The next morning, I made a risky decision—I took Chuck to work with me. I didn't want to have to do it, but I couldn't leave him home alone again. Not after he almost killed himself.
When we arrived at the restaurant, I instructed him to sit at the table in the corner and behave himself. I was unsure how much he would be able to hold up his promise without Maria, but he did surprisingly well. One of my coworkers, a waitress, offered to keep an eye on him as she made her rounds. How sweet she was—she wasn't involved in the celebrity mindset, and she hadn't even heard of the "alley kid," so she showed him no distain. She told me every time she came back that he sat quietly and mumbled to himself, refraining from bothering anyone. I wondered if knowing that I was just over in the next room was enough to keep him calm. At the end of the day when I was finished, I told him he had done a wonderful job, then I took him home to reward him with kisses and cuddles in bed.
This became routine. I took him to work with me every day and had him sit in the corner—my boss didn't seem to mind much, as long as he didn't disrupt the customers. He never did though; he was never comfortable approaching people he didn't know, and I think he was just waiting for me the entire time. The waitress always told me that he was mumbling to himself, though I could never figure out why.
Late one night after work, I sat slumped on the couch in front of the TV. I was a bit more physically drained than usual, but I wasn't quite ready for bed. I spotted Chuck crawling over to me on his hands and knees before resting his head in my lap like an attention-seeking dog.
"What's up?" I greeted.
"I still can't find her," Chuck moped.
I sighed and lightly petted his hair. "I'm sure she'll turn up eventually."
Chuck groaned quietly and climbed into my lap. I wrapped my arms around his waist, trying to comfort him. He rested his head on my shoulder sleepily.
"I miss Maria," he whispered.
"I know," I sighed. "I'm trying all I can."
"Just be here," he said.
"I am here," I told him.
"Always?" he said hopefully.
"Always," I echoed.
Chuck exhaled, releasing a gust of warm air down my chest. "I love you."
"I love you, too," I whispered.
Chuck sat up and hugged my head again, holding it as he would hold Maria. I lightly patted his back and caressed his thighs, comforting him in any way I could.
"You'll be okay," I assured. "I'm here when you need me, alright?"
Chuck was silent for a moment before speaking again. "You're like my mother."
"In what way?" I asked curiously.
"You're nice," he replied. "You don't hurt me."
I was struck with a wave of devastation. I knew I probably saved his life, and I was likely the first pleasant person he had come across in awhile. But that didn't mean that it wasn't horrifically tragic to hear him say something like that. I had a feeling that his mother and I were probably the only two Sims he had truly recognized as nice to him. I could only imagine what his father did to him, and I assumed that most passersby in the streets threw rocks at him, if anything. The mere thought of what his overall life must have been like was enough to make a few tears fall.
Chuck noticed I had started crying and became alarmed. He pushed me back and stared at me with fright, wiping my tears away sloppily with his hands. "N-No! Please, no. D-Don't c-cry…"
I swallowed the lump in my throat hard and placed my hands firmly on his waist. "Chuck, listen to me. No one—no one—deserves what you've gone through. The people who assume you're stupid because you're scared and spent most of your life in the alley…they're wrong. I can't tell you how wrong they are. You're so sweet, Chuck. All they needed to do was be nice from the start. And they would see…" I choked. "They would see that you lost your mother and were abused by your father…if only they did the right thing, they'd know."
"But that's why you're here," Chuck said. "You saved me." And then he smiled that smile that I loved so much.
"I guess I did," I said. I swiped at my face one final time. "I guess I shouldn't dwell too much on your past, even though it still shocks me. You're such a good person underneath the turmoil, and it's not too late to turn things around."
"Things are turned around," Chuck said. "I'm so happy." He giggled, making my stomach tickle.
I beamed. "Oh, I'm so glad to hear you say that. Believe it or not, I feel happier, too. Ever since I took you in, something in me changed. I felt like I was waking up and seeing the beauty of life for the first time. I mean, when I look at you, I just…You're so…beautiful. There's no better way of describing it. I just feel so lifted when I see that life, that passion in your eyes, even after what your father did to you. It gives me so much hope for the future. For me. For you. For us."
Chuck shyly kissed me on the cheek, catching me a bit off guard. His face flushed red and he giggled again, shifting sideways in my lap until I was cradling him like a child.
"Oh, you," I cooed, just as giddy as him. I attacked his face with kisses, and he giggled excitedly. When I made my way down to his neck, the juicy smell of his plasma hit me and brought my thirst back to the surface. I froze, my lips poised millimeters above his exposed flesh. Chuck must have sensed what I was feeling—he grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me inward.
"Drink," he pleaded.
I pulled my head back a bit. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine," he insisted. "Drink. My plasma is good. Thanks, Chuck."
I stared at him for a moment, wondering if he was slipping into another flashback. But he was staring back at me with his big, childish eyes. With a watering mouth, I leaned in and punctured his flesh, feeling instant relief as his nutrients flooded my mouth and ran down my waiting throat. I felt Chuck stiffen when my fangs broke his skin, and he gripped me tightly in pain as I drank. Once I had my fill, I pulled back to look at him. He exhaled when I detached my fangs, and he looked drowsy when I pulled away from his neck.
"I don't have to drink from you," I insisted. "I don't want to if it makes you uncomfortable."
"Drink," he persisted. "My plasma is good."
"It sure is," I said, licking my lips. "But I don't think I should take anymore from you tonight. Let's get you to bed."
Chuck sulked. "We never do anything."
"What do you mean?" I asked, suddenly concerned.
"We're at work all day," he explained. "You work all day. We don't do things together."
"We just did," I protested. "But if you feel like we don't spend enough time together, I have tomorrow off. We'll have the whole day to ourselves. And in the evening when the sun's gone, we could visit the park, or the ocean or something. Just you and me. No work."
"No work…" he echoed contentedly. He snuggled my chest and gripped my neck tightly with both hands. I stood up with him in my arms and carried him to bed. Once we were settled, he slung a fragile arm around me and again whispered: "No work."
Kissing him on the forehead, I promised: "No work."
When I woke up, it was early in the afternoon. Chuck was still asleep, his arm extended over the bed where my torso was. I glanced out the window at the sleeping daytime city, then carefully sat back on the bed and watched Chuck for several minutes. He looked exactly as I had seen him when I first saw him asleep, except he was much cleaner. He was always so peaceful in sleep, but it warmed me now to know that he was nearly as peaceful in wake as well.
I jolted as I heard a knock on my apartment door. Leaving Chuck to sleep peacefully, I strolled out of the bedroom and went to open the door. I was surprised to see Kai standing there, expressionless and firm-looking.
I snarled. "Come to see if the alley kid's gone yet?"
"No," he muttered. His voice was shockingly serious and regretful. "Look Steve, I've been thinking about what you said. About Chuck and his parents…well, I can't see inside his head like you can, but I'm willing to believe you. Just tell him…I never meant to make him feel worthless. I know you hate me right now, so you don't believe me, but I mean it when I say that. I just didn't understand. I still don't understand, but now I'm willing to listen. I want to help him however I can, starting now."
Kai pulled something out of his back pocket and handed it to me. I froze, speechless as I found my hands cradling the long-lost Maria.