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Ben remembered the first time he put on his Continental uniform, and then again when the uniform was outfitted to match all of the men in the newly formed regiment of dragoons. He was only a Captain then and still a boy that believed someday life could return exactly as it was before the war. Things seemed to move fast then and yet it was only a few weeks into his service that he began to feel it all change, where the newness of the uniform and the excitement of battle sometimes dwindled to pure fear. He’d find himself waking to a cold, dark tent, sweating off nightmares that told of a dead family and lost friends and all he was incapable of doing to save them. But just like that the sun would rise and he’d find himself slipping into the same pair of boots, all of the chaos around him feeling far more familiar than the life he’d left behind in Setauket.

 

In a way it was no longer a uniform; Ben swore he’d now spent more days in his current pair of breeches than he had in any of his farm trousers from home. He’d returned on several occasions but he felt out of place in a town that now expected so much and he was disappointed in himself to find every arrival marked another day on which the war would not end, as if he was solely responsible for that being the case.

 

Like his work clothes or the waistcoat he’d wear to supper or even church, Ben felt just as out of place in his current outfit, a somewhat fancier version of his everyday coat with an added burgundy sash tied around his waist. Every other man in the room wore something similar, with the female guests wearing bright frocks with jewels that caught the light from the chandelier above, contrasting them greatly with their male counterparts.

 

“Benjamin?”

 

He looked up but failed to find the source of the voice. Rather clumsily he turned around and nearly collided with a passing servant. The rest of the men here had wives to hide behind, but Ben was attending alone, and yet his awkward movements did little to deter the group of ladies playing cards in the corner. Their eyes darted back and forth from the hands they were dealt to the way his breeches cut him perfectly at the knee. Ben felt somewhat naked under their glance, especially as the group’s whispering was followed by several rounds of laughter.

 

“Benjamin!” he heard it again. This time when he turned he found he was not alone and he relieved for the first time that night. He needed a distraction from the women in the corner and he hoped if he persevered through several more rounds of small talk, he’d eventually be able to leave.

 

It was odd to him that he didn’t recognize the voice because it was one he knew well. “Sir…” he began, as if to apologize.

 

When George could only smile in concession, Martha stepped in. “Benjamin, I wanted to make your acquaintance...” Martha ushered the girl forward. “This is Miss Charlotte Gray. Charlotte, this is—”

 

He extended his hand and she gracefully gave her own. “Benjamin Tallmadge, ma’am.”

 

Major Benjamin Tallmadge,” Martha corrected. “Benjamin, we were just telling Charlotte about you. I needed to prove to her that there were in fact unmarried men here of her own age. Only a few, but they do exist,” she nearly sang.

 

“Yes ma’am, we do exist.”

 

Charlotte did not laugh. In fact, her brow furrowed, as if to ask him to stop embarrassing himself. Already she had such bold features and now the smirk she wore dimpled her cheeks, while her brown eyes bounced back and forth between the young officer and his much older friends.

 

“Sir,” Ben spoke up, now directing his attention solely to the General. “I have been meaning to tell you that—”

 

“It can surely wait until the morning, can’t it George?” Martha asked, turning back to her husband. “The entire point of this night was to thank you boys for all of your hard work and dedication to the cause. Try to relax, Benjamin. Here,” she began in a much cheerier tone, “why don’t you and Charlotte have a dance?”

 

“Martha...” George admonished.

 

Mrs. Washington only smiled at the pair, neither of them giving any reaction to her suggestion.

 

Ben sighed. “Charlotte, would you like to—”

 

“Dance? Yes, that would be fine.”

 

Though ceremoniously, Ben held onto Charlotte’s fingertips all the way to the center of the room where the pair somehow fell in line with the rest of the couples. It had been quite some time since he’d last danced and if he remembered correctly, his hand somehow felt more comfortable resting on his friend Anna’s hip, than here in a room full of strangers, one of whom he was dancing with.

 

“You are quiet,” Charlotte observed. Their feet had only just began to move.

 

Ben’s eyes had blurred over her shoulder. He was continuing the conversation he wished to have with Washington, going over code in his head as if to plan for an always unpredictable tomorrow. “Pardon?”

 

“You,” Charlotte smirked, almost nodding in his direction. “You are quiet.”

 

Ben released a nervous chuckle. “You haven’t said much either.”

 

“What does one say when offered up as a dance partner?”

 

“I don’t think—”

 

“It’s quite alright, Benjamin. Mrs. Washington and my mother used to be friends. I think she feels a certain obligation to watch after me—”

 

“By pawning you off on someone else?”

 

“I was not aware I was being pawned off. She means well.” Then: “They all mean well.”

 

“I just meant—”

 

“She was kind enough to invite us both into her home so if she’s suggested we dance, I don’t really see a problem with that. It’s the least we can do. Truly.”

 

“Well I—”

 

“Was standing alone, looking rather pathetic. Yes, I witnessed that. Really, you should thank Martha for doing you the service—”

 

“Of introducing you to me? So you could continuously cut me off?”

 

Charlotte smirked knowingly. “Of pulling you out of whatever stupor you’ve found yourself in tonight. You are the only one in this room who has yet to smile. She’s right. You do need to relax.”

 

“Relax? There’s a—”

 

“A war? Yes, Benjamin, and tomorrow it will still be there, just as it has been for the past few years. None of this is going away anytime soon.”

 

“Well of course not,” Ben huffed. “Not much can be accomplished in this ballroom. There are men on the other side of the East River that are—”

 

“Hopefully more pleasant than you’re being.”

 

“Doubtful. It’s...nevermind.”

 

Charlotte nearly dropped her head back to laugh. “What is it with you boys?”

 

“You boys?”

 

“Well, you, mostly,” she corrected. “They may not allow us to fight but a lot of us can read. We know what goes on out there and we know the stress of watching someone we love enlist and the pain that happens thereafter when they don’t come back. It’s as if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t happen. Life doesn’t work like that and war certainly doesn’t work like that.”

 

“Do you speak from experience?”

 

“Perhaps.” When Ben said nothing, Charlotte smirked once more. “You know, I have met many peculiar boys, Benjamin, but never have I had a boy protest this much over a simple dance.”

 

Ben looked down to where their feet continued to move. “Am I protesting?”

 

“You’re being a spoilsport. It’s nearly the same thing. Your mouth is protesting even if your feet are not.”

 

“Well you asked me to talk and now I’m talking,” he gave, as if truly offended by her own offense.

 

“And now I’m asking you to stop. I’ve changed my mind.”

 

Even Ben had to stifle a laugh, one he tossed over his shoulder. His palm shifted on her waist, but he complied, deciding it might be best to follow her instruction. But he was silent now and though it was exactly what she had asked for, Charlotte immediately felt herself missing the sound of his voice. She gave a heavy exhale before speaking once more.

 

“Listen, Benjamin, I apologize if you felt pressured but you did not have to ask me to dance. And now that we are dancing, it does not need to continue if that is what—”

 

“If I may,” Ben tried, “it seems like you are the one protesting now.”

 

“I have nothing to protest. We are dancing and I quite like to dance and though you’re far too serious and therefore somewhat intolerable, I would say you are not a complete prat.”

 

“A prat? Excuse me?”

 

“Are you not familiar with the word?”

 

“I’m plenty familiar with…” His voice trailed off as he attempted to compose himself. “Do you insult every person you meet?”

 

“I’d prefer not to answer that,” Charlotte commented. “I don’t want you to ever think I’m giving you special treatment.”

 

Ben was speechless, and though he had now pressed his tongue to his cheek in search of words to say, he found himself laughing off an insult of his own. She was rather insufferable but during their row they both managed to move brilliantly with one another, so much so that the other guests were none the wiser. In fact, Martha even gave a sly smile to her husband as she donated a small nod in the pair’s direction.

 

Finally, he exhaled, but Charlotte only looked to him when the soft grip he had on her waist tightened. “Why are you here anyway?”

 

Charlotte nearly cackled. “Why am I here?”

 

“Yes, that’s what I’ve asked and I’d prefer not to repeat myself.”

 

“I was invited. Didn’t we discuss this?”

 

“Alone?”

 

“There are plenty of other women here, also alone, and—”

 

“And they have brothers or fathers or even uncles who fight for the cause.”

 

“Who’s to say I don’t have a brother or a father or an uncle who fights for the cause?”

 

“Well do you?”

 

“I do.”

 

“Which one?” He looked around.

 

“Well both really.”

 

Ben’s gaze narrowed in curiosity. “You said your last name was Gray?”

 

“‘Tis,” she nodded.

 

Ben swallowed. “Is that your husband’s name?”

 

Charlotte snickered again. “If I was married do you honestly believe I’d be dancing with you?”

 

“Perhaps he’s dead.”

 

“Likely story,” Charlotte agreed, “but not my story.”

 

“Then what is your story, Charlotte?”

 

“You’re the head of intelligence, Major Tallmadge. I thought you’d surely have me figured out by now.”

 

The music swelled and then all at once, faded to nothing. Charlotte took a step back and with the hem of her dress she leaned forward to curtsy. She nodded at him, even giving a small smile, before turning on her heel to walk away. Around them everyone shuffled, causing him to lose her in the crowd. Then, just as simply, the music began again and Ben was left in the center of the room, now without Charlotte but with motionless feet and a thousand questions now dancing in his head.



Chapter Text

 

Charlotte was ignorant to the day’s heat when she agreed, not only to wear the dress her mother had purchased for her, but also to take a walk uptown with her father. It was her given task lately to make the things her father did seem benign. A woman, especially an unmarried one with such a energetic disposition, quelled whatever suspicions her father’s work would usually procure, even in a British occupied city.

 

Already they had stopped into an inn to deliver a letter, and Charlotte now carried another piece of her father’s post directly beneath the hem of her dress sleeve. It was her aversion to the sun that had Charlotte clutching her parasol so tightly, and the hunger in her belly that made the heels she wore click that much more dramatically as they paced back toward their awaiting carriage.

 

“The fact that women such as myself are expected to wear gowns like this to perform everyday tasks is beyond absurd, father.”

 

He barely looked back to her. “You look divine, darling.”

 

“At least in Virginia—”

 

“Yes, well we’re not in Virginia anymore, Charlotte,” her father stated. He took a step toward the carriage and then did not look back again. Already his valet was working to help Charlotte up.

 

“I wish we were.”

 

“Yes dear, you’ve made that abundantly clear.” The footman’s weight could be felt settling atop his seat outside. Soon thereafter the carriage began to move, as if inviting new conversation. "Your mother tells me you went to one of Miss Margaret Shippen's parties. I wasn't aware you two knew one another."

 

"She's a friend of a friend. Though we did discuss—"

 

"And you also accepted the invitation to Martha's gathering?"

 

“Martha who?” she asked rather cheekily.

 

“Martha,” her father gave back.

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes. "She has a last name, Daddy."

 

"Yes, she does, doesn't she?"

 

She huffed, still feeling like the child they all wished her to be. "You can't bring me to this city and expect me to stay locked in my bedroom."

 

"Yes, I know that Charlotte. Trust me, I've tried."

 

"Papa, I'm nineteen..."

 

"And you're still my baby. And always will be. You don't know what's out there, Charlotte."

 

"Out where?"

 

He chuckled. "Exactly."

 

"War? Is that what you're referring to? I know war..."

 

"Darling, no you don't. And be thankful for that fact. You can't imagine what our men go through and I am so happy that is the case. Your mother and I have done our best to protect you—"

 

Charlotte sat back. "Protect me? From what?"

 

"Not what, Charlotte. Who ."

 

"Then who?" she asked, ostensibly more offended that she was before.

 

"You're so busy making friends you can't see how dangerous that has become. The lines are drawn Charlotte and it's important that when you're out you are standing on the right side of things. It is more than just being my daughter. Should the time present itself you need to be unafraid to openly state your loyalty to the crown."

 

"And what would you have me do? Stand in the center of the city and shout it out?"

 

"No, I'd just ask you to be careful. I wish I had known you went to the Washington's because I would have cautioned against it."

 

"It was dinner and dancing. The color each man wore was of little importance."

 

"It's always important, Charlotte. Whether you're aware or not."

 

"Not to me."

 

He sighed. "Yes well we'll work on that. Do you know anything about Johnny?"

 

"Monroe? From next door?"

 

"The same one. If my sources are correct, he's gone and enlisted."

 

"For us?" Charlotte knew the answer, but also the misinformation in her question. She was increasingly aware of the lines drawn, and it was so clear that her and her father stood on opposite sides.

 

"No, darling. Not for us. These boys your age...it's a trend we can't really explain. They're defying their parents and fighting for the rebels. It's disgraceful, if you ask me."

 

"There's nothing to worry about, Papa. I promise. I..."

 

"Your mother also tells me you were asking after Michael and—"

 

"Yes. Of course I have."

 

"Why?"

 

"Why? because I worry about him."

 

"You're going to have to get over him, Charlotte. He's gone and made this decision with no regard for anyone but himself and that includes you. He stands on the wrong side of things and he can't take any of this back now."

 

"We have the right to correspond."

 

"No! No, he has no rights in my household!"

 

"And me? Do I have rights? Does my opinion count?"

 

"No. It doesn't. Not when it comes to these things. Your mother and I do our best to make you happy Charlotte but when is it enough?”

 

"It's—"

 

"Your mother is hosting a fundraiser next Thursday and I'd like you to help her plan it. These are big nights for us."

 

"For us or for you?"

 

He sighed. Sometimes his daughter felt like a lost cause he could never truly give up on. She was Virginia personified: forever warm and unwaveringly distant.

 

"Just help your mother out, please."

 

~!~

 

Washington’s temporary home in New Windsor was much like his last - wholly comfortable for George and Martha and lacking when it came to everyone’s else’s provisions. Even so, Ben cherished the quiet afternoons when no argument or gunfire could be heard around camp. He was not worrying about his friends, or even his family in Setauket. Currently he was only mapping a mission that was several months out, one that told him once again that if victory were to occur it would not be in New York.

 

Silently he jotted down a few alternatives. Perhaps it was not Virginia but maybe Maryland, or even back to Delaware. Though the south was not where Ben’s comfort lied, it held many an advantage for the Continental army and to get the general to agree to this would be to already win half the battle.

 

"What did you think of Miss Gray?"

 

Ben looked up, processing the fact that he was not alone. This had always been the case but it was not uncommon for all of the aides to mill in and out around him as he did his work. He carefully set his quill down and turned to look to the General. "What did I think of her?"

 

"Precisely."

 

"She's...quite bold for a girl."

 

"For a girl?"

 

"Well, yes, I—"

 

"Unexpected?"

 

"Is this...I don't know if..." His muttering was new to General Washington. There were few things on earth that Benjamin Tallmadge did not have a clear opinion on.

 

"Your opinion matters, Ben,” George reinforced naturally, in hopes of spurring their conversation.

 

"Why?"

 

"Because I'd like her to join us."

 

He stood, possibly unaware that he had done so. "Us? Join...pardon?"

 

Washington could only smirk. "She has family in York City and family in Virginia. Her aunt lives only a mile from camp. She doesn't know what Charlotte is engaging in, but she has allowed her to spend as many summer days there as she pleases. Charlotte's told her that she needs to get out of the city for a bit and I don't blame her. But all of this gives her a clear pass up and down the East coast. She is a female and—"

 

"A Tory."

 

"Charlotte is not a Tory.”

 

"I saw her with a redcoat..."

 

“You were in York City?”

 

“Uptown, yes. Culper has come down with a nasty bout of influenza and I had an errand to run. You knew that—”

 

Washington raised his hand as if to insist upon silence. “I knew you were leaving, I did not know to where. It’s of no importance now.”

 

“Who’s the redcoat?”

 

"That was her father, I'd assume. I doubt that man lets anyone else near her."

 

"Her...who is he?"

 

General Washington’s perked his head up to show his mild amusement. "My head of intelligence hasn't discovered this yet?"

 

"I did a fair amount of research but no one with the last name 'Gray'—"

 

"William Gray ford...” Washington emphasized, “He's a lawyer by trade but he controls nearly all of the Tory finances. I wouldn't expect you or anyone to know him really as they’ve gone to extensive lengths to keep his name out of their dealings. Prior to this he was traveling back and forth from England to Virginia. Recently they've decided they need him here full time and they've uprooted his family to York City. Before it was about trade. Now it's about turning a profit for the war effort. If purchases are made or supplies are shipped in or moved out, he knows about it. That includes soldiers."

 

Ben paused and wearing eyes that turned heavy, he took a step into his commander. "You're not going to ask her to spy on her father."

 

"No, I didn't need to. She approached me."

 

"Why? Don't you find that suspicious?" He was walking around the table now. It was not uncommon for a conversation between he and his superior to occur all without eye contact. But this was also their first discussion on intelligence where Ben was being given a suggestion he was powerless against dismissing.

 

"No, I don't,” George gave simply. “Her mother and Martha used to very close friends. We watched Charlotte grow up."

 

"With all due respect, sir, I do find it suspicious."

 

"And I'm telling you right now that your opinion doesn't matter." Washington gave this information to the paper that had been set down in front of him, the same one he now ran a quill over, donating his signature to the fresh parchment.

 

"I beg your pardon? You were the one that said—"

 

His head shot up. "That's when I thought you'd think highly of her, Ben!"

 

"I don't know her."

 

"Exactly. And Martha and I do. This is a giant risk but I've agreed and if this is going to work I need you to treat her just as you do the others. She's not a childhood friend but she's like family to Martha and I so I suppose I'm also asking you to watch after her."

 

"Can't she look after herself?"

 

"Of course she can. I wouldn't be allowing it if I thought any differently. But I told Martha I'd speak with you and that is what I am doing."

 

"As long as she's successful, I'll do my best to keep her current on each assignment.”

 

“Your best is only acceptable if it means you are treating her just like the rest. You do not have to see it now but I know that someday you will thank me for making this connection. Martha figured you’d thank her for the introduction as well but that is of her mind, and not mine.”

 

Ben nearly laughed. “This doesn't mean I trust her."

 

"Fair enough."

 

Ben paused, unsure if he should go for the door or just sit back at his desk. "That's okay with you? I mean...you do?"

 

"Of course I do. There's someone fighting down south and she wishes to go see him. She'll make trips back and forth to York City and when I find a suitable team to take her South, she’ll be relieved of her position.”

 

"You’re giving her personal transportation? Can we afford that right now?”

