Sebastian "Bass" Monroe was seeing red, and it wasn't from the blood of the worthless scum that lay dead and dying at his feet. No, the former dictator of the now defunct Monroe Republic was livid.
Problem was he couldn't determine if he was angrier with Charlotte Matheson for being careless and allowing herself to end up in such a vulnerable position, or the men who drugged her with clearly malevolent intent. For the time being he shelved the question; Pottsboro, Texas didn't have much to recommend it, and this dive appeared to be the only local nightspot. Eventually someone was going to wander in for a drink, and Bass intended to be as far away from the carnage as possible by then.
He quickly wiped down both swords, just enough to keep them from dripping a bloody trail behind him before moving over to examine Charlotte. A quick visual inspection didn't reveal any injuries in need of treatment. Carefully slipping his arms under her knees and shoulders, he picked her up, shifting her weight to a more comfortable hold. She was at least a head shorter than he was, but she was heavier than expected.
Cautiously looking out the door through which he'd made his dramatic entrance barely five minutes earlier, he scoped out the open ground that lay between him and the dense woods to his left. He'd cut through them earlier after hiding the modified truck chassis wagon, but he was hampered now by Charlotte's additional weight and loss of maneuverability while holding her.
It was a risk, but he'd have to move out to the road and hug the edge of the woods as long as he could back to the wagon. He could feel the building humidity in the air and hoped he'd get back before the rain started and he left a visible footstep trail in the mud.
Walking as casually as he could, not to draw undue attention if anyone was out there, he sighed with relief upon gaining the road. He shifted his hold on the sleeping Charlotte and set as brisk a pace as he dared.
Bass was nearly back to where he'd hidden the wagon when the first fat drops of rain began falling and bouncing off the hard sunbaked Texas ground. Moments later the sky opened and rain fell in earnest. In no time they were both soaked to the skin.
It was a challenge opening the rear door of the wagon without putting Charlotte down, but Bass just couldn't bring himself to lower her down onto the ground that was rapidly becoming a swirling muddy wallow.
Finally wrenching the door open, Bass climbed in and settled Charlotte as comfortably as he could on the hard floor. A quick check of her pulse revealed it was strong and steady. It was just a matter of time to allow the drugs to work out of her system. Covering her with a blanket, he considered taking one to wrap around himself then discarded the idea. He was already soaked through.
With a last look at his rescued nemesis, wondering if she was worth the trouble, he climbed up to the driver's seat and set the horses in motion. He planned to find somewhere to ride out the rain, let the horses rest, and Charlotte regain consciousness.
Charlie looked over at Monroe. It was still disconcerting to realize that she owed her well-being, and very possibly her life, to that man of all people.
She'd regained consciousness several hours earlier. Had it been up to her, she'd have left him to rot, but her body had different plans. After several failed attempts to walk away from Monroe’s camp, she finally resigned herself to tolerating his presence. If nothing else, it gave her time to contemplate her response to his emphatically stated intention of returning home with her, spouting some bullshit about offering his help to Miles against the Patriots.
Charlie couldn't even begin to fathom what her uncle's reaction might be to seeing his former lifelong best friend. Their relationship was too complicated and convoluted for her to unravel with the limited information that Miles had grudgingly shared with her over the past year.
She had no difficulty, however, imagining what her mother's reaction would be. Rachel Matheson had made it abundantly clear that her objective in life was to kill Monroe to avenge the death of Charlie's brother, Danny. Everything else be damned...including Charlie's own well fare back at the Tower in Colorado.
No, Rachel would be livid in that cold calculating way so uniquely her own. Charlie had no doubt her mother would have several cutting comments to throw at her upon her return.
Charlie pushed that thought away; it wasn't productive nor was it helpful in sorting out her current predicament. No matter how she considered it, or what rationale Monroe offered for returning to Willoughby with her, it was still a very bad idea.
