears begin to pour down her face. She tries to rip herself from his arms, but he just wraps her tighter. “You’re safe! You’re safe, Charlie!”
She gasps and relaxes into him. The fight is out of her, the threat to her is gone, and she’s back in the kitchen. She looks around her, seeing the scared look on Rachel and Miles’ faces and the displaced table. When she looks back at Bass, she’s obviously afraid and confused. “It’s okay. You’re okay.” She melts back into his embrace, his chin coming to rest on top of her head. “You’re safe here.”
They stand like that for a few minutes. Her face pressed to his chest, his arms protectively around her, and nothing else exists. Until Rachel breaks the fantasy. “What set you off, Charlie?”
Bass glowers at her. “It was nothing, Rachel. Don’t try to get answers for things she doesn’t know.”
Charlie steps out of his grasp and nods, almost sorry about it. “You know?” he asks her, surprised. She nods again. He hesitates. He doesn’t want to push her, doesn’t want to demand anything of her so he words his next sentence carefully. “Are you able to explain it?”
She tries. She makes several gestures. Pointing at Bass and then herself, making a talking motion with her hand, pointing to herself again, pointing at Bass and pointing at herself one last time. It doesn’t get through. The guesses around the room are too far off, and she begins to look frustrated. Finally, she makes a writing motion with her hand.
“Do we have any paper or anything?” Bass asks Miles.
Miles nods. “Yeah, I’ll go grab it.” He ducks out of the kitchen and returns a moment later.
Charlie takes the paper and the pen and sits back down at the table. With a shaky hand, she scribbles something down before handing it to Bass.
You call me Charlotte. So did he.
It’s a slap to the face for Bass. Calling her by her full name, calling her Charlotte, was his. Only he called her that. Now, it’s forever tainted. Just one more thing that was taken from her, taken from him.
He can barely move, barely breathe, but he manages to hand the page off to Miles. Rachel and Miles look over it, and Rachel says, “Oh, honey.”
Charlie shakes her head, tears falling once again. Bass crouches down so that he’s eye-level with her. There’s a lump in his throat, and his own tears are stinging behind his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he rasps. “I’m so sorry, Charlie.”
Her hands reach out and cup his face. Her bottom lip quivers. She dips her head down, and for a moment, he thinks she might kiss him. Not that it wouldn’t be welcome, but he knows that it wouldn’t be a good idea. Instead, her forehead presses against his. He closes his eyes.
He thinks he understands what she’s trying to say. She’s here. She’s alive, she’s home, she’s his again. Focus on what they have, not what they lost.
Bass sweeps her into his arms. She’s here. And, he’s never going to let her go again.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
Bass hates being the bad guy, and there are answers in Charlie's head.
I know I've said it before, but I will keep saying it. Thank you, thank you, thank you all for your support, your comments, and your kudos. You have no idea how much it means to me that people are enjoying this story. So, again, thank you all so much.
This chapter was actually written as two separate chapters, but I didn't feel like enough happened in just one. So I combined them. I hope it doesn't disappoint.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Take a deep breath for me,” Gene instructs, pressing the stethoscope to Charlie’s exposed back. She surges forward, trying to escape the touch, but Bass is there, blocking her way. He presses her back down to sit on the examination table as she presses against him.
“I know, I know,” he soothes. “Just a little bit, and then we can just go home, okay?”
She grips his arms tightly, nails digging into his skin. Bass looks at Gene and nods. Gene lowers the stethoscope again, touching it carefully to her back.
Charlies squirms in Bass’ arms and cries out, as if the touch burns her. God, he hates this. It’s for her own good, he knows this. She needs to be examined, needs to be helped, but he hates having to force her. All he wants to do is scoop her into his arms and take away her pain. It sucks having to be the bad guy.
At least, it’s a part he knows how to play well.
Over and over, Gene presses the stethoscope to different areas of her back. “Okay, we’re done with that.” He avoids touching her as he folds the back of the hospital gown back in place. He walks around the table so that he’s facing Charlie, who is still grasping Bass like she’ll break if she doesn’t. “Charlie.” She glances up. “I need to take a look at all of your wounds. I’m not going to touch you if I can help it, okay?” Hesitantly, she nods. He takes a seat on a rolling stool. “Can you scoot back? I need to look at the bottom of your feet.”
Charlie does as he asks, inching back until her feet stick straight out in front of her.
Gene leans forward, examining the cuts and scrapes. “These aren’t too deep. It shouldn’t take long for them to heal.” He looks up at Charlie, brows creased in worry. “It was so that you wouldn’t run away.” She nods.
With that confirmation, Gene waves Bass over to him before getting up and going to one of the cupboards. He comes back to the table with gauze, medical tape, and a small pot of salve. He hands the salve to Bass. “I have a feeling that we’re going to need a lot of this. Sit.” Bass does as he’s told, taking Gene’s spot on the rolling stool. “Apply generously to all of the cuts.”
Bass takes his time, trying to be gentle. Charlie flinches as he does it, but she doesn’t try to pull away. It’s pain and not fear when it’s Bass.
Once it’s done, Gene passes him the gauze and tape. “Make sure every wound is covered before you tape it down.” Bass nods, taking the supplies. He’s studious as he tapes down the gauze, wrapping the tape over and under each foot.
“That okay?” Bass asks Charlie, looking up at her. She nods.
Gene steps forward again. “Okay, Charlie, I need to take a look at your other injuries.”
She nods in understanding and looks away from both Gene and Bass. Her hands shake as she peels off the hospital gown, letting it pool around her waist. She doesn’t look back up as if trying to separate herself from what’s happening.
Gene draws in a breath. Bass shoots him a glance. They don’t say a word. Gene walks up to Charlie, hands hovering near her but never touching. Bass reaches out and grabs both of her hands with his, squeezing. “That salve will help with the burns,” Gene says to Bass. “Most of them have scarred over, same with the cuts. But what remains is… well, it’s bad. The burns are severe, and the cuts are deep. And, this…” His hands hover over the X over her heart. “I don’t… I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Charlie’s hands squeeze Bass’ at that comment. He presses a kiss to her knuckles. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
“It’s going to need stitches.” Gene is looking directly at Bass, worry across his face. Yeah, right. Getting Charlie to sit still would take a miracle. Or some serious brute force.
Bass sets his jaw, meeting Gene’s gaze. He nods, once, and gets to his feet. He lets go of Charlie’s hands. Gene goes back to the cupboard, retrieves a needle, surgical thread, and alcohol to clean the wound. He preps the needle, and when ready, he nods at Bass.
Bass steps to the side of the examination table. Tilting her chin up, he matches Charlie’s gaze. “Charlie, I need you to trust me, okay?” She gives him a small nod. He can feel her shaking. “Lie down.” She does as she’s told.
He takes a deep breath. This is going to suck. A lot. Suddenly, he presses a forearm across her collarbone, the other pressing across her hips. As soon as his arms are in place, Gene starts his work, stitching up the X in her skin.
Charlie screams. Loud, ragged, raw. She bucks and tries to sit up, tries to escape. Bass presses down against her. He doesn’t want to hurt her, but he needs her to be still. Otherwise she’ll hurt herself. She’s weak still, one healthy meal hasn’t fixed that. But, her own self-preservation is kicking in, and she’s fighting back hard.
It’s a long process. The gashes aren’t small. They’re long and deep, and with her struggling so much, it’s hard for Gene to keep steady. Bass is pressing her down as hard as he dares. She’s screaming the walls down, and it’s killing him. Tears are in his eyes, and he tries to blink them away. He hates doing this to her. All he wants to do is protect her. He doesn’t want to be the one that triggers her or be the one who has to physically force her to do something. He wishes he didn’t have to be that guy.
Once Gene’s finished and the knot’s tied off, he steps back, holding his hands up. Bass releases Charlie as quick as he can, taking a step back in case she wants to get up. She doesn’t. She stays on the table, hands coming to cover her face, and weeps. She howls out her pain, and neither Bass or Gene try to stop her.
“That’s not the end of that,” Bass says quietly to Gene as they both stand back from her. “Her back is going to be worse.”
Gene pales. “I know. I saw.”
“Not today,” Bass insists. “I think she’s been through enough.”
Gene nods. “Agreed. But…” He sighs. “I have an important question for her.”
Bass frowns. “What more could you need to know?”
“You said that there wasn’t any damage done to her lower body,” Gene explains. “At least… not that you could see.”
It’s immediately obvious what Gene’s getting at. It hadn’t occurred to him before. It should have. But the thought, the mere idea of it makes Bass want to vomit. Not Charlie, not after everything else.
When Bass doesn’t say anything, Gene continues, “There’s been obvious physical abuse, some serious mental abuse as well. Who’s to say that there wasn’t sexual abuse as well?”
Bass wishes he could separate himself from this, like Gene is. He can tell that Gene is pretending that this isn’t Charlie; it’s just another patient. Bass doesn’t have that luxury. He has to apply the situation to Charlie because she’s all he can see. The bright and vibrant, beautiful and tough Charlie that he’d grown close to and shared so much with. The idea of somebody violating her in that way makes his blood boil. He’d stopped it once before. If it happened without him there to stop it… He feels like it would be his fault.
“Let me ask,” Bass says, his voice tight. “She’ll be open with me.” He doesn’t mean it to be mean to Gene, and the older man seems to understand.
Bass moves back towards the table, to Charlie who has started to calm down now. “Charlie…” He brushes a hand over her hair. She doesn’t push him away like he expects her to. “I’m going to bandage over the stitches, and then we’re going home. Okay?”
She lowers her hands. Her eyes are puffy and irritated, and she looks away from him, pointedly, to send him a message. She’s mad at him, and he can’t blame her. But, her arms are out of the way, and he takes the opportunity to bandage her.
When he’s all done, she sits up, glaring at him. “I know. You deserve to be mad.” She folds her arms over her chest in reply. She slips off the table and proceeds to get dressed.
“It’s going to be best if you limit your walking until your feet are healed,” Gene tells her. “A trip to the bathroom won’t kill you, but stairs are riskier. And, the walk back to the house is out of the question.”
She scowls at her grandfather.
Bass turns around and crouches down. “You heard the man,” he says. “Hop on.”
