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Very Poor Taste

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Four days later, there’s a knock at the door.

Bigglesworth is assisting her aunt in another room so Sadie opens the door herself.

She immediately closes it again.

There’s another knock.

She ignores it and goes back to sitting at the table.

The knocking continues.

Sadie gives the book she’s reading a valiant effort.

The knocking gets louder.

Eventually, Sadie accepts that if she doesn’t answer the door then sooner or later this is going to end with the police involved because Sterling has no intention of going away.

She moves to the door and reluctantly stands aside to let him in.

“What happened to breakfast?” he asked softly, looking far more hurt than he really has a right to after what he did. “What happened to ‘I’m not going anywhere’?”

Sadie felt her stomach churn with guilt. She had said a lot of things that night and then went and done a lot of very different things. “Should you really be out of the hospital?”

Sterling shrugged. “I was recovered enough to jump out the window and land on my feet without tearing open my stiches. How much more recovered could I possibly get?”

Sadie chose to ignore that. Instead, she ushered him to an armchair. “At least sit down. The last thing I need is to see you bleeding out right in front of me.”

The ‘again’ went unspoken but if the look on his face was any indication he clearly heard it.

He swallowed hard. “Sadie.”

She wasn’t going to make this easy on him, though. Not this time. “Yes?”

“I gave you every out,” he said. “I tried walking away from you in Peru. I asked you so many times. I told you I was dangerous, told you I’d only drag you down. I told you I’d rather die than hurt you. I told you in that letter, didn’t I? For your birthday? I said I might’ve gotten it right the first time. I’d had a lot of time to think about it.”

Sadie sighed. “Sterling, we’ve already talked about this. You say you can’t keep doing this? Well maybe neither can I. How many times do I have to go around chasing you before you understand that I never asked you to walk away? Not once. Maybe after you left me to die-” Sterling looked like he was about to interject but wisely kept silent “-but I didn’t really mean it. I danced with you at Christmas and we helped that lovely couple get engaged. I never wanted you to go away. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Sterling nodded. “You yelled at me for asking them not to let you in my room. You said I wouldn’t drag you down, that I had options and if I didn’t want to taint you then I didn’t have to. And then you kissed me and then you stayed and then I went to get breakfast and you were gone.”

Sadie didn’t meet his eyes. “I needed to go home. Aunt Evelyn was worried sick.”

“It’s been four days, Sadie, and it doesn’t look like you’re being kept under lock and key.”

“No,” Sadie allowed.

“So what did I do?” Sterling asked, his eyes beseeching. “I’ve been wracking my brain for days trying to come up with something. There’s really so many things but you said we would get through this and you were so happy when I left. I was gone for twenty minutes at the most and then you were gone. If I weren’t standing here now, how long would you have stayed gone?”

“I don’t know,” Sadie admitted. And there it was again. She could wince from the sun in her eyes and Sterling would take it as some sort of indictment. Was there something about her that had made him think she was hugely judgmental or was he just stricken with that much guilt over what he had done? She didn’t even know most of what he had done and she wasn’t sure he would ever tell her. He had funny ideas about her innocence. “What makes you so sure it was something that you did?”

“Because it’s always something that I’ve done,” Sterling replied without missing a beat. “You’ve never done anything that would cause these sorts of problems.”

She had to admit, it was always something he had done but that could just as easily be because, for all she’d once been convinced that he hated her, she honestly couldn’t imagine him walking away from her at this point for any reason other than some misguided attempt to save her from him.

“Sterling, dear, you managed to be relieved I still cared about you after I kind of betrayed you in New Orleans by picking your pocket and showing up to that masquerade. And trying to seduce you while pretending to not be me. And breaking into Ruddy’s private room which forced you to officially turn against him which only endangered you.”

She was proud of herself for managing not to stumble on the name that she still tried to avoid saying whenever possible.

Sterling shook his head. “Sadie, I can’t deny that I was very much aware that you were there endangering yourself and that you were watching me but I’d like to think that I would have stood against him that day anyway. I won’t be the man who watches an innocent woman be brutalized just to keep myself safe.”

Memories of Felicie’s disgusted face as she condemned Roland to death for what was ultimately a huge misunderstanding flashed through her mind. “Maybe not innocent,” she said, “but certainly not deserving of whatever he had planned for her. Especially not when she was only protecting me. And as terrified as I was, as confused and heartsick as I was, I do have to tell you how proud I was watching you stand up to him. Watching you save yourself. ‘I am holding a sword that has killed emperors.’”

