A storm brews in the distance and the air is heavy with the promise of rain. The sun peeks out from behind swirling gray clouds, briefly splashing the road with light before hiding again. A brisk wind whips at their clothes and blows dust into their eyes. They've been on the road for what feels like forever.
They are tired and dirty and want nothing more than to just go home.
"What the hell is that?" Bass Monroe squints as he looks into the distance, his eyes sting with road dust and exhaustion. He blinks hard, but when he opens his eyes again, the scene remains unchanged.
Charlie is just as tired as Bass is and isn't much more confident in the sight before her. "Willoughby can't be closed, can it? It looks closed." She runs her tongue along her teeth. They feel furry.
Bass pulls the brim of his hat lower, in hopes of blocking the swirling dust from his eyes. His focus remains on the enigma before them. "We were only gone a month," he mutters as a feeling of unease begins to settle in his gut.
Willoughby has changed a lot in those four weeks.
A wall made of abandoned cars and old barrels had been cobbled together long ago, but the gates had been open for at least a year. They aren't open today. And they aren't unattended either. Two armed men stand next to the locked main gate and they look well prepared to defend their post.
The sight is unsettling, but it isn't the gates or the guards that make Bass' hair stand on end.
Charlie sees it too. "What's with the flags?" she asks, pointing to the same sight that has captured Bass' full attention. A large rectangle of yellow fabric waves over the courthouse where the Texas flag had flown not so long ago. Below the solid yellow one is a second flag that is both black and yellow. The brilliant yellow is especially startling against a backdrop of angry storm clouds.
"What happened to the old flag?" Charlie asks.
"Don't know about the Texas flag, but I remember seeing ones like these when I was still in the Republic. There was this one really bad summer..." His voice trails off as he watches the flapping yellow fabric.
"What does that mean? A really bad summer?"
"It was cholera that time. We lost a lot of people."
"Cholera? Those flags mean cholera?"
"Not necessarily. Could be a lot of things, but that yellow flag indicates a contagion," Bass says, his voice low and uneasy. "A disease. Back in the old days, it started out as a maritime symbol used when a ship or port had the plague. After the blackout, we used them when people got really sick."
Charlie laughs, her voice uneasy. "You're joking, right? The plague? Cholera? We've only been gone a month."
"Not joking, Charlotte. Lots of the bad stuff comes on fast with no warning. See the second flag below the yellow one? That black and yellow flag means quarantine." He points to the guards. "They have the same flag painted on the gate."
"What are you saying?"
"Seems like Willoughby is on lock down. I bet we won't be going home anytime soon."
"But the plague? Maybe it's just a bad flu going around. Or maybe something like the Patriots started that time?"
"Maybe it is a flu, maybe cholera, maybe it's something else. The flu is bad enough these days, but no matter what it is; if they are resorting to quarantine, it's serious."
Charlie's uneasy smile disappears as a new thought occurs to her. "What about my Mom? Miles and Aaron? Grandpa?"
Bass nods at the surly guards. "Let's go ask."
"They look pretty intent on keeping people away. Do you think they'll shoot at us?"
He shrugs. "Maybe. If they do, we'll shoot back."
They are still twenty feet away from the gates when one of the big guys yells out, "Stop right there." The other guard has a rifle pointed in Bass and Charlie's general direction.
Now that they are closer, Bass recognizes the guards' faces. Both are weathered with age. One has a long gray beard and is built like a barn. The other is shorter and clean shaven but just as solid. Bass remembers drinking with both of them in the town's bar. "Bulge? Roy? What the hell is going on?"
"That you, Monroe? Thought you were dead." Bulge flashes a grim smile. His front two teeth are missing. His smile fades but his grip on the rifle doesn't waver.
Bass shakes his head. "Not dead yet. Just been out on a job. What's going on?" he asks again.
Roy nods toward the gate. "On lockdown for two weeks now."
"Cholera again?" Monroe's thoughts flash to Jeremy bringing in a daily death count all those years ago. He remembers the fear. The panic. His gut churns with unease.
"Nah. This one's worse than Cholera." Roy spits a wad of some homegrown chew out of one side of his mouth. He doesn't bother wiping away the drip on his chin. "Way worse."
"Worse than Cholera?"
"Yup." Bulge nods, but still doesn't lower the rifle.
"Oh god." Charlie covers her mouth.
Bass glances at her with a frown and then turns back to Bulge. "You said Porter. Doc's still alive?"
"Yeah, so far he's fine. Most of the old folks are. Doc thinks it's some mutated version of something that people were vaccinated for before the blackout. Calling it The Fever Pox but nobody knows what it really is. Sick ones are covered in a dark rash and burning hot. Most of them go a little nuts at the end. They have hallucinations. It's rough stuff."
"Dr. Porter is my grandpa," Charlie is clearly upset but she's keeping her cool. "Do you know Rachel or Miles Matheson? They are my family. Do you know if they are okay?"
Bulge nods. "Rachel's been helping Doc at the main sick tent. Not sure about Miles. Haven't seen him for a spell."
"How about Aaron Pittman?" Charlie asks.
The two old guys glance at each other. Roy shakes his head. "The teacher fella, right? Not sure, but he might be dead."
Charlie's mouth opens but no sounds come out.
"Bulge, I suppose you won't let us in?"
"You s'pose right."