It takes a long moment before Charlie’s hands work their way around his neck, legs on either side of him. He grabs her upper thighs, pulls her tight against him, and stands, her weight barely making a difference. He makes sure he’s steady before saying, “We’ll see you at home,” to Gene and walking out of the clinic, Charlie secure on his back.
Charlie’s chest burns. Every place that her grandfather touched feels like it was on fire. Even after Bass applied the bandages, she could still feel it. A foreign touch that wanted to cause pain.
Somewhere deep inside, she knows that Bass was only doing what he thought was best. Some of her injuries are awful, needing more attention than others. Her grandfather had Bass handle what he could, but he couldn’t do everything. Still, the memory of Bass pinning her down while her grandfather stitched her up makes her shake.
Even now that she and Bass are alone, sitting on her bedroom floor, she still can’t help but be a little angry with him.
“We need to put the salve on the rest of your wounds,” he says to her, unscrewing the lid of the salve.
She just looks away from him.
He sighs. “Charlie, I know that you didn’t like what just happened, but it was a necessary evil.” One of his hands grasps hers, his thumb rubbing over the back in a soothing arch. “I’m sorry, okay?”
She shakes her head. She doesn’t want to forgive him. After what he did, she wants to be angry at him. But it’s hard when he’s the person she trusts most in this world, when he’s the one who’s trying so hard to save her from even herself.
“Charlie.” She looks back at him. His eyes are pleading with her. “Please.”
Her heart lurches. She would do anything for this man. He’s her best friend, he’s been everything for so long. Once they both hated each other, grew into an unsteady alliance, and now, she can’t imagine life without him. A life she had lived briefly.
When she was imprisoned, every single day, she could see his face in her mind. The laughter in his eyes when she did something that amused him, his fierceness when he was in a fight, the soft gaze he reserved for only her. She focused on the cadence in his voice, his leathery scent, and the feel of stubble under her hand. He was her grounding point. The room she was locked in wasn’t real life; Bass was. It was just a stop; she would be back to him soon.
How can she stay mad at the man she clung to in her darkest hour?
With her eyes still locked on his, she pulls her tank top over her head and casts it to the side. He takes in a sharp breath. She pretends she doesn’t see it. There’s still something there between them; it’s obvious. She sees him schooling himself, telling himself that he can’t have her now. And, the worst part is that she thinks he’s right. Her mind is a minefield that she’s trying to traverse, and she’s stepped on a few of those mines already. Bass, in any other capacity than he is now, would set the whole thing off.
He leans into her as his hands start applying the salve to her wounds. His hands are clinical in their movement. No tender caresses or lingering fingers. Just detached attention to her injuries.
“I need to ask you a question,” he says, his eyes trained on his hands as they work. “It’s not easy for me to ask, and it might not be easy for you to answer.” His eyes dart up to meet her. “But I need you to be honest with me. Okay?” She nods, and he takes a deep breath, his hands stilling against her skin. “Did he do anything… sexual to you?”
Charlie’s bedroom dissolves around her, and she’s back in that dungeon. She’s slumped in the corner, braced against the cold stone walls. Shackles around her ankles and wrists bite into her skin. Her clothes are still mostly intact, and her skin has barely been marked. It’s only a short time into her captivity.
The cellar door in and out of the room opens and shuts as the man enters, mask firmly in place. He doesn’t pay her any mind as he goes over to the small table. He lights the oil lamp and busies himself with something.
“How long are you going to keep me here?” Charlies shouts at him, angry.
He glances over his shoulder at her but says nothing before going back to his work.
“What exactly is your end game?” She waits for an answer, but he doesn’t give her one. “What do you want from me? Is this some twisted game for you?” She strains against her shackles. “Or could you just not get laid on your own, you sick fuck?”
With a roar, he’s across the room. He has a blade to her throat, pressing it against it to let her know it’s there but not enough to cut her. “You should watch your mouth, Charlotte. You wouldn’t want me to cut out that pretty tongue of yours, would you?”
Charlie narrows her eyes and spits at him. “Eat shit.”
His eyes blink at her from behind the protective shield of the mask. “Such a temper. I’ve heard that the Mathesons all have a little fight in them. Glad to see it’s true.” The blade presses against her neck more, a stinging feeling on her skin as it breaks through. “Now, let me make one thing clear. I’m in charge here. What I say goes.” His hand lands on her thigh. “If I want to violate you, in every imaginable way,” his hand slides up, thumb ghosting along her inner thigh, “I will.” She thrashes under his touch. “But, that’s not what I want.” His hand leaves her leg, but she can still feel the heat seeping through her jeans.
Her breath is coming in shallow puffs. She’s trying to remain calm, trying not to lash out at him. “What do you want?”
He smirks and pulls the blade away. “As if you don’t know.” He grabs her arm, fingers surrounding the brand there. “A man can take a lot of pain. He can withstand a monumental amount of pain when inflicted upon him.” His fingers squeeze her arm. “But, when it’s someone he loves in pain, he can’t bear it. He’ll do anything to get her back.” He releases her arm and grips her chin. “Imagine what he would do if someone broke her. If someone shattered her body and mind completely.” His grin is wicked.
“He’ll kill you,” Charlie croaks out. For the first time since she got here, she’s truly scared.
“He can try.” He shoves her away from him. “That’s what I’m counting on.”
“Charlie!” She comes spiraling back to her bedroom and gasps for air. Her back is pressed into the corner of the room, and Bass is in front of her, worry written all over his face. “Are you okay?”
She nods, feeling shaky. He rests his hands on her upper arms. “What did you see?”
She bites her bottom lip. There’s nothing she wants more than to explain what she just saw, what she went through, what the man claimed to have wanted from her, from him, but she can’t. Her voice is lost to her, and she’s not sure if she’ll ever get it back. There’s too much to write down. She shakes her head because it’s all she can do.
He leans forward and presses his forehead to hers. “You’re here now. You’re with me. You’re safe.”
She takes a deep breath, just absorbing the moment. Feeling Bass’ skin against hers, the carpet beneath her, his hands on her arms. She sighs, tension leaving her shoulders.
“That’s my girl,” he says softly.
Suddenly, she’s exhausted. So much has happened today, and it’s worn her down. It’s barely past noon, but she feels the need to curl up on the floor and sleep.
He sees it. “Are you tired?” She nods. “Okay, we’ll let you rest for a while.” He takes her hands in his, pulls her to her feet, which sting at the contact, and walks her over to her makeshift bed on the floor. He slips her tank top back over her head and loops her arms through. She lays down, ready to pass out, but Bass insists she tries using a pillow this time. He slides it under her head. It’s too soft, she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t move it, though, and instead slips her arm underneath it for better support. It’ll have to do.
Bass arranges himself against the wall by her head, a place where he can watch over her. She wants to ask him to come lay next to her, to hold her as she falls asleep. She doesn’t.
Sleep takes her before she can think about it too much.
Comments are my drug of choice :)
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
Bass gets some much needed sleep, and Charlie receives two gifts: one wanted, one unwanted.
This is another chapter that was originally written as two separate chapters, but the first half really doesn't have a lot going on. Hope this doesn't disappoint!
I will keep saying it: I'm eternally grateful for those of you that take the time to read this, especially those of you that leave kudos or comment. You have no idea how much it means to me.
It’s been three nights without sleep for Bass. Not since Charlie came home. Not since she came back to him broken and scared. He is surviving on a cocktail of bad coffee and utter terror, but it’s still surviving. There’s a limit to this, he knows. He’s just trying to put it off for as long as possible.
The door creaks open, and Bass’ hand goes for his sword, which is laying next to him. Miles is standing in the open doorway. “Hey,” he whispers.
“Hey,” Bass whispers back. He looks down at Charlie. He’s managed to get her to sleep on a bedroll, and she took the opportunity to move it closer to him. Last night, she even decided to use his lap as a pillow. He spent the night combing his fingers through her hair, trying to soothe her troubled mind. She had a few nightmares, and he held her through them, whispering to her that she was safe.
Bass very carefully shifts out from under Charlie’s head, laying her down gently. He gets to his feet, back sore, and follows Miles out into the hall. “When was the last time you slept?” Miles asks as they head down the stairs.
Bass rubs his hands over his face. “I can’t remember. Before she got back?”
Miles claps him on the shoulder. “Bass, go home. Get some sleep. She’ll be fine without you for a few hours.”
He shakes his head. “I’m good. Just need some coffee.”
“You’re dead on your feet,” Miles tells him as they head into the kitchen. “You look like hell.”
Bass drops into one of the chairs at the table as Miles goes about brewing some coffee. “I’m fine. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Then, at least crash here,” Miles says. “You don’t have to go anywhere, you can sleep in Charlie’s room. But, just sleep.” He gestures towards the door. “She’s asleep half the time anyway.”
It’s true. Charlie’s still very weak, and her energy level is low. She sleeps about ten hours overnight, then usually naps for at least four during the day. Besides that, she pokes at her food, getting very little down at a time. She still can’t walk much, her feet still healing, so she spends a lot of time sitting around, reading through the few books that are in the house. Bass talks to her a lot. He tells her about his traveling while she was gone, how he scoured all of Texas and some of the Plains Nation to find her. She listens to him raptly until she can’t keep her eyes open anymore, and she’s then back asleep. That’s how the last few days have gone.
“I can’t watch her if I’m asleep.” Bass glances around. “Speaking of which, I should go back upstairs to keep an eye on her.”
“She’ll be fine,” Miles says, rolling his eyes. “She’s asleep.”
Bass feels like reminding him that somebody had been in that room before. That somebody snuck into this house without him or Rachel or Gene knowing. That somebody incapacitated her and snuck her out the window, without anybody having a clue until the morning. It’s not as safe as Miles seems to think.
“Just give me my coffee,” Bass grouses, getting to his feet.
Miles turns back to the stove. “Go get some sleep, Bass. You can have coffee after you’ve slept for an hour.”
Bass glares at him, but no argument is coming to mind. Maybe sleep would do him some good. He doesn’t say anything to Miles before leaving the kitchen and heading back up the stairs. Quietly, he goes back into Charlie’s room. She’s still sound asleep on the floor in her makeshift bed.
He should lay down next to her, but the floor looks so uninviting. It’s been a hard three nights sitting up on it, and his back is killing him. He can’t imagine that he’ll actually get much sleep if he lays down. But, the bed is there, just waiting to be used, and he caves. Sticking to the side closest to Charlie, he lays down and pulls the covers up.