 

"It won’t happen immediately. But it's the least I can do for her, Ben. If she can provide the information she says then she's invaluable to us. This is paramount. We need to know when supplies are coming in and where they're being shipped to. She can stand in for 355 if necessary, but I'd prefer to keep her out of all of that."

 

"Out of what? The ring?"

 

"She's hardly out of the ring. The poor girl may have a code on our end but to her father and his friends, she's not a spy - at least not as far as they're concerned. The information she'll be gathering in her day to day life could finally help us get ahead. She's spying, she's just...doing it openly."

 

"Why can't we just deliver her South?"

 

"We absolutely could but I’d say that would be allowing this immense opportunity to pass."

 

"I just don't see what information she could be providing if—"

 

"You didn't know who her father was so I'm not entirely sure you're allowed to tell me what she can and cannot provide to us."

 

"He's new..." Ben tried to defend.

 

"Only to this area. Just as she is. This war has gone on for many years and it may be time for us to make some changes. She's a part of that...an incredibly important part of that. If you disagree, perhaps we should be discussing your involvement. We need to be exploring all avenues."

 

Ben sighed. "How do you expect us to get her back there? We can't just drop her at a Tory camp. It doesn't work like that."

 

"No, it certainly doesn't so it is a good thing we won't be dropping her at a Tory camp."

 

"Militia?"

 

"Continental."

 

Ben’s face twisted in confusion as the grip he had on his own hip strengthened. "What?"

 

"It is not my story to tell. It's just important that you know her loyalty to this great nation is unwavering. As of late it's a greater loyalty than the one she shares with her own family."

 

"Should we be encouraging this?"

 

"There's nothing to encourage. Charlotte believes in the cause just as you and I do. I was hoping you'd like her but if you do not then I am dismissing your opinion as valid. You said it yourself...she's bold and we need bold right now."

Chapter Text

Upstate was a mess of hills and overgrown farmland. Charlotte knew little of the territory but she enjoyed the quiet and how sometimes, if the summer sun was especially strong, the town her Aunt Lillian lived in could be mistaken for one found in her home state of Virginia. It was never as hot, and certainly not as populated, but it worked all the same. At the very least it was not York City and that in and of itself was satisfactory enough for a restless Charlotte.

 

The farmhouse was built by Charlotte’s uncle, a man who died not even a full year after the home was completed. With him gone it sat on a hill above all of the Hudson, where each window pane and porch floorboard bared each winter in anticipation of the Spring days New York was currently experiencing. Charlotte remembered many days spent as a little girl, chasing her brother up and down the length of the porch. When that got tiring they’d go out to the tire swing or jump from picket to picket on the newly erected fence closer to the road.

 

Not much had changed since those days. Charlotte had responsibilities now but even those could be forgotten so far outside the city. No one knew her here and although her goal was to use her aunt’s home as a cover for her true destination, she was hesitant to write it off completely. The beautiful, pale yellow room she was given at the rear of the house gave her a great view of the acreage out back and an easy escape down the staircase should such a thing be necessary.

 

She didn’t intend on keeping secrets from her aunt, but as she unpacked her things she took note of the house and how each item or person in it could be used to her advantage. She was so lost in these thoughts she didn’t hear her aunt approach.

 

Lillian sat on her niece's bed in such a casual manner, with her boot covered feet propped out in front of her. She was born just as Charlotte’s mother was - deep in the heart of Virginia where nothing mattered more than God and hard work. Where the sisters differed was their choice in men. Lillian was far more independent and lucky enough to wed a man who encouraged this in her. When he passed she declined her family’s offers to move south. Instead she took on more chores within her home, hiring extra help and working beside them to keep the estate running. Though she currently wore a gown similar to Charlotte’s, she also wore an apron and she didn’t apologize for the state of her hair — frizzy and threatening to fall from its clip.

 

"I am not your mother and I most certainly am not your father. I do not know if you have a beau or—"

 

Charlotte stood and turned to her aunt, giving her a smile as she sat upon the nearby window seat. "No beau."

 

Lillian smirked. "Am I wrong in assuming that whatever you're doing up here can't be done in front of your father?"

 

"Not wrong."

 

"I understand how difficult that life is. But please know my need to escape it all was much easier than yours will be."

 

"I'm not escaping—"

 

"Not yet. Because you can't. There's a war going on, Charlotte. For as suffocating as that world is, you have a warm home with warm meals and parents that believe it or not think they are doing what is best for you. You have far more than most people can say. That doesn't mean it's the life for you, but I'd caution you against writing it off completely."

 

The game of mental tennis the two women played finally came to a pause. "I'm not...that's why I'm going back. And I'm endlessly thankful for your hospitality and—"

 

"You are my niece and I love you...even if I think your father is an absolute nutter." They shared a smile. “I just needed to share those things so we can get them out of the way.” She paused again. "I'll send Rebecca up shortly,” she said, referring to the home’s maid. “She can help you get changed."

 

"Oh, no, I—”

 

Lillian was amused, if anything. "Have you ever dressed yourself, Charlotte?"

 

"Well...yes."

 

Lillian could only nod. There was clearly a challenge going on, one that existed between Charlotte and the woman she was trying to be. If her niece was planning on struggling through her stay, it was of no importance to her. She could offer help, but only quietly cheer on Charlotte’s growth, assuming she’d give in to her comfort zone eventually.

 

With her aunt gone, Charlotte closed the door. Her hat was taken off and her shoes kicked toward the armoire. Even stepping out of her gown was relatively easy, that is, easier than the steps that followed: unpinning her petticoat and unthreading the ties of her corset. Even her shift was too fancy, and as she removed the item and replaced it with a much more simple version, she wondered why she insisted on dressing this way in the first place. It certainly did not make the journey a more comfortable one.

 

All of the items she took off were put back on. The gold of her gown was replaced with a grey-blue and she somehow managed to manipulate her stay to perform the same function of her corset. It was too warm for a neck kerchief so she lost that, replacing it with a wool shawl she tucked into her rucksack. Her jewel-toned heels were traded in for simple leather boots, ones that many days of riding had helped her to break in.

 

The only thing Charlotte didn’t touch was her hair. Yes, she had dressed herself before but it wasn’t without the help of a housemaid, the same one who would pin her curls back or braid her locks into plaits. Her new bedroom was currently littered with various items of clothing, reminding her that whatever she took off was now her responsibility to put away. That would be the case here but as she grabbed for her bag and headed toward the stairs she merely closed her door in her wake before clomping down the stairs.

 

Charlotte was so winded she didn’t notice her aunt, now sitting on a rocking chair at the end of the long porch. Lillian nearly laughed out loud as she took her niece in.

 

"Okay Charlotte, I have to ask...what are you up to, child?"

 

"Oh, I—"

 

"I'm not going to tell your mother.” Then she thought better of it: “Your father doesn't let me write so I don't think my attempts would be successful anyway."

 

"I'm going for a ride,” Charlotte gave simply.

 

Lillian could only smile. "Am I wrong to assume this will be the first ride of many?"

 

"Not wrong."

 

From here things became easier. While there was a bit of a learning curve getting her horse to trust her again, Charlotte made easy work of leaving town, heading toward the well marked road she’d been told about. It was easy to follow the river south again, and became all the more clear when she felt she was being followed. Casually she turned over her shoulder, pretending to adjust the straps of her saddle, but instead craning her neck to gather a glimpse of the fellow. She saw blue, and nothing else. It was a comfort to know her identity would not be found out, but regardless of loyalty, Charlotte’s singularity came into focus the more the sun began to set. Feeling uneasy, and also being immensely curious, she pulled off the path. Momentarily she enticed her mare with a branch of low-lying poplar. The purebred was soon pulled from that same task as her follower passed by, prompting Charlotte to hop back onto the path, essentially spooking both their horses.

 

“Are you following me?” she spat.

 

He was barely past her and already she recognized his form. While his horse was a clue, Ben’s starched uniform and chiseled chin did much more to give him away. The smirk he wore in dismissal of Charlotte’s accusation was also particularly telling. “What?”

 

“Are you—”

 

“No!”

 

“So you’re not following me? You haven’t been following me since I left home?”

 

“What? Absolutely not!”

 

“You just…” Her voice trailed off into nothingness as she looked him over once more. “Happened to be this far north?”

 

“Far? We’re barely a mile from where I need to be.”

 

“Camp?”

 

Ben paused. “Excuse me?”

 

“I’m going to camp.”

 

“My camp?”

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “General Washington’s camp, sure.” She sat up straight, pulling on her horse’s reins to bring her back to a trot.

 

With no other choice, Ben followed, thankful that the girl knew where it was they were both meant to be. “Are you…”

 

“Has he not told you?” she asked, tossing the question over her shoulder with little regard to whether or not Ben was still listening, much less close enough to hear her.

 

“No, he has, I just—”

 

“If it’s any consolation, Benjamin, I don’t trust you either.”

 

~!~

 

“He went where?”

 

“For a ride.”

 

“A ride?”

 

Anna looked to Caleb, momentarily releasing the grip her teeth had on the nail of her thumb. She nervously bit at the surrounding skin while watching the path that split the camp in two. Ben had requested a meeting with them this morning and yet he was nowhere to be found.

 

“I dunno, Anna. He said he was leavin’ so I let him leave. I’m not his Ma. Not his Pa either. Didn’t know I should have been stopping him—”

 

“You shouldn’t be, I just find it odd that he took his horse and left.”

 

“You think he’s deserting?” Caleb asked, immediately earning himself a soft punch to the shoulder while Anna did her best to conceal an amused smirk.

 

“No, I just think—”

 

“There he is!” Caleb said rather loudly as Ben began walking toward them.

 

In front of the Major, however, was a girl the pair of friends had never seen before, with hair and a dress that would barely make it a full day in this very camp. The two walked rather close and yet a clear distance appeared between them. As they neared Anna and Caleb, the speed at which they moved was all the more apparent. It was almost as if they were racing — or rather, Ben was doing his best to out-walk this girl to their destination while she gave a slow eyeroll in response showing her obvious disinterest.

 

When they finally approached, Anna straightened up off the wall she was previously leaning on. Caleb somehow became more comfortable, especially as he looked the girl up and down.

 

“Whoa, mate! Who killed your cat?”

 

Ben was nearly winded. “What?”

 

Anna wanted to roll her eyes too. “You’re...are you going to introduce us?”

 

“Introdu…” He then turned to see Charlotte standing behind him. “Oh, sure…” Again Charlotte looked away.  “This is Charlotte.”

 

Anna could only smile. “Hi...Anna,” she gave.

 

Charlotte smiled too.

 

“Caleb?” Anna asked, looking to her friend.

 

“Oh! Caleb!” he shared enthusiastically.

 

“Charlotte, I’d say that Ben told us you’d be joining us but then I’d be lying to you.”

 

“I...I certainly told you she’d be here.”

 

“No Benny Boy, you most certainly did not,” Caleb stated.

 

Ben paused. “Well she’s here now.” He stepped forward, entering his own tent with the expectation that everyone would follow. Anna did, but Caleb waited, dramatically extending his hand to insist that Charlotte go first. It had been weeks since he’d seen a girl he did not know and he was overly ecstatic to even be in her company. He was also entertained by his best friend’s convenient forgetfulness.

 

Ben did not sit. Instead he paced, waiting for the others to sit (or in Caleb’s case: lean against a nearby bench) before he could finally still himself.

 

“Benjamin, did you want to tell them why I’m here or should I?”

 

When his answer did not come quickly, Charlotte inhaled and sat forward. “My father is a Tory. I am not—”

 

“Well I’d hope not,” Caleb joked.

 

“Mr...General Washington,” Charlotte corrected, “is an old friend. Benjamin doesn’t think I’m needed but he does.” She briefly glanced to Ben in anticipation of an argument. When none came she continued.

 

“Needed...for what exactly?” Anna questioned.

 

“My father’s more than a tory, I suppose. He works for the shipping council. Well, he is the shipping council. He heads it. He works directly with the generals—”

 

“He’s a general?”

 

“No, he’s a barrister,” Charlotte shook off.

 

Ben interrupted her laughter. “Charlotte believes her knowledge of British trade and the movement of ships and goods will aid us—”

 

“Because it will,” Anna agreed strongly. “Why wouldn’t it?”

 

“I just think—”

 

“Benjamin doesn’t trust me,” Charlotte announced rather proudly.

 

“That’s a conclusion you’re drawing.”

 

Charlotte turned on her chair to get a better look at him. “Pardon? General Washington told me that. I have it in a letter if—”

 

“No one wants to see your letter,” Ben droned.

 

“Ben?” Anna asked, causing her friend to immediately glance her way. “You’re being rude.”

 

Caleb chuckled, causing Ben to look away. His cheeks rouged as Charlotte’s attention went back to the table she sat at, almost feeling guilty for embarrassing him in front of his friends.

 

“It’s no matter,” she said quickly. “I have nothing to prove but I’m hoping that everyone will agree that what I have to share is of great use to this army.”

 

None of them said anything. Instead their attention shifted to Ben, forcing the Major to finally look back to them. “We’ll see,” he shrugged off. Almost immediately he headed for the door.

 

~!~

 

“Who’s the girl?” Caleb didn’t look to his best friend while he saddled his horse. Instead he moved his hands along the soft leather, threading and pulling it into its perspective loops until the bridle was comfortably situated upon the mare’s head. It was only when Ben said nothing that Caleb looked over. “Ben?”

 

“What girl?” Caleb’s face prompted more words so Ben continued. “Charlotte?”

 

“Who else?”

 

“Well you’ve met Charlotte now so I didn’t think—”

 

“Yeah, and it seems you have too.”

 

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Of course I’ve met her.”

 

“Where?”

 

“We…” His voice trailed off as Anna pushed past them into the open-flapped tent, carrying with her a basket of freshly pressed laundry. She paid the boys no attention but they knew she was listening and though Caleb did not care, Ben was even more hesitant than before. He took another step into his best friend. “Washington’s party a few days ago.”

 

“Back in May? That was hardly days ago, Tallboy. Weeks, maybe…”

 

“Well it doesn’t matter much.”

 

"Hey Anna!” Caleb called out. Ben dropped his face behind his hand, running his fingers against his temples as if to dismiss a pain — that pain being his best friend’s constant embarrassment.

 

Anna set down her basket and walked quickly toward her friends. Already her hands were on her hips as if to automatically put herself on the defensive. “Yeah?”

 

“I think Ben here has been taking tasks of his own. Crossing enemy lines."

 

Anna’s brow furrowed. “Enemy?”

 

“Charlotte.”

 

"She's not the enemy,” she returned matter of factly.

 

"She knows the enemy,” Ben finally interjected.

 

“She lives with the enemy,” Caleb added, playing devil’s advocate.

 

Anna’s hands moved to cross her chest. “Well then?” she prodded, leaning into Ben.

 

"I...she came to one of Washington's gatherings. We danced.” There was a pause. “Once,” he sighed. “She had no choice in it. Mrs. Washington introduced us and I think Charlotte was uncomfortable so I didn't try to make it into something it wasn't."

 

"It was just a dance, right?"

 

"I thought so."

 

"Well I think you thought right.” Anna moved to walk away but she was soon back again, needing to reveal the remainder of her opinion. “And I think she seems quite lovely, to be honest."

 

Ben rolled his eyes. "You're just happy you're no longer the only girl around here."

 

"Give me some credit, would you?" Anna spat back.

 

"She's lovely on the eyes, that's for certain..."

 

She rolled her eyes. "The both of you are hopeless."

 

"Me?” Ben asked with a finger pointed inward. “What did I do?"

 

"You're acting like a child!” Anna explained. “We have no reason not to trust her!"

 

"She comes from a Tory family!” Ben gave. “Her father is extremely prominent in both York City and Philadelphia and all of Virginia—"

 

"And she's taking steps to defy him if it aids in our efforts,” Anna reminded, with an outstretched hand for proof.

 

"I don't see how that's anything but suspicious."

 

Anna’s hands were back on her hips, “Is it so incredible to believe that maybe a woman knows her own mind? Shouldn't we be commending her for her bravery?"

 

"Anna's right, Benny boy. This puts her directly in the line of fire. If she's caught, she's hung for treason and she disgraces her entire family. If she's lying to us she also gets hung. I'd say if she's willing to do this, she must really believe in it."

 

"You'd think you'd sympathize,” Anna admonished. “Your passion has finally met its match."

 

"And she's got a fine backside on'er..."

 

Anna’s eyes widened. "Caleb, that is enough!"

 

He could only laugh. "I'm tryin’ to lighten the mood. Ben here can't seem to relax lately."

 

“Relax?” Ben asked, incensed.

 

Caleb nodded. “Yeah, ever heard uh’ it?”

 

“We are losing, Caleb!”

 

“Losing? Like fuck we are! We’re in the thick of it sure, but the only one who’s losing is you, Ben. Or rather, you’ve lost it.”

 

”There are things the two of you don’t know...can’t know! Things I don’t want to know but I do and they weigh heavy on me because I can’t share them. Do not let any of these little victories convince you...the Tories are absolutely advancing. The winter has wiped us all but clean and now we’re down far too many men and they're likely to take back Connecticut. Setauket is nearly under siege again and I can't be there to fix it—"

 

"You're not the only one in this army, Ben,” Anna reminded. Her voice was soft but there was hurt beneath it all.

 

"And you're not the only one at this camp who has family back in Setauket,” Caleb agreed. His disgust was a bit more present.

 

"I'm sorry..."

 

"I'm a bit disappointed in you,” Anna continued.

 

Ben released a nervous chuckle. "That's comforting."

 

"I'm not here to comfort you, Ben. Not now. You're my friend and I love you but sometimes you're a right pain in the arse. All of this is bigger than you and if you don't step back and realize that, we could lose it all."

 

~!~

 

After their argument Caleb went on an errand, first taking his horse up and down the coast line then through some of the lesser known paths leading in and out of camp. He looked far more casual than any of the uniformed men and was exceedingly talented when it came to the weapons he carried. It also helped him to escape it all, and often he’d find a nice stretch of grassy land along the shoreline where he could have a swig of bourbon and pass out beneath the rising sun. It was his way of pretending, the only way he could get it all to quiet down inside of his mind. Like Ben, he felt the pressure as the days went on, but he was doing his best to have faith in their plans, even if it meant more downtime at camp.