"So could you talk to Doc Porter for us?" Bass asks, hoping to distract Charlie from thoughts of Staypuft.
Bulge nods. "Yeah, I reckon so."
"Ask him how Miles and Rachel are. Maybe ask around about Pittman too just to be sure. Tell him that Monroe and Charlie are going to stay up at the old Miller farm for now. Pretty sure it's still empty and we're dead tired. Need to crash for the night. We'll come back here tomorrow to see what you found out."
Bulge nods, clearly impatient for this conversation to be over. "Yeah, okay. We'll pass along your message and try to get you some answers. Now, move on. You really don't want to be here right now. Trust me."
They ride back down the road they'd come along. Charlie asks Monroe for more information about plagues and maritime flags but he ignores her. His jaw is tight and his thoughts seem far away.
They get to the Miller farm after a half hour's ride. The old farmhouse is a dump. The front porch is crumbling. Most of the windows are gone and the roof is partially missing from where a fire had gutted the second floor. The barn is big and solid but one peek inside shows that it's full of moldy hay, old furniture and bats. Located between the house and the barn, there's an old carport surrounded by a big patio. The carport will be easy to clear out and it will provide whatever shelter they need from the weather. Charlie clears the overgrown brush around the patio's fire pit and builds a fire.
The horizon glows reddish gold as the sun begins to set. The storm clouds have passed but the air is still cool and damp. A weak breeze stirs the leaves on the trees. Charlie takes her crossbow and heads toward a distant tree line in hopes of finding a small animal for their evening meal. Bass heads in a different direction to find water. They've been traveling for weeks. They have a routine.
Later, they meet back at the patio. Charlie has a skinny rabbit hanging from her fist. Bass sits on the ground by the fire, whittling a wooden spit. A pile of red apples and a full canteen sits at his side. Charlie cleans the animal and it isn't long before the air fills with the aroma of roasting meat.
"So we go back tomorrow?" Charlie asks, settling back to sit on the ground a few feet from where Bass is.
"Yeah. Should get down there by daybreak. They'll have an update for us."
"You really think Miles is okay? My Mom?"
"Miles is fine." Bass' jaw is set in a stubborn line. "He'll be fine. And your Mom? No fever is brave enough to make her sick."
She scowls but it fades into a rueful smile. "Maybe. What about Aaron? They think he's dead."
"I'll believe Staypuft died when I see it. That son of a bitch is hard to kill, remember? They have their info wrong. He's okay. I'm sure of it."
Charlie knows she shouldn't be comforted by Monroe's assumptions but she almost is. "Yeah, you're right. They're fine." She moves to kneel by the fire, checking the meat. "Probably."
"Not probably. Definitely fine."
She shrugs tiredly, not wanting to talk about it anymore. "Meat's ready." She cuts off strips of the fragrant rabbit and piles it on an old metal plate which sits on the pavement between them. He tosses her one of the apples he'd found. They eat until they are full.
"Apples are good," Charlie says after taking a final bite. "Find anything else while you were looking around?"
He nods. "Yeah. There's a well with a functioning pump and clear water maybe fifty feet south of the old barn. Filled our canteens with it. Found some blackberries and a couple apple trees. There's probably more edibles we can forage."
"Water and fresh fruit. Can't beat that."
"Maybe I can. Found some old metal lawn chairs. Need to clean em up but they'll be good for sitting around the fire. We might be here awhile. Might as well make it livable."
"What else did you find?"
"An old metal cot. I'll drag it into the carport tomorrow. You can have it." He nods toward the far side of the patio where a wild tangle of shrubbery and blue bonnets engulf the dirt that buts up against the patio. "The real prize is in those bushes."
She squints beyond the firelight. "What is it?"
"It's a tub."
"Like a bathtub?"
"Yeah. It's a big iron clawfoot tub. I figure someone who lived here after the blackout brought a tub out here so they could still take baths."
"Outside baths?" Charlie smiles a little. The thought of an actual bath is very appealing. "DId you check it out? Can we use it?"
"There's a metal trough underneath those flowers and vines. It goes from the drain hole down into a ditch so it should work pretty good. No rust or holes in the iron that I can see. We'll have to clean out a decade's worth of crud and I'll carve a new stopper, but then? Then we have a tub."
She sighs tiredly. "That would be nice. Not as nice as going home but it will work."
"It will give us a project to keep us busy while we wait for news from town, and maybe we won't have to stay here very long."
"Ya think?" she asks.
"No idea. Hell, we might be here for a couple weeks. Let's get some sleep." He stands and heads toward where his bedroll is laid out in the carport. "Night, Charlotte."
Not yet ready to turn in, she stares into the fire. "Good night."
The next morning is misty and gray. Charlie stands facing east, eating one of Monroe's apples and watching as a yellow smudge of sunlight tries to fight through the haze. A chill breeze blows her hair gently around her shoulders and she can taste humidity in the air.
"Gonna rain," he says as he walks up behind her. "We better head to town. See if we can learn anything."
She nods and follows him to where the horses are tethered by the barn. They saddle their horses and mount up as the first drops begin to fall. After five minutes of riding, they are both soaked through. Neither notices. This isn't their first ride in the rain.
Bulge is alone at the gate when they arrive but he's no friendlier today than he had been the last time they'd talked. "Monroe," he says.
