Alexander stumbled up the stairs, trying to feel his way. The single candle in his hand threw odd shadows that made finding the uneven treads quite a challenge. The fact that he was also about to pass out from fatigue probably didn't help, either.
His room--well, technically, the room four of them shared--was halfway down the corridor. He opened the door slowly to avoid allowing the hinges to creak. Everyone else was already asleep, and he had no wish to disturb them. They would be back on the march in a day or two; everyone needed as much rest as possible, while they had the benefit of a real roof.
He set down the candleholder and concentrated on the minimum amount of undress necessary to sleep. Boots, breeches, coat, neckcloth, sash, waistcoat, all found their way to the floor. In stockings and shirt, he snuffed the candle and then, in the dark, crawled into the nearest of the pallets strewn about the room.
"'Amilton?" a distinctly accented voice whispered next to him. "Quelle heure est-il?"
"Three? Or thereabout," Alexander muttered. "Go back to sleep, my dear."
"Or so early. Mordieu, je suis fatigué."
"Pauvre 'Am," Lafayette said softly.
"Casse-toi," Alexander teased back. "His Excellency promises I may sleep tomorrow until I wake on my own."
Lafayette reached out a hand to rub his shoulder lightly. "Good. You exhaust yourself, and then you have no time for your friends."
It took Alexander a moment to realize that Lafayette had said this in French. "En anglais, souviens, Gilbert? Toujours l'anglais. Besides, we're fighting a war, not off on a holiday."
"Ah, pfft," Lafayette replied. "L'anglais, c'est une langue barbare."
"You'll never improve if you don't speak it," Alexander pointed out.
"But it's just us," Lafayette said, his voice just this side of a whine.
"N'importe rien," Alexander sighed. "Et maintenant, mon cher Marquis, let me sleep."
"Oh, of course," Lafayette cried. He was instantly contrite. He planted a light kiss on Alexander's forehead and settled back on the makeshift mattress.
The routine was familiar, if not particularly typical. Since Lafayette had arrived three weeks ago, either Laurens or Hamilton had been attached to him to assist in translation. In that time, the three had grown closer to one another than all the rest of the aides--but Lafayette had pointedly lavished attention on Hamilton, especially. Alexander had been his primary teacher, particularly since he could easily explain not only the English terms, but the General's plans, summarizing his correspondence, orders, and needs. It didn't take long for Alexander to suspect that perhaps Lafayette might wish to share more than language or strategy lessons….
He drifted to sleep, thinking of Lafayette's first arrival at the end of July. The camp had been buzzing with the news that a young, dashing, rich, and passionate Frenchman was arriving to assist the cause. "He'll be given the rank of Major-General," Washington explained, "but only after sufficient time to grasp the challenges we're up against."
"Does this mean we can expect more French aid, sir?" Alexander asked.
"One step at a time, my boy," the General said. "One step at a time. Let's see what this Marquis has to offer, first."
If the Great Man had been disappointed by the stripling noble, he hid it well. He calmly assigned Hamilton and Laurens to share responsibility for the youngest member of the family, improve the youngster's English, and work with him to implement any advice he might have on troop organization or discipline. The friendship that had sprung up among them was none of Washington's concern, but certainly he approved of the way it simplified the army's deployment. The three of them were like legs of a stool, providing strong support and seamless execution of his orders.
Lafayette also had a mischievous streak that often provided amusement of its own making. His maturity, easy smile, open affection for his fellows, and particularly, immediate and unshakeable devotion to Washington, effortlessly endeared him to all. Not to mention his absolute lack of concern when it came to applying monetary solutions to any problem that might arise. Hamilton had thought Laurens' wealth had been ample, when his other friend had first joined them. By comparison to the Marquis, Laurens was a pauper. Lafayette was forever scrounging the most sumptuous wine or best cut of meat, no one knew how, and the best part was that he shared his bounty with all the family. If he had not been so generous, so kind, so attentive and, not incidentally, so valorous, he might have made enemies of the others. Instead, he had fit into the brotherhood as if he had been with them from the start.
It was safe to say that Alexander loved the younger boy. But he was a bit worried that the Frenchman's definition of "love" included things that were decidedly improper.
His fears were confirmed a week later. They had left their relatively civilized quarters two days before, and had marched all of twenty miles to set up camp south of a tributary to the Delaware. It was a sunny day at the end of August, and Alexander had been inside the stifling tent they used for an office all morning. The others had left to seek lunch, and the sun was at its highest, beating down on the canvas until it reminded him of the hottest days he'd known on his home islands. In deference to the heat, he had removed his coat inside the tent, but as he hunched over his desk and papers, he could feel sweat trickling under his collar, down his back, through the ruffles at his sleeve cuffs. He took a sip of rum-laced water and pressed on.