 

Caleb was entertained by Charlotte, and for more than just her looks. He enjoyed watching her challenge his best friend and although their interaction was brief there was a substantial amount of respect in listening to her talk and state her case without fear. He was not given the chance to take a side in this war, though it was worth noting the side he stood on was the side he’d choose anyway. Charlotte was many things but she was brave and Caleb assumed she’d be around for many more days so he could figure out the rest.

 

This was the exact reason that, upon arriving back to camp and seeing Charlotte speaking with an officer he was sure she did not know, he approached and gave a sympathetic smile. one that apologized for the interruption but also asked if she wished to now join him.

 

Charlotte complied, giving a bow before exiting the conversation, all while still wearing a bright grin.

 

“Who’s that?”

 

Charlotte looked back to the man. “His name’s Jonah. His wife’s staying with family in York City. He knows my aunt.”

 

“You should—”

 

“Be careful? Well I would but the aunt he knows is a Patriot. A well known one, too.”

 

“Who does he think you are?”

 

“Your cousin.”

 

“Oh yeah?” Caleb asked with a laugh.

 

“I hope that’s okay. It’s embarrassing but I hadn’t planned that part. I didn’t think anyone would ask...I didn’t think anyone would notice me and if they did I certainly didn’t think they’d care.”

 

“Well you're new,” Caleb pointed out simply. “They always notice newcombers. You’re also a lass, an’ a pretty one, at that. I hope you don’t mind me sayin’ that but—”

 

“It’s fine. I see now I probably should have opted for a more simple dress.”

 

“You have those?”

 

“I have those,” she confirmed. Then: “One. I have one.” Caleb let out a loud laugh. “But I’m not above getting dirty.”

 

“I’d hope not. You won’t have much of a choice around here.”

 

“I’ve noticed.”

 

“Well, uh, listen, I just wanted tuh...I’m sorry for Ben’s behavior,” he tried. It was the original intention of starting this conversation but he wasn’t expecting Charlotte to speak so freely with him. She continued to shock him, most recently with her keen self-awareness.

 

"Do you mean to tell me he's not always this rotten?"

 

"Benny boy's far from rotten you've just caught him on an off day…” His voice trailed off. “Week…month?" he ended, almost in suggestion.

 

Charlotte giggled. "That bad?"

 

"War changes people, I guess."

 

"Is he that different?"

 

"At his core? Nah."

 

"Well I don't know what he thinks of me but—"

 

"He hasn't said anythin’,” Caleb confirmed. “But that's not sayin’ much. He gets real quiet sometimes. Always has."

 

"How long have you two known one another?"

 

"Since we were kids. Five or six maybe. It was the four of us raising hell in Setauket."

 

"Anna too?"

 

"Anna too."

 

Charlotte looked up ahead to where Anna and Ben stood together sharing a laugh of their own. Anna put her hand on Ben’s shoulder while the two continued talking as they now disappeared into what Charlotte could only assume was the girl’s tent. "She's...I have a lot of respect for her. The sacrifices she's made..."

 

"Yeah, she's certainly a tough one. If it helps, she quite likes you. An’ it'll be good for you t’ have a female ally here. People talk..."

 

Charlotte picked her head up. "What?"

 

"Well, I mean...when Anna first arrived they had a lot t’ say about her relationship with Ben."

 

"And not with her relationship with you?"

 

"I come and go a lot. And she's not constantly going in an’ out uh’ my tent."

 

"What is their relationship then?"

 

"Friends. She's smarter than that.” He paused. “At least when it comes to him."

 

"But she's married, isn't she?"

 

"Yeah...uh...kind of."

 

Charlotte almost stopped walking. She wasn’t quite sure whether she should laugh or dismiss his humor as unkind. "Kind of?"

 

"It's complicated. But all of you women are complicated."

 

"I take offense to that," She bit back. Even so, they shared a smile and continued to walk.

 

"All I'm saying is that I'd advise against it...the whole relationship thing. I've never been the courtin’ type but from the looks of it it's all a bit messy for me."

 

"Is Ben..."

 

"Huh?" They were at the tent now, causing their feet to still and their conversation to halt. "Here it is." Caleb gestured. He also moved forward to grab for the flap and pull it back.

 

Charlotte gave him one last smile, but as she stepped in, Ben was stepping out and the two nearly collided. Her hands went to his arms in response as she did her best to steady her feet. "Oh...hi."

 

Ben looked more annoyed than anything else but his features softened when he saw Caleb. "Yeah, hi..."

 

Caleb clapped at Ben’s back, bringing Charlotte and him out of their shared moment with the single sound of a snap. Charlotte could only exhale, all before pushing into the tent.

 

Immediately Anna was looking to her. Charlotte was unsure of what Anna had seen but she seemed apologetic all the same. She genuinely wasn’t trying to spoil Ben’s mood and it was clear that’s what her presence had done. Such a thing was far more fun when it was just the two of them spinning around in a ballroom of strangers.

 

"That's not...we're not. I know what that looked like but this is all...it's business."

 

"You and Ben?” Charlotte asked, thankful for the distraction. “It is business...as in none of my business."

 

"People talk..."

 

"Caleb informed me. I wasn't aware that men and women couldn't be friends."

 

"Neither was I," Anna smiled forcibly. "All of my friends are boys but I never really had much of a choice. I get it, I suppose. Washington is very against commoners traveling with the army but he's made exceptions. An additional exception has been made for me. I can go where I please, when I please. I have to if I’m going to be effective."

 

Charlotte was on the cot opposite Anna’s now. She sat stiffly against the firm mattress, but then quickly began to wonder if she was wrong in assuming the place was created for her. To dismiss her own doubt and resume her ever-present confidence, she corrected her posture. "I am inexplicably jealous of that freedom."

 

"Last I checked you had the same freedom."

 

"I do when I'm here. But when I'm back in York City..."

 

Anna pursed her lips in half-apology. "Yes, well, an independent woman scares most people, I think."

 

"I'm not scared by it."

 

"I wouldn't expect you to be."

 

"No?"

 

"The only people I don't scare are other independent women and unfortunately they are few and far between."

 

"But the war has done amazing things for women's rights,” Charlotte noted in soft argument.

 

"It's given some of us an opportunity to step up, sure, but I think war also makes people cling to one another."

 

"Oh?"

 

Anna chuckled as she looked away, placing the last of her things into a nearby rucksack. "I'm assuming you don't talk about these things on your side of town."

 

"Um, no, not exactly."

 

Anna waited for an elaboration, but when none came, she instead passed a quilt she had at the end of her bed. "When's the last time you slept in a tent, Charlotte?"Charlotte paused, causing Anna to nearly laugh. "I figured as much...you're going to need that."

 

“Oh, I—”

 

Anna closed her eyes to dismiss her assumption. “I apologize. We thought you’d sleep in here but if you need—”

 

“I don’t need to be catered to,” Charlotte negated instantly. “I just...I can’t spend the night here. Wish I could,” she admitted with a small shrug in afterthought. “I have appearances to keep up with. My aunt trusts me but even she’d put her foot down if she knew I was sleeping elsewhere.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, I—”

 

“I’d like to tell her what I’m doing but Mr...General Washington has forbid it. He’s worried for her safety just as he is for mine. I just think it’d make things easier.”

 

“Yes, well Ben tells me your aunt has done some favors for the camp, so we are thankful. I wouldn’t want you to take advantage of that.”

 

“Or for her to think your lot is taking it all for granted?”

 

“Our lot?” Anna asked. “We’re your lot now, I reckon.”

 

Charlotte smirked. It was one thing to be sociable and another to feel as if you belonged, and to be able to act as if that were the case merely because it was. “Yes, I reckon that’s correct, isn’t it?” There was naive hope in her voice that Charlotte hoped Anna did not hear.

Chapter Text

It was always accidental but already Charlotte had almost told her aunt of the true intentions behind her stay upstate. This had happened three separate times now, forcing Charlotte to accept that her need to inform Lillian was likely more out of her need for a friend, than for her need to share such a coveted secret. Since Michael’s leaving, Charlotte had no one to turn to, and in York City it was unlikely she’d find anyone with values that aligned with her own enough to start a conversation, much less call them a true ally.

 

Though she did come and go quite often, Lillian never asked where it was Charlotte was heading off to. After her original inquiry was met with a vague, altogether unhelpful answer, she gave up. When Charlotte returned each time this became even easier. Lillian saw a lot of herself in the teenager and for a reason she could not yet disclose, she trusted her niece and vowed to continue to do so until Charlotte gave her a reason not to.

 

Charlotte was not around much, but when she was she did her best to display her appreciation by helping Rebecca with dinner, or hanging the clothes on the line after they’d been washed. Charlotte also took this time to learn how to perform each of these domestic tasks on her own. She had never soaked one of her slips in a pot of water, much less followed the garment through each stage of washing. Charlotte had never held a paring knife before or even washed a cucumber or squash. There was so much she was capable of, and beyond all of the intelligence she was gathering, Charlotte was proud of herself for finally taking advantage of all the world had to offer her. Her time with her Aunt Lillian was liberating for many reasons, with the most exciting being that perhaps she wouldn’t have to live under a man’s thumb — whether it be her father’s or her husband’s — for the rest of her life.

 

When Charlotte left for camp one Monday morning she carried in her bag a jar of sun tea and a bag of molasses cookies, both of which she helped to prepare. Rebecca knew better than to ask who Charlotte was sharing the food with, but gave in to laughter should the girl explain that she intended to consume everything by herself. Rebecca was learning what Lillian knew all along: nothing could be put past Charlotte. She was far from the girl her parents wanted her to be, not docile or modest but opinionated and headstrong and brave in sharing those opinions.

 

Charlotte likely wasn’t aware of the quiet chaos contained in her form, just as she was likely ignorant to the stares she received when she rode on to camp each day. It had been nearly two weeks since she’d last visited and many soldiers stared at her as if they’d missed her presence or were just as stunned to see her as they were the first time she arrived. Today she’d tied her hair back with a piece of lace and she wore only a white blouse with her grey petticoat. She felt plain and assumed she looked the same, but perhaps what Caleb said was true and she’d be a spectacle for many weeks until the newness of her appearance wore off.

 

She hadn’t even dismounted her horse and already she was met with a voice, and a hand, reaching out to help her down. “Here,” Ben offered, even going as far as to tie Charlotte’s horse to a nearby tree.

 

She forced a smile then looked away. “Thank you.” Charlotte only made it two more steps before she realized Ben was still behind her. Sensing this, she turned on her heel nearly causing them to collide. “Why are you always following me?”

 

Ben laughed in a way that made her question sound ridiculous. “Following you? I live here,” he emphasized.

 

“And it’s a large camp.”

 

“Exactly. So when I saw you ride in I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to greet you. You are a guest, after all.”

 

“I’m hardly a guest, Benjamin. And if your goal is to keep me hidden from everyone else, you’re not doing the best job. They may stare at me but they stare at you too.”

 

“Do they?”

 

“Of course they do! You’re a Major! When they’re not in battle, watching you is the next best thing.”

 

“Next to seeing a pretty girl at camp?”

 

Charlotte went to speak but all that came out was a loud laugh. She covered her mouth quickly before finally composing herself and turning back to him. “I think there was a compliment in there somewhere so—”

 

“No, I just…”

 

“You are beyond odd, Benjamin. And if you want to tell yourself that is why these men stare at me then that is fine. If you want to live in a world where you downplay your accomplishments then that is fine as well. I don’t like when people dictate my life so I certainly won’t be dictating yours.”

 

He was silent, causing Charlotte to sigh again, then shift as if to show her intention to walk away. But there was a tug, something that had her yearning for a rebuttal and then aching when none came, causing her to remain for just a moment longer. “Is that it then? You’re not following me?”

 

“No, I’m not following you. Wasn’t following you the other day, either, I just—”

 

“I have to speak with Mr. Washington,” Charlotte stated plainly. “Is that okay? Or will you be joining me for that as well?”

 

Ben rolled his lips inward as if to stop himself from speaking. He then gestured forward, outstretching his hand toward the entrance to Washington’s temporary home. “As you were.”

 

Charlotte could only nod, and as she took a rather pronounced step forward she let out another laugh, forever entertained by Ben’s displaced charm. The man she met was not the same one she’d heard so much about and she spent many nights awake wondering whether that was her fault or his.

 

In the foyer of the home Charlotte watched a servant pass to head outside with another going upstairs with fresh linens in her hands. She could smell dinner being prepared in the kitchen down the hall and laughter could be heard from a backroom off the West-side of the home. To the East, General Washington sat at his desk, thumbing through plans. He looked up and smiled at her, never showing his teeth but brightening his eyes to display his delight at seeing her before him. Charlotte was a little piece of home; a reminder that the house at which he slept in each night was not his home and that someday he’d hopefully be back in Virginia with Martha.

 

“Charlotte,” he began, not needing much else to procure a similar response from the girl.

 

She beamed. “Hello, sir.”

 

"You don't have to call me sir, Charlotte. This is just like—"

 

"I don't want them thinking any differently of me,” she nearly mumbled.

 

Washington smirked. "Them?"

 

"Anna, Caleb...Benjamin," she revealed hesitantly.

 

"Why? Because we've known one another for many years? They've also known one another for many years and I don't think any differently of them."

 

"Right..." She looked down, wondering how her confidence constantly dwindled when she was in his presence. She was no longer the bold woman Ben was talking to just moments before but a scared child, unsure of her place in the world much less this continental camp.

 

"Is everything okay, Charlotte? If you're having second thoughts—"

 

"No!" Her head shot up and her eyes widened; even she was surprised by her voice's own projection. "No, I...I know you're already overwhelmed with all of these plans but I was wondering if you heard anything about Michael?"

 

George pursed his lips. "No, I have not."

 

"Oh...okay."

 

He sighed, setting down his documents and then sitting forward to give her more of his attention. "It's very difficult getting mail down the coast these days. We've had four couriers ambushed in just the past three weeks. We're finding ways around everything but it's taking us time."

 

"Of course..."

 

"Please don't give up, Charlotte. No word is sometimes a good thing."

 

"Right...sure." Unlike her discussion with Ben, Charlotte knew it is not her place to want to continue this conversation but similarly she found it difficult to walk away. Before she could, she turned to him once more. "Please don't...I know everyone knows I have someone I need to find but I also know they don't trust my intentions and I can't have them thinking that Michael is my main motivation."

 

"They?"

 

"Yes, they. All of them." Washington raised his brows in challenge. "Though Benjamin is exceptionally judgemental,” she gave in response.

 

"Oh, is he?"

 

"He is! Isn't he this way with you?"

 

The General chuckled. "I'd hate to ruin the mystery but I believe Ben's only that way with you."

 

"Why?"

 

"I don't think that matters much right now. Ben has done wonderful things for this army and our country but even I can admit it's nice to see someone challenge him in the way you do. It has him on his toes and I can't have him getting comfortable so I appreciate the help."

 

"You're welcome," she laughed breathily.

 

"Listen...I admire and respect Major Tallmadge’s opinion but I don't think he'd dare judge me. If he does, I don't hear about it. You'll find that when you're put in a position of power, you have to drown all of that out...which is what I'd suggest you do. I think you're giving all of this far too much thought. You'll head out tomorrow and if you feel uncomfortable at any point, we can end all of this."

 

"No, I...I can do this."

 

"I know you can,” George returned just as easily, “so I don't expect it to come to that. I truly believe you can be essential to this group, Charlotte, but I need you to believe it too. In a way you have a bit more to risk than the rest of them. If you get caught, you've not only committed treason but you've disgraced your family as well."

 

"I appreciate the reminder,” she gave lowly, earning herself another knowing smile from the General.

 

"I need you on your toes as well."

 

Charlotte was forcing another smile and she wore it as she exited the home. Ben was not there when she entered but he was there now, moving, showing her he had kept his promise to give her space, if only momentarily. When he saw her brush past him, he caught the way her head was down, and her eyes, now red and dull, averted his gaze. There wasn’t enough time for Ben to process this drastic change in her. All he could manage was a questioning glance before disappearing into Washington’s office.

 

"What's her problem?" Ben asked, pointing his finger out the door, all while wearing an amused grin.

 

Washington did not even look up from his work. "Leave her alone, Ben."

 

"Oh, I'm not...well is she alright?"

 

"She is. She'll figure it out. She always does...she always has.” It was this final thought that had George placing his quill back in its ink. “The girl's far stronger than you can imagine. You'd know this if you gave her a chance."

 

"Right, well...I know you wanted to have a meeting but Hamilton is tied up in Albany so I was thinking I'd patrol."

 

"Patrol?" His eyebrows raised in question.

 

"Or just take a walk."

 

"A walk? Are you asking for my permission, or..."

 

"Oh, no sir, I just—"

 

"Take your walk, Tallmadge,” Washington offered, already returning to his work. He didn’t even look up to deliver his final instruction. “Just be careful." If he had, he would have seen Ben already heading out the door, walking in the same direction Charlotte had upon her exit.

 

~!~

 

"Charlotte?"

 

From her position on the bank of the river, Charlotte looked over her shoulder to Ben, her lips barely moving and with eyes that squinted to block out the sun. In her lap her knees provided a table for the book she read - one thickly bound that Ben knew well.

 

"I didn't know you were religious,” he said simply, his hand pointing toward the bible while he took a seat next to her.

 

She shrugged and looked away. "I don't know if I am."

 

"No?"

 

"They're just stories..." she tried to explain innocently.

 

"My, uh, my father's a minister..."

 

Charlotte looked back to him. "Oh...I'm...I'm sorry, I didn't—"

 

Ben chuckled. "I'm not a minister. My father is," he repeated again.

 

She was thankful for his current sense of humor, wondering how in their solitary company he seemed to changed from the man she’d known thus far. "Maybe I should be asking you if you're religious."

 

"Yes, I'd say I am."

 

She smirked. "Are you sure about that?"

 

"I used to be very religious."

 

"And now?"

 

Ben sighed. "I don't know what to believe...I don't know if I believe in much of anything anymore."

 

“You won't be able to hide behind all of this forever, you know."

 

Ben looked up. "Excuse me?"

 

"The war will end someday and you'll finally have to address all of these questions you've been avoiding."

 

"What questions?"

 

"This can't be your life, Benjamin."

 

"It's been the most important part of my life so far."

 

"Well I'd think it a bit sad if this was the best part of it all."

 

He laughed, this time in disbelief.  "No?"

