Sometimes Bass misses how easy things used to be in the old days.
Even after fifteen years and then some of getting used to the new order of civilization, even after having thousands of men obeying his every command and then losing it all, he still occasionally feels the sting of nostalgia for the simple act of putting a plug into the socket and having an appliance dutifully buzz to life. Hard to believe now that it used to be something people took for granted. Kids today would think it's magic, probably. Smart phones, movies, records, microwaves, cars – the whole world in your hand at the press of a button. The sheer simplicity of dumping your laundry into the washing machine – or buzzing off your stubble with an electric shaver in the morning.
Bass never used to be the straight razor kind of guy, back in the day. Too messy, too complicated, too slow. Never a good idea when you were drunk or angry or full of jittery energy, and he almost always was at least one of those at any given time.
Not many other options now, though. It's either a sharp knife, or walking around with scruff. He's mostly been opting for the latter since the Republic collapsed. Necessity, at first. A bounty on his head, and too many people who knew his face. Jimmy King couldn't afford to look too familiar. Convenience, later. No need for a clean-shaven face and pressed uniforms anymore when no one's looking to you to lead a republic. When you're just some guy on the road, fighting to stay alive alongside a bunch of people who only keep you around because if you're at their side then you can't put a knife into their backs.
But he's past that now.
He settles down and adjusts the mirror so the glare of the sun doesn't bother him. The face looking back at him from the dulled surface looks nothing like General Monroe. Rougher, older, worn down. Softer, too, in a way. It's the eyes, he thinks. They don't have the same gleam they used to have when he was ruling an empire. Maybe not a bad thing. With some distance, he can appreciate that things went a little out of hand in the end. He might have gone a little too far. Road to hell, good intentions, and all that.
Doesn't matter. He's got to get back into the mindset of the leader of the Republic if he wants to get his son back. Finding him will be tricky enough, but getting him to come along... that's the tough part. And Connor's been pretty clear that he wants his father to be General fucking Monroe. So that's who Bass is going to be.
He soaps up his face, his beard coarse and prickly under his fingers as he builds up a lather and his hair and skin disappear under a coat of white. Angling his head back, he puts the knife against his neck with steady hands and slowly moves it upwards, scraping against the grain.
Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of something in the mirror. Motion. A flash of light. Someone at his back.
Bass's reaction is fast and instinctive and violent. No hesitation. No warning. In one smooth, well-practiced motion, he rises, twists around and throws the knife.
It wedges itself into the trunk of a tree, wobbling from the impact. About two inches next to Charlie's face.
Two fucking inches. She doesn't even flinch.
He's got to give it to her – he can feel the surge of adrenaline through his veins, the metallic taste of danger and excitement on his tongue, all the while she seems completely unruffled, like having a knife come flying at her is just a regular Tuesday. Like she expected it.
The way her mouth curls into a smirk tells him he's right. "Really, Monroe? Paranoid much?"
"You should know better than to sneak up on me, Charlie."
He'd bet that she does know better; she just chooses to ignore it. She's a bit too much like Miles like that. In other ways too, which is half the problem.
She shrugs at him, like it's nothing. Like she wouldn't be dead now if his aim had been just a little better or she'd been a little slower. The rush of anger he feels at the idea doesn't come as a surprise. He's had a while to come to terms with the fact that, regardless of how many people have died by his hands or on his orders, hers is not a death he wants on his conscience. Hell, half the purpose of stealing away in the dead of the night was that he didn't want to deal with the complicated mess of guilt and kinship and possessiveness that tied him to more than one Matheson.
"How did you find me?" he asks, even though the real question isn't the how.
Another shrug. "I'm good at tracking people, remember?"
Anyone else, a statement like that would come off like boasting. Charlie makes it sound matter of fact. She ain't wrong either. He remembers New Vegas. Feels like a lifetime and a half ago now, but if anything, Charlie's skills have become more honed since then. It's not so much that Bass wasn't aware that she could track him down when he left; he just hadn't thought she had a reason to.
He should have anticipated how much being left behind would eat at her. Should have factored in her stubbornness.
She pulls the knife from the tree and tests the sharpness of the tip against her finger. The sun reflects off the metal, bright reflections dancing around him as she twirls the knife in her hands. There's something mesmerizing about the way she's handling it, a tightening in his gut that makes him uneasy, and it's got nothing to do with fear. It might be easier to reconcile himself with, if it were just that.
He holds out a hand in the expectation that she'll hand the knife back to him, but she ignores the gesture. Her eyes flicker past his outstretched arm to his lathered up face, and he immediately feels ridiculous, standing before her with white froth all over his jaw and mouth. The twitch of her lips doesn't help.
"What's this about? You want to look presentable for Connor, if you ever find him?"
"I'm gonna find him." He puts all the conviction into the words that he's been clinging to since he packed up his things and went after his son.
"Sure you will. And he's gonna take one look at your freshly shaved face and come with you. Because that worked so well the first time."