His mind fights him, worrying over Charlie and her safety. At the same time, the lack of sleep is trying to pull him under. It puts him in a half-asleep state when a gentle hand rests on his shoulder. He startles at the touch, shooting upright, ready to pounce.
Charlie steps back from him, a sheepish look on her face. She brings her hands together and looks downward, like she’s afraid of meeting his eyes. Bass stares at her for a minute, and when she doesn’t raise her head, he says, “Charlie, are you okay?”
Slowly, she looks up at him and bites her lip, nodding. He reaches out to her and takes her hand to pull her closer to him. “You just startled me,” he explains. “I wasn’t expecting you.” He sighs. “I just need some sleep.”
With her other hand, she pushes against his shoulder. He doesn’t move, and she gestures forward before pushing him again. Only when she puts her knee on the edge of the bed and eases up onto it does he understand. He slides over in the bed, giving her room, and she crawls under the covers. When she lays down, Bass follows suit, turning on his side to face her. Her blue eyes blink back at him, and for a moment, he thinks he sees the real her again. Bright and full of warmth. But, it passes, and then just a dull, lifeless blue looks back at him.
After a minute passes, she dips her head and rests it against his collarbone, and she breathes deep. One of her hands grasps onto the front of his shirt. Bass stays stock still, not wanting to scare her or shoo her away. He honestly doesn’t know what might set her off or what she might misconstrue.
When her chest starts rising and falling in the familiar steady rhythm of sleep, he relaxes. She’s still holding onto his shirt, and he dares to lay a hand on her overly-prominent hipbone. She feels so different under his hands than she used to. Back in those days when he’d run a hand over her back or she’d bump his hip with hers, back when she’d hug him on the rare occasion. Back when, that one time, she let him hold her as she kissed him senseless.
Feeling her under his hands, different or not, and being in a bed for the first time in over a month, it’s all enough to subdue him and send him off to sleep.
Charlie wakes up first, feeling groggy and disoriented. It takes her a moment to get her bearings on her surroundings. She’s safe at home, not trapped in that cellar. She’s in bed. With Bass. It’s the safest place that she can be.
There’s a light knock on the door, and she sits up as it opens. Miles pokes his head in. “Hey, kid. How you feeling?” She shrugs in response. “Well, if you’re up for it, you have a visitor.” She scrunches her face in confusion but nods. “I’ll let him know you’re coming.” Miles ducks back out of the room, leaving her to get dressed.
It’s getting easier for her to move around so it doesn’t take her long to get dressed, and it’s done quietly enough that Bass doesn’t wake up, doesn’t even stir. Tightening her belt, she slips from the room. With the application of the salve every few hours, the pain in her feet has gotten a lot better, and it makes climbing down the stairs a lot easier.
“Hey!” a cheerful voice says as she reaches the bottom of the stairs. She turns towards it and sees the young boy who found her, Olly, standing in the living room. “How are you doing?” She comes into the living room and sits on the couch, gesturing for him to do the same. He plops down next to her. “I’ve been coming by to check on you, but you’ve been sleeping a lot. It can’t easy being sick.”
Charlie smiles at him. They’ve definitely sugar-coated things for the young boy, just telling him that she’s sick. Maybe it’s the best way they could describe it to someone who wouldn’t understand. Maybe they just wish it was that simple.
“I brought you something,” he says, picking up his backpack from the floor. “They said that you don’t talk anymore.” He opens the pack and pulls out a small, brown leather-bound journal and a few fountain pens. “I thought you could use this to talk to everybody. Or maybe just write down your thoughts.” He hands her the journal and pens. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t talk.”
She takes the journal from him and hugs it to her chest. She doesn’t know what to say. It’s such a sweet gesture, one that means more than she could ever express. Especially coming from such an unexpected source. She gives him a grateful smile, holding tightly onto the journal.
“Can I come by and visit you?” Olly asks. “I know you’re trying to get better, and I figure you could use the company. And, when you get better, you could come out to the farm. I know it’s not very exciting, but Willoughby isn’t really exciting, is it?” He chuckles, and a genuine smile crosses her face. As he gets to his feet, he slings his pack over his shoulder. “I gotta get back home before Ma notices I’m gone, but I’ll be back later this week.” He gives her a small wave before heading out of the living room and the house.
Bass steps into the living room, glancing back over his shoulder. “Was that Olly that just left?” He looks back to Charlie and comes to sit by her. “What do you got there?” She passes him the journal, smiling softly as she does. “A journal?” He looks her straight in the eye, and she taps her temple in way of explanation. “So you can write down your thoughts. That was nice of him.” She nods and takes the journal back from him, once again hugging it to her. He runs a hand over her hair, and she can’t help but lean into his touch. “You have a lot going on in there, it’ll be good to get some of it out.”
The journal feels solid in her hands, full of possibilities.
A few weeks pass. Charlie’s open wounds begin to heal. The lashings on her back and the X over her heart have had the stitches removed but remain raised and ragged. It doesn’t hurt her to walk anymore, and she gets around the house without aid. With each meal, she’s able to eat a little more, and while she hasn’t begun putting on weight, she has more energy. She still needs a lot of sleep, usually taking a nap during the day, but she’s begun spending a lot more time up and around. Most of the time, she can be found at the table in the kitchen, pouring over her journal.
The journal has been a godsend. Bass had been skeptical of it at first, wondering if writing down her nightmares or the terrible things that happened to her would do any good. But, after she’d spent a few days writing out what she could, she was having fewer flashbacks. She woke less during the night, she slept more soundly. Getting the horrors out of her mind and onto paper seems to be working.
Bass comes down the stairs one morning, finding Charlie sitting at the kitchen table with Miles. She’s hunched over her journal as she scribbles away hurriedly while Miles is going over the books for the bar. Bass comes up behind Charlie and places his hands on her shoulders. Her hand stills, and she lifts her head. “Good morning,” he says, fingers brushing over her arms. She reaches up and touches his hand in acknowledgment before going back to the journal. After only a few weeks, it’s beginning to look like she’ll need a new one soon. “Have you eaten yet?” She nods.
“She got down a whole egg and a strip of bacon,” Miles says, glancing up at him with a smile.
Charlie pins her uncle with an annoyed glare. Miles has unfortunately made a habit of either talking for her or talking as if she’s not there. Both make Charlie glare at him.
He sits down in the chair next to her. “I have to go to the Rangers’ office today. Did you want to come with me?” She shakes her head, not looking up from her writing. He stares at her for a moment. He talked with her about him going back to work, and she nodded her agreement. She’s becoming more independent of him, and he’s having a hard time dealing with it, having a hard time letting go. “Are you sure you’re comfortable with me going back to work?”
Miles looks up from his paperwork. “She’ll be fine. I’m around during the day, and you’ll be right down the road if she needs you.”
This earns another glare from Charlie, but she doesn’t indicate any arguments to Bass. “Okay,” he agrees. “I’ll talk to them about getting started next week.” He stands, runs a hand over her hair, before stepping from the kitchen and opening the front door.
He stops in his tracks. Right on the top step of the porch is a small, brown package, the word “Charlotte” scrawled across the brown wrapping. He picks it up, feeling that it weighs basically nothing, and turns around to go back inside. Coming back into the kitchen, he says, hesitantly, “Um, Miles? This was out front.”
Miles looks up at the package in Bass’ hands, taking it gently as if it’s a bomb waiting to go off. “This can’t be anything good.”
Charlie glances over at her uncle, noticing her name on the outside of the brown paper. Without hesitation, she takes the package from Miles’ hands. Frowning, she tears open the wrapping and screams. She scrambles to her feet, knocking her chair over, the package left on the table. Her arms are around Bass’ middle as she buries her face in his chest, and she’s sobbing.
Settled in the torn brown paper is a simple white full-faced mask. Miles picks it up and examines it. “What do you think it means?”
Bass holds Charlie tight to him, shaking his head. “I have no idea, but Charlie obviously does.” He can see a small piece of paper sitting among the brown wrapping and points to it. “What does the note say?”
Miles picks it up, and his expression turns dark as he reads it. “’This isn’t over yet, Charlotte.’”
Charlie’s hands ball up the back of Bass’ shirt as she tries to squeeze him with all her might. How could this have happened? How could that son of a bitch get so close to her again? “It’s okay, Charlie,” Bass soothes her, his arms strong around her. “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere, okay?” She nods against his chest.
Bass looks up at Miles, who tosses the mask back onto the table. “I’m going to do a perimeter check,” Miles says. “Rachel left twenty minutes ago, this guy had to come after. He can’t have gone far yet.”
Chasing down this bastard sounds like music to Bass’ ears, and a part of him wants nothing more than to join Miles. Then again, this all could be some ploy to leave Charlie unguarded and unprotected, giving someone the opportunity to get to her again. That’s not about to happen on Bass’ watch. So, all Bass says to Miles is “Good luck” before he takes off.
Charlie is shaking by the time Bass gets her upstairs into her bedroom. She clings to him as he leads her to the bed and sets her down on it, and she practically climbs onto his lap once he’s sitting. He hugs her to him. “Hey, hey, you’re okay. Charlie, you’re safe.”
It doesn’t stop her from grappling onto him, as if he’s the only life raft on a sinking ship.
His hand combs into her hair, holding her head to his chest. “Charlie, it’s safe here. You’re safe with me.” He presses a kiss to her hair, speaking into it. “No one is going to take you away again. Do you understand? I’m not letting anyone take you away.”
She whimpers and sobs and squirms in his lap, her grip on his shirt unyielding. And, then, she’s gone. She stills in his arms, goes quiet, and her grip lessens. The stillness is unsettling, the way that she’s retreated into her mind. “Charlie,” Bass says, quietly. “I’m here. Come back. You’re safe here.”
It takes too long before she returns to him. Too long that she’s trapped somewhere deep in her mind, trapped in the prison of the last year. When she starts sobbing again, hard, he knows that she’s back. “Shh,” he tries to soothe her, “it’s okay. Hey, you’re okay. I’m here. They can’t hurt you. Not while I’m here.”
She cries it out. Weeps out all of her fears and pain. Lets everything out. Bass lets her. He just holds her until the tears slow and the sobbing stops. Holds her for a long time after.
