A shot went off in the pitch black night. Charlie felt her body hit with great force and she was knocked to the ground. There was a lot of weight on top of her and she was covered in warm liquid—blood. She was covered in blood—a lot of blood.
She gasped. “Have I been shot?” She knew people could be shot and not feel it.
“No, you haven’t,” said Monroe’s raspy voice. “I have.”
Her eyes focused and she made out his form. He was shielding her, raised up on his arms; they gave and he rolled away from her and onto his back. Gunshots rang out as Miles and Connor shot wildly into the night, lighting up the area around them just enough so she could see the blood seeping from his side. So much blood.
“Oh God,” she cried. She moved over to him and put her hands against his wound to stem the flow. “Miles. Miles! He’s shot.”
There was no answer, just a torrent of gunfire.
“So, how bad is it?” Monroe asked her.
She wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t. She had no right. “Just a scratch,” she lied.
He grabbed her arm, smiled and laughed. “You’re touching me. It can’t be good if you’re touching me. You said you’d never touch me.”
“No, I said I’d never let you touch me,” she said as tears burned her eyes. “You just saved my life—again—by touching me. You touch me anytime you want. In fact, keep touching me. Right now. Hold my hand and talk to me.”
“You’re so pretty,” he said, weakly catching her hand. “Beautiful. Like an angel falling into hell to save the devil himself. Hell is where I’m going, Charlie.” He laughed. “I had a good run, but I’ve used up so many lives, and I’m not even a cat.”
He shook as he laughed some more; then, she realized, he was just shaking, no longer laughing at all. His eyes closed.
“Miles!” she cried. “Help—please.”
Miles and Connor rushed over. Miles put his fingers to Monroe’s neck.
“He got shot protecting me,” she said, lip quivering. “He can’t die.”
“He’s alive,” Miles said grimly. “But I don’t know if he’ll stay that way. We have to act fast. Connor, you take them to the safe house. I’m going to ride head and give Doc Porter a heads up and hopefully help him find what we need. After you drop them off, you come pick us up; we’ll need the wagon for supplies.”
Charlie climbed in the back of the wagon, her hand still pressed on Monroe’s side as Miles and Connor settled him there on a blanket they had been using to smuggle guns, guns now slung over their shoulders.
“Just keep that pressure on him,” Miles told her. “And he can’t be sleeping like this. He’s in shock.”
“How do I wake him?”
Miles took a deep breath, steeled himself, and slapped his best friend hard across the face.
“Fuck you, Miles,” Bass murmured.
Miles grabbed his face firmly. “Stay awake or I’ll never forgive you, you bastard.” He turned to Charlie and kissed her forehead. “Keep him awake.”
She watched him hop on his horse and ride like hell. Connor snapped the reigns of the wagon horse and they took off, flying over the bumpy country road.
“It’s really cold,” Bass said. “When did it become winter?”
“It’s not cold.”
“There’s a lot of stars out tonight. They’re shining above you like glitter in your hair.”
“Go on,” she urged.
“I don’t have sonnets, Charlie. It’s so hard to think right now.”
“Just try. What’s your name?”
“What’s my name?”
“How’d we meet?”
“I thought about having you killed and I couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t or didn’t?” she poked. Maybe if she riled him, it’d help him stay awake better. He looked dozy again.
“Couldn’t. You were so brave I couldn’t destroy you. And you trusted the world back then, even me. You trusted me to be a bastard and I was. I’m probably going to die. So, just know that you are my unfinished business. And every shitty thing I’ve done to you—everything that has cost you the people you love...I am sorrier for it than I can ever say.”
“Bass,” she said through her tears. “Don’t. Don’t apologize. Only the dying apologize. You’re not dying tonight.”
“No,” he said. “No, you gotta know that I regret what I’ve done to you, every time I’ve caused you pain. You seem to have already forgiven me, which is dumb—you shouldn’t. But just know that I’m not sorry for this. I’d jump on top of you again in a heartbeat. Charlie, I think I...I just...I really...”
His eyelashes fluttered and his head lolled as they pulled up at the safe house.
“Bass,” she said. She patted him on the cheek. “Hey, wake up.”