The sarcasm in her words is razor-edged, cutting right to the core of his insecurities. He clenches his jaw and fights down the anger, unwilling to let her get a rise out of him when it's clearly what she's going for. The way her eyes glitter when she watches him makes him think she's well aware that her words hit home.
He half expects her to keep banging that drum until he snaps, but the next thing she says, "Alright then, let's do this. Sit down."
It takes him a moment to understand what she means, that she has no intention to handing over the knife and leaving him in peace. He didn't think he'd get rid of her quite that easily; she's far too stubborn to track him down just mock his efforts to find Connor and fuck back off to Miles and the others. Doesn't mean he expected her to order him to sit down and let her put a blade to his throat.
"Have you ever shaved anyone? Just because you've skinned a few squirrels doesn't mean you're a barber."
Charlie rolls her eyes, exasperated. "I got legs, you know?"
Thanks, I fucking noticed, Bass thinks. Kind of hard not to, living in each other's pocket like they've been doing. And that ain't even counting the road to Willoughby. He forcefully shoves the memory of her unconscious body curved up in his arms in the far back of his mind.
"Not the same thing," he points out, just to be contrary.
"What?" Charlie scoffs. "Are you scared I'm gonna cut your throat?"
Being scared is for people who got something to lose, and that ain't him. Hasn't been him for a while now. But he still feels a certain amount of trepidation about baring his throat to a knife in the hands of a girl who once promised she'd kill him to avenge her dead father and brother. They've come a long way since then, but some instincts die hard.
He still lets her push him down with no further argument. He doesn't jerk away when insistent fingers push press at his chin to tip his head backwards. He doesn't grab the knife from her when she puts the naked blade flush against his skin, at his bared throat. The steel is cool and unyielding. He can't feel the sharp edge, not as a physical sensation, but the awareness of it is right there, making his heart beat faster. His pulse is hammering in his throat, jumping against the edge of the knife is hard that Bass is convinced she must be able to feel it.
"Just be careful," he warns Charlie, a little breathless. As if either of them have ever been known for being fucking careful.
"If you shut up, there's less of a chance I'm gonna cut you by accident."
Interesting choice of words.
"I see you haven't ruled out cutting me deliberately."
She leans in close as she slowly moves the knife up the side of his throat, across his jawline up to his cheek. The rasping sound when it cuts through the hair of his beard is loud in Bass's ears, and Charlie's breath fans warm and humid against his skin.
"Don't tempt me," she says, a little belated. An undercurrent of dry humor curls in her tone. Fond, almost. It feels unsettlingly familiar. It's the kind of thing that he was used to from Miles, once upon a time. The kind of thing that he worked so fucking hard to get them back to. Hearing that same fondness echoing in Charlie's voice now makes his chest feel tight.
He's gonna miss this. The teasing, the banter. The unexpected trust, rocky and fragile as it is. He wants Connor back, wants his son at his side, to make things right with him, be the father he never had a chance to be. He wants that so badly it hurts. But that doesn't mean walking away's been easy. And now he's gonna have to do it all over again.
He closes his eyes and lets Charlie go to work on his cheeks.
It almost feels soothing.
Despite his initial reservations, Charlie's good at this. Her hand is steady as she guides the blade across his skin; she doesn't make the mistake of making slicing motions or moving the knife back and forth. And dammit, he likes the way she touches him. There's no hesitance when she directs his head to pull the skin taut, fingers pressing into the junction of his jaw or into the hollow above his chin with gentle firmness that lacks the impersonal practicality of a professional barber. There's a familiarity in her touch, an intimacy that makes him ache inside, in that place where he thought there was nothing left to ache anymore after he lost his family, after Shelly died, after Miles left.
Her thumb brushes against his lips, and he draws in a sharp breath. A bit of lather gets into his mouth, the bitter, soapy taste of it filling his senses, like a warning that letting her touch him like this will lead nowhere good.
He feels her moving, and the next thing he knows, her weight settles on his thighs as she straddles him. His eyes fly open. "Whoa, what the hell are you doing?"
"Relax. I finished doing the sides. I need to reach to the front somehow, do I? Unless you were planning to walk around with the world's weirdest goatee."
"Could have done that without crawling all over me."
It sounds like a weak-ass protest even to his own ears. No wonder Charlie only huffs and rolls her eyes at him again before she puts the blade against his Adam's apple and pulls it up.
Relax, she said. Easier said than done, with that pert little ass of hers inches from where his dick is getting too fucking interested in what's happening, no matter how much Monroe thinks 'down, boy' at it and reminds himself that Charlie is off-limits for too many reasons. Miles, for one. Rachel. Connor.
But none of them are here now. It's just him and Charlie, alone in the woods, and every motion she makes has her shifting in his lap, every stroke of the knife brings her dangerously closer to his groin.
She rises to her toes when she shaves his upper lip, her weight lifting for a few seconds, and Bass almost thinks he's out of the danger zone. But then she settles down again, right on top of his thighs, her body pressing down against where his dick's straining against his pants.
He can't suppress the shudder that runs through him. He jumps, just a little. Enough for her knife to slip and nick the skin.