A lot of time has passed before he asks, “What does the mask mean?”
Slowly, she lifts her head, glassy blue eyes meeting his. With care, she unfolds herself from his lap and slides over next to him on the bed. Her legs curl up, knees meeting her chest, and she uses her hands to form the shape of an open book.
“Your journal?” he asks, making sure to keep eye contact. She nods. “I’ll go grab it.” He squeezes her hand. “I’ll be right back.”
Hurrying down the stairs and into the kitchen, he retrieves the journal and a pen from the kitchen table. As he turns and tries to head back up the stairs, the front door opens. Miles, disheveled and disheartened, comes stumbling through the door. “Nothing,” he growls at Bass. “No sign of anybody. Like they just disappeared. None of the neighbors saw anything.”
“Shit,” Bass swears, bending the journal in his grip. He pauses, the wheels in his head turning a mile a minute. “We can’t leave her alone. There has to be someone in the house with her at all times. This bastard is not taking her away again.”
Miles looks pale, and he swallows hard. “We’ll keep her safe, Bass.”
Bass nods, flexing the journal in his hands again. He glances down at it and remembers his purpose for being down here. “I gotta get back up there.” He doesn’t wait for Miles’ response before rushing up the stairs.
Charlie is curled up on the bed, her head in her hands, when Bass comes back in. “Hey,” he says, sitting down by her head. “I’ve got the journal.” She sits up and takes it from his hands. Her face, while red and puffy from crying, is determined as she begins to flip through the pages. A few pages in, she spots what she’s looking for and stabs at the page with a finger. She passes it back to Bass, still poking the proper page. He eyes her warily. “You want me to read this?” She nods. “Okay, if you’re sure.” She nods again, a little less patient as she jabs the page. “Okay.”
He looks down at the page in question. The first thing he notices is the crude drawing of the mask. Just a simple full-face mask, eye holes cut out but no other features. Around it, the page is full of hastily scribbled words.
The masked man. He was the one in charge. Every time I saw him, he wore the mask. All I could see were his eyes. Green eyes. When I thought he wanted to kill me, it didn’t make sense that he hid his face.
But he wanted me alive. At least for a long while. He wanted to torture me. He wanted pain, he wanted me to scream, he wanted for me to give up. He wanted to break me. He was the one that did everything. He burned me, cut me, whipped me.
Beating me wasn’t an option. He was too small. Barely taller than me, a lot skinnier, too. He didn’t have the strength to hit me. That’s why the big man was the one to take me from my room. It was him that did all the heavy lifting, the masked man did everything else.
There’s a line drawn under the entry, and Bass doesn’t read any further. It’s her private thoughts and memories, and he’ll only read as much as she lets him. When he looks up at Charlie, she’s nibbling on her thumbnail. He offers the journal back to her. “The mask downstairs is the same one he wore. The man who tortured you.” She nods in confirmation. “He’s telling you he’s still here.” She nods again, her eyes beginning to water. “And there were two of them?”
She takes the journal from him and flips back a couple of pages, pointing when she finds the right one. He takes it back from her, reading the new entry.
The big man. He was waiting in my bedroom for me. He grabbed me, and I fought back. We knocked over my dresser, messed up my bed. I got slammed against the window, and my elbow went through it. It got cut and bloody, and it distracted me. Enough for him to bang my head against the window sill and knock me out.
The big man was a giant. Tall and wide and heavy. He was strong. Too strong for me.
The big man was strange. Even though he took me, he was very nice. He brought me my food most every day, after the first few weeks of the masked man “training” me to eat properly. He didn’t talk much because of a speech impediment. He wasn’t bright. He never hurt me. When the masked man wasn’t there, the big man would sit with me. He tried to talk to me sometimes, even though I stopped talking back, unless he got frustrated with his stutter. He wanted to keep me company. I think he felt bad about what was happening but couldn’t stop it.
The big man released me. One day, when I was finally broken, when I could only lie there and I wouldn’t even eat anymore, he knocked me out. Next thing I knew, I was out in the woods. He saved me in the end.
The entry ended. Bass’ chest felt tight. Reading about her abduction has rattled him, and he lets out a shuddering breath. A gentle hand lays against his cheek, and he turns to take in Charlie, who stares at him with tears in her eyes. He reaches up and grasps the hand against his cheek. “He took you away.” She nods. “He never hurt you.” She shakes her head. “And he let you go.” Again, she nods. He studies her face for a moment, doing his best to read what she can’t say. “You don’t hate him.” After a moment of hesitation, she shakes her head.
Setting down her journal, Bass hugs her to him. “Okay. I won’t hate him either.” He presses his nose into her hair. “Thank you for sharing with me.” She rests her forehead against his shoulder. Bass isn’t sure who this experiment was more therapeutic for, him or her. He’s just glad he knows a little more.
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
Bass learns a hard truth
Charlie’s weak. Anymore, she can’t even sit up, it takes too much energy. With each movement, she shakes. She can’t feed herself, the big man does it for her. He’s tried telling her to keep fighting back, to not give up. But, after over a year, she’s tired of fighting. All she wants to do is to give up.
The masked man enters the room, shutting the door gently. “Sleepy today, Charlotte?” She can barely keep her eyes open. “We’ll have to do something about that.” He stalks to her corner and kneels down by her, turning her onto her back. Weirdly enough, his touch is almost gentle. He eases her tank top up her body, uncovering her chest. With one hand, he reaches up to the wall, pulling down a short but extremely sharp knife. With the other hand, he pulls the cup of her bra down, just enough to expose the X that he has meticulously carved there. It’s started to heal over again, starting to scab over. For him, that just won’t do. It’s taken time to get the X as it is, as wide and as deep as it is. He won’t let his hard work heal. His movements are simple but precise as he begins to cut open her skin again.
The pain goes straight down to her bones, right up to her head. Her nerves are on fire. A scream bubbles up in her throat, but it only comes out as a whimper. She doesn’t have the energy to scream, there’s not much energy left to even breathe. All she can do is lie there as he scars her, inside and out.
When it’s over, he wipes the blade along his pants, leaving blood behind. “You should be thankful. I could’ve just killed you. But, I have to say, this has been more fun.” He pulls her shirt back down, covering up the carnage he left behind. “He’s still looking for you. It’s been months, and he’s still out there. Every time he comes back to town, he looks worse and worse. He’s running himself into the ground, all in the hopes of finding you. If he’s not careful, he’ll kill himself.” After he puts the blade back into his pocket, he runs a hand over her hair. “That’s not my intention. I don’t want him dead, I just want him to wish he was.” His fingers come down and run gently over her cheek. “I’ve changed my mind. I’ve broken you enough. Next time he comes home, he’ll find your body left on his doorstep. We’ll see how he deals with that.” He stands and leaves the room without another word.
She doesn’t even have the energy to cry anymore.
Charlie wakes up with a scream, bolting upright and clutching at her chest. Immediately, Bass’ hands are on her shoulders, pulling her against him. “It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re safe with me.” She leans into him, trying not to cry but failing. His arms wrap around her, and she uses the moment to ground herself. She can feel his arms around her, she can hear his soothing voice, she can smell his unique scent of leather and whiskey, and she can see his face, his blue eyes, his concern.
She’s home and she’s safe.
It takes a few moments of him whispering nonsense into her hair before her tears stop, and she can breathe normally again.
“What did you see?” he asks her softly.
Pulling away from him, she grabs her journal from her bedside table and opens it. When she finds the right passage, she points to it and hands the book over to him. He reads for a moment, his hand coming to rest on her leg. She can feel his fingers flex as he reads about her torture and her pain. And, then, his brows furrow, and he asks, “Is he talking about me?” He looks up at her for a response, and she nods. “He knew where I was, he knew I was looking for you?” She nods again and reaches for the book. He hands it back, and when she’s found the right passage, the passage about his true intentions, the intentions to torture Bass by breaking her completely, she passes it back to him.
His grip on her leg becomes almost painful as he reads this part. When he’s done, he snaps the journal shut and won’t raise his eyes to her. “This was about me?” She nods, but he doesn’t see it. Not that he needs to. She knows that he knows the answer. “Taking you… Torturing you… Keeping you locked away and nearly dying… It was all because of me.”
Tears are in her eyes again, and she’s shaking as she nods her head. In a flash, Bass is off the bed, on his feet. “Goddammit!” he shouts as he throws the book across the room with all his might. It thumps against the door before dropping uselessly to the carpet. “God fucking damn it.” Charlie crawls to the edge of the bed and lets her feet touch the ground. Bass’ hands are in his hair. “Shit.” He turns to her, and his eyes say everything that he’s feeling. The pain there, the despair, the guilt. Their flooded with tears as he looks at her, and he shakes his head. “Charlie, fuck, I am so sorry.” He falls to his knees before her, his hands gripping her calves, and his forehead touching her knees. “I’m sorry that I caused this. I’m sorry you got taken away from me. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you quicker. And, I am so. Fucking. Sorry. That I did this to you.”
For a moment, Charlie doesn’t know what to do. There’s so much that she wishes she could say to him, but the words are still trapped in her head and don’t know how to come out. Never has she once blamed him for what has happened to her. Not even in her darkest moments. Not when she begged for the big man to kill her, just to put her out of her misery, or when her voice became lost to her. Never did she ever think that it was the fault of anyone besides the man behind the mask.
Her hands shake as she places them on the back of his neck. She presses against it, causing him to lift his head and look her in the eye. With purpose, she leans forward and presses a kiss to his forehead, lingering there. His hands squeeze her legs a little, and he releases a ragged breath. “I love you, Charlie.”
Her breath catches. She thought… She hoped… But, that was before. Everything is so different now that she figured he could never love her, not like she wanted. She’s too different, too broken. Still, he’s sitting at her feet, telling her he loves her, and she wants to believe it. She pulls him closer to her, hugging his head to her stomach. His arms wrap around her hips as he leans into her. She hopes that he knows what she’s saying, that she loves him, too. That she will always love him, always trust him.
They sit like that for a while until there’s a knock on the door. It cracks open and Miles pokes his head through. He opens his mouth to speak, but then notices their position and a look of concern crosses his face. “Everything okay?”
She nods, and Bass pulls away, wiping at his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, we’re good.” He swallows and looks up at Miles. “What’d you need?”