Connor crawled up in the wagon and knelt beside her. His voice shook like a little boy. “Charlie, is my dad dead?”
She put her free hand on his heart. She felt a subtle thump. And then another. Her heart swelled. That beat was all that mattered to her.
“He’s alive,” she smiled. “Help me bind his wound and we’ll carry him inside.”
Charlie took Monroe’s shirt off as Connor ripped shreds from the blanket. Together, they bound it tight around his torso. The blood had slowed down a lot, giving them both silent hope that neither dared to speak out loud.
They got him settled onto the bed in the shelter. He stirred sometimes, agitated by the motions—also a good sign. Charlie didn’t let go of him—not once. She sat on the bed beside him, her bloody hand over his bloody wound. With her free hand, she brushed back his hair and stroked his cheek.
He was so beautiful, she thought. She has probably felt every emotion for this face, and new ones were cropping up all the time, fast-approaching even now—especially now. He had to make it. He was immortal in her eyes, even though she’d seen him die before. He was a legend. He was so much to her. She needed him to be okay.
“Is he okay?” Connor asked quietly.
“For now, I think.”
“Charlie, do you love my dad?”
She choked down a sob. She quickly got rid of her tears, wiping them away furiously. Calmly, she said, “Go get my grandpa and uncle, please.”
“That bastard has to make it,” he told her as he left. “I was just starting to like him.”
“He will,” Charlie replied with fierce determination. She took a deep breath and slapped Monroe hard across his face.
He inhaled deeply and his eye shot open. He started shaking again.
“I thought I was dead,” he said.
“No such luck” she told him. “Besides, death is for quitters.”
He laughed. “Everybody dies, Charlie.”
“Not you,” she told him fiercely. “You’ve saved my life three times now, all at the risk of your own. And now, look at you. I won’t let you die for me.”
“That may not be your choice,” he told her, wincing as he raised his hand to cup her face. “Before I stop making sense, I just want you to know I meant what I said back there. I have a strong sense of self-preservation. There are very few people that I—I wouldn’t die for just anyone.”
“I know,” she said, squeezing his hand.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love you, Charlie. I do. I really love you. I love...”
His eyes rolled up in his head and then closed.
“Bass!” she cried, shaking him. “Sebastian! Bass! Please. Please. Please.” She slapped him and nothing. “No!” she gasped. “No. No. No. No. No. NO!”
She leaned her head against his chest. His heart was beating quietly, but very fast. Her immediate reaction was to smile; he wasn’t dead. But her relief was tempered with the knowledge that this new symptom probably wasn’t a good thing.
She couldn’t rouse him, so she just laid there, head against his chest, waiting and listening to every heartbeat. His beating heart was the most beautiful sound in the universe. His was a heart that loved her. She would honor that.
By the time the others got there, her ear was still pressed against his chest. Her eyes were closed, like his. To the others, they probably looked like some sort of post-apocalyptic Romeo and Juliet. Charlie was as still as a corpse herself.
“Charlie,” Miles said.
She opened her eyes, to everyone’s relief.
“Is he alive?”
“Yes,” she said solemnly. “Grandpa, please help him.”
Gene brushed past Rachel with his doctor’s bag. He went around to the other side of the bed and gingerly lifted up the bandage.
Rachel walked over to Charlie and grabbed hold of her shoulders. “Charlie, come away.”
“There is nothing you can do for him. He’s either going to live or die. There’s nothing you can do.”
“No!” She shoved her mother away. “He saved me. He. Saved. Me. I’m not leaving his side, no matter what happens.”
Rachel opened her mouth to speak, but Connor interjected. “Don’t. He’s my dad. I don’t want to lose him. He needs her. They need each other.”
Rachel swallowed, frowned and said nothing.
Miles knelt beside Charlie and rubbed her back. “It’s going to be okay, kid.”
Gene pulled the alcohol out of his bag and poured it over Bass’s wounds. The pain roused him. He sat up with a roar like a wounded lion, sweating. Miles and Charlie forced him to lie back down.
“He’s going to have to be still,” Gene said. “I have to get this out and cauterize the bleed.”
He passed the bottle to Miles.
“Okay, buddy. You’re going to have to drink this.”