Sterling flushed, pleased. “I’ve always had a flair for the dramatics. It was the thing he hated most about me.”

Sadie rolled her eyes. “Well he’s one to talk. Everything that night, all that I did without talking to you first and trying to mitigate the risk to you, and you talk of my forgiveness.”

“There’s always something to answer for,” Sterling said heavily. “You were trying to do the right thing. I understand.”

“Mercy, Sterling, you act as though I’m perfect!” Sadie exclaimed.

“I do not,” he retorted. “As I believe I said that night. I just know your heart is always in the right place which is not what I can say about most people. I certainly can’t say it about myself.”

“I punched Lorelei in the face once,” Sadie offered.

“I was honestly surprised you didn’t repeat the favor when she wouldn’t stop flirting with me,” Sterling said, shrugging.

“I am a little mad that you didn’t tell her to stop,” Sadie said. “She wasn’t trying to be creepy, I don’t think, even if it was a little desperate.”

“Perhaps,” Sterling allowed. “But I can’t deny I rather enjoyed watching you get jealous over me for once.”

The look Sadie gave him showed exactly what she thought of that.

“You started worrying you were corrupting me because I didn’t yell at you for having stolen something one time even though you steal something pretty much every time I see you and I’ve lectured you every other time,” Sadie said.

“I just don’t want you to ever change,” Sterling said.

“That’s unrealistic,” Sadie said flatly.

“This whole dream of us is unrealistic,” Sterling countered. “If I’m going to leap I might as well aim for the moon.”

“But you have no concern about me punching Lorelei?”

“I’m sure you had a good reason,” Sterling said. “You always do.”

“I really didn’t,” Sadie said. “Unless you think her being very annoying and Ruddy threatening to shoot people and it being a very long day and Lorelei pointing a gun at me and wanting a share in the reward when she had done literally nothing to help counts as a good reason.”

Sterling growled protectively. “I’d consider anyone pointing a gun at you a perfectly valid reason to punch them.”

“She wasn’t pointing a gun at me just then,” Sadie objected.

“Even still.”

Sadie sighed. “You just seem to have this really idealistic vision of me and I can’t possibly live up to it. Not while I’m living and not your lost Lenore.”

“I don’t think of you like that,” Sterling objected.

“Uh-huh.”

“If I have a high opinion of you it’s only because you’ve thoroughly earned it,” Sterling said earnestly. “I have to admit, when von Prenzwald first told me to watch you I wasn’t expecting much. I rather thought I’d hate it and the only upside would be that while I was doing that I wasn’t doing anything worse. But part of me was in love with you long before the rest of me caught on.”

“One day I’m going to fall right off that pedestal,” Sadie said. “And it will hurt. That is if you don’t manage to blame yourself for not cushioning my fall well enough when I fall on you and crush you.”

“You’re being overly dramatic,” Sterling said, crossing his arms. “You say you can’t possibly live up to the image I have of you in my mind? Well it’s been a year and I haven’t been disappointed once.”

“Not even when I refused to pretend that you leaving me to die India didn’t happen?”

“Well,” Sterling admitted slowly, “that might have been too unrealistic a hope for even us. It’s astonishing you ever did manage to forgive me for that.”

Sadie shook her head. “Oh no, oh no, we are not going back to talking about how unworthy you are for that! That was before Christmas!”

“I’m not backtracking, I just-” Sterling cut himself off. “Never mind. I see you one way, you see yourself rather differently. What makes you so sure that your version is more accurate than my version?”

“Well my version doesn’t involve anyone being canonized,” Sadie replied.

“Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle,” Sterling said. “You’re always telling me I’m too hard on myself.”

“Because you ARE,” Sadie insisted. “I just worry, Sterling. Aside from the fact that no one can be what you want me to be, I worry because I think it points to your alarming low image of yourself and an overly generous take on me combined with a merciless take on you does not a good combination make.”

Sterling was smiling.

“What?” she asked, feeling suddenly awkward.

“You’re always defending me. Even to myself.”

“Yes, well, someone has to do it and that person will evidently not be you,” she said, shifting uncomfortably in her seat.