 

He was interested in Charlotte’s bold assessment but also surprised to hear it delivered with so much conviction. Ben had felt incredibly self-aware before she came into his life and now she had him doubting all he had ever known, not just within these few moments but in all the days since he’d first met her.

 

"I think you've brave. I think what you do is brilliant and I think you deserve all the praise for it. You'll be a war hero...if you make it that long,” she added in mirth-coated afterthought.

 

"Ghee, thanks."

 

"You'll make it. You have to.” She looked out to the river again. “I need to see you go on to do other things so I can be right."

 

Ben looked out too. This time he wore a smile on his face, one that matched her own. "You'll say you're right either way."

 

"Of course I'm right."

 

Ben nodded. "Who's...what does your father do?" he tried, not wanting the conversation to trail off into nothingness.

 

Charlotte let out a laugh in disbelief. "You know what my father does."

 

"Beyond all of that. I told you about my father and now I’m asking about yours.”

 

“Alright then. He’s a solicitor. I used to think his work was boring and I think he did too. Now it’s changed his life...ruined it, in my opinion.”

 

“Did you ever agree with him?"

 

“Agree with him?”

 

“Were you loyal to the King?”

 

Charlotte smirked. “Well you think I’m currently loyal to the King—”

 

“I didn’t…”

 

Charlotte’s lips pursed into a smile once more. "I think I agreed with my father in the way all children agree with their parents. I did until I didn't. I don't think children know such a thing is possible until their minds are made up and they have no choice in it either way."

 

"Maybe that's why I used to think I was religious,” Ben conceded.

 

"No, I think you just used to be religious. I'd even say you still are."

 

"I haven't touched my bible in weeks."

 

"I don't know if that has much to do with it all."

 

"I've..."

 

Charlotte's wonder turned into a curious smile. "What?" she practically whispered. With Ben she felt their time together was constantly on the precipice of intimate secrecy.

 

"It's hard to believe in all of that when you've seen what I've seen."

 

"Then why would you want to let this period define you?"

 

"It seems you have big plans for me, Charlotte."

 

"I can't speak to your plans. And I certainly haven't seen what you've seen. But believing it will all get better is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I'm just sick of all of the uncertainty, you know? And the violence..."

 

"I don't know if an army camp is the place for you."

 

A gust of wind blew by, bringing with it a moment of clarity, reminding her of her original mission. Charlotte stood up and brushed off her dress. "Sure it is. I understand sacrifice. If I could be out there with you, I would be."

 

"You're helping in other ways."

 

"But do you ever feel helpless? Like you wish there was so much more you could be doing?"

 

"Everyday."

 

She was ready to walk away but she stopped now, needing an elaboration or maybe even waiting for Ben to correct himself.

 

He could only grin. "Did you expect a different answer? You asked..."

 

"I don't know what to expect from you, Benjamin,” she expelled with a concentrated sigh. “I try not to expect too much from anyone, really.” Then: “And I think it'd be best if you don't expect anything from me either."

 

Ben could only watch Charlotte go. With her by his side it was easy for him to sit and feel the world stilling around him; this was the first time he’d relaxed all day and now with her gone he felt a tightening in his chest, like a pull back to camp that demanded he do more. He was drawn to her and amused by the version of the man she asked him to be. As Ben watched Charlotte disappear down the path he wondered if she’d want him to be this man again the next time the two were alone together or if he’d just lost his only chance.

Chapter Text

There was no further discussion or reference made to the conversation between Ben and Charlotte on the bank of the River. The incident was overlooked, and while both participants found themselves constantly thinking of it, neither shared anything with anyone else. The moment was so heavily ignored it may as well have failed to exist at all.

 

Charlotte had only visited camp one day since then and now, after two weeks of absence, she brought with her more evidence of her growing domestic proclivities - this time a pot of hot tea and a plate of scones. As she unwrapped the treats, an already-stunned Caleb and Anna were equally surprised to see she’d brought lemon curd with her as well.

 

“What’s that look for?” she asked innocently, almost as if she didn’t know how rare this meal was. There was more sugar on the platter than either of them had eaten in the past month. Her smile faltered. “Have you eaten already?”

 

Caleb unapologetically grabbed for a scone and in forgoing the lemon curd, bit right into it, pushing crumbs into his beard as he continued to chew. Anna grabbed one too but she took her time spreading the lemon curd, just enjoying the smell of something warm.

 

“Benjamin?” Charlotte offered. She sat beside Anna but pushed the plate in the Major’s direction. With it gone she was free to begin pouring tea for everyone. Even that was still hot and though she didn’t have any sugar with her, it tasted just as delicious.

 

“Tea?” she tried again.

 

Ben looked to her, grumbled, and then turned away, bringing with him the book he was reading. Anna and Caleb were still lost in their meal to criticize his ever-present sour mood.

 

As Caleb reached forward for another scone, Ben put down his book and sat forward. “Did you make these?”

 

Charlotte grinned proudly. “Of course I did.”

 

Ben nodded and sat back once more. “Of course you did.”

 

Caleb gave his best friend a side-glance in reprimand and Anna could only roll her eyes. “Are these from this morning?”

 

“From the party?” Charlotte asked, referring to the tea hour she’d written to Anna about nearly a week ago. “No. We had cake. There wasn’t any left by the time I headed out of the city or else I would have brought some with me.”

 

“How was it?”

 

“The cake?”

 

Anna shook her head and laughed. “Well, yes. But the party,” she explained.

 

“Oh, it was…” Charlotte looked away. At the end of the table, Caleb and Ben were now lost in their own conversation so Charlotte used the time to share some gossip with Anna. Caleb must have also thought this too for as he continued to talk to Ben, he soon found his best friend’s glance was completely lost toward the other side of the table.

 

“I don’t remember much of it.”

 

Anna laughed again. “You don’t remember much?”

 

“I block it all out!” she giggled. “It’s just people talking at you and after awhile I stop listening. The cake was good,” she shrugged, “but I could have done without all the people.”

 

“Who went?”

 

“General’s wives, mostly. But a few men around my age. Their sons. Nephews...”

 

“British?”

 

“Some of them.” She paused. “Most of them,” she corrected. “That’s another thing...I can’t stand the accents.”

 

“Truly?”

 

“Truly!” she returned with mirth. “But they’re kind, I suppose. Very well-mannered,” she added. “They’re strict with those boys, you know. Some of them are downright rotten but they’re all taught to carry themselves a certain way.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“They already think they’re better than us so it’s important for the Generals to encourage each regiment to act that way as well. But then these boys get fanciful. The British ones are the worst.”

 

"How so?" Ben asked as he sat forward, inviting himself into the conversation. He seemed to be the only one not surprised to hear his voice.

 

"Most of them think they won't see battle,” Charlotte answered easily. “I actually had an officer tell me he was here to find a wife."

 

"Ha!" Caleb let out.

 

"Well some of them are serious about it."

 

Ben’s brow furrowed. “So you’re defending them?"

 

Charlotte gave a similar look in return, her eyes studying him as if trying to find the boy she’d spoken with last week. "I can belong to a side while not completely writing off the other. If we're going to beat the enemy we first need to understand them. Excuse my assumption but I'd say if anyone can dissect their mentality, it'd be me. They don't think the way we do."

 

"That's clear,” Ben scoffed.

 

"But some of them don't have a choice,” she returned quickly. “Just like some of the men here don't have a choice."

 

"What does that mean?"

 

"It means not everyone is like you. Most of these boys know they'll never be officers, much less majors and they feel like pawns in this game they didn't ask to play."

 

"Are you referring to your side or mine?"

 

"Well last time I checked, Benjamin , you and I were on the same side."

 

Anna sat forward and pressed her hand to the table. "Ben, enough..."

 

Charlotte continued as if she and Ben were the only two in the tent. "All I'm saying is that you can believe in something and want it badly and still not want to die on a battlefield to prove it. A lot of these boys are a lot younger than you—"

 

"Why am I the point of reference?"

 

"Because I'm currently speaking with you ," she emphasized.

 

"Charlotte, please keep your voice down,” Anna begged with a quiet voice for example.

 

"Why does everything have to be an argument with you?" she tossed back to Ben, clearly ignoring Anna’s plea. Caleb’s eyes widened at the sound and he sat back and propped his feet as if settling in for a fight.

 

"Because you say ridiculous things!"

 

"I'm being realistic! Honest!"

 

"The life you live is far from realistic! Going to parties and playing cards and—"

 

"And betraying my family for a cause I feel strongly about,” she reminded. Ben was silent for a moment so she continued. "If it were up to me, I'd be living at camp but that goes against what we're trying to do. Do you think I want to attend these parties?"

 

"I'd say having a bunch of tories tell you how nice you look in a dress is better than eating rations out here with us."

 

"Then you know nothing,” she spat.

 

"I know—"

 

"About me. You know nothing about me and it's very clear you don't care to learn which is perfectly fine. I can do this without you. I can report directly to General Washington."

 

Ben’s anger nearly brought him to his feet. "You absolutely cannot! I won't allow it!"

 

"Who's going to stop me? You?"

 

"It's counter productive for Washington to have to relay those messages back to his head of intelligence."

 

"But if all I'm doing is going to parties then I doubt I'd have much to report in the first place. That's what you think, isn't it?"

 

Ben was silent once more. It was during this pause that Caleb and Anna shared a smirk, knowing that there were few things, if any, that made Ben Tallmadge speechless.

 

"I heard what they said to you!” Charlotte continued, now almost breathless. “You can't win this war by yourself. Everyone has a role to play, Benjamin...let me play mine!"

 

“Charlotte—” Ben suddenly felt incredibly remorseful but it was clear his emotions arrived too late as already Charlotte was picking up her dress in an attempt to make her exit an easier one.

 

Her absence welcomed a new air around the group, while all three friends held their breath waiting for one another to speak first.

 

"Why do you have to do that?" Anna finally let out.

 

"Do what exactly?" Ben shot back. His ignorance was all too forced, especially with Charlotte gone. Perhaps if their argument had existed when the two were alone he would have given up the pretense but he now felt as if he had something to prove to his friends; as if he were still in confrontation even with Charlotte gone.

 

"She's right, Ben. Why’s everythin’ an argument?" Caleb added.

 

Ben sighed. "I still can't believe you two trust her."

 

"I still can't believe you don't!” Anna gave with far more energy. “It's been only a few weeks and she's already given us information that would have taken us months to compile. What more can she do?"

 

"Ben, Anna's right...you're gonna push ‘er away.”

 

“Exactly!” Anna tried, expelling with it a heavy exhale. “Don't push her to the other side out of spite."

 

"Well if she believes what she believes it shouldn't be that easy,” Ben observed innocently.

 

"None of this is easy, Ben!” Anna tossed out. “But she's human! All of us are human!" There was a pattern of exoduses as Anna also left with a huff.

 

Ben sighed and looked to Caleb as if unaware of why the two were currently sitting alone. "Am I—"

 

"You're being a right arse,” Caleb agreed, answering the question Ben had yet to ask. “A total miserable wanker."

 

"What?"

 

"You're not being honest with yourself, Tallboy."

 

"I think I'm being extremely honest."

 

"Yeah, that’s clear,” he chuckled. Caleb stood and reached down to clap at his best friend’s back. "When ya come to your senses, come find me."

 

As Caleb began to walk off, Ben turned to look to him. "Where are you going?"

 

"Don't know, really,” he shrugged. “I just know I don't need you followin'. I need some Goddamn peace and quiet."

 

~!~

 

"They are all meeting in Mr. Town—"

 

"Culper Jr," Ben corrected, his eyes piercing into Charlotte’s.

 

She rolled those same eyes, essentially avoiding his glance so she could devote her gaze back to General Washington. "A few specific officers used to frequent the establishment but they've rented a room now."

 

"A room?" Washington asked with raised eyebrows.

 

"A room. They look normal entering an alehouse—"

 

"It's a tory-run city,” Ben pointed out.

 

"Yes, but even the loyalists have their secrets. We can't have everyone knowing the four of us do what we do,” Charlotte said, nodding toward the table where Anna and Caleb also sat. “They're no different." When Ben was without a rebuttal, she inhaled before continuing. "They've rented a room on the first floor. It allows for easy access in and out. I haven't discovered what they're discussing but it has to be important if they need to be removed from everyone else. As you said, it's a tory-held city."

 

"Why wouldn't Culper Jr. inform us of this?" The General questioned.

 

"Culper hasn't been able to get into the city and 355 can hardly enter such a place."

 

"I can."

 

Ben looked to Charlotte. "How?"

 

"I'll dress as a boy. Michael has—"

 

He nearly laughed. "Absolutely not."

 

"I'm not saying I'll go into the room. I'm not that daft. I'm only saying it would be easy for me to transfer messages from Culper Jr. back to us."

 

"That's an altogether stupid plan."

 

"Well then I could go as myself—"

 

"That's quite possibly even worse!"

 

Charlotte sat forward. "Then what do you suggest?"

 

"I don’t have a suggestion, Charlotte. I have an order and I'm ordering you to do what we've requested: overhear conversations your father has with the other generals. That's it. There's no need getting into something that will put you in that much danger." Ben's honesty had Anna and Caleb taking notice. "Culper Jr. is more than capable of getting his messages back to us."

 

Charlotte sighed and sat back again. "Right."

 

It went without saying that the Ben never apologized to Charlotte after their argument over a week ago. Anna and Caleb also ignored the situation, knowing that if Ben wished to discuss it it would be on his own time, when he was ready. This meeting would be another discussion to add to the pile, one everyone would ignore, especially the participants.

 

When their meeting ended, they all filtered out. Ben followed Charlotte closely, and Caleb and Anna watched as he approached her, nearly spooking her nearby horse.

 

"You're crass and I don't appreciate it,” she commented, shocking Ben who had yet to be assured that she even saw him standing there.

 

He sighed. "I am sorry that you think I am being harsh but believe it or not, your safety means a lot to me."

 

She chuckled. Her hands moved along the leather straps of her saddle, fixing and tightening each buckle with ease. "My safety?"

 

"Everyone's safety,” he corrected. “All of you."

 

"If I'm dead I'm not much use to you,” Charlotte calculated.

 

"Well, yes...and Washington will have my head."

 

"It wouldn't be your fault. I'm only doing what I want to do."

 

"Well it's dangerous."

 

"Everything I'm doing is dangerous, Benjamin." She grabbed her nearby rucksack and began to tie it to the back of her horse.

 

Ben squinted. "Where are you going?"

 

"To my aunt's."

 

"It's dark out."

 

"It is. It's nighttime. Happens everyday. Usually for many hours. But if you're patient enough, the sun—"

 

Ben rolled his eyes heavenward. "What I mean is that it's not safe for you to be riding alone at this hour."

 

Charlotte pulled tight at her cinch again, causing her horse to shift as she now moved around it to stand before Ben, looking right at him. "Well I'm not feeling too welcome here. And it's probably a good time to tell you I think it's best if you and I have as little contact as possible. I think it'll increase the civility between us. The ring will be better for it."

 

"Do you really believe that?"

 

"Have I lied to you?"

 

"Well..."

 

"I haven't,” Charlotte stated strongly, as if begging that he finally believe her. She returned to her previous task, finally clipping everything into place. One hand remained steady on her horse’s abdomen as if to reassure him of their impending departure.

 

"Are you still going?"

 

Charlotte laughed. "Of course I'm still going!"

 

"No,” Ben said simply. “I won't allow it."

 

"What'll you do? Drag me off my horse?"

 

"Do you think Washington will appreciate this?"

 

"It's not his choice. He'll have to be. He trusts me."

 

"He—"

 

"G'day Benjamin."

 

It was advantageous for Ben to be standing a mere step away because it gave Charlotte just enough space to reach for the reigns and move her leg upward toward the stirrup. She was nearly in position before feeling a jolt; that same separation was now eradicated as Ben grabbed at Charlotte’s waist, pulling her back to him.

 

"You're being a child! Get down!"

 

Charlotte kicked at the air with her boot covered feet but was impervious to the strong hold Ben’s arms had around her midsection. "You're not my keeper! Let me go!"

 

She wiggled out of his grasp so she could turn to face him, breathless and annoyed. Her horse now acted as a wall behind them. Ben was so close Charlotte could feel the heat of his breath on her cheek.

 

Her voice quieted down practically to a whisper. "You know, you can't treat someone like dirt and expect them to give anything in return. I can take it but the thing is I don't have to take it. I don't even know why I've been spending my days here if—"

 

"Alright! We...we need you!" Ben’s volume startled Charlotte.

 

She blinked. "We?"

 

"Me,” Ben corrected with eyes closed in self-punishment. “I need you."

 

Suddenly the moment was serious. Charlotte nodded, her lips nearly brushing his as she moved her head. "I don't want

to argue with you," she whispered.

 

Ben nodded too. "I don't know why I do..."

 

Charlotte let out a steady exhale. Her gaze averted and she smoothed out her petticoat to distract herself from the way his eyes bore into her. "I know you think me prim but I know what I'm doing.” She finally looked to him. “And I know you're telling everyone you don't trust me but I need you to."

 

"Need me..."

 

"To trust me,” she finished simply.

 

They were somehow unaware but the camp continued to exist around them with soldiers walking by and nearby fires crackling against the cool night air. Ben's chest heaved against hers, both of their lungs helping them to fill the space between one another - as he pushed, she pulled. Neither knew how long they stood in silence but when Caleb stumbled upon the two they immediately separated. It was only then that Ben realized his hands had been steady on Charlotte’s hips the entire time.

Chapter Text

"Hi."

 

"Hi,” Charlotte returned simply.

 

Ben continued to walk toward where she sat, a wool shawl wrapped around her shoulders to fight the winds coming off the river. Though her position often changed, she was always in the same spot, tucked behind a tree where even after a heavy rain the river could not touch her. Only someone seeking her out would be able to see her and for reasons he was unaware of — or possibly ignoring — Ben sought Charlotte out often.

 

He stopped just before he reached her, standing with his hands on his hips while he accessed the situation.

 

Charlotte did not look up from her book but she smirked all the same. "Did you need something?"

 

"Oh, did you not want company?"

 

"I don't really mind either way, it's just that usually if you join someone it's with purpose.” Charlotte closed her book and set it beside her. “If we were friends—"

 

Ben took a seat beside her. "Are we not friends?"

 

"I don't know, Benjamin. Are we?"