Then the door flapped open and a blessed whiff of breeze blew in. Alexander reflexively protected his pages but closed his eyes to enjoy the momentary relief, until the pane of fabric fell shut again.
"Alexandre, viens avec moi," Lafayette said, appearing next to his writing table.
"L'anglais," Alexander muttered absently. "Toujours--wait. Come with you? Why? Where?"
"You shall see," Lafayette answered in careful English. He held out a hand to pull him away.
"I have reports to--" Alexander began.
"Non, zis is--you must come. Come along!"
Mystified, Alexander set down his quill and allowed Lafayette to lead him outside. He did not even give him a chance to grab his coat or hat.
They threaded through the rows of men and the few tents they had, into a stand of trees. They had camped near a large parcel of wilderness, just up the river from Burlington, on the Jersey side; the British camps were further north from the river than they, closer to Philadelphia. But on this little stretch of land, instead of rills, falls, and rapids, the current curved around narrow breaks, slow and lazy. The banks sloped gently down to rock and silt beaches; the water ran clear and cool and clean. Laurens waved from a large rock on which he perched, shoes and stockings off. He had a fishing pole in his hand, its line dipping under the surface.
"You're fishing," Alexander said, unimpressed. "So?"
"For ze General," Lafayette intoned. "Laurens say 'e will 'ave fresh troot for le diner."
"Zis is what I say." His sincere, clueless expression was utterly charming.
"Fine," Alexander said, giving up on the pronunciation lesson. "Good for Laurens. I don't see why I--"
His confused, annoyed comment was cut short when two sets of strong hands grabbed him and shoved him forward. Before he could fight back, Tilghman and McHenry picked him up bodily and tossed him into the deepest part of the stream. They scrambled into the water after him, splashing and laughing. He sputtered, feet easily touching bottom, and stood in the current, wiping his hair from his eyes. Lafayette, also laughing, was shedding his coat and boots. Barefoot like the others, he waded in.
"You needed to cool out," he said with a giggle. "You stink of sweat."
"You just stink," Alexander answered. "You need a bath." He tackled the young Marquis, pulling him under. He didn't notice quite when Laurens also joined them, but soon the five of them were all cavorting in the blessedly cool water. At some point, they climbed out of the river long enough to strip down further, laying out their clothes to dry in the warm sun.
Lafayette produced a hamper with cold tongue, some chicken, a rather crusty brown bread, and a bottle of porter. Hamilton could only speculate where he had obtained it. They all ate, and then Tilghman and McHenry dressed and made their excuses. When Alexander made to follow, Tilghman pressed a hand to his shoulder.
"We'll attend to anything that needs immediate action," he promised. "You're to stay and relax for a while," he said, with a peculiar sort of eyebrow twitch toward Lafayette.
Lafayette nodded. "We shall retourne shortly," he said.
"You arranged this just to get me to take a break," Alexander observed. "Did His Excellency know?"
"The General mentioned you 'ave been working 'ard for weeks. 'E suggested you might be 'eading for un disastre. I was only too 'appy to offer an...alternative."
"Well, as pleasant as an afternoon's swim is, there is a great deal to do back at camp," Alexander insisted. "We're not here to gambol about in a pastoral."
"Non. We are 'ere to fight. And you exhaust yourself," he said, as he had several nights ago.
"That doesn't matter," Alexander said.
"It matter to me."
Laurens had returned to the rock where he had strung his fishing line while they ate. Soon he had three or four fine-looking trout tied together. He reluctantly left the water and retrieved his clothes. "I'd better get these to the officers' cooktent," he said. "The Old Man will be pleased for the fresh fare, don't you think?"
They nodded their agreement. Alexander reached for his stockings and boots and put them on. "We really should get back, too," he said to Lafayette. Guilt at his truancy seeped in to make his voice more thready than usual.
"Bon," Lafayette said, watching Laurens reach the treeline. He dressed without hurrying. Before they left the clearing, he touched Alexander's sleeve. "Alexandre, you 'ave been...very kind, zese last weeks. I know you already 'ave too mush to do to look after me in ze bargaining."
"It's my pleasure, Gilbert," Alexander said, and meant it. "You're coming along splendidly, by the way."
"I'm glad," Lafayette said. Then, with a furtive glance around, he closed the distance and kissed Alexander.
This was not the typical, French baiser to both cheeks. He kissed Alexander full on the mouth, as one would a pretty maid. Alexander suppressed a squeak of surprise. His hands froze at his sides, and it took a moment to force them up to grip Lafayette's arms, thinking to push the other away. But instead of pressing him back, for some reason, Alexander's hands closed on Lafayette's biceps and pulled him inward, closer. His mouth opened to deepen the kiss. He felt, quite suddenly, his erection brushing against the flap of his breeches, which were still pleasantly warm and slightly starched from their sunning on the grass.