Bass shook his head. “I-I can’t.”
“Those words have never come out of your mouth before—especially involving alcohol.”
Charlie knew Bass was delirious with pain and very tired. She leaned in and whispered in his ear. “You’re almost there, Bass. I need you to live. Please be cooperative. For me.”
He reached his hand up and brushed her cheek gently. She helped him sit up enough to knock some whiskey back—a lot of whiskey.
“He can’t move,” Gene stressed. “At all. This would’ve been risky pre-blackout. It’s ridiculous now. Connor and Rachel—keep his legs still. Miles, Charlie—you got him?”
Miles held his arms down and Charlie took his head into her hands, forcing him to look at her, stroking his cheek.
“It’ll all be okay,” she told him.
Charlie watched her grandfather cut a slit into Bass’s wound with a scalpel. He gritted his teeth, more awake now than he had been since it happened. Gene used tweezers to take out the slug. Blood oozed from the gap.
“Rachel, I need you,” he said.
Charlie looked to her mother whose face was hard like stone.
“Mom, please,” Charlie whispered.
Rachel sighed and walked over to her father, who directed her.
“I need you to hold it open. I’m going to clamp the bleed and cauterize.”
Rachel grabbed the instrument from him and held Bass’s wound open. Charlie could sense she got a strange pleasure from peering into his insides. Her face was contorted in a strange way. She’d already saved him once for Charlie’s sake. It was clear she wanted nothing more than to take the metal and gouge it around in his belly until she damaged something vital—but she didn’t. She behaved. Perhaps because she knew Charlie would never forgive her if she didn’t.
“This is the painful part,” Gene said quietly.
Everyone knew that he meant for them to hold onto Bass very tight. Charlie threw her arm across his chest and cradled his head with her other one.
“Okay so far?” she asked, trying to keep the moment as light as possible.
“Yeah, piece of cake,” he said, responding in kind.
But then her grandfather clamped the bleed. Bass cried out and fought them all. It was hard to hold him down. He was a fighter. He would fight even now, now when he didn’t really want to. It was so much in him he’d go against logic and all.
Charlie saw a flash out of the corner of her eye as her grandpa used a piece of red-hot heated metal to cauterize the bleeding blood vessels. Bass fought harder than ever, writhing in pain. With one hand, Miles took off his belt and quickly shoved it in his mouth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue. It did little to muffle the screams.
It was a mercy when Gene was able to sew him up. He worked carefully and slowly. Bass calmed and shivered as the pain ebbed and his body relaxed.
“I’m not going to lie—this is deep,” Gene said when he was finished. “An inch deeper and he would be dead. There is still a high risk of infection, tetanus.” He reached in his bag and pulled out a vial and a needle. “I can give him a shot of fresh antibiotics now, but he’s going to need an IV soon. We have to get his blood volume back up. There are a lot of factors...”
His voice faded from Charlie. All she could see was Bass. All she could hear was his breath, all she could feel was his skin. He was her entire world right now. And why it took a bullet to make her realize that—she didn’t know. There was no excuse for it. She wasn’t very fair to him before nor was she honest with herself. But she was here now. That had to count for something. She had a lot to make up for.
“I told you you would live,” she said softly.
He smiled at her sleepily and took her hand, pulling it to his heart.
“Charlie, why don’t you rest? You’ve had a long night,” Rachel said, moving toward her. But Miles held up his hand.
“Leave it. They’ve both made pretty clear this is exactly where they want to be. And after tonight—they’ve earned it.”
Charlie crawled up into bed with Bass. They both quickly fell asleep in each other’s arms. They slept like that through the rest of the night and into the next day, when the others were scattered asleep around them.
Bass was the first one to wake. His head was clearer and he was hooked up to an IV now. He smiled down at Charlie, and she could feel him; the sensation roused her.
“Morning,” she said softly. “Or afternoon or whatever.”
“You saved me,” he said.
“No, you saved me,” she corrected. “You were the human shield.”
“And I was just going to let myself die,” he said. “But this—" he squeezed her "—this is so worth living for.”
She nuzzled into him. “There was something I wanted to tell you last night, but I didn’t get the chance.”
“I love you too.”