“So that brings us right back to the central question. Why did you leave, Sadie? And don’t lie to me. We’re both better than that.”

Sadie felt a lump form in her throat. She had almost forgotten.

Almost.

“Things were so perfect,” Sterling said. “Better even than my wildest dreams. Better than when you agreed to give me a chance in the first place or when you first said that you loved me.”

“To be fair, you kept complaining I wasn’t enthusiastic enough about agreeing to date you and our first ‘I love you’s were in a sewer while you were almost dying,” Sadie said.

“It was perfect,” Sterling repeated. “And I was getting breakfast. Then you were gone.”

Sadie looked at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap.

“Sadie,” Sterling said gently. “Please.”

“It was…” Sadie trailed off. She looked up at him. “I was…Your journal,” she said finally.

“My journal?” Sterling asked uncomprehendingly.

Sadie nodded reluctantly. “While you were gone I went through your journal.”

“You always have a right to look through my art,” Sterling said. “If it were something I can’t let you know about – and I pray to God there will never be any more of that – then I wouldn’t have left it out. I know you, Sadie. I know you can’t resist a mystery.”

“And I loved it, I really did,” Sadie told him. “I love your work, you know that. I still think you should start doing commissions. It would be so easy to get your name out there and then your talent would speak for itself. I loved it. I loved the picture of when we first met and when we were on the elephant and when we went dancing. I loved all of it. But then…but then…”

“But then what?” Sterling pressed.

Sadie looked at him in stark disbelief. “Do you really not know?”

“I wouldn’t have come all this way begging for answers if I did,” Sterling said, a little testy now.

Of course. Of course he’d forgotten. Of course he’d never have let her see that on purpose. She didn’t know if that made her feel better or not, knowing he likely still would have drawn it and she’d have never known.

“Sterling, the last page of your journal,” Sadie said gently.

Sterling’s brow furrowed and he retrieved his journal from his bag. “The last page? I don’t…oh.”

“Yes,” Sadie said simply. “Oh.”

“I, uh, never meant for you to see this.”

“I think I know that,” Sadie said. “But the problem isn’t that you let me see it. It’s that you even drew it at all.”

“Sadie,” Sterling said, wincing. “You have to try and understand-”

“You drew a graphic picture of Ruddy being crushed to death by debris!” Sadie burst out. “There cannot be that much blood in the human body! I can see his intestines! And I’ve never seen a more agonized face in my life!”

“Count yourself lucky there,” Sterling muttered. “Sadie, I’m so sorry you had to see that. You know I never would have wanted to expose you to something like that.”

“Why did you draw it at all?” Sadie demanded. “It’s horrible and mean and cruel.”

Sterling didn’t deny that. “Sadie, you know what he was to me. I won’t tell you the details. I don’t want you to have to live with that and I wouldn’t even if he weren’t one of the people you loved very best in the world. But you know enough, I think. You know how you had to destroy a priceless historical artifact to stop him from killing me. I never did anything to that man except defy him. What happened was his refusal to leave when everyone else did in favor of chasing after his mad plot to rule the world. You managed to get me out of there, banged up as I was, he easily could have made it. That was his choice and if you had asked I would have moved heaven and earth to save him for you.”

“I used to call him uncle.”

“It’s only a drawing.”

“How could you?” Sadie demanded. “Isn’t it enough that he’s likely dead? My aunt could barely look at me after I told her what had happened. Honestly, if she hadn’t decided that the lack of a body means he must still be alive and in hiding I might still be living with Anna.”

“He hurt me,” Sterling said. “I told you that night at the masquerade, I was his property. He made me do horrible things and I let him. I didn’t realize I had options until I met you. Horrible options, yes, but options nonetheless. And maybe that’s my fault but you never could see him any clearer than he could see you. Maybe I shouldn’t have drawn that but it made me feel a little better about everything and I kind of needed to feel a little good about anything just then.”

“I don’t understand,” Sadie protested. “How could a horrible drawing of a man dying in agony help you feel better about anything?”

Sterling shrugged. “I’m no Freud, Sadie. I just know that it does. Maybe because it reminds me that, despite von Prenzwald’s best efforts, I’m alive and he’s not. Maybe it reminds me that it’s over. Maybe I just hated the bastard just enough to get pleasure out of mapping out his final moments in the most gruesome details I can think of.”

“I just…I don’t understand,” Sadie said helplessly.