It stings, and Charlie curses. "Dammit, Monroe. You gotta hold still."
"I'm fucking trying," he grits out between clenched teeth.
He can feel the warm trickle of blood down the side of his neck. Charlie wipes it off with her fingers, and he wishes it was her mouth.
Jesus fucking Christ. He needs to stop thinking about this.
There's no way she can't feel how hard he is. There's no way she doesn't know exactly what she's doing to him.
Their eyes meet as she runs the blade up his jawline. Her gaze doesn't waver, doesn't shy away under his stare, and he's abruptly thrown back to that day in Philadelphia when he had Strausser point the gun at her, and Charlie didn't blink an eye, didn't even look at Strausser, just kept staring at Bass.
It shouldn't be a good memory. It's a little fucked up that the flashback to how fierce Charlie looked when he had her life in his hands only makes him harder. But damn if it doesn't do just that.
Perhaps he isn't the only one who's reminded of the day they met because Charlie's expression changes when she takes stock of her handiwork.
"You look like him," she says, an unhappy frown creasing her forehead that tells him what she means.
Doesn't stop him from asking, "Like who?"
She narrows her eyes at him. "You know who." He doesn't respond. He wants her to say it. To acknowledge the thing they're both thinking, and he isn't even sure if it's to punish her or himself. Her lips curl into a sneer, but she doesn't avert her eyes. "You look like General Monroe. I haven't seen you shaved since Philly."
"Never been anyone else. A bit of scruff and different clothes don't make a different person."
His voice sounds raw. He knows it's true, but on some level, he's waiting for her to disagree.
"Works the other way around, too." She licks her lips, and fucking hell, if she doesn't stop shuffling, he's not gonna be responsible for his actions anymore. He can barely make himself pay attention to what she's saying. "Making yourself look like the guy you used to be doesn't turn you back into him."
"Why are you so sure that I'm not him anymore?"
He lets his hand settle on her hips, fingers sprawling onto her thighs. He half-expects her to push him off or to get up, but she stays right where she is.
"I don't think he'd have bothered to save my virtue from a bunch of assholes at a bar. Or come back to fight at my side. And he wouldn't have let me put a knife to his throat." She taps the blade against the side of his neck as a reminder, as if he could have forgotten it was there.
"He might have."
With the right incentive, if he had thought it was going to gain him some kind of advantage, he would have done a lot of things back in the day. He can't say for sure whether he wouldn't have let Strausser pull the trigger of his gun, just as he can't say for sure that he wouldn't have tried to win Charlie over. It's hard to remember what exactly was going on in his head back then. And perhaps that means that Charlie's right and he's changed, or perhaps it doesn't mean shit.
Charlie twists around to set down the knife, the way her body shifts sending a fresh wave of arousal through his gut. She grabs the torn-up old shirt he set aside as a makeshift cloth and uses it to wipe down his face. It's a strange kind of sensation, the touch of cotton against the freshly shaved skin that doesn't quite feel like it belongs to him.
"Done," Charlie announces.
She makes a move as if to get up, and Bass's fingers tighten around her hips to hold her in place, his thumbs brushing against the waistline of her jeans.
"Doesn't feel like we're done." Arousal gives his voice a hoarse edge. He lets himself rock up against Charlie's ass just once, to let her feel just how much he wants her.
Her sharp intake of breath is satisfying, and when her fingers curl around his arms, he's ready to throw caution in the wind and take her, the way he's been wanting to take her since Philly.
But when she speaks, her tone is cool and controlled. "You still gonna leave?"
The weigh of the question settles in his stomach like a rock, heavy and sharp-edged. He could lie. Tell her he'll stay. Whisper promises he'll break tomorrow when he sneaks away while she's sleeping. She'd never forgive him, but it shouldn't matter. It wouldn't have mattered to General Monroe, leader of the Republic.
He closes his eyes and shakes his head. "You know I have to go after Connor."
It comes out like a plea.
This time, she does shake off his hands when she gets up. "Then we're done."
There's a finality to it that he can't bear. He can't imagine being done with her. He can't give up on Connor, but he isn't willing to give up on her either. That's always been his problem. He wants everything, all at once, even the things he shouldn't have.
"I'll come back."
"You can't know that," she shoots back, anger and resignation in her tone, a harshness that she hasn't directed at him since Willoughby. And he gets it, he does. Too many people made that same pledge to her and then went back on it, and he's probably responsible for at least half of those broken promises.
But this is different.
"I do," he vows, and reaches for her.
For a moment, she struggles when he pulls her back down towards him.
"I've always come back for you, haven't I?" he says against her lips. He kisses the angry line of her mouth until it softens and opens under his coaxing, until she stops trying to pull away and sinks into his embrace, kissing back with the same desperation that's eating him up inside. Her hands clutch at his neck. They drag against the fresh cut, pulling it open again, but he barely feels the sting.
He doesn't care who he has to fight and kill. He'll go up against death himself, if he has to. There's nothing in the world strong enough to make him stay away.