 

He paused, looking out to river, then back to her again. His answer was given by his choice to continue the conversation. "No bible today?" he pointed.

 

"They're just stories, remember? And I'm finished with them now."

 

"Where are you getting all of these books?"

 

"My father's study.” She pursed her lips. “You're not the only educated one around here, Benjamin."

 

"I..."

 

"I'd say there's a fair amount of esteem that goes with attending Yale. That's not an easy feat."

 

"I..."

 

He continued to stammer, causing Charlotte to giggle. "That's a compliment. You can say Thank you ."

 

"Well, thank you.”

 

"Unfortunately women like me aren't allowed to go to Yale or any other university.”

 

Ben arched an eyebrow. “Women like you?”

 

“Well, women…in general,” she conceded, also with a laugh. “But I read a lot."

 

"I see that. Is this where you're always disappearing to?" He knew the answer to that question but he asked it anyway. Ben didn’t want her to analyze his behavior just as he had been, the thoughts of his feelings toward Charlotte making him restless each night.

 

"You've found me here once before."

 

"Wasn't sure if you'd found a beau yet."

 

"Yet? Not here.” She paused. “That's not what I'm here for…”

 

"Well of course,” Ben chuckled nervously, “I just thought it might be another thing to irritate your father.”

 

"That would certainly be the ultimate betrayal."

 

"Not spying?"

 

"No. Courting an American boy. And a patriot at that? He'd nearly die."

 

Ben exhaled steadily. "I, uh, I have a friend in Maryland—"

 

Charlotte looked to him quickly. "Do you think he'd be a good fit?"

 

Ben could tell she was being sarcastic, a fact that only caused him to shake his head in amusement. "To court? Hardly."

 

"Then?”

 

"He infiltrates some of the smaller traveling militia."

 

"Okay..." Her voice trailed off in question.

 

"And I've asked him to try to find Michael."

 

Charlotte’s eyes widened. "What?"

 

"I have been completely unfair to you and—"

 

"Benjamin, it’s fine. I can take it."

 

"But you shouldn't have to."

 

Charlotte nodded, accepting his apology but also accepting what all of this meant. "So you're looking for my brother?"

 

"What?"

 

"Michael. My brother."

 

"Oh...he's...Michael is your brother?"

 

"Who else would he be?” Charlotte grinned. “You said it yourself...don't want my father having a heart attack."

 

"Right. Of course. Well Washington has asked me to take this on. He wasn't having much luck and I think this might be something I can do."

 

"Really?"

 

"If given some time."

 

"Oh...thank you."

 

"Don't thank me yet,” Ben chuckled. “Finding a soldier is harder than gathering British intelligence."

 

"Is that a joke?"

 

"I wish it were." Charlotte snickered, blushing, looking away. "What's he like?" Ben persevered.

 

"Michael?" Ben nodded so she continued. "He's my best friend. He's the only person I truly feel comfortable around...beyond all of the parties and the politics, he knows me better than anyone else. When we were little we moved around a lot so it was always the two of us against the world and then we grew up and it was like suddenly one day he wasn't there—"

 

"Are you mad at him?"

 

"A bit. But not mad enough to not need to know where he is."

 

"Well he's not...he's not on any of the lists I've seen..."

 

"Lists?"

 

"We get documents sometimes. All of the fallen men make the list, as well as where they died and when. It's morbid but I look for friends. And on most days I find some, but I can't find him."

 

"He's laying low, I'm sure. What about you?" she asked, leaning into him to physically prod.

 

"Me? What about me?"

 

“Do you have siblings?”

 

"Sam.”

 

"Is that his name?"

 

"'Tis."

 

"Then?"

 

"He's, uh, he's dead,” Ben gave simply.

 

Charlotte swallowed. "What?"

 

"He's—"

 

"Goodness...I'm really sorry. I wouldn't have asked if I had known."

 

"Well of course not," Ben laughed nervously, possibly in dismissal of the lump in the back of his throat. "He did it valiantly I suppose."

 

"Do you mind me asking how?”

 

"Dysentery."

 

"Oh."

 

"That's not the valiant part." Ben laughed again.

 

"Well—"

 

"He was captured. We couldn't find him but when we finally did, he was already too far gone. I didn't really know he was sick until he'd already passed."

 

"Benjamin, I'm...I don't know what to say."

 

"People die, Charlotte."

 

"I haven't really dealt with—"

 

"Yes, I'm getting that impression. This probably isn't a great time to tell you my Ma's dead too, huh?"

 

Charlotte's brow furrowed. "Why do you speak about it like that?"

 

Ben was caught off guard as well. "Like what?"

 

"Death. So casually."

 

"Because to me it's not death. It's life."

 

Charlotte was stilled by his words. The most rare form of Benjamin Tallmadge sat beside her and all she could do was take him in, watching as his chest fell with each passing breath, his lungs and heart hidden beneath a ribcage she could only assume was similar to her own. She was so stunned by his belief she wondered if he knew he had shared it. His explanation of life was also an explanation of who he was at his core: pragmatic, mostly, but also unbelievably resilient.

 

"Did you cry?"

 

"Which time?"

 

Charlotte smiled. It was clear Ben was doing his best to hide his sorrow beneath humor. "How old were you when your mother died?"

 

"Nine."

 

"Benjamin..."

 

He lifted his head, essentially surprised he was being called on. "Yeah?"

 

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed, studying him, doing her best to fight off the urge she had to grab his hand and hold it in her own. "You don't talk about this much, do you?"

 

"There's nothing to talk about. I'm here and they're not. It's not by choice and I certainly cannot explain it but 'twas God's plan."

 

"You believe that?"

 

"I have to. My only other option is to believe they died because all people die. Just like someday I'll die and you'll die and when you die nothing matters."

 

"It seems like perhaps you have discussed this."

 

"I haven't, actually. Not much. But I think about it a lot."

 

"You're not afraid then?"

 

"Of what?"

 

"Of dying."

 

"I didn't say that."

 

"We don't have to talk about it."

 

"I really don't mind."

 

Charlotte straightened out her petticoat, causing the shawl around her shoulders to loosen. Ben resisted the urge to fix it as he patiently gave her time to ask another question. Her next statement, however, surprised him. "Well maybe I don't want to talk about it."

 

He chuckled nonetheless. It seemed Charlotte also used humor to handle what made her uncomfortable. "Okay so we won't talk about it."

 

Charlotte thought for a moment. "War just has a way of bringing everything into focus. I didn't think about death before the war and now I think about it a lot."

 

"Your own death?" He studied her blue eyes and the way her eyelids seemed so heavy when they were alone. Ben almost looked over his shoulder to ensure that was still the case; he wasn’t ready to let this version of her go yet.

 

"Not really. I'm not scared to die, I don't think, but I am terrified to think of my father or Michael passing. I don't know what I'd do. I'd shut down, I imagine."

 

"No you wouldn't. Your mind finds a way through. Mine did."

 

"Well again, I don't like to think about it."

 

"We won't think about it then. Pick something else to talk about,” he tried cheerily.

 

"I don't think you want to hear me talk about the things I want to talk about."

 

"Like?"

 

"Well I don’t want to discuss it, but I’m helping my mother host a party on Thursday evening. The third in the past five weeks."

 

"To raise funds?"

 

"That's what they say."

 

"You don't enjoy them?"

 

"I used to."

 

"And now?"

 

"I didn't understand it that night...you know, at Mrs. Washington's party. I honestly thought you were being rude and ungrateful. I didn't see it from your point of view but I do now. It feels wrong to be in a warm home with fresh food and nice frocks when there are men suffering through the night only to fight for our freedom to have those god awful parties in the first place! And last week...with the scones,” she recalled. “I looked ridiculous, didn’t I?”

 

“Not ridiculous,” Ben smirked. “You were certainly Caleb’s best friend that day. And it was a kind gesture. Your intentions were good,” he added, this time with more volume.

 

“But I wasn’t thinking and I only realized that after the fact. That wasn’t fair to the men outside of that tent and it’s counterproductive toward what we’re trying to do. The war just hasn’t touched me the way it has touched you so I’ve had to do a bit of soul-searching to find where I fit in all of this.”

 

Ben beamed."I have absolutely ruined you."

 

Charlotte smiled too. "No, you've opened my eyes."

 

"You're welcome."

 

Charlotte nudged him with her shoulder and the two swayed, sharing knowing-smiles before devoting their attention back to the river.

 

"If you didn't hate them so much, I'd bring you with me."

 

"It doesn't matter if I hate them. Too many men there would know who I am."

 

"Oh, but could you imagine the look on my father's face?"

 

Ben laughed, playing along. "I can...poor fellow."

 

"I'll do it someday."

 

He finally looked back to her. "Do what?"

 

"Break his heart,” she explained, losing all of the mirth her voice had previously held. “I probably already have."

 

"You’re his daughter,” Ben reminded, almost in Charlotte’s defense.

 

"Didn't matter for Michael."

 

"Will he shut you out completely?"

 

"If I'm not dead first, then yes, I imagine he will."

 

"And your mother would allow that?"

 

"My mother isn't in the position to allow much."

 

Ben gave a dramatic nod. "Oh..."

 

"It's...it is what it is. If Michael's alive it'll be wonderful. I can stay south and he'll be with me. If he's not...well, I haven't really considered that to be a possibility. I don't know what I'd do. Stay with my aunt permanently, perhaps."

 

"You could come back to Setauket to live with me."

 

Her eyes widened. "With you?"

 

"With us,” Ben corrected quickly. “You could marry Caleb. Someone has to."

 

"You leave Caleb alone! I'll have you know he's been far kinder to me than you have,” she said, delivering the truth out to the water while she fixed her shawl around her shoulders.

 

"I know..."

 

Charlotte inhaled sharply. "I'll figure it out. There's so much to do before then."

 

"There is. But it's fast approaching."

 

"Oh?"

 

"I’ve been trying to get Washington South for weeks now—”

 

“But we’re going South. That’s why I’m here.”

 

“Well, yes, that’s always been the plan but I’m doing my best to convince him that we should go now. There’s no need to regain control of York City. I know we can win this thing without it.”

 

Ben’s delivery nearly had Charlotte choking. “What?”

 

“It’s possible. I know it is. He needs to be open-minded and—”

 

Charlotte dropped her head back to laugh. “And you’ve told him this?”

 

“To be open-minded? Of course not. I’d lose my job.”

 

“Nahhh,” Charlotte gave effortlessly. “George loves you.”

 

“George?” Ben nearly laughed.

 

“It’s very difficult for me to treat him the way the rest of you do. We don’t have the same relationship. I know a much softer man.”

 

“Softer implies that the man exists in some state of soft currently and—”

 

Charlotte stifled a laugh. “I know how he can be but in his heart he’s incredibly kind and compassionate. I truly hope the two of you can remain friends beyond all of this. I think you’ll find he’s much more amenable than he lets on.” She looked to him, another closed-lip smile gracing her features. “Reminds me of someone else I know…”

 

“Me?” Ben asked genuinely.

 

“Yes, you! Emotions don’t mix well with war. I get that. If I were in your position I’d be cold too—”

 

“Cold? I’m not cold.”

 

“You’re a bit cold,” Charlotte deadpanned, all without apology.

 

“Well—”

 

“It’s okay, Benjamin. I understand...really, I do.”

 

“Well either way, I’d advise against calling him George in front of the rest of us.”

 

“Oh, I would never! I also know how to deal with him. And I may be able to give you insight in swaying his opinions about York City.”

 

“What’s your insight?”

 

“He has to think it’s his idea.”

 

“That’s an obvious one.”

 

“And I’ll talk to Martha.”

 

Ben paused. “What?”

 

“I’ll talk to Martha. She’s the only one that can talk any sense into him.” Then: “We women have that effect, you know.”

 

~!~

 

After dinner one night, Ben approached Charlotte as she saddled her horse. This was a typical occurrence now where they’d have a meeting to share intelligence, then share a meal all before sending Charlotte riding north, back to her aunt’s home. Ben was still unsure of Charlotte’s methods, that being to ride when it was dark out, and regardless of the time of day, to be a female and to ride alone. It was for this reason that he sought her out, making no apology for the strong way he approached her, his hands crossed over his chest as he prepared to share with her his proposition.

 

“Yes, Benjamin?”

 

“I need to show you something,” he let out.

 

Charlotte was continuously amused by Ben’s somewhat awkward attitude toward her and she showed it by joining him where he stood, now with her hands on her hips. “Show me something?”

 

“I’ve been thinking about you traveling alone and—”

 

“Surely we’re not going to have that conversation again…”

 

“No, I...I’ve realized it’s useless to try to convince you to spend more time here and I acknowledge why that’s not a great idea in the first place so I’d like to...show you something.”

 

Charlotte leaned in. “Why are you whispering?”

 

“Because it’s none of anyone else’s business.”

 

Charlotte’s brow furrowed. “Do Caleb and Anna know?”

 

“What? No!” he gave quickly. “It’s not that serious, it’s just…something I think might make all of this a bit easier.”

 

Charlotte went back to her horse, but Ben waited, staring until she gave an answer. “Alright,” she finally said, appearing again. “You can show me something.”

 

“Wonderful. Tomorrow then. After breakfast.”

 

“I can’t be here for breakfast. I’m getting tea with a friend.”

 

“Lunch then?”

 

“I can do after lunch.”

 

“Alright. Wonderful,” Ben said seriously and with a nod. “Bring your horse.”

 

“Where?”

 

“There’s an abandoned farm about a mile outside of camp. It’s marked by a broken fence but just beyond it—”

 

“The field of aster,” Charlotte finished for him. “Yes, I know it.”

 

“There then.” Ben turned quickly and without a goodbye left Charlotte to watch.

 

She could only shake her head, dismissing the thoughts she had of him and how she was constantly entertained when he was around. He was always so sure of himself and that was the case when the two were alone but here, with his inferiors watching him interact with Charlotte, he somehow lost his confidence. Or perhaps she was the cause, a more likely but less welcomed thought Charlotte was currently battling with.

Chapter Text

Charlotte arched her back as she looked upward at Ben. Her hands were on her hips as her eyes darted between him and her horse. “Oh, I can’t do that,” she let out casually.

 

Ben looked to her. “You can’t or you won’t?”

 

“I shouldn’t!” she returned.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because I’m a lady!”

 

Ben laughed. “Yes, Charlotte, and you’re helping the Patriot cause despite your Loyalist upbringing. I’d say you’re trying lots of new things and this should be one of them.”

 

“What if someone sees me?”

 

“No one should be seeing you anyway, Charlotte. Whether you’re—”

 

“I can’t ride like you do, Benjamin.”

 

“Yes you can,” he laughed gently. “It’s not that difficult. I’d actually venture to guess it’s far easier than riding side-saddle.”

 

“Well I can’t speak to that,” Charlotte stated with a confident air. “It’s all I’ve ever known.”

 

“Exactly. Which is why we’re here.”

 

He took a step in her direction, his hand going to her lower back without hesitation. Their current position, with the two close and Ben gripping her hip and her hand as he guided her toward her horse, was also something Charlotte should worry about but that same emotion was donated inwardly as she realized her true worry resided in the fact that she didn’t care at all - she quite liked how close he stood and though it was unlikely anyway, she didn’t care if someone witnessed her lack of aversion to his touch.

 

“I can get up on my horse, Benjamin,” she delivered over her shoulder.

 

He chuckled. “It’s different.”

 

“Yes and I’m wearing a dress so—”

 

“Your frock is plenty wide enough for this to work.”

 

“Would you like to borrow it? Try it on, perhaps? I’d prefer you show me as proof.”

 

Ben laughed. “You’d like that, I’m sure.”

 

“Not as much as you’re enjoying what’s about to happen.”

 

“And what’s that?”

 

“Me making a fool of myself while I try to get up onto my horse.”

 

“I thought you could get onto your horse?” he jested.

 

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed as she balled her fists and lightly tapped at his shoulder. “You’re a real prat sometimes.” Ben laughed again, only urging her to continue. “Are you going to help me or not?”

 

Ben cleared his throat. “Are you going to trust me?”

 

“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

 

“Here,” he offered. “Can I…” He shifted, unsure of how to move with her so close; there was little space between them that had yet to be occupied. “I need to put my hands—”

 

Charlotte stopped him, grabbing his hands in a rather effortless manner and bringing them to her waist. “Thank you for being a gentleman but the point of all of this is so I can travel safely and at this rate we’ll be here all night—” Just as she had cut him off, so did Ben, this time physically as he hoisted her up. “Ben!” she yelped.

 

“Trust me…” he reminded lowly.

 

Charlotte’s foot fell into its stirrup but in knowing the rest of her body was not meant to move in the way it usually did, she put all of her strength into her core and waited for Ben to give her further instruction. If she did not trust Ben before, she certainly had no other choice now. All of her weight rested in his grip and somehow she felt safe.

 

“Instead of bringing this leg forward you need to swing it back,” he instructed, even going as far as to tap at her right leg through the thick fabric of her petticoat.

 

“I’m going to fall forward…”

 

“You won’t fall forward,” Ben dismissed with a breathy laugh. “I’ve got you.”

 

“My skirt will get caught.”

 

“Will it?” he sassed. “Last time I checked you had never done this before so I think it’s best you at least attempt it instead of making broad assumptions.”

 

Charlotte huffed. In the moment after she did her best to swing her leg back but was met with resistance. “Bennnn,” she groaned.

 

Without apology Ben huffed out too, this time taking the grip he had on her waist and using it to bring her back to the ground again.

 

“Giving up already?” she asked sarcastically.

 

“Hardly,” he returned, all before effortlessly mounting her horse.

 

Charlotte was slack-jawed but her eyes remained on his legs and the way all of him moved so easily against Louie’s black coat. She swallowed, peeling her eyes from his thighs back up to his gaze. “If that was you showing me, I’ve seen many men mount their horses but—”

 

“Do you ever stop talking?”

 

“Sure do!” Charlotte stated boldly. “But I know it bothers you and there is nothing I love more than irritating you, Benjamin.”

 

He sighed, staring blankly ahead as if accepting his fate. “Alright,” he said, returning to the situation at hand. “I’m going to help you up and I’m going to make sure your dress does not get caught.”

 

“Will you be riding with me all the time then? ”

 

Ben dropped his head back, looking to the clouded sky as he let out a chuckle. He wanted to be annoyed but he was mostly amused. He could have spent hours in this field with her, doing this very thing: bickering, responding to every quip with an equally witty counter.