“And for that I’m endlessly grateful,” Sterling assured her. “You’re better than that, Sadie, you really are.”

“So are you,” she countered.

Sterling laughed bitterly. “Perhaps one day, should you continue to bless my life with your presence but not today and certainly not when I’m stuck in a Turkish hospital bed where I can only speak to a handful of the workers and my only company is a woman I keep wishing were you.”

“Did you draw more of those-those things?” Sadie asked. She didn’t want to know, not really, but the uncertainty would surely be worse.

“Sadie…”

It was a yes. But she needed him to say it.

“We said no more lies,” she reminded him.

Sterling took a deep breath. “So we did. Sadie, you have to understand just what bad shape I was in. I woke up and you were gone and I had no idea what had happened or when I would be able to see you again. All I could think about was how you had to sacrifice something that you loved to save me and all those times I nearly got you killed. Well. I said all that in my letter. I was in a dark place.”

“How many?”

“Sadie…

“How many?” she asked again, her tone perfectly even.

“Lorelei brought me a notebook and some pencils the second time she visited,” Sterling said.

Sadie stared at him, horrified.

“I burned it!” Sterling rushed to reassure her. “I knew that I could never risk having you see that. I knew it would only hurt you. But I feel that I needed to do it, just the same.”

“Was it…were they all…” she gestured helplessly to the journal.

“No, they were all different. I was very…creative. Please don’t ask me more,” Sterling said. “I won’t help you hurt yourself.”

She decided to let it go. He was probably right and even if he wasn’t what good would trying to browbeat him do? It would probably only get him to dig in his heels further.

“Why did you leave?” Sterling asked again.

“I couldn’t handle it,” Sadie admitted.

“You’re Scheherazade Keating,” Sterling said with so much faith in almost hurt to look at. “You can handle anything.”

She smiled wryly. “I could have sworn we just talked about this.”

“What can I say, I’m a slow learner.”

She laughed. “We both know that’s not true.”

“I want to make this work, Sadie, I really do. Part of me almost still can’t believe that I’m allowed to even be in your presence at all, let alone touch you,” Sterling said. He held up a hand to forestall her objection. “And I know, I know, that’s part of why you think I have you up on a pedestal. But that’s not true. I just love you that much and I know there’s never going to be anyone else like you for me. So if you insist on making terrible life choices and staying with me-”

“You sell yourself so well,” Sadie interjected.

“Then I want to make the most of it. I want to make the most of us. I’ve never been the kind of guy you’d bring home to your parents but you said Aunt Evelyn liked me already and I want to be that kind of guy for you because you’re exactly that kind of girl.”

Sadie could feel herself smiling in spite of herself. “Oh, the things your words do to me.”

“Not just my words. I’ll prove it. I have no more sponsor, no more debt, nothing but good intentions and a million little doubts I’m trying my damndest to ignore because if my lady love thinks I’m good enough for her, and she’s as brilliant as I know she is, then who am I to argue?”

“Well, you won’t catch me arguing,” Sadie said. Her shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry I left.”

“I’m sorry, too.”

But Sadie shook her head. “No, you were right. You have a right to draw what you wish, no matter how disturbing I may find it, and as long as you keep it from me I really cannot ask for anything more than that. If you keep it from me, I would never even know.”

“I wouldn’t lie to you,” Sterling said. “Not about that. I may have the ‘right’ to draw what I wish but I have the right to do a lot of things. Including not making you cry any more tears on my account.”

Her heart swelled. “Sterling…”

“I promise, Sadie, this is the end of it,” he said, standing up suddenly and moving to her side. He took her hand. “I was in a dark place when I drew it. I wish I hadn’t needed to draw that and a hundred others but I did. That was then, though. Now I’m back where I belong and I have you by my side. I’ll destroy the last drawing I missed and that will be the end of it. Then we can get back to what we were doing before we were so rudely interrupted by all of this nonsense.”

She laughed. “What we were doing? Sterling, we were about to have breakfast!”

“I know.”

“It’s only half past three.”

He pulled her to her feet. “So we’ve got plenty of time.”

“I’m sure Aunt Evelyn will be thrilled to hear you making breakfast plans,” Sadie said.

“I’ll talk her ‘round,” Sterling said before pulling her into a kiss.

And the crazy thing was that a part of her actually believed him.

A part of her always did.