"Talk to Miles? Doc Porter?"
Bulge nods. "Talked to both of them. Miles said to keep your ass at the farm and don't come down here again. Said to go to Arnette if you need supplies. No word of sickness there. Said he'll come get cha when it's all clear here."
"And my Grandpa? What did he say? What about my mom? Aaron Pittman?"
"Miles said your mom's fine. We was wrong about Pittman. He's okay too. Had to quit teaching cause all the families are cooped up in their houses. Anyway, Doc said to give you this." Bulge tosses a cloth bag their way.
"What is it?" Bass catches the bag from the air.
"Lye soap. Black Magic ointment and a scrub brush."
"What the hell is Black Magic ointment?" Bass asks as he ties the bag to his saddle horn.
"Rachel and the Doc came up with it. If you get the rash, put that stuff on right away. Smells something awful, but seems to help people not die so fast. Some have recovered."
"So some people are getting better?"
Bulge won't meet her eyes. "Maybe a few."
"If we see someone who's sick, what do we do?" Charlie asks.
"Get the fuck away from em, first off. If some sick person touches you anywhere, use that lye soap and say a prayer. Rash usually comes in five or six hours, so you'll know pretty quick. The ointment only helps if you already have a rash, but the lye should wash off the germs."
"And a top layer of skin," Bass mutters.
"It'd be worth it to avoid this shit, Monroe. It's bad. Really bad."
They can see the fear in the man's eyes. His warning is sincere. Bass thanks him for his help and then they head back toward the farm.
They put the horses in the barn. The horses don't seem to mind the bats. Bass and Charlie settle under the cover of the carport, watching the rain.
"What if we sneak into town and just go home?" Charlie asks. "We could keep to ourselves just as if we'd been there when it all started. There's that loose panel in the wall behind the old church. You know the one"
"Yeah, I know it, but that's stupid. Miles said to stay put. Plus what if you snuck in there and got sick?"
"Who cares what Miles says? I want to go home."
"Since when do you not care what Miles says?" He shakes his head. "I think I'll just stay here where I know neither of us has a fever or a rash, thank you very much. You maybe don't remember the epidemics we had before, but I don't want to go through that again. Miles is right. We stay here. Plenty of food. Decent shelter. It's a good place to spend a few days."
"What if it's more than a few days? You said it could be longer. What if it's weeks?"
"What if it is? We've been on the road for weeks before." He shrugs. "Not a big deal."
Charlie stands and begins to pace, clearly agitated. "I want to go home. I want to see if Miles is really okay."
"Bulge said he's okay." Bass runs a hand through his hair, trying to fight off frustration. "Miles is okay. Your Mom is okay. Aaron and your Grandpa are okay."
"What if he's wrong? What if none of them are okay and that guy is lying to us?"
He rubs his temples. "Why would Bulge lie?"
"Why wouldn't he? He doesn't care about us. He doesn't know us. Won't even let us go home."
"Stop it!" He yells. "Listen, in case you haven't noticed, I'm always one freak out away from crazy and this is hard for me too. I remember what the cholera outbreak was like. I remember when we had a smallpox epidemic. I remember other ones too. This kind of shit has me on edge but I'm trying my damndest to keep my anxiety under control. You are not helping."
"And why does the Scourge of Scranton care about controlling his emotions?"
Monroe looks her in the eye and she can see his pent up frustration and fear. "Because, Charlie. I know as well as you do that if everyone in Willoughby dies, I'm all you have left. If I'm it, then we both need to pray I can stay this side of insane. I'll be no good to you otherwise."
She stops short, staring at him, a look of surprise replacing her panic as his words sink in.
Monroe grabs his weapons and starts walking away. "You're usually the level headed one and when you are, it helps keep me steady. I know it's a lot to ask, but can you try to have a little faith? I'll be back later."
She watches him stomp into the woods and feels a pang of regret. Maybe she had gone too far, but she's worried. He's right. Everyone who matters to her is in that quarantined town.
Well, almost everyone. She's been traveling with Monroe, working at his side, for months. She thinks back. It's almost been a year. They get along pretty well and when she thinks back, she sees that he's right. She is usually the level headed one.
She waits by the fire until it's nothing but ash. She's calm now, but sorry. She didn't mean to piss off Monroe. He's still gone when she finally crawls into her bedroll and drifts to sleep.
Charlie wakes slowly to the sound of birdsong and something else. Something that isn't natural. She sits up and listens, eventually identifying the muffled grunts and curses as belonging to her travel companion. Monroe is back. In spite of herself, she smiles.
She doesn't see him at first, but finally spots him when she walks onto the patio and stands near the cold fire pit. He's shirtless, facing away from her on the far end of the patio, and completely focused on the old tub. He's standing amid trampled blue bonnets and tangled vines. Based on the pile of dried mud and weeds that he's tossed to one side, he's making headway with his project. Even though it's barely daylight, he's sweating. He yanks on a stubborn vine and when it comes free, he stumbles back a couple steps.
That's when she sees it.
Not six inches from Monroe's right boot, the head of a thick snake rises from the blue flowers where it had been hidden from view. She hears the rattle and Monroe must hear it too because he freezes.
"Shit," he says.
But before the word is even fully out of his mouth, the snake is dead. Charlie's knife vibrates slightly; the sharp end buried in the dirt below the snake's head, pinning the carcass to the earth.