 

“I’m going to be here until you’re comfortable.”

 

“I’ll kick you in the face,” Charlotte observed flatly.

 

“Well I’m going to trust that if that happens it won’t be intentional…” Ben tried with an eyeroll.

 

“Of course not.”

 

“Here,” he returned, giving her his hand. “Try it.”

 

“You’re in the way…”

 

“Then I’m in the way,” he accepted. “Try it anyway.”

 

Charlotte paused. She looked to her saddle then to the man that sat just behind it. As her eyes met Louie’s she let out a heavy sigh. Soon her foot was extended upward and her leg was extended, bringing the rest of her body with it. As her instincts took over, Ben intervened, steadying her with a hand to her waist so he could then guide her leg backward.

 

“Up and over,” he instructed.

 

Charlotte’s breath hitched. As her body moved she felt her dress hike; she also felt Ben’s hands, even through the material of her gown, cupping each curve until all of her was settled on her horse in front of him. If she were to lean back, all of her would be pressed against all of him — yet another prospect that did not terrify her in the way it should have.

 

Neither moved and as Charlotte finally exhaled, she only barely turned over her shoulder to look at him. “This is wholly uncomfortable.”

 

“Ha!” Ben let out. “I can’t imagine having to ride as you did. You’ll be able to gain so much more ground this way.”

 

“We move plenty fast,” Charlotte assured, referring to her and the horse they now sat upon.

 

“Well now you’ll move faster.” His feet barely moved but the tap his heels gave to Charlotte’s horse had Louie moving to a steady trot. The jolt in movement caused Charlotte to immediately grab for the reigns and though her posture was stiff, the movement of the ground beneath them had her inevitably settling back into Ben.

 

“I’m still uncomfortable.”

 

Ben could only smirk. “You’ll get used to it.” He leaned further into her if only so he could whisper over the wind. “Let’s ride.”

 

~!~

 

They did ride, for several hours. Only minutes into the horse’s gallop, Charlotte and Ben were laughing. This happened often, with neither really acknowledging how easy it was for them to make the other smile. To do so, of course, would be to admit other things, things Charlotte thought about that night when she rode back to her aunt’s alone.

 

That was weeks ago and this was a normal occurrence. Boredom was foreign to Ben now that Charlotte was around. His once empty hours were now consumed by her, with the two either riding or scheming, or today, back at their spot near the river. It was almost as if Charlotte disappeared here to challenge Ben to come find her.

"You don't even have a book today,” Ben said as he took a seat beside her.

 

"Yes I do," Charlotte smiled, tapping at the leatherbound book hidden by the hem of her dress.  

 

"What is it?"

 

"Sketches."

 

Ben grinned. "Oh, you've got to let me see them."

 

Charlotte’s hand pressed into the binding keeping the book pressed softly to the earth below. "No, I really don't."

 

"You can't tell someone you're an artist and then not share your work."

 

Charlotte giggled. "I'm hardly an artist, Benjamin. That's exactly why I'm not sharing.” The way he studied her encouraged Charlotte to continue. “I couldn't sit still when I was little and my mother would give me paper and charcoal to keep me occupied."

 

"Your mother gave you, a child, charcoal?"

 

She laughed again. "She's certainly had better ideas..."

 

"If you've started young you can't be that bad."

 

"I can be. I am,” she corrected in deadpan. “I like to do it because it reminds me of being a child when I didn't have responsibilities and my worst days were ones where it rained so hard Michael and I couldn't go outside to play. But I'm not great at it. Isn't there anything you're not good at but that you still enjoy doing?"

 

"No, I'm good at everything," he quipped.

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes. "I've danced with you so I know that's a lie."

 

"Am I really that bad?" He was more curious than offended.

 

"I honestly don't remember that much."

 

"You barely remember our meeting?"

 

"I didn’t say that,” she stated with a smirk. “It was one dance. I danced with many men that night."

 

"But all older men. Or married men, if I remember correctly."

 

"I will say...you were by far the most handsome one, but General Washington is quite the dancer."

 

"I am a shite dancer. It's okay."

 

"You're really not,” she returned quickly, as if needing him to believe her. “Even if you were, I wouldn't judge you for it. I imagine you didn't go to many parties like that one growing up."

 

"I didn't. I hadn't."

 

"All things considered then you're a lovely dancer, Benjamin."

 

He paused. "Has that been your life then?"

 

"What? Dancing?"

 

"I hope not. I mean the parties."

 

She nodded. "Mostly. I can't go to university and I can't pick a profession."

 

"What can you do?"

 

"Find a husband and bare his children."

 

"Hopefully the war has altered those plans, no?"

 

"A bit. But it's still a topic my mother likes to bring up. She's worried I'll be too old by the time the war settles."

 

"Too old? You're what...twenty?"

 

"Nineteen, actually."

 

"I'd venture to say you'll be alright."

 

"You haven't met Nicholas."

 

"No, I have not,” Ben agreed with a chuckle.  “Who is he?"

 

"He's a friend. Truly. But a boy my parents would love for me to marry. A boy I've been told will propose to me the moment this war ends. I don't know if I'll have a choice in it either way."

 

"I suppose it's a good thing you're heading south, isn't it?"

 

"It is. For many reasons."

 

"Do you not want to get married or is it just him?" Ben’s question surprised even him, and he sat back, waiting for her answer as he deliberately put distance between them to avoid scaring her. The question certainly scared him.

 

"I suppose if I have to, there could be worse people to marry, but I don't think I'm ready for all of that. But I know it's improper for a girl my age to live alone and I surely can't live with my parents forever. I just don't like my options...most days I feel like I don't even have options."

 

"Everyone our age—"

 

"Our age? Speak for yourself, old man." Charlotte looked away with rosey cheeks.

 

"I barely have five years on you. How old is Nicholas?"

 

"22. Why? Do you want to ask my father for my hand?"

 

"You'd like that, I'm sure."

 

"Don't be crass.” Amused, and grinning because of it, Charlotte looked to him. “Surely you have someone you're set to marry. Who is she?"

 

Ben laughed. "That's not as important for the son of a minister. I do have a bit more choice but who knows who will be left in Setauket when all of this is over."

 

"Why does she have to be from Setauket? The world's a big place, Benjamin."

 

"Maybe she'll be down in Virginia. You know anyone?"

 

"All of my friends are married. Most of them have children or are in the family way."

 

"Small detail."

 

Charlotte giggled again. "But you see the wonderful thing is no one will be expecting you to get married. Please savor that freedom for me. I can only imagine what that's like."

 

"You don't have to get married either, Charlotte,” Ben implored. “If I'm being honest, your parents might write you off completely. I doubt they'll force you to do much of anything after they find out what you've been up to."

 

"No, probably not. But I'd like to get married. Truly, I would."

 

"Just not to Nicholas?"

 

Her nose scrunched upward. "Definitely not to Nicholas. And not anytime soon."

 

"Do–"

 

"I—"

 

The two looked away, breathing out laughter they wished to share with one another before inevitably fumbling over each other's words.

 

Charlotte nodded in Ben’s direction. “Go ahead.”

 

"I just...I was going to say that, if I may, you're brilliant and I think you can do what you want to do, Charlotte."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Yeah.” Ben shook his head confidently. “Why not?"

 

Charlotte looked to him, her eyes heavy and blinking while she continued to take him in. "Charlie."

 

Ben leaned back. "What?"

 

"Charlie,” she said simply again. “That's what most people call me."

 

"You haven't corrected us yet."

 

"No, I haven't. But I'm correcting you now. Or rather, asking you to please call me what my friends call me because...because you're a friend."

 

"Will you call me Ben now then?"

 

"Would you like that?"

 

"Everyone calls me Ben,” he conceded. He honestly didn’t have an opinion either way.

 

"Well if it's okay with you, I'm still going to call you Benjamin."

 

"Why?"

 

"I like to be different."

 

Ben looked back out onto the Hudson. "You're certainly different, Charlie.”

Chapter Text

Ben didn’t know what he did before Charlotte came along and he certainly could not remember the last time he had relaxed but this was something she requested from him now, a state she even insisted upon when she recognized his silence as anxiety. Her demand that he remove himself from his role in the war was also a demand that he examine who he was beyond all of this. She was a constant reminder that he could not be a Major in the Continental Army forever and for this reason, amongst many others, Ben often found himself terrified by the power Charlie had over him. This still didn’t stop him from spending time with her, walking along the banks of the river or laying as they were now, staring up at the moving sky while their clothes pressed the newly sprouted Spring grass back into the earth.

 

Charlotte rolled her head against the ground to look to him. "When's the last time you had fun, Benjamin?" she asked, squinting the sun away.

 

"I have—"

 

"Before all of this, I imagine,” she gave just as easily, showing that perhaps it wasn’t an answer she was after. This was only cemented when she sat up and grabbed for his nearby dragoon’s helmet.

 

Ben shot up as well. "Charlie, give it back..."

 

As if he hadn’t spoken at all, Charlotte moved to stand. "How do I look?" she questioned, now gripping the strap that hung loose beneath her chin. She even jutted out her hip as if to model the cap atop her head.

 

Ben’s face fell flat. "Ridiculous."

 

"Hey!" she beamed, even letting out a carefree laugh.

 

"Give it…” He stood now too, immediately moving to grab for the item. As he did Charlotte took a step back, only causing him to still and reassess how he’d get the item back in his possession. “Give it back, Charlie,” he tried lowly.

 

Charlie paused too. She pouted and took a step forward. Ben watched her easy defeat, with eyes that bounced from her hands to her eyes, then back again. Charlotte continued to wear a somewhat deflated grin, unstrapping the helmet before moving slowly to hand it to him. Then, right as Ben gestured for the item, she pulled away. Her smile returned instantly, and she flashed it over her shoulder as she began to run away with him with the hat still in her hand. Even Ben had to laugh, watching as this typically mature girl lost all inhibitions, the movement of her body so relaxed he could see her boots beneath her dress as she continued to move away from him.

 

Charlotte wore that very same grin as Ben approached, this time reaching for her hand and making contact, causing all of her body to spin back toward him. With unplanned force, Charlotte’s frame brought the two crashing down to the same grass they’d previously relaxed upon.

 

Ragged breathing was all that separated the pair now as Ben’s weight kept Charlotte flush beneath him. Where he expected her to tense up all of her softened, causing Ben to do the same.

 

"You're crushing me,” she finally let out, still with a chest that heaved, contracting in opposition to his own.

 

He blinked, studying her features. “Am I?”

 

She couldn’t take her eyes off his lips. "No,” Charlotte almost whispered.

 

"Oh.” Ben nodded. It was all he could do to keep himself present. Just as Charlotte had before, Ben also wanted to run, this time because his fear of what she awoke within him was so real it was tangible. If he wanted to, even more of her could be within his grip.

 

With the intensity of the moment dwindling, Charlotte made one last attempt to bring him back to her. Softly she reached up to push at his hairline, boldly allowing her hand to rest upon his cheek. They’d been motionless for several seconds now and it was still as if she couldn’t catch her breath. "It's nice to see you smile...laugh."

 

Taking one last snapshot of her, her hair fanned out beneath her and her hands now resting deftly upon his shoulders caused sensibility to flood Ben’s senses. The rush of rationality brought him to his feet and Charlotte could only watch as he walked away. There was only a small grass-stain on his pant leg as evidence of their brief yet intense encounter.

 

~!~

 

“Well have you talked to him?”

 

Anna looked to Caleb. Her eyes told more than her mouth ever would and the longer they gazed upon him, the more Caleb understood she was far from ready to discuss her future. The man Caleb referred to was someone Anna had finally given up on and yet she ached to even donate her thoughts to him. She wondered if maybe she should have been more open with Selah in her letter several weeks ago. Her eyes danced away for this very reason, returning to the jacket she was stitching. It was her fourth of the day and her fingers were numb, an easily forgettable fact the longer she let her thoughts linger on a man that was not her husband.

 

Thankfully she was pulled from both tasks, the same eyes that were hurt now filled with surprise as Ben entered the tent, doing so swiftly, his actions loud though they made no sound.

 

Caleb was relieved to see his best friend as well. In knowing he wasn’t going to procure the answer from Anna he had hoped for (and that Abe had requested), it was now his goal to look casual, wanting to dispel any truth there might have been to the things Anna told Ben in relation to his softer side.

 

“Where you been, Benny boy?" Caleb asked. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, leaning against the nearby table with his feet kicked out in front of him. The wide brim hat he wore shaded his eyes, but Ben could see the sly grin he wore.

 

"Out,” he bit back simply.

 

Caleb dropped his head back to guffaw. " Out , he says,” Caleb delivered to Anna. In response she looked away, possibly still irritated by his previous persistence.

 

Ben could only shake his head. "'Snot a lie, Caleb."

 

"Doesn't really sound like the truth either,” he observed.

 

Ben paused. "Where could I even go?" he questioned, his hands raised innocently.

 

"Dunno,” Caleb drawled. “Out, apparently." Ben rolled his eyes, encouraging Caleb to invite Anna into their quarrel. "Do you have anything to add to this?" He pointed.

 

Anna finally looked to both boys. "No,” she stated simply. “Nothing to add."

 

Ben took her in but was far too self-involved to inquire about Anna’s mood. Her sour disposition definitely mirrored his own, but this was a fact only observable by an outsider. Each player in the tent had their own intentions, as if they were all playing simultaneous, but different games.

 

Even Caleb was distracted, all of his mirth donated to Ben’s somewhat frazzled state. "You don't think he's being weird?" Caleb asked, still pointing to Ben.

 

Anna looked up once more, now appearing annoyed at once again being pulled from her sewing. "He is weird. He's always been weird. He'll always be weird." Her voice was flat. The stoicism she wished she could have honed minutes earlier had finally kicked in.

 

"I miss Abe,” Ben gave with a sigh. “He didn't ask me stupid questions all the time."

 

"What?” Caleb dispelled, his disbelief bringing him to stand. “Abe is a walking stupid question! The kid, God love 'em, can never keep his damn mouth shut." Anna tossed the jacket down. She had fixed the frayed hem, but was likely to have abandoned the article even if there was work still to be done. "Anna, agree with me!" Caleb tried as he watched her walk for the exit.

 

"I don't know what either of you are on about,” she stated simply.

 

"I'm not on about anything,” Ben corrected quickly, banishing any and all innocence he was trying to portray. “I'm trying to get some work done and—"

 

"Work?” Caleb said in continued exasperation. “What could you possibly need to work on now?”

 

Anna sighed, pushing down her sudden sensitivity. Her need to take care of others shadowed the self-care she had begun to lack the day she moved to camp. It was something she’d only acknowledged recently, brought on by Selah’s visit. If only it had left when he did.

 

“Come eat. I won't warm if again for you lot,” she warned before exiting.

 

With her gone, Ben looked to Caleb then back to the empty spot on his cot where Anna had previously sat. It was an impossible attempt to piece together a scene he’d missed. "What's her problem?"

 

Caleb shrugged. "You know how she gets."

 

"I thought she was getting better."

 

"She has her good and bad days. Just like the rest of us."

 

"Is she wanting out?" Ben asked, his voice dripping with genuine concern.

 

"Out? Of the ring?"

 

"Sure,” he nodded enthusiastically, still waiting for an answer.

 

"We don't discuss it. I just know she's not happy but I don't think it has anything to do with any of this…” Caleb’s hesitance to reveal the full truth had him hoping Ben would take the hint to abandon his curiosity.

 

He must have because he gave only a nod. "Oh."

 

Caleb nodded too, bringing with the gesture a sudden revival of energy. "So where you been?"

 

Annoyed but not surprised, Ben sighed. "I told you. Out."

 

"Working?" Caleb inquired, now with raised eyebrows.

 

"No. Just out. Not here."

 

"Yes, Ben, I've noticed."

 

"Alright well—”

 

Caleb took another step toward his best friend, his voice transforming to a raspy hush. "Did you and Charlotte have a go?"

 

"What?"

 

"C’mon Benny!” He encouraged with a clap to Ben’s back. “If you're not going to take those trips into York city I was telling you about you might as well take advantage of what we have here."

 

Ben nearly laughed. "And what do we have here exactly?"

 

"Well she'd never go for me or else I would—"

 

"Caleb!" Ben implored in a stern whisper.

 

"I'm being respectful!"

 

"You're hardly being respectful."

 

"All I'm saying is that she's a beauty and I wouldn't mind wasting a few hours with her. You know...out."

 

"You're a pig,” Ben dismissed.

 

"Sometimes. But could you imagine her father’s face if he knew?"

 

Ben shook his head. He could imagine such a thing; he had imagined the very thing many times before. "There's nothing to know, Caleb."

 

"The poor bastard,” Caleb continued, “His daughter is a spy for the other side and she's been having a brush with a Continental officer. Maybe that’s what you'll hang for. Not intelligence. Your affair with the daughter of a loyalist.” The smile Caleb wore was almost one of pride and the extent of Ben’s silence told Caleb more than he ever expected to learn. “Jaysus, Ben, you've certainly got a situation on your hands."

 

"The only situation I have is one where my best friend is being a complete cad."

 

Like Anna, Ben walked for the door, ready to leave this inquisition behind. The only way he knew how to handle problems lately was to walk away from them. This was a new, unwillingly learned trait, encouraged by all in his life that was currently unfamiliar. His clear discomfort over what he could not control told Caleb that the jokes he told were all but funny to his best friend.

 

"I won't tell Anna,” Caleb attempted softly, trying to bring Ben back to him, almost in apology.

 

Ben tossed a hand back, dismissing him. "There's nothing to tell."

 

~!~

 

Charlotte didn’t know where he’d gone off to but this time she found herself seeking Ben out, watching where the sky met the grass at the top of the hill surrounding camp, waiting for him and his men to appear. She passed the time scrubbing at waistcoats and breeches, taking to every domestic task if only because it diverted her attention from the things she shouldn’t be thinking about: the guilt she felt over betraying her parents and how insecure she felt in her feelings toward the same boy she was waiting on.

 

Her need for distraction had her losing her thought to the wind and the sound of the rough river just beyond. She was so lost she didn’t hear anyone approach and when she looked up, she was somehow surprised to find the very person she’d been looking for just moments before.

 

“Benjamin!” she huffed lightly as she began to stand. Ben offered his hand but as her body was drawn toward his, he took a step back. He was learning to curb the cravings his skin had to be upon her own but like war it was a discipline and it was always easier to give in, especially when Charlotte was involved.