"What's a bad idea?" Monroe asked the question from the far side of the fire, where he sat using a whetstone to work the nicks out of one of the swords he'd found in the wagon.
Charlie rolled her eyes at herself, annoyed that she'd spoken the thought aloud. However, now that it was out there....
'You returning with me," she said. She held up a hand to cut off the protest she could see forming on his lips. "I heard everything you said, Monroe. I get that these Patriots, whoever or whatever they are, are trouble."
"Trouble that Miles and your mom are going to need help fighting. And like it or not, Miles can't deny that he and I have made a formidable team in the past, we can again."
"Assuming you don't try to kill each other first," Charlie spat back at him.
Monroe sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair, making his curls stand up with a strangely disheveled attractiveness. "Charlotte, you forget I've known Miles nearly twice as long as you've been alive. So, let me make a prediction. Miles will snarl, grumble, and look as pissed as hell...but he won't try to kill me. Oh, he'll talk a good game, but if he'd really wanted to kill me he'd have done so in Colorado rather than rescue me."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Charlie asked.
"It means that Miles won't kil...."
Charlie cut him off, "I get that part, Monroe. What did you mean by Miles rescuing you?"
The question took Bass by surprise. Obviously, Miles had never shared that bit of the Colorado fiasco with his niece. Bass considered how much to reveal of his last conversation with Miles, wondering if learning that Miles still claimed they were brothers would soften or harden Charlotte's attitude toward him.
"The long and short of it, Charlotte, is that after Miles and I were...flushed...out of the Tower we went our separate ways. I'm not sure how, but that bastard Tom Neville somehow ended up in charge of my men." Bass absently noted Charlotte's disgusted lip curl at the name. Apparently, she was no fonder of the senior Neville than he was. "I ended up captured, much to Neville's delight. It was short lived, however. Miles slit the throat of my guard and released me."
"But, why would he..." her voice drifted off. Bass could hear her bewilderment at the story.
"He claimed we were still," Bass paused, then decided to go for broke, "brothers, Charlotte."
Bass didn't know what reaction he'd been expecting, but seeing the cold mask that suddenly fell across Charlotte's normally expressive features wasn't it. He could see the hurt, disappointment, and betrayal she was feeling towards Miles in that moment. Bass could relate. It was something else besides a shared loathing of Tom Neville that they shared.
"Rest up, Charlotte, we leave at first light," Bass stated, taking advantage of her silent musings to settle the matter.
Charlie sat rigidly beside Monroe up in the driver’s seat, doing her best to ignore him. When he said they’d be leaving at first light he hadn’t been exaggerating. Had there been a rooster around, the man could have woken it up to meet the dawn.
They’d choked down one of the jars of pears from the wagon’s food supply, washing it down with water, Monroe not wanting to take the time to boil water to brew the tea they’d also discovered.
That had been several hours ago and judging from the sun’s position in the sky, it wasn’t even nine o’clock.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Monroe said.
Charlie elected to ignore him.
“Ok, fine, a diamond for your thoughts.”
That earned him a snort, but no thoughts.
“Two diamonds? They say they’re a girl’s best friend.”
“If I continue to ignore you, will you eventually shut up?” She asked, shooting him what Bass classified as her nascent patented Matheson death glare.
“You’re not a morning person, are you?”
“It’s not the time of day; it’s the company.”
“Charlotte,” he ground out, “you’re stuck with me for …how many days did you say it would take to get there?”
“Oh, right, you just grunted at me and said ‘south’ when I asked which direction to…what was the name of the town again?”
“FuckYouMonroe, Texas,” she deadpanned.
Bass burst out laughing at her quick wit. That had to be the Rachel genes in her DNA.
“Charlotte, look, I know you’re not happy about our current situation, but we’re going to be traveling for…” he paused, looking over at her, quirking an inquiring eyebrow at her.
Signing, Charlie relented, “Not exactly sure. I left on foot and went a different direction, but probably four or five days. Maybe.”