He tried to tell Gilbert that they could not do what they were doing. Instead of coherent words, however, his voice came out in a sound that was part grunt, part moan. "Mmmuh…" he said eloquently.
"Shhh…" Lafayette answered, breaking the kiss only to press his body against Alexander's. "Pas un mot." He canted his hips somehow and elicited another moan from Alexander. The swell of the Frenchman's breeches rubbed tantalizingly against Alexander's own tumescence.
"Mon Dieu," Alexander breathed.
"Oui," said Lafayette. "Je te désir."
"Well--" Alexander began, but Lafayette stopped his mouth again, covering it with soft lips and a quick, darting motion of his tongue.
"Don't fight yourself," Lafayette whispered, back in French again. For once, Alexander made no attempt to remind him to use English; it was just as well that no one might be able to understand them. Then again, if anyone had been in a position to overhear--or more importantly, to observe--Lafayette's French would have been a wholly ineffectual barrier to understanding the situation. Particularly when Lafayette placed one hand between their groins and not too gently caressed Alexander's bulging cock.
"Ah--" Alexander gasped. All rational thought had fled. Finally he stepped back, pulling his hips and head out of contact. Lafayette allowed them to break apart. "You're--married!" Alexander said, also in French, aware of how stupid it sounded to cite that objection first.
Lafayette shrugged. "And I love my dear wife, and our little girl. What of it? Is it so impossible to believe one could love others at the same time?" His eyes were smiling, but he kept his face carefully neutral.
"I--don't know," Alexander admitted.
Lafayette let out the chuckle he had been holding. He stepped forward again and touched Alexander tenderly on one cheek. "I've no wish to marry you, Alexandre. Only to bed you."
Alexander couldn't speak. His breath came in shallow pants, as he tried to make sense of what was happening. But then Lafayette closed in again and pressed his lips to Alexander's, and he tumbled, headlong, into the kiss. His hands came up once more to cup Lafayette's own hands, on either side of his head. Then they thrust forward into Lafayette's hair. He broke the kiss again to embrace the other man and whispered in his ear, "Is this--normal--for you?"
Lafayette shrugged. Alexander could feel it against his chest, his shoulders. "Zis is 'ow we do in France," he said simply.
"Well, it's not how things are done here," Alexander answered, standing back. "Gil. You're--lucky it's me, and not someone who--"
"Ah, but I would not approach someone who would not respond in kind," Lafayette assured him.
Alexander crossed his arms. "I see. And I strike you as the--type?" he asked venomously. "Am I so womanly in your view? Who else thinks so?"
"Sois tranquil, Alex," Lafayette said, holding up an elegant hand. "Non, zat is not what I intent at all. I only--" he sighed and started over. This time, he took his time and spoke exclusively in French, so as to make no mistakes in translation. "I do not think it an obvious aspect, no. And I would be very surprised if anyone else had any notion that you might entertain anything but propriety. I only suspected it might be worth an attempt because--we spend so much time in each other's company and...I believed my attraction to you was matched by yours to me. Understand? And judging by your response, I would say I am not…entirely incorrect." He shrugged again. "At Court in France, relations between men are viewed as...unconventional...but so long as no one is indiscreet, they are cosmopolitan about it. Nonetheless, I'm aware that men's sensibilities here are more….puritanical. If you think a liaison too risky, I completely understand. I shall say--and do--no more. But without risk, there can be no reward, is this not so? I felt it better to make my intentions known now, before I waste more time or before circumstances conspire and we miss any opportunity."
Alexander said nothing, considering the Marquis' words. Then he asked: "Do you declare yourself to me because you think I have no way to rebuff you? Because no one would believe if I accuse you of moral delinquency?"
"I declare myself to you, Alexandre, because for me, it is too late. I am already quite beguiled. But I trust that you are not a man who would end another's life just because he made a pass at you." His mouth quirked as if to say, "a successful one," but he held his smile in check.
"Who else knows? Did you ask Tench or Laurens to make sure we were alone?"
"I did, but they have no reason to suspect my intent. It is a private matter, so far as I am concerned, and no one else need know--nor indeed, no one else should know if you value my life as I think you do."
"What of my life, then? If I charge you with...assault, then all you need do is counter it by calling me the aggressor."
"I suppose. But there's a simple way to avoid that."
"Acquiesce?" he snorted. "Let you blackmail me?"
"Non," Lafayette replied, looking as if Alexander had boxed his ear. "Say nothing to anyone. Tell me you are not interested and I desist."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that." Lafayette looked off at the horizon, where the sun was making its way closer to the treeline. "We ought to return. I apologize, Alexandre, if I have wronged you." He gave a formal little bow and backed away, leaving Alexander standing by the river. After a few steps, he turned his back and headed into the trees. It was a long time before Alex followed him back to camp.