Monroe jumps back and makes a noise that closely resembles a little girl shrieking. Now that the danger has passed, Charlie lets out a low breath of relief. Monroe is at her side in a moment and she can smell his skin, damp with sweat. She smiles. "So, you didn't know you had company?" she asks.
He shakes his head. "I hate snakes, Charlie. Hate em." He looks pale. "So, thanks for not missing."
"You're welcome, Monroe." She grins at him. "Figured I'd cook him for dinner. What do you think?"
His eyes are glued to the dead rattler. "Not hungry," he says. A shudder passes through his shoulders and Charlie laughs out loud.
After the snake is removed and a quick search finds no additional snakes, Charlie helps Monroe clear the rest of the gunk out of the tub. He carries a couple buckets of water from the well and they use Rachel's scrub brush to finish cleaning it out.
Squatting on her haunches, Charlie wipes sweat from her brow. "It's bigger than I thought. Two people could fit in here."
He freezes, his gaze on hers. "Uh."
"Don't worry. It wasn't an invitation."
Her heart skips into overdrive when he swallows hard and nods. "Yeah, okay. I'll get those chairs and that cot next. Then I'll work on the stopper for the tub."
"While you do that, I'll pick some blackberries and cook your friend. Maybe we'll be ready to eat about the same time you get that other stuff done."
"Sounds good." His thoughts are far away and his expression is troubled.
"You okay?" she asks.
He glances her way. "Oh, yeah. You mean what we talked about yesterday? I'm better. Doing this stuff is a good distraction."
"So what's eating you?"
He looks at her blankly. "Oh just, you know. I just really hate snakes."
She's pretty sure snakes are not what has Monroe on edge but she doesn't want to push. "Snakes, right."
"I think your knife was flying the same time I heard that damn rattle. You acted fast."
"Well, I couldn't let that snake get you until you cleaned out my tub."
"Your tub? Nah. The one who does the work gets the first bath."
"Fine. Not killing any more snakes for your sorry ass."
The tension fades and his eyes crinkle as he laughs. "Go cook the damn snake. After dinner we can figure out who gets to have the first bath."
Tired and hungry, they sit around the fire that night (on old metal lawn chairs instead of the ground), eating strips of oily snake meat and fresh blackberries. Charlie takes a long pull from her canteen and turns to Monroe.
"Did they have quarantines before the blackout very often?"
"I can't think of any other than the historical ones I read about. Nothing I remember." He frowns, "Well, except that time Miles and your dad had scarlet fever. They were quarantined for a couple weeks. I remember that because he missed the Little League championship game and we lost."
"You lost because Miles missed the game?" Charlie smiles. "I bet he loved that."
Monroe's face clouds. "Nah, Miles wasn't all that good at baseball then. We lost because of your dad. He was our pitcher and he was pretty awesome."
Charlie looks at her hands, unsure what to say. They don't usually talk about her dad or Danny and sometimes she forgets that Monroe even knew her family long before he ever met her. She doesn't blame him anymore, but it's still not safe territory. She decides to change the course of the conversation.
"Did you go to the doctor's office much?"
"It didn't seem like it then, but yeah. We went a lot. Sore throat, stomach ache, whatever. We took it for granted." Bass shrugs. "Long time ago, but I still remember just how clean those offices were. Everything was white. Nothing is white now. It's all shades of gray and tan."
"I remember getting stickers and bandages with pictures of Snoopy on them." She frowns. "I think his name was Snoopy. White dog. Big black ears?"
"Yeah, that's Snoopy. When I was a kid we got candy instead of stickers and my band-aids didn't have pictures on them."
They eat in silence for a while. Charlie looks over at him. "Do you really think they'll be okay? My mom and everyone?"
"I hope so, Charlie. I really hope so."
After they eat, Monroe hands her a glowing lantern and suggests Charlie get her cot set up. It's sitting in the carport along with a little pile of tools. Clearly, some assembly is required.
"So, you want me to do all the work?" she asks, one brow cocked high.
"For the cot, yes. I got something else I need to work on."
She gets to work, the thought of not lying on the ground for a change is very tempting. The frame is lightweight steel and a series of wires were woven together to create a base for a mattress that no longer exists. Monroe had found some burlap bags and she fills them with fresh smelling grass. Once the bed is up, she lays the grass pillows over the wires. She has a needle and thread in her first aid pouch and sews the pillows together at their edges. Once her bedroll is lying on top of the pillows, she smiles at her handiwork. It's wider than her bedroll - almost as big as a twin size bed. When she sits on it, she sighs happily and decides she needs to go thank Monroe for finding it.
She leaves the carport and stops short. Monroe is standing by the tub. The fire is burning low and there are candles lit on the ground around the tub. He smiles tentatively in the moonlight. "Your bath is ready." He holds out a small white rectangle. "Grabbed soap for you too. Smells way better than the lye."
She walks closer and sees that the tub has a good ten inches of water inside. Charlie doesn't even hesitate as she begins to unbutton her jeans.
"Hey," he says, laughing. "Give me a minute. I'll leave you to it."
She pulls her shirt over her head and is working her pants over her hips when she realizes she'd forgotten the whole reason she came out. "Monroe!" she calls out.
He stops and turns but keeps his eyes averted. "Yeah?"