 

“You’re…”

 

“Doing the wash,” Charlie gave with a proud smile.

 

Ben chuckled. “Right.”

 

“Why is that so funny?”

 

“I just...it’s not,” he settled.

 

Charlotte’s hands rested on her hips, requesting a pause from the moment. “Are you making fun of me?”

 

“No, never, I just…” He smirked. “You don’t have to do all of this,” Ben said, gesturing to the bank now littered with drying uniforms. “No one is expecting you to do the things Anna or any of the other women do.”

 

“Well they should! We all need to do our part to help. If I’m making the journey out here I might as well stay for longer than our meeting. I have nothing better to do and this army could use an extra set of hands right now.”

 

Ben nodded. “It’s...we appreciate it, I just don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

 

Charlie quirked an eyebrow. “Uncomfortable? Do I look uncomfortable?”

 

“Nevermind,” Ben stated quickly. He saw a fight on the horizon and was doing his best to avoid it, though he instantly feared the only way to truly do so would have been to leave the conversation completely. Knowing this he took another step back but before he could exit, Charlie brought him back to her, this time not with her touch but with her words.

 

“You know, what is your problem?”

 

Ben turned on his heel and with narrowed eyes, cocked his head. “Excuse me?”

 

“I know what you're doing and you're going to play dumb and act like you have no idea what I'm talking about—”

 

“It's not playing dumb if I genuinely don't know what you're talking about, Charlie.”

 

Charlotte took a deep breath before speaking. She was wholly unsure whether she was preparing for a confrontation with Ben or the very truth she was beginning to share with him, thoughts she’d only just come upon recently.  “You come and you find me and most of the time we have these great conversations and whether you want to admit it or not you actually start to let me in and I see this man you don't let anyone else see and then... then you go on and act like it never happened! And if the conversation was particularly good you'll make an effort to avoid me the next day or if we meet as we have now you say something insensitive.”

 

“I wasn't—”

 

“This isn't your time to give a rebuttal, Benjamin! These are my opinions and I am allowed to have them and while you may have some of your own, I don't care to hear them now.”

 

“So you're yelling at me to…”

 

“I'm hardly yelling. I just don't know what you want from me!”

 

“I don't know why you care what I think, Charlie. Really, I don't.”

 

“Because you're a friend, Benjamin! That's not just something I said, alright? I meant it. You're my friend—”

 

“Well—”

 

“And you can lie to yourself all you want but I know you care what I think too!”

 

“I don't—”

 

“No? You don't? Well great. Avoid me then. Stop looking for me if you're only going to insult me. Waste your time with someone else. Prove me wrong.” She picked up her petticoat and turned away from him, her frame huffing toward the hill he’d descended several minutes prior.

 

“Charlie…”

 

She turned back to him, hiding her hope behind well placed frustration. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

 

Ben scoffed. “Are my opinions valid now?”

 

“Your opinions are valid whether I want to hear them or not. But you won't share them so I can't hear them. But I don't need to hear them to know the truth and the truth is I'm tired.”

 

“Tired?”

 

She looked away then quickly back to him. “I have feelings. You do too...we all do. I just can't hide mine as well as you do. And it's exhausting to spend time with someone who is more terrified of his own emotional vulnerability than of war.”

 

“I don't...I don't know what you're talking about.”

 

Charlie could only smile. She nodded too. “Of course not.”

Chapter Text

Summer was upon the camp, shown best by the large square of light painting the table Ben sat at. Behind him men in various uniforms marched in the distance, some preparing to ship out while others simply moved about, lost in drink and conversation to pass the time on such a perfect day. At the head of the table sat General Washington, his quill moving roughly over several pieces of parchment, undoubtedly giving permission to his officers to begin moving those same men and their supplies.

 

“I see you and Charlotte have started to get along.” George’s gruff voice observed without warning.

 

Ben slowly raised his head, pushing any forms of concentration to his recesses as quiet surprise filled his features. His mouth fell open slowly. “Pardon?”

 

George’s stoicism remained but Ben observed the change in energy as he caught a glimpse of the man his boss was before the war. “Charlotte and you. She—”

 

“Somewhat,” Ben finally agreed, now doing so with a back that stiffened against his chair. He had also pushed his book away, just as one would with a finished dinner plate.

 

“The arguing has toned down, which I appreciate,” Washington continued.

 

It had toned down. Lately it didn't happen at all, but not because the two had learned to coexist. Instead, Ben's ego pushed Charlotte away, making her feel so unwelcome she took to writing letters instead of attending daily meetings. Or this was what Ben accepted, feeling helpless until one day he'd gone into the main house to grab a left behind notebook and he saw Charlotte and Mrs. Washington immersed in afternoon tea. Even Martha looked at him with disdain, causing Ben to wonder what she knew. He was doing that a lot lately: trying to piece together all the things everyone else seemed to know.

 

Ben sighed, clearly annoyed at the observation. "It wasn't...we didn't argue, sir, it just—"

 

He didn’t hear anyone enter, but he saw the way the General now looked to the door, and as Ben looked too, his mouth fell, all stammering stunted as he took Charlotte in. Her usual pastel petticoat was replaced by a pair of breeches and she wore a hat to pull her hair off her face. A smudge of dirt had been precariously placed upon her cheek, concealing the feminine freckles that usually resided there. All of her curves swam in the waistcoat and jacket she wore, a positive thing considering Charlotte’s dainty hands were mostly concealed by the tattered material of each sleeve.

 

"Oh, I’m sorry, I—”

 

Ben stood, nearly knocking over his chair in the process. "Where have you been?”

 

Charlotte laughed. She even crossed her arms over her chest, a far easier task when she lacked a corset. As she had criticized weeks prior, things were different when other people were around — an all too accurate statement when one of those people was the General of the Continental army.

 

She blinked and then took a step forward, her grin appearing out of amusement, especially as she felt George’s eyes follow her movement toward Ben. In one another’s company was the only time the two failed to give him all of their attention. "Pardon?"

 

"Where—”

 

"Last time I checked I don't live here and I'm free to come and go as I please." She swallowed before finally glancing to Washington. "I was working on something,” Charlotte gave, as if asking for support.

 

"Something?"

 

"Yes, is that alright?" she bit back quickly.

 

"Is that alright?" He raised his voice. "You haven't been around to have much to work on. Certainly nothing we've discussed so I'd say that's far from alright."

 

Calm, and still seated, Washington looked to the Major. "Ben, are you going to repeat everything the poor girl says?"

 

His head snapped in his superior’s direction. "Well yes, if—" But his confidence dwindled and his hand fell as he realized just who he was talking to. He and Charlotte were not always alone in the way they sometimes felt.

 

Charlotte was at the table now. Like Ben, all of her attention had shifted back to the General. "They're starting to use supply boats to transport soldiers from York City to Boston,” she shared plainly. “I haven't figured out why yet but they've already sent three out, each with over 100 men."

 

Washington nodded. "What about those stores we discussed?"

 

"Barely guarded," Charlotte returned. "Easy to destroy...or steal,” she offered.

 

"What's...what’s going on?" Ben asked. He looked far more like a jealous lover than the head of intelligence with narrowed eyes that danced from Charlotte to George and then back again.

 

"I was gathering intelligence. Isn't that obvious?"

 

"And you knew, sir?" He tossed to Washington.

 

"Of course I did. I told her to go." George explained. His mirth was concealed but it nearly bubbled out in the form of a small grin. He looked down to the letters he was crafting to avoid Ben’s inquisition.

 

"What?"

 

Composed, George looked back to the door. "Charlotte, you're dismissed. Thank you for your hard work today. We appreciate it."

 

Charlotte turned to exit but Ben followed, no longer caring for any false pretense between him and his superior. He left behind scattered papers and a solitary chair that now stood far from the table in obvious disorder. He was so angry, his skin pink and his feet quick, that he didn’t hear the way Washington yelled after him, giving him a clear order to stop.

 

"Why didn't you ask me?" He yelled across camp at an equally quick Charlotte.

 

She barely looked over her shoulder but everyone else seemed to take notice, looking up from their campfires or pausing their game of toss to at least note the passing pair. Their distraction was short lived as Charlotte disappeared into the tent she often shared with Anna. The burlap concealed each occupant as Ben’s uninvited presence found him nearly colliding into Charlotte’s frame.

 

“Keep your voice down,” she hushed, her fists balled at her sides in frustration.

 

Charlotte’s smile was gone but she seemed pleased nonetheless, a fact made more apparent as she removed her hat, causing all of her wavy locks to fall down her back in wanted release. No pins kept her curls back meaning that a simple blow of wind off the harbor could have performed the very same task, exposing her for all of lower York City.

 

"I will not! You disobeyed orders.”

 

"I most certainly did not. I did just as you said. I met with Abe to give him your letter."

 

"And then you clearly went to visit Towns—"

 

"Culper Jr.,” she corrected, donating back to him the same condescension he’d given her weeks ago.

 

"You're admitting it then?"

 

"Of course I am,” Charlotte stated proudly. “Washington asked me to look into something and so I did."

 

"You could have just as easily found this out from your father, Char—"

 

She wanted to correct him, to ask that he no longer call her by her nickname if he wasn’t going to make the effort to treat her like a friend but Charlotte found herself liking the way it sounded, even when coated with so much disdain.

 

"No, I couldn't have,” she resolved. “He's been out of town and if we waited any longer we could be ambushed by then."

 

"I specifically asked you—”

 

"I don't care!” she protested, now with a body that stood flush against his own. “Why am I not receiving a thank you? We have the opportunity to wipe out 300 men, Benjamin! Maybe more!"

 

"You didn't listen. You don't listen!" Ben gritted.

 

"I listen plenty. I just don't always listen to you ."

 

"I am your superior. Not the General."

 

Charlotte leaned back in offense. "My superior?"

 

"Yes!” Ben answered instantly. “You take orders from me!"

 

She nearly laughed. "I take orders from no one! And if you think you don't need me—"

 

Ben rolled his eyes. "We do need you! I told you that! Which is why I can't have you getting killed over something so stupid—”

 

"Stupid? Would you be saying this if it were Caleb?" Charlotte’s hands found her hips again, as she leaned into Ben in challenge.

 

He paused before answering. "Well you're not Caleb!"

 

"I'm hardly in danger,” she revealed flippantly as she turned back to her cot. “Actually I'm in more danger on my way back here—"

 

"Exactly!" Ben gave with an outstretched hand as proof.

 

"I need to travel! That was the plan!”

 

"You need a guide."

 

"Ha!"

 

He exhaled slowly, doing his best to compose himself before continuing. "You'll begin following orders–” he tried in a voice so calm it nearly sent a shiver up Charlotte’s spine.

 

She could only shake her head. "I'll go home then. Sod it. Do this without me—"

 

"I don't want to do this without you!” Ben stated, his volume returning. “But you're being a child—”

 

Her look diminished to practically nothing as offense manipulated her features. "What did you just say?"

 

"I called you a child because that is how you are acting."

 

"I’m being a child?” she asked in exasperation. “You're being a child. You're pouting—"

 

"Because I care about you!" he revealed, breathless.

 

Her chest heaved too, causing both to wonder what it was, other than oxygen, they were holding back. Charlotte had turned away from Ben but his honesty dragged her back. "What?" Even so, she couldn’t yet allow her eyes to meet his own.

 

"I—”

 

The moment was lost to silence and when Charlie found herself brave enough to let her glance drift up the length of him, she saw only Ben’s lips and how they were almost upon hers. His hands moved too, both gently cupping her face while he softened into her, causing her bones to do the very same. Her palms drifted to his chest, ironically in an effort to keep him close.

 

Neither knew how long they moved against one another but the inevitable breakaway was slow, shown most clearly in the way neither felt bold enough to open their eyes. But Ben eventually did and as he let his fingers fall and took a step back from Charlotte, she saw the man that kissed her disappear, all of him replaced by the soldier she was introduced to only three months prior.

 

"I don't know why I did that,” he admitted with a voice so gentle, all it could procure from Charlotte was a slow nod.

 

"Me neither," she whispered.

 

Behind them Anna entered, bringing with her some of the afternoon air and the reminder that just beyond the tent they stood in was an entire army still carrying about their day

 

"Ben!" Anna called out blindly. When she saw the two standing so close, limbs electric and lips red, she too had to look away. "Oh, I'm—"

 

Ben left without a word, brushing past Anna who easily shared a knowing smile with Charlotte. Charlotte’s shoulders dropped in defeat and Anna joined the girl, wearing a similar posture as she left the tent, undoubtedly intending to follow the same boy she’d been seeking. But Anna didn’t recognize the person she’d happened upon, all of him so still and unsure.

 

Charlottes stomach turned in their absence; it certainly was not butterflies but it wasn’t anger either. Already she was missing the taste of his lips, her mind entertained now with all the reasons that should not have been the case.

Chapter Text

Ben paced, quietly gathering the courage to push inside Anna’s tent. When the audacity came upon him he acted quickly, afraid it might disappear if he hesitated. It caused him to push at the flap of her tent with much force, startling Anna to a standing position while she took him in. The stitchwork she’d previously held in her lap was now at her feet.

 

“Ever heard of calling out?”

 

Ben looked to Anna, a somewhat remorseful grin tugging at his lips as he gazed at the empty cot across from her own. This was Anna’s tent, a provision set forth by Caleb and Ben with Washington’s approval, given in return for all she had done for these boys the past two years. But now Charlotte had stayed here too, only once but long enough for Anna to leave her bed fully made, should she return.

 

“I was…” He exhaled. “I was looking for something.”

 

Anna’s eyes narrowed in suspicion but she nodded all the same. She noted the strong hold Ben had on his sword and the arch of his back, both a display of his feigned confidence. “Something?”

 

“Yes, and it...it’s not here,” he said casually, all before backing away to exit.

 

“Ben?” Anna tried again. He stopped but did not turn to her fully. “Anything I can help you find?”

 

Another exhale was given, each breath passing Ben’s lips with uncertainty as his gaze continued to scan the confines of the tent. Finally, he took a step toward her and inhaled sharply. “Have you seen Charlie?”

 

Anna smirked. “I’m sorry...who?”

 

“Char…” His voice stopped itself as he realized it was best not to repeat what was already misunderstood. “Charlotte,” he gave instead, as if clearing his throat.

 

Her eyes widened. “Charlotte?”

 

“Yes, Charlotte. She—”

 

“Oh, Ben…” Anna admonished softly with a small step toward him. If he would have let her, she would have grabbed his hand in sympathy.

 

"What?" The furrow of Ben’s brow almost convinced Anna that he truly wasn’t aware of his failed subtlety. It seemed Ben’s own masquerade was lost inwardly; sometimes he didn’t know what he felt either, even if everyone else around him had been bearing witness to it for many months now.

 

Anna looked to the ground then back to her friend, her lips pursed and with eyes that carried new light. "Are you ready to talk about the other night?"

 

"What night?"

 

Anna looked away, shaking her head. "Alright then."

 

"I don't know what you're talking about, Anna.”

 

"I'm…” She almost let it go but she hadn’t seen Charlotte in over a week and she partially assumed her words were about to fall on deaf ears nevertheless. “I’m talking about the fact that you and Charlotte were arguing loud enough for the entire camp to hear and then when it got quiet—”

 

"Nothing happened,” Ben dismissed with a small laugh.

 

"So you do know what night I'm talking about?"

 

"Does it matter? It was undoubtedly like the rest where nothing happened because nothing ever happens and nothing will—”

 

"Caleb's right,” Anna said breathily, this time with a disbelieving laugh of her own. “You're the absolute worst liar."

 

"He said he wasn’t going to say anything to you,” Ben tossed back, this time in agitation.

 

Anna did not falter. "Say what? Huh?" She sighed out. "Listen, if you don't want to discuss it that is fine. But I might have some insight. That's all I'm saying."

 

"Insight?"

 

"I know what sneaking around looks like, Ben,” she gave lowly, as if the answer was an easy one.

 

"Sneaking around?"

 

"It's okay if you like her,” Anna offered.

 

"Of course I like her. That's what you all wanted, isn't it?"

 

"Absolutely. But you can't...I just wouldn't do what you're doing, s’all,” she shared simply. Anna half expected the conversation to be over with but she must have discovered a nerve within Ben, one she’d only barely scratched that turned his face crimson in both fear and embarrassment.

 

"And you're the expert on who I should be spending time with?"

 

"Of course not! I'm just—”

 

"At least she's not married."

 

Anna's eyes welled with tears. Just as there were things Ben did not discuss, she too had secrets, ones that unfortunately would be met with far more scrutiny than his own. "We don't have to discuss it, Ben,” she sniffled, not yet allowing any sorrow to paint her cheeks. “I was just trying to give you an outlet because I know you and I know you won't talk about it unless I ask.” She paused, regaining all lost composure. “You do not need to insult me because you're confused. I'm not judging you so I'd appreciate it if you didn't judge me."

 

Anna picked up her dress and brushed past him, deliberately bumping him with her elbow as she exited. The needle and thread she had dropped remained upon the rug behind her with the spool now rolling away from the needle. Its unraveling spanned the same distance that existed many nights prior in the brief moments after Ben and Charlotte had kissed.  

 

~!~

 

Charlie wasn’t expecting to make this journey tonight but something told her that she couldn’t wait until morning to see Ben. After almost two weeks apart she was no longer able to avoid the urge she had to seek him out even if it was the very thing her head had been teaching her heart to fight. Charlotte wouldn’t admit that she missed him, but it felt odd now to know what he tasted like and how it felt to exist so gently in his grip, and not know about all of the mundane thoughts that occupied his mind each day. She criticized his somewhat aloof nature in hopes of earning herself a correction but when Ben continued to retract, she gave in, deciding she’d put up with his inconsistency if it meant she would be given the chance to put up with him at all.

 

When she rode on to camp she found his horse gone, missing with many others from where they were typically tied up against a broken fence line. The entire camp was rather quiet, helped by the chill the night carried. It was a great contrast to the sunny Spring day they’d just experienced, further emphasizing how unsettled Charlotte felt.

 

This hesitancy was magnified when she went to Anna’s tent and found it empty. Though her forced jubilance dwindled a bit, she did have to smile at the sight of the cot she’d slept on many weeks ago, still made up for her possible return. It meant the world to her that her acceptance came from more than just Ben. Her friendship with Caleb and Anna was cherished all the more as she learned just how much the childhood friends meant to one another. She was also honored to find herself included in what would otherwise be deemed an exclusive group.