“As I said, maybe.”
“You’re deeper into Texas than I thought,” he commented. When there was no response, he looked over at her. She was staring off to her left, away from him, obviously back in her “ignore Monroe” mindset.
“So, let’s play Twenty Questions to pass the time. I’ll start with something simple. What is your full name?”
“You’re joking right? You really think we’re going to play some childish game to pass the time?”
“It’s a harmless question, unless you have something against your full name.”
Charlie dropped her head back against the driver’s seat, “You really are a chattering magpie, aren’t you?”
“I don’t like silence,” was the muttered response.
“Huh huh, you don’t get to ask your question until you’ve answered mine.”
“Fine. Charlotte Sarah Matheson. But normal people call me Charlie,” she said, the emphasis on “normal” so pronounced Bass was pretty sure before the Blackout it would have been a blinking neon sign. Whatever. He’d never claimed to be normal, even before the end of the world.
“Charlotte Sarah Matheson, nothing wrong with that name. A perfectly fine name.”
“Now answer my question.”
“You want me to answer the question ‘why not?’”
“Hey, you started this game, Monroe, you could at least follow the rules.”
“I don’t like silence because that means people around you have time to think.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“That counts as your next question, Charlie.” He winked at her when she turned to him in surprise at his use of her nickname. “And it means that when people have time to think, they have time to plot and plan and scheme against you,” Bass heard himself answer. It was a much more frank and honest answer than he’d meant to give her. It was probably due to the banter, it reminded him of Miles. He was going to have to remember that she was the wrong Matheson.
However, his answer caught her attention, he noticed, as she turned for the first time on their trip to look at him fully. “Wow. Are you really that paranoid?”
“That’s another question. And yes. But you know the old saying, or maybe you don’t, about just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.”
Charlie gave him a long searching look then turned back to her contemplation of the road. Monroe was happy to let her. He needed to get his own thoughts organized. He might have told Charlotte that he had saved her as an act of faith, but that didn’t have to come with a full confession of his innermost thoughts and feelings.
Silence fell between them again, and for the first time in ages, Monroe accepted the silence as a soothing balm.
Charlie leaned back and let her mind wander over Monroe’s earlier comments. Just over a year ago she’d had such blind faith in the goodness of people. She remembered telling Maggie with abundant confidence that not everyone could be bad. She’d learned different, or at least, she’d learned the lesson that Maggie had tried to teach her that day, that you couldn’t trust anyone. In the environment in which they lived, it was everyone for himself, and that lead to suspicion of everyone around you.
Add in everything that Monroe did as part of the Militia and she understood why Monroe is paranoid. Hell, even his best friend turned against him. Charlie tried to push the thought away, she didn’t want the reminder that her uncle was just as guilty as Monroe for the horrors done in the Militia’s name. What had finally happened between the two to cause Miles to reach the decision to kill his lifelong friend? Danny had been the closest she had to that kind of friend and she knew it would have killed her to have him completely lose faith in her.
Is that what Miles’ failed assassination had done to Monroe? Killed whatever was left of his humanity? Charlie thought back through the last few years, trying to remember if the Militia had gotten worse over time. She couldn’t remember; she’d been a kid, living on the outer edges of the Monroe Republic and, with the exception of tax collectors and conscription crews, largely unaffected by the Militia on a daily basis.
Something, though, told her that Miles had a lot to answer for. Hell, she’d known that since Chicago, maybe it was just time she started demanding answers.
She cast a furtive glance at Monroe and saw that he looked deep in thought. At least he was quiet. For the first time he reminded her of Miles and his secrets wrapped in deep silences. She’d learned to read her uncle; she could learn to read Monroe as well.
But, she didn’t need to do it today. She was tired, still feeling the effects of the drugs in her system. She closed her eyes, deciding to try to get some sleep.
After all, she’d have days to unravel the puzzle that is Sebastian Monroe.