"Thanks. You know, for the cot and the tub and everything."
"You're welcome, Charlie." And then he fades into the darkness and Charlie sinks into the tub. The water is warm and the soap smells like mint. As she washes the grime from her body, she feels renewed. Once she's clean, she leans back in the water and stares up at the starry sky. She sees the stars but her mind is on Monroe. Lately they've been getting along. Are they friends? Maybe. Are they more? No, she doesn't think so, but sometimes she wonders what more would feel like.
She thinks it would probably feel pretty good.
When the water becomes too cool to be comfortable, she gets out and washes her clothes in the bathwater while her skin air dries. She hangs the wet items over a nearby bush to dry. By then, her skin has dried as well and she walks naked to the carport where an old clean shirt will be what she wears to bed.
Monroe waits until she's settled before coming out of the trees. If anyone had asked, he'd have said he wasn't watching her, but that would be a lie.
The fire is out and only one candle still burns. It's in the carport next to Charlie's new bed. She's curled up in her bedroll, looking clean and relaxed.
"You should sleep up here. I'll take the ground," she says with a yawn. "You did all the work."
"No. It's okay. I'll be fine over there." He points to where his bedroll rests on a nest of pine needles.
She props herself up on one elbow. Her clean hair hangs in long golden curls. The shirt she wears is almost translucent with age showing a shadow of what's below. "What if there's snakes?" she teases.
He just shakes his head. "No room."
This cot is big enough for both of us," she says. "I'll move over.".
He swallows hard and forces a small smile but she can tell he's just as tense as when she'd suggested the tub was big enough for them both. "Pretty sure snakes are less dangerous than sharing a bed with you, Charlotte."
Charlie doesn't ask what he means. She doesn't have to.
Charlie gets up early, taking care not to wake Monroe who is sleeping soundly in his corner of the carport. She shoves her bare feet into boots and then goes out to the bushes near the tub to gather her almost dry clothes. She gets dressed, straps on her knife and slings her crossbow over one shoulder before heading toward the forest. With any luck, she'll be back with something to eat before he wakes up.
The air is already warming but the branches above cast cooling shadows on the tangled world beneath. Charlie likes the way the light shimmers through the leaves as she navigates the underbrush. Birds fly from tree to tree and small animals scurry around but Charlie hasn't yet seen anything she wants to chase yet. It's when she smiles at the sound of a woodpecker hammering a nearby oak that she realizes for the first time in a long time...she's almost happy.
This realization brings her up short. Something scuttles behind an old tree but she ignores it as her mind fills with scattered thoughts that have nothing to do with their next meal.
What the hell does she have to be happy about? She's still worried about her family and scared that they might get sick. She misses her rooms above the livery in Willoughby. She's traveling (again) with a crazed former dictator.
But then again, he hasn't been all that crazed lately. Not for a while. Definitely not since they've been on the road together on missions this year. She remembers how he said she keeps him sane - how he needs her to stay level headed. It's been a while since she was needed for anything other than her knife or her tracking skills. And the way he looked at her before he told her she was more dangerous than snakes? That hadn't had anything to do with his sanity. He wanted her even if he wasn't ready to admit it.
Being needed feels good. Being wanted feels good too. Maybe being stuck with Monroe isn't such a bad thing. They've been getting along pretty good for a while. She forgave him for the deaths of her dad and brother some time ago. She doesn't remember what changed her mind about that, but it's been a long time since she wanted to kill him.
She thinks about how he'd looked cleaning out the tub - the way his muscles had moved under tight sweaty skin. He'd looked good. Truth is he always looks pretty damned good. Maybe there's something she can do to keep them both distracted.
One thought makes her hesitate. Charlie feels way out of her league. What does a woman do to seduce a guy like Monroe? He's a lot older. He's a lot more experienced. He's a lot more everything. She decides she'll figure it out when she sees him.
Her mood is light when she returns to the farm with a squirrel and a rabbit.. When she gets there, she heads toward the carport to see if Monroe is up and around.
He is. His hair is damp from a recent bath. He's wearing clean clothes and is in the middle of saddling his horse when she walks up. "Going somewhere?" she asks.
"Uh, yeah. Gonna go into Arnette." He won't meet her eyes. "Bulge said we could go there for supplies. No quarantine."
"I'll go with you. Could use a trip to the little general store they have there."
"Nah, just tell me what you need and I'll get it."
"Why don't you want me to go with you?" she asks. He doesn't say anything and doesn't meet her gaze and in sudden understanding, she knows. "You're going to Arnette to get laid?"
He shrugs. "Been feeling restless. Need to work off some steam."
Charlie turns away, feeling hurt and dejected and knowing that's not fair to Monroe. Just because she spent all afternoon thinking about him doesn't mean he feels the same way about her. "Stupid," she mutters to herself.
"So, do you need anything?"
"Some salt. Whiskey."
"I'll get both." He gets on his horse and leaves without saying anything more. She cleans her game and puts both animals over the fire to cook, even though she's no longer hungry. While she eats, she berates herself for being a dumbass. She imagines what Miles would say about her new crush on Monroe. It is just a crush after all. Has to be. Doesn't it?
Well, no matter what it might have been called; it's over now. She isn't the kind of woman Monroe would ever go for. That's obvious. She isn't old enough or mature enough. Her tits aren't big enough. She isn't sexy enough. She just isn't enough.