He opens the door wider. “Olly’s downstairs. He wants to see Charlie.”
Again, she nods, indicating that she’ll see him. Bass gets to his feet, brushing himself off. “Give us a minute, and we’ll be right down.”
Miles hesitates, knowing that something is clearly wrong, but closes the door, leaving them alone.
Charlie gazes up at Bass, and he looks down at her, pain in his eyes. “I don’t expect anything from you. I just wanted you to know.” She reaches for his hand, but her fingers have barely brushed his palm before he pulls it away. “I’ll let you get dressed.” He turns away from her and heads out the door, easing it shut behind him.
She doesn’t know what to make of all this.
Bass, still dressed in his sleep pants and ratty t-shirt, drops down the stairs and turns into the living room.
“Monroe!” Olly calls excitedly, getting to his feet. “Can Charlie come to the farm today?”
Bass casts a glance at Miles, who’s sitting in the armchair. Miles just shrugs in response, and Bass turns back to Olly. The kid has been asking for over a week now if Charlie can come out to the farm for a visit. Bass isn’t sure what to say. They’d been waiting until her feet healed properly, then until she felt like she had the strength. Now, Bass isn’t sure it’s such a good idea at all, not with the mask showing up just a few days ago. If this guy is watching her, it may be a bad idea letting her leave the house at all. “I don’t know, Olly. Today might not be a good day.”
The boy frowns at him. “I thought you said she’s getting better.”
“She is,” Bass assures him. “She’s just not very strong yet, and walking that far might wear her out.”
Olly crosses his arms over his chest. “You don’t want her to come over at all, do you?”
It’s not exactly wrong, but it feels a little harsh to say that. Before Bass can say anything, Miles goes, “He’s thirteen, Bass, not a baby. Just tell him the truth.”
Olly glances at Miles and back at Bass, who sighs and rubs a hand over his face. “Okay,” Bass says, “the truth is Olly, I don’t know if it’s safe for Charlie to go anywhere right now. You know how she was missing for so long?” Olly nods. “Well, somebody had her, and they hurt her, and now that person is watching her and leaving threats for her. She’s safe in this house, and I don’t think anywhere else is. When it’s safe, I’ll bring her to visit.”
There’s disappointment on Olly’s face, but he nods in understanding. “Okay, Monroe, if you say so.”
The stairs creak as Charlie comes down them, stepping into the living room. Almost unconsciously, she grabs the side of Bass’ shirt, something to connect her to him.
“Hey, Charlie,” Olly says, putting his usual smile on his face, “you wanna hang out today?”
She gives him a small smile and nods. He comes forward and walks around Bass, looking at her the whole time. “You want something to eat? Your grandpa’s making breakfast.” Without another glance to Miles or Bass, Charlie follows Olly into the kitchen.
“You can’t keep her locked up here forever,” Miles says as he gets to his feet. “She’s Charlie. Sooner or later, she’s gonna want to go outside. At the very least to the fire pit, she loved nights by the fire.”
Bass sighs. “I know. It’s just until−”
“Until when, Bass?” Miles presses. “Until you feel like it’s safe? That’s never gonna happen. It’s never gonna feel safe again. You can’t punish her for that.”
He’s right, Bass knows. Still doesn’t mean that he likes it. “I know. I won’t. I just want her safe.” He sighs again. “A little while longer. That’s all I ask.”
Miles shakes his head but says, “Okay. I trust you.”
Bass nods. “Just a little while.”
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
Charlie finally gets out of the house
Thank you all so much for the love that this story has gotten!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Just a little while turns into three more weeks. It becomes increasingly obvious to Bass that Charlie knows exactly what he’s doing. She keeps hinting at him, in not-so-subtle ways, that she wants to go outside. The visits from Olly don’t help, impatiently asking if it’s safe yet. Bass doesn’t say no, but he definitely doesn’t say yes either.
There are a few nights that he takes her to the fire pit, as long as both Bass and Miles are there. Miles is the first one out there, to get everything set up, and is the last to leave, dousing what remains and doing a perimeter check before coming back inside. It’s a lot more thought and preparation into it than there used to be, but it’s worth it for the contented look on Charlie’s face when she’s out there. It’s late August still and not that cold, but each night, she wraps a blanket around herself before planting down in front of the fire, in between Bass’ legs.
While she’s begun putting on weight, the bony areas of her body gaining a little padding, she still runs several degrees colder than everybody else. Layers have become an important part of her wardrobe. But, she doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he finds her smiling more as she starts staying up for full days, enough energy to start to help with chores around the house.
It’s this energy that leaves Bass waking up alone on most mornings, this one being no different. Truthfully, he’s almost glad. Especially on the mornings when he wakes up from his own nightmares. Or dreams. Sometimes he can’t tell the difference. Those dreams that are of him finding the bastards that did this to Charlie and tearing them down. But, as satisfying as the thought is, his dreams turn it on him. Because in his dreams, he becomes General Monroe again. Ruthless, volatile, insane. Turning back into that monster is not necessary to tear down those who’d broken Charlie but deep down, there’s that part of him that wants to bring him out. And, that brings about unmatched levels of self-deprecation and hating himself for even the thought. The broken and crazed person he once was didn’t have the room in his cracked heart for someone like Charlie. If he becomes the General, even just for a little bit, he’s certain that he would lose her.
It’s not something he can risk.
It’s one of these dreams, ones where he embraces the monster and therefore loses the girl he loves, that wakes him. Makes his heart pound and his brain hurt. When he looks at where Charlie should be and sees she’s gone, he’s a little grateful. At least, she doesn’t have to deal with the burden of the monster inside of him. She has enough demons of her own to battle without his, too.
When Bass gets downstairs, he finds Charlie at the kitchen stove with Miles, making breakfast. He comes up behind her, laying a hand on her hip. “You okay this morning?” She glances over her shoulder at him and smiles, nodding. “Good.” He runs a hand over her hair. “No nightmares?” She shakes her head, the smile still on her face as she looks down at the frying pan on the stove. “That’s really good, Charlie.” She knocks her shoulder against him, tilting her head toward the table. “Okay.” He does as she asks and goes to sit at the table, trying to ignore Rachel who sits across from him.
There’s been an uneasy understanding between Bass and Rachel over the past month or so. It mostly involves her standing back and letting Bass do what he thinks is best for Charlie. In result, it’s let Charlie come out of her shell at her own pace and slowly gaining a positive relationship with Rachel, instead of what Rachel was trying to gain at the beginning. But he knows that she still doesn’t like how he is with Charlie, doesn’t like how he is still the only one that can touch her. The best way to deal with Rachel is to just not say anything.
After a few minutes, Charlie brings over two plates, setting one down in front of Bass before taking a seat with her own. Miles sits across from them, giving Rachel a plate of food. “I have the day off,” Miles says to Charlie as he digs into his food. “Is there anything you want to do today?”
She looks from Miles to Bass and then holds out a hand toward the window. Bass understands. “You want to go outside?” She nods.
Miles stares Bass down. “It’s time, Bass.”
Bass knows that Miles is right. There haven’t been any more threats left for her, and as long as he is with her, she should be safe. There’s no reason to keep her locked up. “Charlie, do you want to go see Olly’s farm with me and Miles?” She beams at him and nods excitedly. “Well, finish your food, and we’ll go after.”
“You came!” Olly calls, racing down the porch of his house to greet them. “That’s great!” He beams up at Charlie. “Come on, I want to show you the back fields.” He and Charlie move on ahead as Miles and Bass hang back, following at a close distance.
“Why exactly are we out here?” Miles asks Bass.
Bass shrugs. “The kid has been insisting for weeks. I don’t get it, but it seems harmless enough for Charlie to come hang out.”
Miles nods. “Yeah, it gets her out of the house, and honestly, I can’t see much harm coming to her out here.”
The back fields are expansive. One half of them are penned animals, the other half being crops in different stages of growth. Olly is leading Charlie along the fence of some of the animal pens, having her reach down to pet one of the pigs. She laughs at something the kid says as she does. Bass smiles. He honestly can’t remember why he was so afraid to bring her out here. The change of environment and the fresh air are good for her.
Olly turns and leads Charlie along the back fence. The low metal bars of the fence are just enough to distinguish Olly’s property from that of the neighboring farm, which is significantly smaller and tucked safely away behind Olly’s farm and the edge of the woods. The kind of place that no one would know was there unless they were told.
The back door of the neighboring farm house opens and shuts with a bang, and the noise startles Charlie, sending her gaze in that direction. Her feet still, and she falls behind Olly, who doesn’t notice her absence for a moment. Bass and Miles exchange wary glances and hurry up to her. “Charlie,” Bass says, “are you okay?”
Her face is one of shock and dismay as she shakes her head. Her breathing is unsteady, but her gaze unwavering on something in the distance. Bass follows her line of sight to a person on the neighboring property. A very large man is mucking out an empty stall. The man has to be close to seven feet tall, his shoulders as wide as he is heavy. He doesn’t seem to notice that he’s being watched. The man is a giant, in every sense of the word.
The big man was a giant. Tall and wide and heavy.
That’s what she wrote in her journal about the man who had abducted her.
Bass looks back at Charlie to see that tears are in her eyes as she has trouble keeping her breath steady. “Charlie, is it him? Is this the man who took you?”
The nod she gives is barely perceptible, but he sees it. Standing barely ten feet from them is the man who took Charlie. His head is spinning, he’s trying to think and plan and do something. This opportunity has presented itself, and he just needs to take it.
“I saw him,” Olly says, his voice much softer than his usual hyped-up tone, as he comes back and stands by her. “I saw him carry her out of there, and I followed him to the woods where he left her. I got my stuff and I stayed with her until she woke up. That’s when I brought her back to you.”
Bass glances at the kid and sees how upset the memory makes him. “That’s why you’ve wanted to bring us out here. You wanted me to know…” Know what? That she was in Willoughby this entire time? That she’d been under their noses? That the people who did this are so in reach that he can just do what needs to be done?
Olly nods, but his face grows dimmer. “I thought I saw something. A night, over a year ago, I thought I saw him take someone into the cellar.” His voice is pinched and tight with the admission. “But, I was too far away, and I wasn’t sure what I really saw. And, when you started looking for her, I wanted to say something, but I had no proof.” He hiccups and drags the back of his hand across his eyes. “I think, on some quiet nights, I think I heard her screaming.” The boy breaks down into sobs then.