She spends the afternoon collecting blackberries for her evening meal. When the last of her dinner is cleared away, she fills the tub with water from the well. The fire has died down but she leaves a couple candles burning on a nearby tree stump. She strips and sinks into the warm water. She washes her hair with Bass' mint soap and then soaks. Crickets fill the night with their song. Occasionally she sees the blinking beacon of a firefly.
She closes her eyes, luxuriating in the way the cool water kisses her skin.
It's the sudden silence that puts her on alert. The crickets would only go quiet if there was a disturbance. For a moment she thinks maybe Monroe has returned, but she knows the sound of his footsteps and this is not him. She tenses but doesn't move. She hears a chuckle and some mumbled slurred words.
"Don't come any closer," she warns without opening her eyes. Based on the way they sound, she knows there are two of them..
"Or what, cupcake? You'll sponge us to death?."
"Or I'll be forced to kill you when all I want to do is take a bath."
Charlie opens her eyes and takes them in. They are filthy and drunk but they look determined as they stagger through the shadows. She sighs. So much for a relaxing bath. Rising gracefully from the tub, she lets the water slide down her skin and over her curves without bothering to cover herself.
As she'd expected, the two buffoons are distracted by her nakedness. So much so, that they don't even notice the knife strapped to her thigh. She pulls it from its sheath and flings it without hesitation, planting it in the chest of the taller of the two. He totters and falls. The other one charges and Charlie vaults out of the tub, ready to face him head-on.
From the dark shadows behind the man come a pair of strong arms. One wraps around the intruder while the other slices his jugular with a decisive pull of a very large knife.
Dead guy number two falls to the ground and Charlie sees her savior is none other than Bass Monroe. He's winded and his eyes are wide. "You're okay?" He glances up and down her body, taking inventory.
Charlie pushes back relief at the sight of Monroe, her pulse is pounding. She tells herself both are because of the rescue and not because of his return. "Takes two days to get to Arnette and back. You didn't go?"
"Was on the road and saw these two heading this way. Circled back to make sure they didn't stop here but then they did…" He drinks in the sight before him, not bothering to hide his wandering eyes. "You have some blood…" he gestures to her chest.
She glances down, seeing the splatter of red spots across her still wet breasts. "Yeah, I guess I'll go clean up. Don't worry about me, Monroe. Go back and get your Arnette whore." She kneels next to the dead guy wearing her knife and pulls it from where it was buried in his chest. She pauses. "Shit."
"What?" Bass asks, not fully paying attention to anything other than the bare skin on display.
She points down at the man's face. Bass leans in closer to see what she had noticed. He looks at her then with fear in his eyes. "Get back in the tub. I'll get the lye."
She doesn't argue, backing away from the man on the ground - the man with an angry red rash all over his face, neck and arms. She drops the knife which is coated in his blood, turns and gets back into the tub. She takes the rough bar of lye soap he offers and begins to scrub at her skin. Her hands are shaking.
"Stop," he says, his voice hoarse. "I'll help."
He scrubs at her skin until she's almost raw. He helps her wash her hair again and then brings buckets of cold fresh water from the nearby well to rinse her off.
"What about you?" Charlie asks, teeth chattering as she pulls clean clothes over her damp skin.
"Drain the tub and fill it with fresh water. I'll bury those two assholes and come back to clean up."
He comes back almost an hour later.
She helps him the way he'd helped her, washing his hair with the lye soap. Massaging his scalp with her fingers, she buries her hands in his curls. When his hair is clean, she runs her fingers along the flesh of his back. The scars from Connor's whip still criss-cross the muscular flesh on display. Charlie doesn't want to think about Connor and slowly makes her way around the tub so she can face him. She washes his shoulders and chest. Sometimes their eyes meet.
"I can wash myself," he says. His voice is husky and he doesn't bother to move away from her touch, so she continues. He watches her movements with shuttered eyes. She is exhausted but curious. She's seen Monroe naked before, but she's never touched him so intimately. The candle light flickers, making his eyes glow more blue than ever. His skin is warm. His muscles are hard, flinching under her fingers.
She thinks about his trip to Arnette and the reason he'd been going there. She envisions a faceless nameless woman touching him the way she is touching him right now, and in other ways too. She envisions a woman pleasuring Monroe, riding him, sucking him…
A tiny moan slips through her lips.
"I think I'm clean now." he grits out, his jaw tight.
She nods stiffly and hands him a bucket of fresh water. He stands and turns away, keeping his back to her as he rinses away the last of the soap.
Charlie tears her eyes away from a naked and wet Bass Monroe. She picks up one of the candles and turns her back to him, making her way slowly toward the carport. Her thoughts jumble, restless and needy.
Another hour has passed and Charlie is fighting sleep when he appears. He wears loose cotton pants that hang low on his hips. His bare feet are shoved into his boots and the light from her candle flickers off the tanned skin of his bare chest. He stops just inside the door. "Thought you'd be asleep."
"I'm not." She sits up slowly as drowsiness fades away. She notes the way his gaze falls to her chest. She's wearing the old sleep shirt. It's thin to the point of translucency. Her nipples pebble under his gaze. He notices and looks away.
"Monroe. Talk to me."
"Nothing to talk about." He takes a step toward the corner where his bedroll lies, but hesitates.