Bass doesn’t know what to say. It’s coming back to him now, just exactly when Olly started taking a liking to him. It was those brief visits back to Willoughby where Olly really began following Bass around or asking him so many questions. Only after Charlie had disappeared. Because the kid felt like he knew something but didn’t know for sure. He wanted to help but didn’t think he could. Because, he felt, and still feels, guilty.
What a horrible fucking thing for a thirteen-year-old boy to feel responsible for.
Miles is the one that comes to Olly, placing a strong hand on the boy’s shoulder. The touch only makes Olly cry harder. “You did what you could, Olly. You have nothing to feel sorry for.” He squeezes the boy’s shoulder. “You brought her back to us, and we couldn’t be more grateful.”
Bass feels stuck. Trapped by Olly’s admission and the revelation of the man being right there. Justice is so close that he can practically fucking taste it, but he doesn’t know what to do. General Monroe is tapping away at the back of his mind, bringing forth a multitude of ways to punish this man for what he’d done, but Bass is trying to fight that. He wants blood for what was done to Charlie, he just isn’t sure how to get it.
And, while he’s stuck there, battling with his inner demons and his indecision, Charlie simply moves forward, grips the fence railing, and hoists herself up and over into the neighboring property, heading right for the big man.
Poor Olly. You all became so suspicious of him, and while he was hiding something, it wasn't something evil. Poor boy.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
Charlie goes back to hell
Bass vaults over the fence, hurrying after her. “Charlie, no!” He reaches out and grabs her arm, trying to pull her to a stop. She shakes him off and keeps moving stubbornly ahead. “Charlie!”
His voice carries enough to gain the attention of the man, who stops what he’s doing and turns to face Charlie. “Charlie!” he calls excitedly. The word doesn’t sound right coming out of his mouth, sounding a little like mush. It’s like he can’t form it correctly.
Charlie comes to a stop just a few feet from him, and he takes a step toward her.
In a panic, Bass steps in front her, extending his arm to the side to keep her back. His other arm stretches out in front of him, a warning to the man to stay back. “That’s close enough.”
A look of confusion crosses the man’s face before setting into a hurt expression. “Ch- Charlie f-friend.”
Charlie squeezes Bass’ arm, tight enough for him to glance over at her. She nods at him, a confirmation of the man’s statement. Slowly, Bass lowers his arm, and she comes to stand beside him. Her hand clasps his, letting him know she still needs him.
The big man looks from Bass to Charlie to their joined hands. “Charlie s-s-safe?” He looks genuinely concerned, wary of Bass’ presence.
Charlie gives him a soft smile and nods, laying her other hand on Bass’ bicep.
A big smile crosses the man’s face. The more Bass looks at the man, the more Bass understands. Charlie had written that the man wasn’t bright, but Bass is starting to realize that it isn’t just that. The man has some sort of mental handicap. Bass doubts he even knew what was asked of him when he took Charlie. It’s obvious that he’s being taken advantage of by the masked man, someone he probably trusts.
Figuring all of this out, the anger at the big man fizzles out. All the accusatory words and awful things that were in Bass’ head are gone, replaced with pity. Especially when the man turns his head, and Bass can see a burn mark on his neck, a new one that is still red, raw, and peeling.
Charlie sees it, too, and gasps. The man looks at her, startled, and she gestures to her own neck in explanation. The man’s face turns sad, glancing down at his feet. “He got m-mad. I l-let Charlie g-g-go.”
Her breath catches, and Bass can see tears in her eyes. He’s starting to wonder if this man and Charlie got closer than she led on. Maybe he’d been right when he said Charlie is his friend. She wrote about him feeding her, keeping her company, and that he never hurt her. Bass knows she probably hated him at first, as she should’ve, but he was the kindest person she’d been around for months. It’s hard not to bond with someone in that sort of situation.
She gestures to the small farmhouse, asking a silent question. The man understands. “He’s g-gone. He went on-on a tr-trip.”
At that, Charlie drops Bass’ hand and walks away from them both, starting to walk along the side of the house. She focuses hard on her task, ignoring as Miles hops over the fence. He joins Bass as he follows Charlie. The big man ambles along behind them, calling, “No! N-no, Ch-Charlie!”
She waves the warning off, determined. Her step doesn’t falter until she reaches the opposite end of the back of the house. She comes to an abrupt halt, staring down at something, and Bass comes up next to her, following her gaze. He reels back a little when he realizes what he’s looking at.
A cellar door.
The big man comes up behind them all, breathing heavy. “D-don’t go in th-there.”
Bass can’t help but agree. It can’t be a good idea to go in there. “Charlie…”
She ignores them both as she reaches down, grips the door handle and yanks it open, letting it slam against the side of the house. The light pours into the open space, and she starts walking down the stairs into the dank cellar. Bass glances to Miles who looks just as hesitant as he feels, before they both follow her down the steps.
As the big man comes after them, he grabs a lantern from outside the door and lights it, helping illuminate the space.
Bass finds himself standing in Charlie’s nightmare, the lantern light casting their shadows across the stone walls. The ceiling is short, barely taller than Bass. The stench is overwhelming, human waste and blood. The room is small, smaller than Charlie’s bedroom at home. In the corner next to the stairs, there’s a small round table, which has been tipped over. Glass from what was once an oil lamp spreads across the floor. In the far corner, a stained and ratty blanket sits balled up. Two pairs of shackles are anchored into the wall next to the blanket. Another set hangs from the ceiling. The far wall holds a collection of weapons. Blade of varying lengths, size, and sharpness, and a hook holds a coiled whip.
This is the hell that Charlie lived in for fourteen months.
“Fuck,” Miles breathes. “Charlie.”
She looks around the room in wonder, as if she’s seeing it for the first time. She moves slowly over to the corner with the blanket, the corner that Bass could only assume she slept in. Kneeling down, she picks up one of the shackles and just holds it, as if testing the weight. Her fingers ghost over the surface of the blanket, the only soft thing in the entire room. As she gets to her feet, she reaches up and pushes the hanging shackles with her fingertips. Then, she backs off. Steps back into the middle of the room and looks around her.
Bass watches her cautiously, waiting for the breakdown. It doesn’t come. She just turns back to Bass and walks into him. He wraps his arms around her as she rests her head against his chest. “Are you okay?” She nods against him. “You ready to go home?” She nods again and lets him go.
Miles stares at her with wide, sympathetic eyes. “Charlie?”
She turns to him with a sad smile and reaches out, taking his hand. Miles and Bass exchange glances, confused but surprisingly happy. Bass certainly wouldn’t have expected this of all places to be where she finally lets someone else in. When she releases him, she walks back out of the cellar, her head held high.
When they get back to the fence, she turns, looking past Miles and Bass to the big man. She places a hand over her heart, patting there twice. The man smiles at her, all big and dopey. “Be-be good, Charlie.”
She returns the smile before turning back around and lifting herself up and over the fence, where Olly is waiting for her. Miles follows after her without a second thought, but Bass pauses. He knows just how important this man was in returning Charlie to him. “Thank you for giving her back to me.”
The man nods. “Keep Ch-Charlie safe.”
“I will,” Bass promises before turning around and pulling himself over the fence. Charlie holds her hand out to him, and he doesn’t hesitate before taking it and leading her away.
Charlie jolts awake, but this time it isn’t her nightmare that does it. It’s Bass’. When she looks over at him, he’s sitting up in bed, his head in his hands and his breathing ragged. Charlie gets to her knees, easing behind him and draping herself around his bare shoulders. His hands reach up and take hers.
“It didn’t mean to wake you,” he says gently. She pulls her hand from his and touches his temple, asking him to explain. “Just a nightmare. It’s nothing.”
She releases him and crawls around, coming to kneel in front of him. She makes a rolling motion with her hand, trying to urge him to tell her. “You don’t want to know.”
She nods. Yes, she does. She really wants to know. Just a glimpse into what’s going on in his head would mean so much to her. Ever since he saw where she’d been, he’s been so hard to read. He’s let her in a little, but otherwise, she has no idea what he’s thinking.
When he sighs and takes her hands, she sits back on her heels, ready to listen. His eyes don’t meet hers. “I dream of killing him.” She doesn’t need him to explain who. “Over and over again, I kill him.”
That’s not so bad. It’s a given. He kills, he protects the ones he loves, and sometimes those two parts of him overlap.
“But, not just him,” he continues. “I want him to suffer in a way that he can’t even imagine. I want to hurt the people he loves most in the world, like he did to me.” He takes a deep breath and lets it out shakily. “It’s something General Monroe would do.” He raises his gaze to hers. “I don’t want to turn into him again.”
Her heart breaks for him. He’s battling the person he used to be, somebody who’d done terrible things, somebody who’d been feared or hated by most. He’s been so much more than that for years now, the thought of backsliding must terrify him. General Monroe had been filled with anger and loss, but Bass has grown and moved past his anger and pain. He loves her, at least he says he does.
And, she’s pretty sure she loves him back.
She wants to comfort him, she wants him to know how she feels, she wants to give him every part of herself. So, without hesitation, she crawls onto his lap, a leg on either side of his hips, and kisses him. Soft and gentle, as if asking his permission. As he sighs into her mouth, she thinks he’s accepting it, but then his hands are hard on her shoulders, pushing her back. “Charlie, Charlie, stop.”
There’s no hiding the hurt she feels at his words; the unhappiness is clear on her face.
“Charlie, we can’t do this.”
She presses a hand to her chest, over her heart, and points at Bass. “You love me?” She nods hurriedly. “This isn’t the right time.” She just stares at him. She can’t ask him why, can’t find the words, but she wants to. “Everything is still so fucked up. You’re still healing.”
It gets to her. She’s been home for nearly two months now. Most of her scars are starting to fade, and yes, she still gets nightmares and sometimes flashbacks, but she’s better than she was. It’s time that they get back on track.
She pokes him, hard, and she frowns at him. She shakes her head and makes a snapping motion with her hands. “You’re not broken?” She nods. He can’t argue with her on that. She knows herself better than he does. “Then, why aren’t you talking?”
Her heart thuds painfully at his words. Here she is, straddling him, offering him her heart, and all he can see is her damage. She feels like an idiot and more exposed than she’s felt since coming home.
With her face taut with anger, she swings herself off his lap and hurries over to her dresser. “Charlie.” She ignores him as she changes quickly, tugging on a shirt and a pair of jeans, without even caring if he’s watching. He’s behind her, grabbing for her shoulders, and she shrugs him off. “Charlie.” She refuses to look at him as she sits back down on the bed to tug on some socks. “Charlie, look at me.” She doesn’t.
Instead, she sweeps past him, out the door and down the steps. She stomps into her boots as Bass comes barreling down the stairs, still only in his pajama pants. “Charlie, please, stop. Don’t walk away from me.”
Miles pokes his head out from the kitchen. “What’s going on?” She points to herself and then at the door before reaching down and tightening the laces on her boots. “You want to go outside?” She nods, tying off one boot then the other. She looks up at him, waiting for permission. He looks from her to Bass and then says, “Okay. But, stay on the property, okay?”
She doesn’t even nod her agreement before rushing to the door. As it slams shut, she can hear Miles ask, “What the hell did you do?”
Standing outside, she takes a long, deep breath of fresh air. For the first time since being home, she’s completely alone. It almost feels weird without somebody with her. She stands on the porch, soaking up the sun, just for a moment, before she hops down the steps. She walks around the house, staying on the property like Miles asked. She stops at the fire pit and sits for a few minutes. Honestly, she’s not sure what to do with this little bit of freedom she has. All she knows is that she doesn’t want to go back inside.
She goes back around the house, and when she passes by the kitchen window, she hears Miles say, “It’s not even about her, it’s about you.”
She stops in her tracks and listens as Bass says, “That’s not true. It is about her. I don’t want to hurt her.” He sighs. “I’m a fuck up, Miles. She’s come so far. I don’t want her to be one more thing that I fuck up.”
“Look,” Miles replies, “if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that whatever shit you got going on in your head, it all comes back to Charlie. Sure, you’re a fucking mess of a person, but you love her. And, when you love someone, you do that with everything you’ve got.” He pauses. “I wouldn’t trust Charlie with anybody but you.”
There’s a moment of tense silence before Bass says quietly, “I’m still so angry when I look at her.”
Something about the way he says it makes Charlie’s breath hitch. When he looks at her, he sees the damage done to her, not her. He sees what the masked man wanted him to see. He’s doing exactly what the man wanted him to do.
She can’t listen to anymore, she can’t hear him call her damaged and broken. She pushes away from the house and starts down the road.
It isn’t until she’s almost to the farm that she realizes she’s going to Olly’s. The boy has a way of making her forget about everything that is wrong with her, and she really needs that right now. When she gets to the farm, Olly is out in the back pens, filling the troughs for the pigs. She comes up to the fence and waits patiently for him to notice her.
Once he looks up, he beams. “Hi, Charlie!” He glances around her, side to side. “Where’s Monroe?” She shrugs. It makes a nervous frown cross his face. “You think that’s a good idea?” He gestures to the neighboring farmhouse. “He could be back any day now.” She waves him off, but his nervousness doesn’t seem to dissipate. Still, he offers, “You want to help me feed the chickens next?”
For the next little bit, she helps him feed all of the animals on the farm, him doing his level best to make her laugh the entire time. She’s in the middle of a big laugh when Olly’s mom calls him from inside the house, “Oliver Alexander Hale, get in here!”
He exchanges a glance with Charlie. “Uh oh, sounds like I’m in trouble. Hold on a second.” He leaves her side, rushing back into the house.
She mills around the pens, watching the animals as they eat. For a moment, she forgets about everything. Her damage, Bass, the looming farmhouse next door. None of it matters. Just her and the animals at her feet.
Suddenly, a body is pressed up against her back. An arm pins both of hers to her sides, and a cold blade at her throat. Hot breath on her ear as he whispers, “It’s good to see you again, Charlotte.” Her heart is pounding in her ears, panic seizing her. She’s trapped. “That wasn’t nice of you. Running away. Shame on you.” His nose nudges the shell of her ear. “Don’t worry. Your prison is waiting for you. Just like you left it.”
She doesn’t know how she’s going to get out of this. Once upon a time, she would’ve been able to save herself. Now, she doesn’t quite remember how to.
“Let her go!”
The man holding her whirls around, forcing her around with him. Standing only a few feet away, Olly is aiming a shotgun at them. He cocks it before shouting, “I said let her go!”
The man chuckles low in his throat. “You’re cute, kid. Put the gun down.”
Narrowing his eyes, Olly aims the gun down and fires. Buckshot hits the ground just in front of their feet, kicking up the dirt. He raises the gun again. “I know how to shoot, asshole. Now, let her go!”
Something about Olly’s will to fight lights a fire inside of Charlie, one that she hasn’t felt in a very long time. The need to survive and see another day sparks inside of her, and she knows that she can fight back. She isn’t the weak little girl that he turned her into. She’s stronger than that.
With a scream, she steps back onto his foot, stomping hard. The arm around her loosens, and she uses the slack on her arms to jab an elbow backward into his stomach. The knife at her throat falls away. She grabs one of the man’s arms, lunges forward, and with momentum and all the strength she can muster, she flips him over her shoulder. He lands on his back with a thud, and she places a boot on his chest, shifting her weight onto him. She glances up at Olly and holds out her hands. Without hesitation, Olly tosses her the shotgun, and she catches it with ease. She cocks it, leveling it with the man’s head.
Pressing hard on his chest, she glances up as Miles and Bass run toward her. They slow as they reach Olly, stopping by him. Her eyes meet Bass’. The look of awe on his face is one that she’s never seen. As if he forgot who she once was.
Charlie’s eyes are still locked with Bass’ when she says, “I want answers.”
Hey guys! The next update will be a little late, I'm going to be at a convention in Maryland over Valentine's Day weekend. Leading up to that is just finishing up the cosplays for me and my husband and just getting packed in general for the trip. It's gonna be a busy week, but I'll be back the week after!
Chapter 13: Chapter 12
Charlie finally gets some answers.
Warning: This chapter does involve some serious violence and torture. Just keep that in mind.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Bass comes onto the scene, he can’t help but stare at Charlie, agog. Seeing her stand there with a boot on the man’s chest and a shotgun trained on him, for a moment, Bass sees her as the strong woman he’s always known. And, when she looks at him, he sees life in her eyes, a little sparkle of triumph.
Then, he sees her arms shaking, the gun rattling in her grip. The triumph in her gaze gives way to terror, and her voice warbles when she says to him, “I want answers.”
He wants to promise them to her, that she’ll learn all that she needs to know. But, the man under her boot just laughs. “Ah, so Charlotte found her fight again. Very cute. Did you forget? I own you.”
Miles rages forward, and with a swift kick to the head, the man goes quiet, knocked unconscious. A sob escapes Charlie’s lips as her arms drop, the gun still in her grip. Bass rushes towards her, catching her under her arms as she staggers backwards away from the man. “I got you.”
She rights herself and steps out of Bass’ arms, turning to face him. She doesn’t say anything. They both know what needs to be done, but neither one wants to say it.
Olly, still there and looking a little dazed, turns his attention to Bass. “What’s going to happen to him?”
“Go back inside,” Bass tells him. “Don’t come back out until I tell you to.”
The boy gazes past him, at Miles who is checking the pulse of the unconscious man. “Are you going to kill him?”
Bass’ stare doesn’t waver. Charlie glances at him because, he knows, she knows the answer and wants to see if he tells Olly the truth. “Yes.”
Olly only nods before scurrying back towards his house.
Bass turns to Charlie, who wipes at her eyes with one hand, the other still holding the shotgun. His hands come to rest on her upper arms. “Are you okay?”
She starts to nod but stops. “Yes,” she says firmly. “I’m okay.”
Her voice sounds so damn good to him. All he wants to do is sweep her into his arms and hold her to him, make her keep talking. But, there’s work to be done.
He lets her go and goes to Miles’ side. They stare down at the man. Bass had expected to recognize him, to somehow know who he was. Or maybe he expected him to look like a monster. But, he doesn’t. He looks like an average man, and not one that Bass recognizes. “Do you recognize him?”
Miles shakes his head. “No. I have no idea who he is.”
Bass nods. “Let’s find out.”
Together, they hoist the unconscious man over the fence into the next yard. Silently, they climb over and pick the man up, strung between them. As Charlie climbs over to join them, Bass looks back at her. “You should go inside with Olly.”
She shakes her head. “No. I need to be part of this.”
He can’t fault her that. He just tilts his head in indication for her to follow.
Miles and Bass don’t need words to know where they’re going. They drag the man around the house to the cellar. Charlie hurries forward and pulls the door open, standing aside to let them go in. She takes a moment to grab the lantern and light it before she comes in after them.
They settle him into the corner and secure the shackles around his wrists and ankles. They step back, watching the man as if he’s a bomb ready to go off. Charlie sets the small table back up, placing the lantern there and laying the shotgun next to it.
Miles glances over at Bass. “What’s the plan here?”
Bass holds his hand out to Charlie, who takes it and comes to stand by his side. “We get answers. Any way we can.”
Miles nods his agreement, but Charlie slips her hand from his. “You’re talking about torture,” she says stiffly.
“Seems only fair,” Miles says, rubbing his jaw.
She frowns at Bass. “You can’t.”
He meets her eyes, strong and steady. “Like hell I can’t.”
She moves into him, hands cupping his face. “You don’t have to become him again.”
His hands rest on her hips, her still-too-thin hips. “I’m doing what I need to. He can’t get away with this.”
Her face turns pleading. “Just kill him. I don’t need all the answers, I know enough. Don’t… do this.”
He runs a hand over her hair. “I appreciate you trying to save my soul, Charlie, but it’s already long gone.”
Miles comes up behind her and lays his hands on her shoulders. “Just let us handle this.”
She shrugs off his hands and slides out from between the two of them. She looks from one to the other. “I’m not going anywhere.” She stalks towards the stairs and takes a seat.
“We wouldn’t ask you to,” Miles tells her.
Bass isn’t so sure. Doing what needs to be done is one thing, letting the girl he loves watch as he tortures a man is another. The General is there, tapping at the back of his mind, ready to emerge. How can he do what needs to be done and stay grounded at the same time?
He catches Charlie in his sights and realizes that she’s in her head again. Her gaze trained on the floor, her hands limp in her lap.