She can see the moonlight reflected in his blue eyes. "Hey Monroe, why didn't you go all the way to Arnette?"
"Just changed my mind about going."
"Guess I wasn't in the mood."
"To get laid?" Charlie smirks. "That's a first."
"I don't owe you an explanation, Charlotte."
She shakes her head. "No, you don't owe me an explanation but I want one anyway, damnit."
She pushes away the thin blanket and lowers her bare feet to the ground one at a time. She watches as he takes in the view of her toned calves and slender ankles. She doesn't shave her legs often, but she'd used the sharpened edge of her knife to shave them in the tub tonight before she had company. Monroe's unspoken approval provides a rush.
She scoots to the edge of the cot, allowing the old shirt to slide up her thighs, gathering over plain white panties. "Please," she says. "Tell me."
He watches her, seemingly unsure where he wants to focus his gaze; stealing glances at her breasts and legs in turn. "Damnit, Charlotte." He sucks in a shuddery breath. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"This seductress routine. We've been traveling together for almost a year and you've never done this." He waves his hand in her general direction. "Why now? You know I'm on the edge and you want to push me over? Maybe you are hoping to fuck me and then go tell Miles so he slits my throat?"
"Can we not talk about Miles right now?"
"Fine. Let's just talk about the other stuff."
"The...what did you call it? Seductress routine? That's what you want to talk about?"
He falters, running a hand through his curls. "No. I guess we don't need to talk."
She stands, the shirt falls loose around her thighs. The collar of the old shirt is stretched and falls off one shoulder. His gaze follows the fabric and he swallows hard.
"You asked why I'm doing this. I'm doing it because I realized today that I want you. No, that's not right. I've wanted you for a while but didn't think you'd ever want me back. I'm young and inexperienced compared to you. You usually think of me as a kid. I know all that, but Monroe, if we're going to die of the plague tomorrow, I'd like to spend tonight doing something worthwhile."
"We may not get the plague," he breaks in, his voice a whisper.
"I wasn't done. This isn't really about the plague." She walks with measured steps until she's standing face to face with him.
He shakes his head. "So if it's not the plague, what made you change your mind? We've worked together for so long and nothing like this ever came up. What's different now?" he asks.
"You came back."
He swallows hard. "I've come back for you before."
"This felt different." She presses a palm against his chest, just over his heart. "You were on your way to get laid in Arnette and you turned around and came back to me. You didn't have to come back. There was no way you could know those guys might try to hurt me. That's why I asked for an explanation. I want to know why you came back tonight."
Monroe looks away. "You aren't thinking this through," he says. "You don't know what you want."
Charlie shrugs. "But what if I do?"
He looks at his boots. "Do you remember New Dallas? The thing we did for Blanchard six months ago?"
"New Dallas? Yeah, stealing the maps from that guy with the eye patch?"
"Sure. I remember. What about it?"
"That night we holed up in that shitty hotel, you remember? It had the broken railing and those weird windows? We were trying to keep a low profile but we got bored out of our minds and we went down to the bar for drinks and then those guys showed up and we had to…"
"We pretended to be a couple," she says, her voice soft. "I remember." She remembers the way his collar was frayed and his skin smelled like smoke. She remembers the way his breath had felt on her cheek. She remembers the way his muscles had flexed under her hands...
"You were wearing a yellow shirt and your hair was shiny in the lantern light. And you sat in my lap and looked up at me with those blue eyes..." Monroe's voice fades away as their eyes meet.
"I remember that. Why bring that up now?"
"Because you called me Bass that night. You never call me Bass. I'm always Monroe to you but that night, you looked at me and you called me Bass and that's why I came back tonight."
"Because I used your first name six months ago?"
"Because I haven't been able to stop thinking about that moment in six months."
Charlie feels her skin warm and her heartbeat accelerate. "That's really why you came back tonight? Because you've been thinking about me like that?"
He watches her without speaking.
"Come here," she says.
"I don't need your pity, Charlotte. Go to sleep."
"You think I pity you?" Charlie is incredulous.
Monroe runs a hand through his hair. "I'm old. Broken. I'm the monster in your closet, not the man you want in your bed."
"Old? Yeah. Broken? Maybe. Stupid? Most definitely."
His shoulders tense.. "Stupid? Why am I stupid?"
"I've been trying to show you that I want you and you're so wrapped up in your own head, you aren't taking me seriously. I'm being real here. I want you, Bass. That's why you're stupid. How you ran a country is beyond me."
"You called me Bass."
"Come here." Her voice is firm. This is an order, not a request.
Monroe takes a step in her direction and hesitates. His eyes burn into hers. "Say that again."
He comes to her then. "I don't deserve you." He strokes a calloused finger along her cheekbone.
She reaches up and grasps his hand with her own. "You're shaking."
"Kinda nervous, Charlie. It's been a while."
She shakes her head. "I don't buy that. Just last month in Houston, there was that blonde -"
He presses a finger to her lips. "I mean it's been awhile since it mattered."
Charlie stares into his eyes. She sees something raw and vulnerable in his expression. She inhales sharply. "Oh."
Bass lowers his head, but hesitates. Charlie can feel his breath against her cheek. She can feel his heartbeat thump wildly under the toned planes of his chest. She whimpers with need and he moves in, feathering his lips against hers. He angles his mouth, kissing her slowly. She parts her lips for his tongue and he slides it in, tasting her. Learning her.
Charlie feels a jolt of heat rip through her core as he explores her mouth with his tongue and her body with gentle caresses. He strokes her shoulders, following the line of her shirt's collar. He opens the first button, his knuckles tease at the curve of her breast. When the shirt pools at her feet, Bass pulls away to look at her hungrily. "You are so beautiful."
"I'm getting cold," she says, tucking a finger into his waistband and pulling him close once again. "Warm me up."
Monroe pulls her into an embrace, cupping the curve of her ass with his hands, pulling her body flush to his own. Charlie can feel his need for her through the fabric of his pants. He is thick and hard against her belly. He kisses her again, licking into her mouth and delving deep. She moans into the kiss, grasping at his shoulders.
Bass feathers his lips along her cheek and nibbles her ear lobe before trailing little kisses down her neck and along her collarbone. When she tugs at his waistband again, he pauses. "In a hurry?"
She nods, taking in his blown pupils and heaving chest. "Yes. I want you."
When his pants and boots have been tossed aside, Bass lowers her to the cot. Charlie reaches to pull him close but he stops her. "Patience, Charlotte. I've been imagining this for months. Don't rush me." Bass leans back on one elbow and uses his free hand to trace lines on her body. Her skin is soft, but her muscles are defined and toned. She's the perfect mix of lean and supple. Bass sighs contentedly as he begins to love her with his lips and his fingers and soft words whispered against her ears.
Bass leans close to her face, kissing her cheek and sucking lightly at the flesh behind her ear. Charlie moans, finding his mouth with hers while reaching for him. Their bodies join easily like puzzle pieces falling into place.
They move as one and when she looks into his eyes, she sees her own need, her own passion, her own happiness reflected there in the flickering candle-light. He presses into her slowly, never losing eye contact as he thrusts and retreats. Charlie links her arms around his neck and lifts her hips to meet his every movement. The pace is steady. The emotions are sweet. The energy between them is somehow both gentle and frantic.
He's buried deep within her heat, when he hesitates, pulling his lips away from a sensual kiss. Charlie stares into his eyes. His pupils are black with need. "Say it again," he says.
She struggles to comprehend what he's asking for, but then she remembers his words from before. Her lips are swollen and her breathing is ragged. "Bass," she whispers. "Bass."
The corner of Monroe's mouth lifts with a satisfied little smile before he starts to move within her once more. Charlie moans when he slowly pulls almost all the way out of her depths. He pushes back in slowly, deeply and Charlie loves the feel of his thickness dragging along her sensitive flesh.
They come together, gazes locked blue on blue and the rest of the world fades away.
Later, as they lie in the aftermath, he kisses her softly. "God, Charlie. You are amazing."
"Same to you, Monroe."
"Thought you were going to call me Bass now?"
She shakes her head with a chuckle. "Saving that for special occasions."
Charlie wakes to the feel of stubble on her cheek as Monroe rouses her with a kiss. Their legs are tangled and the kisses are becoming more heated when he pulls away. "Wait."
"Why?" She asks, nuzzling his throat.
"We need to see if we have a rash or a fever."
She stops moving. "Check me?" Leaning back, she lets him inspect her body with his gaze. He looks at her breasts and her legs. He takes in her flat belly and her arms and legs.
He traces a finger along her flesh. "Definitely hot, but no fever." He smirks at her and she playfully punches his arm.
He continues his visual search. "No rash. You are perfect. Flawless." He wraps his fingers around her wrist, caressing the old Republic brand. He presses his lips to the raised M on her flesh. "Perfect," he says again.
"My turn," she says. "Let me check you." Charlie takes her time, looking him over, taking in the hard muscles and tanned skin. She licks her lips. "No rash." She traces the mottled flesh where his tattoo had been long ago. "Also perfect," she says softly.
He pulls her close. "Seems like we escaped the plague."
"What happens when this is all over? If my family is okay and we..."
"Not if, Charlie. When this is over and your family is okay?"
"Alright. When this is over and my family is okay, what happens next? Is this temporary? This thing with you and me?"
Bass shakes his head, pulling her closer. "No, this is permanent. I can't imagine going back to what it was like before."
"What about Miles? My Mom?"
"I don't care. Okay, maybe I care about what Miles thinks but I don't care about your Mom. She can shove off. Miles will come around." He shrugs. "Eventually."
Charlie watches him, trying to imagine how very different everything would be if he hadn't returned last night. She doesn't dwell on that though, turning her thoughts instead to just how beautiful he is and how perfect she feels in his arms. She strokes the scruf on his chin before burying her fingers in his messy curls. His eyes are a sparkling blue. They crinkle at the corners as he flashes a wide smile.
She nuzzles in close and presses a kiss to his collarbone. When she speaks, her voice is soft. "So you're saying this thing between us is worth the effort needed to convince Miles?"
A gentle breeze blows but they don't notice it because they are snuggled in the warm cot, wrapped in each other. Tree branches slap against the roof of the carport but they don't pay any attention. Crickets chirp and a distant owl hoots hauntingly but it is all lost on them.
Nothing matters but this moment they share.
"This thing with you and me, Charlie?" Bass wraps his arms around her and hugs her close, feathering her temple with small kisses. "This is worth whatever it takes."