“You can’t keep me here forever!” Charlie screams as the masked man enters the cellar. “And, you’re deluded if you think you can break him. He won’t play into your hands.”
The man chuckles quietly. “You think so highly of him. Don’t you know about the monster that lurks just below the surface?”
“Better than most.” She sticks her chin out, defiant. “You can’t scare me away from him.”
The man strides across the room in three long steps, kneeling in front of her and clutching her face with one hand. “I don’t plan to. Cling to him, cry out for him, scream for him, if you must, but know that he’s not coming for you. That he’ll never find you.”
She shakes her head out of his grasp. “You underestimate him.”
“And you underestimate me,” he says sharply. “You have no idea how long I’ve been planning this, Charlotte. You have no idea what exactly I’m capable of.”
“You’re just a cowardly fuck who won’t face his real opponent,” she hisses at him. “Instead, you go for someone who is smaller, not as well trained. You want to torment him so bad, but you can’t even stand face to face because you know he’s more of man than you’ll ever be.”
His face turns dark at her words, and he gets to his feet. With even and unhurried steps, he goes back to the small table. He retrieves something from underneath before facing her again. He moves back toward her slowly and crouches in front of her. She can see what he has now: a can of kerosene and a box of matches. He reaches for her, rucking up her tank top until it’s over her head and caught on her arms. She struggles and fights, but she can’t move her arms enough to stop him. “You’re right. I’ll never be a better man than him.” He splashes kerosene onto her chest, and her struggles become stronger. A match flickers to life in his hands. “But I’ll always be a better monster.” With a flick of the wrist, the match makes contact with Charlie’s skin. The kerosene ignites and flames erupt.
There are no words for the terrible screams that come from Charlie’s mouth.
When Charlie starts screaming, Bass is instantly by her side. He grips her shoulders. “Charlie!” He shakes her a bit. “Charlie!”
The scream dies as she comes back to reality, and she falls against his chest. Her hands go to her own chest, right over her sternum. “It still burns.”
Bass looks over his shoulder at Miles, who’s looking at them with concern. “We can make it stop,” Miles tells her.
Bass is pretty sure that what they’re about to do won’t fix Charlie’s state of mind, but it’s a calming thought. “He said you’d never find me,” she says to him.
He hugs her tightly. “He was wrong.”
A groggy laugh comes from the corner of the room. “Was I?”
They all turn to look at the bound man. “If my simpleton friend hadn’t let her go,” he continues, “would you have ever seen her again?” He shrugs. “Maybe when I dumped her body on your doorstep.”
Miles is across the room before Bass can blink, his fist making solid contact with the man’s face. “Shut your fucking mouth.”
The man simply spits out a little blood and smiles, his teeth red. “Am I still in your head, Charlotte? Whispering all of your fears and doubts into your ear?”
The sound of that man calling her by his name for her makes Bass’ blood boil. Miles lands another punch.
Charlie is shaking in Bass’ arms, and as much as he wants to sit there and comfort her, he needs to be in on the action. He lets her go and stands, going across the room. “You don’t get to speak to her.”
“Or you’ll do what, Mr. President? Kill me?” He laughs, cold and joyless. “Let’s not pretend. We all know I’m not walking out of here.”
“Then it’s up to you how you die,” Miles growls. “We can make it quick and painless or…” he looks over to the wall of weapons and back again, “we can put you through hell. I know which I’d prefer.”
The man’s eyes slide past Miles and Bass to Charlie again. “Is that what you want, Charlotte? To sit here and watch as they do to me what I did to you?”
Charlie covers her ears and rocks a little in her seat.
This time, it’s Bass’ fist that connects with the man’s face. “I said you don’t get to speak to her.”
The man ignores him. “Do you want to see them become the Butcher of Baltimore and the Scourge of Scranton all over again? The fearsome generals of the Monroe Republic?”
“Get out of my head!” Charlie launches herself off the steps, hurtling toward the man. Bass catches her by the waist, and she struggles against him, her hands trying to claw at the man. “You sick son of a bitch! You don’t get to own me anymore!” Bass’ arms tighten around her, but she doesn’t stop trying to get loose. “Why did you do this to me?”
The man just grins like the Cheshire Cat. “Like I told you before, it was never about you. I didn’t do this to you, I was merely an instrument. We both know who’s responsible.”
Bass remembers the journal entries, and his stomach drops. He holds the struggling Charlie to him as he says, “I did nothing. I don’t even know who you are.”
“Of course you don’t,” the man says. “The great President Monroe never knew those that he stepped on.”
Charlie goes still in Bass’ arms, the fight gone, and she slides out of his grasp to sit on the floor at his feet. Tears are running down her cheeks. “Just tell me the truth.”
“The truth?” He pauses and tilts his head to the side. “Truth is, Charlotte, that you’ve put your trust in a murderer. He’s killed so many innocent people that the blood on his hands will never wash away. The truth is that the man you care about is the worst kind of monster. I should know, we’re of the same breed.”
Rage is rolling off of Miles in waves, and he silently stalks to the wall of weapons. He plucks a pair of short bladed clippers and a long dagger from the wall and stalks over to the man. Bass meets his gaze, and with silent understanding, Miles tosses him the dagger. Miles turns back to the man, takes hold of a pinky finger and slides the blades of the clippers around the base, ready to snap them shut at any moment. Bass follows suit and takes his place on the man’s other side. “Give us a real fucking answer,” Miles growls, “or I start removing things.”
The man looks up at Miles, a knowing smile on his face. “Do you remember the birthday bombing, General Matheson?” He sighs. “I don’t suppose you do. Head injuries are funny that way.”
Apparently, this doesn’t qualify as a real answer, and with barely any effort, Miles snaps the clippers shut, severing the man’s finger. The detached digit falls to the floor, blood spilling after it. The man’s screams are horrific, inhuman. Not one of them flinches at the sound.
Miles raises his voice. “Now,” he preps the bloody clippers around the man’s ring finger, “are you going to tell us what we want to know? Or do we need to remove another finger?”
The man’s breathing is erratic as he stammers out, “Go to hell.”
Bass presses the tip of the dagger to the man’s cheek, pushing in and slowly dragging it up to his forehead. Blood blooms from the cut and begins to drip down his face and chin. “Answer him.”
Holding his head up has become an effort for the man, all of his energy used by trying to fight the pain. “You don’t deserve answers.”
Without hesitation, Miles closes the clippers again, snapping off the man’s finger. His screams bounce off the walls and die off, turning to pained whimpers. “Tell me why you did this.” Miles positions the clippers around the middle finger.
The man gives him a dopey smile. “It’s killing you that you don’t know, isn’t it?”
Bass roughly grabs onto the man’s ear, and with ease and precision, slices it off his head. The screams are brutal, ragged and raw. “You can make this stop.”
There’s a long pause this time before the man says softly, “The- the bombing. The man responsible…”
Miles glances over at Bass. “You killed him, didn’t you?”
Bass clenches his jaw and nods. It’s not something he likes to think about. Killing that man and his family had been the start of the breakdown between him and Miles. Miles had told him that himself.
The man is shaking now, probably from shock. “Not just him. You killed his family. His wife, Stacy. His daughters, Lucy and Amelia. His son, Jackson.” He shakes his head. “Amelia was only six years old.”
The weight of the names is heavy on Bass. This man knew these people. The picture is starting to become clearer.
“The man,” their captive continues, “was named Alex, and he was my brother.”
The world feels tilted off its axis. Bass’ head is swirling with this new information. That heinous deed, something he’d done in a demented act of love for his brother, caused all of this? Something that happened… How many years has it been? Near a decade, if Bass’ memory serves him correctly. That’s the only thing he can think of. How long it’s been. “Why now? Why not come after me before?”
The man’s face is deathly pale, but he’s still acting like he has the upper hand. “I spent years watching you, waiting. Waiting until you loved someone more than you loved Miles Matheson.”
Bass watches Miles’ gaze turn to Charlie who’s still sitting on the floor a few feet back. She’s staring at the man with interest.
“I saw you two that night, as I waited for my friend to capture you,” the man says directly to her. “That really was some kiss. Amazing that you can even dare to touch him.”
“You took me away from him,” she accuses.
Despite the pain and the blood loss, he smiles at her. “Monroe’s little angel of death. Killer of Patriots. I always knew breaking you would be fun.” His eyes flick up to Bass. “She begged for her death once. Did she tell you that? Not to me, of course, but to my friend. I was listening on the other side of the door. She asked him to kill her so she wouldn’t go through any more pain. ‘Please, please,’ she said. ‘Just kill me.’ It was something quite pathetic.”
Bass sends a look to Miles, who doesn’t need any instructions to snip off the man’s finger. Anguished screams echo off the walls. Charlie scrambles to her feet and brushes past Bass. Neither of them pays any attention until she says, “Move.” They turn and see her holding the shotgun. “I’m going to end this.”
Bass steps back to let her through as Miles steps away from the man. She points the gun at the man’s chest. “Beg me for it.”
His face is devoid of all color, and his entire body is shaking so bad he can barely keep his head lifted. “Never.”
“Let me make this clear,” she says sharply. “Either I kill you now, or I let them take their time. You think this is bad? Just wait. They’ll torture you relentlessly, until you can’t even remember your name. So.” She cocks the shotgun. “Beg.”
He’s on the brink of unconsciousness, nearly passing out from the pain. “Kill me. Please, kill me.”
The second the words are out of his mouth, Charlie pulls the trigger. Buckshot tears up his chest, and his head drops limply to his chest, the life gone from him.
Once he’s dead, Charlie drops to the cellar floor, gun clattering against the stone. Sobs wrack her body, her palms pressed to the cold floor. Bass crouches down beside her, a hand soothing down her back. “It’s okay, Charlie. He’s gone now.”
Miles kneels down on her other side. “You did good, kid.”
Bass knows that this, facing her abuser, couldn’t have been easy. Killing him quickly had been an act of mercy, mercy that he didn’t deserve.
“It’s over,” Bass tells her, but he wonders if it will ever really be over for her.
Thanks for everyone's patience! Between prepping for the con, the con itself, and what a friend called "post-con lag," this kind of fell by the wayside. Hope it didn't disappoint!
Alright, we're in the home stretch. The last chapter will either be next chapter or one more chapter after that.