 

Charlotte carried these thoughts with her, just a few tents down, to where Caleb and Ben’s tent stood. She could see the a lantern lit inside, illuminating the small opening between both flaps. Just as she’d done with Anna’s tent, she casually invited herself inside, but again she was disappointed. The room was empty and the candle hanging from above would soon fade out.

 

Charlotte sighed. She shrugged out of her cloak, gently laying it on a nearby chair before putting her hands on her hips and beginning to pace. All the while she rolled her lips, remembering each touch so vividly her fingers and mouth were still electric with all she and Ben had wordlessly shared. Charlotte couldn’t quite get over the way Ben gingerly held her face in his hands and how her own body felt powerless when his lips were upon hers. As time passed she wondered if this would always be the case but then she’d blush, pushing those musings down in punishment; it was cruel to plan for things not guaranteed and Benjamin Tallmadge was anything but a safe bet.

 

Eventually she sat down, hiding her hands beneath the fabric of her dress. It was improper for a girl to be in a man’s bedroom, much less for her to sit on his bed, but here she was with only a single candle to light the space. It was from this angle she saw Ben’s flintlock was gone and with it his dragoon’s helmet. As her curiosity encouraged her to further inspect the room, she was brought out of her reverie as the flap of the tent flew open.  She felt the cold air before she saw Caleb and while Charlotte was plenty skilled at making it look as if he was the very man she was looking for, she couldn’t hide the horror that washed over her as she saw his clothing stained with blood.

 

“Caleb?”

 

“Shite! Charlotte…”

 

She went to him. “Where’s...what happened to you? Are you alright?”

 

Caleb nodded. His usually jovial nature had been replaced by shock and all Charlotte could do was study his features, doing her best to ignore the smears and splatters of blood so she could search his eyes for better meaning.

 

Caleb tossed his axe down toward the soft earth beside his bed. With it he began to remove other items - his coat and hat and the thin handkerchief he had wrapped around his neck. The usually grey material was deepened in hue, covered by blood so thick it stained the grass below when he dropped it.

 

Charlotte could only watch, her mind calculating what all of this meant, especially as Caleb continued to undress and more and more items seemed to be soaked in what she could only assume was someone else’s blood. Aside from his silence and a small gash on his cheek, Caleb didn’t seem to be injured.

 

“Caleb?” Charlotte tried again, this time with far more volume. There was panic in her voice and the same fear that had her standing still now pushed her toward him, needing answers. “Caleb!”

 

“Charlotte, you shouldn’t...when did ya even get ‘ere?”

 

“Where is Ben?”

 

“He’s...I dropped him at Medical,” he mumbled. “I’m headin’ over there jus’ as soon as I get outta these clothes. I—”

 

“Medical? Why is he in Medical?”

 

Caleb paused. All of her questioning brought him back to the moment and as he looked to her, her dress brightly-colored against her pale skin, all of her existing in stark contrast to the filth and war that covered his own body, Caleb was thrust in reality’s direction. “Don’t worry about it.”

 

“I absolutely will worry about it, Caleb! What happened?” Caleb barely had a beat to respond and already Charlotte was overwhelmed with emotion, her face warm and pink as she gripped his arms and demanded an answer. “What happened, Caleb? What is going on?”

 

But it seemed she didn’t need his answer, or if she did, she didn’t have enough patience to wait for it. Already her body was moving, her feet running out the tent and up the path toward the medical tent. The same skin she’d covered on the ride here was now exposed, splotched in mauve as the night air pumped her blood. Even so, she didn’t feel nearly as cold now, especially as she neared the tent and was suddenly made to stop by the two armed men standing just outside.

 

Her senses did not escape her because Charlotte quickly composed herself. She smiled sweetly and even emphasized the slight melodic component her voice had when asking others, particularly men, for favors. “Excuse me, gentlemen, I—”

 

“No,” one of them said quickly.

 

Charlotte pressed a hand to her chest in unpleasant surprise. “No?”

 

“No,” the other agreed.

 

“I—”

 

The taller solder sighed. “We’re under strict orders not to let anyone in until after the doctor is done.”

 

Charlie smirked and sighed. She even crossed her arms over her chest and moved closer to them. “Boys…”

 

“Excuse me, Miss, but we’re just following orders.”

 

“Well, I…I have something to give the doctor!” she offered, almost proud of her lie.

 

The younger soldier chuckled. “He’s not here yet. That’s who we’re waiting for.”

 

“Not…” She felt breathless again, that same tightness in her chest pushing at her ribcage. “How is...who’s taking care of him?”

 

“Him?”

 

“She’s the—”

 

“Ohhhhh!” the other guard let out, catching on. “You’re Ben’s girl!”

 

“I am...I am most certainly not!” she shrieked in fraudulent offense. “I am no one’s girl!”

 

“Well pardon us, Miss,” the guard continued as if not hearing her, “But the Major is hardly the only one in there. It’s a bloodbath. No place for a lady.”

 

“Charlotte!”

 

The noise came from behind them and as Caleb paced up the path toward the group, the soldiers looked out in his direction. Their inattention was the perfect opportunity for Charlotte to slip between them, her whole body stumbling into the tent.

 

Inside the air was stifling and currently marked with the smell of sweat and gunpowder. Many men were strewn about, all in a bed, with some sitting in chairs or on the ground below as makeshift teams administered to each of them. Cloth stained by war seemed to be everywhere, some pieces floating in rose-colored water while others were tied around legs or arms, blocking circulation or acting as temporary bandaging.

 

Charlotte had been here only a moment and already two men were carried out. Behind them, other men took their places in bed. Everything was oddly quiet but Charlotte swore she could hear a ringing in her ear, one that procured a pressure unlike anything she’d ever felt before. She desperately wanted to find Ben but as her eyes scanned the perimeter of the tent, she saw only blood and now the sad faces of men who couldn’t possibly save their fellow comrades.

 

Her fear had pushed her back toward the entrance, but she was startled when she felt someone enter behind her, and with him, two younger boys each carrying large leather bags. Charlotte’s eyes followed the group as they practically jogged the length of the tent all before disappearing. Intrigued, she slowly took a step to follow, then several more until she could see that the tent was divided into various wings. As she followed the doctor, she noted that it was rank that separated these men and also very clearly determined their level of care. Beyond the main room were many smaller quarters and each officer’s room was less chaotic than the last.

 

Charlotte felt as if she were watching this entire thing from afar. No one paid her any attention and when she happened upon Ben’s cot, tucked privately toward the very back of the medic’s tent, she was sure she had failed to exist at all. His eyes were tightly shut but she could see the pained expression in his brow even as the doctor rushed toward him. His breeches were stained by the shirt and waistcoat in his lap, both items previously concealing the single bullet wound just below his breastbone. She knew only of its placement because a fellow soldier held a cloth to the area in an attempt to stop it from bleeding. Several more rags lay at the mans feet, showing Charlotte the extent of Ben’s wound. This was all solidified when the doctor approached and the current cloth was slowly picked up to display the Major’s injury. More and more blood poured out, now running down Ben’s abdomen in angry shades of red. The source was nearly the size of a shilling, and in its blackness it pulsed with each breath Ben took.

 

Horrified, Charlotte couldn’t take her eyes off of the hole but it was a cough Ben gave in agony that had that pressure in her head finally releasing. Charlotte felt now the tears that streamed down her face and as she blinked her eyes open she saw the splatter of blood that covered the back of Ben’s hand, that same color appearing as Ben gagged, spitting into a bowl that same cherry color that was now spilling past his lips.

 

At the sight of him so pained, Charlotte nearly fainted, instead running for the exit in search of fresh air. Everything felt louder now but she couldn’t dare keep her eyes off the ground, even as she pushed past the tent’s flaps back into the night.

 

Outside Caleb was waiting, all of him ready to catch Charlotte and still her thrashing as he took her in his arms. She nearly collapsed into him, her face stained with tears as she dropped her head to his shoulder and continued to sob, this time much more loudly.

 

“He’ll be fine, Charlotte. We just—”

 

Without warning she picked up her head and pushed him away. “Where were you?” she screamed. “What happened? Why didn’t you watch him?”

 

“We were attacked, Charlotte!” Caleb gave. He was far more shaken by Charlotte’s anger than he was upset at her accusation. On the way to burn the same gunpowder stores Charlotte had told General Washington about, Ben had finally confided in Caleb, in very vague terms, that he was beginning to see Charlotte differently. It was clear now that she returned those feelings, though the extent of which was still undetermined.

 

Charlotte’s chest heaved as she continued to cry, coughing now as the weight of each passing sob constricted her breathing. Finally, just when Caleb was sure she’d lunge at him again, possibly even strike his cheek, she ran away, this time to the nearby brushline. It was there she emptied the contents of her stomach, all of her bent over and weak as she wretched before inevitably collapsing.

 

“Jaysus…” Caleb let out.

 

“As we were saying,” one of the guards interjected obliviously, “we told her not to go in there.”

Chapter Text

Charlotte was lucky. By the time she came to, Caleb was already carrying her back to her tent, the pair being met halfway by a concerned and confused Anna. Charlotte’s head felt heavy on her neck and she was grateful for both of them for she was sure she would have lost consciousness again if forced to make this journey alone.

 

“There ya are,” Caleb gave as he gently helped Charlotte sit down atop her cot. He stepped back to admire his work as Anna took a seat next to the girl, her arm still wrapped around Charlotte to keep her from falling over.

 

“I imagined this same scene, Charlotte, but it involved heaps of madeira...an’ Benny boy was ‘ere, of course.”

 

She forced a small smile. When Caleb realized his attempt at humor was not well received he stepped away, placing a hand to Anna’s back as if to pass off his caretaker duties. In all honesty, he was relieved to have an exit; though he’d never admit it the events of the day had his bones weak and his heart somewhat heavy in regret.

 

Anna helped Charlotte lay down. Charlotte also remembered Anna assisting her in taking her boots off but as she blinked her eyes open long enough to thank her friend she found the moment gone. Many minutes, maybe even hours, had passed. Anna now lay asleep on the cot beside her own and all of the world outside their small tent seemed to be at peace as well.

 

The pain in Charlotte’s head was gone but she sat up slowly nonetheless. She made quick work of putting her boots back on and with her thick cloak still in Ben’s tent she instead grabbed the same wool blanket she’d slept beneath and wrapped it around her shoulders. It scratched at her exposed neckline but it provided the warmth she needed to walk from her tent back toward the medic’s.

 

A guard, one of the same young men from before, stood on watch outside the doors. Charlotte couldn’t muster the same charm she’d given him earlier but the melancholy smile she forced had him rolling his eyes all before stepping aside to let her in.

 

It was not as warm as it was before, nor as loud. Many of the men from earlier were gone and Charlotte wondered if they had recovered completely or not at all. It was this realization that had her breathing quickening and she placed a hand to her stomach in an attempt to calm herself down. Selfishly she thought only of the man she knew and how she hoped he had not met a similar fate. Then she reasoned with herself, assuming that couldn’t be the case if Anna was sleeping and allowing her to do the very same.

 

Her rationale did nothing to calm her down, but it did keep her still. Charlotte’s eyes scanned the room again, wondering if she knew any of these men but really distracting herself with the hope of delaying her meeting with the truth. Just as effortlessly as she had entered, Charlotte turned on her heel to leave, possibly not realizing she had done so. It seemed her body was not her own lately and she was once again grateful to find a friend catching her, ready to be strong for her when she clearly could not manage the same.

 

“Whoa! It’s me. It’s me, Charlotte…” he soothed.

 

With wide eyes she took him in. “Where is he?”

 

Caleb paused. “Stable.”

 

Charlotte looked over Caleb’s shoulder as if looking for Ben. “I want to…” She inhaled to regain what little composure remained inside her small frame. “I’d like to see him. To...to make sure he’s okay,” she explained. When her gaze met Caleb’s he saw she was not asking for permission but instead dismissing him. Though she seemed unsteady just moments before the way she now clutched her blanket had her posture returning.

 

“Char, he—”

 

“I can take it,” she said simply.

 

Caleb smirked. “Didn’t look like you could take it before.”

 

Again Caleb’s attempt at making Charlotte laugh was lost on her determination to see Ben. “Is he going to make it?” she asked, looking to the back of the tent once more.

 

“Uh, yeah...seems that way.”

 

“Then it’s fine. I—” Her voice was halted as Caleb remained, blocking her path. “Please move, Caleb,” she begged softly, not letting his eyes meet her own. “I’d like to see Ben.” Then: “Alone.”

 

He had no other choice; Caleb could only sigh before moving out of the girl’s way. With her newly discovered resolve, she silently charted the same distance she’d walked only hours before and though Caleb and Anna were both accounted for elsewhere, Charlotte was somewhat surprised to find Ben’s area empty. The soiled cloth from earlier were removed from the ground and his uniform had disappeared, leaving him in only his still-stained breeches and a large, thick bandage spanning the circumference of his waist.  

 

She observed the way he looked far more peaceful than the last time she’d seen him, and the lack of a medical team told Charlotte that Ben must have been heading toward recovery. She prayed the blood he coughed up earlier was a rarity, hearing of similar fates claiming men before their initial injuries could.

 

Waiting, Charlotte bit at her fingernail, still taking him in. She wanted to go to him, to push back at his hairline and dab at the beads of sweat on his forehead. She knew this was a sign of a broken fever, clear indication that his body was already fighting infection. Ben was strong and Charlotte always knew this, but it was fascinating to see it displayed when he was without movement or voice.

 

Bravely Charlotte dropped her hand and stepped forward. Looking up, she saw Ben’s eyes flutter open and after his confusion escaped him, he gave a small smile.

 

"Hi."

 

She let out a breathy laugh in dismissal of the relief she now felt at seeing him awake. She didn’t know it but her eyes were glossed over again, ready to cry if the moment intensified. "Hi,” she whispered.

 

“You shouldn’t be in here,” Ben finally managed weakly.

 

Charlotte took another step toward him. “I was in here before.”

 

If he could have, Ben would have chuckled. “Caleb told me.”

 

“Are you...are you alright then?”

 

“M’fine,” Ben denied. “Just a bullet. I’ve had worse.”

 

Charlotte raised her brows. “What’s worse than a bullet?”

 

“Several bullets,” Ben deadpanned.

 

“You’ve been...you’ve been shot before?”

 

Ben’s face was quizzical but it was amusement, not judgement that dictated his features. “What do you think war is, Charlie?” He started to laugh but all too easily Charlotte could see the pain spread across Ben’s face. Instantly she was going to him, keeping her blanket tight around her form as she sat down, occupying the small space beside him on the bed.

“What can I do?” she pleaded.

 

"You can leave so you don't have to see me like this."

 

"I want to help you.”

 

"Not much to help with,” he tried nonchalantly. “Bullets gone...I'm a little drunk,” he admitted.

 

Charlotte sighed out. “You shouldn’t be alone.”

 

“I’m used to being alone—”

 

“I don’t want to leave you,” she countered just as quickly. The honesty in her words had her voice almost cracking.

 

Ben’s eyes narrowed, taking her in and just for a moment forgetting how much pain he was in. "Are you okay?”

 

"I don't know," she whispered back.

 

"Well—"

 

"This isn't about me,” Charlotte self-admonished. “I'll...you should rest. Please. I just want to...I really don't want you to be alone so if you'd let me, I'm going to go grab my book and when I get back I'm hoping you'll be asleep and I can just read while—"

 

"You're going to be exhausted, Charlie. I'm...I'm fine.”

 

"But I'm not!” she gave, this time much more loudly. Soon though, as if embarrassed by all the emotions she could no longer keep hidden from Ben, Charlotte was calm again. “I just...please let me do this, alright?"

 

Ben slowly nodded. "Yeah...yeah, okay."

 

She did disappear but she returned just as quickly. It seemed she had gained some bravery on her jaunt back, a courage that allowed her to go to Ben, forfeiting the same book she promised to read to instead help him sit up. Even through his pain, Ben felt nervous with her so close and when she asked him one last time if he was comfortable, he could only nod, his eyes not moving from her lips. She left briefly to fetch him a glass of water and in her absence he thought only about their kiss. Ben did his best to focus on the precise moment their lips met and not the insensitive way he marched out afterward. It was true that Charlie terrified him, just as he was terrified now, wondering if she felt the same and thought about that same night. It was honestly one of the only things he gave thought to as he passed out on the battlefield.

 

Charlotte moved the chair in the corner of the space closer to Ben’s bed. Though he did not indicate that he wished to rest, she picked up her book and opened the spine, at least intending to follow through on her promise to be silently present.

 

"I…” She sighed and closed her book. “They're keeping prisoners on the ships with the soldiers. They know we know or they're assuming,” she explained. “They know we won't fire if there are prisoners aboard."

 

Ben quirked an eyebrow. "Are you sharing intelligence with me? I might not remember much of this in the morning."

 

Charlotte’s gaze narrowed. "What did they give you?"

 

"The medic gave me a bit of morphine. Caleb gave me rum."

 

She pursed her lips in quiet merriment. "Didn't know you were a drinker."

 

"I'll take up any habit if it means making the pain go away."

 

Charlotte frowned. "That bad?"

 

"Could be worse. But I've been lucky. Fourth bullet this year."

 

"And hopefully the last."

 

Ben sighed. "Charlie, I need...I don't want you in here. You really shouldn't be worrying about me or—”

 

"I'm going to worry about you whether I'm here or not,” she revealed, doing so with eyes so blue Ben had to swallow to rid himself of their intensity.

 

"You shouldn't do that."

 

"I've been doing a lot of things I shouldn't lately,” she gave with a huff.

 

"Like?"

 

"Like kissing you."

 

Her admission came so willingly Ben had to grin. "Is that an apology?" He hoped that wasn’t the case but even if it were, it was also acknowledgment to the fact that Charlotte had been thinking of their kiss just as much as he had.

 

"Why? Should it be? Are you sorry?"

 

"I'm hardly sorry,” he chuckled.

 

"I don't know...you're infuriating. I needed to shut you up,” Charlotte said flippantly, looking away.

 

"It was a successful attempt,” Ben reasoned, as if asking her to look back.

 

Charlotte laughed, knowing Ben would have joined her had he not still been so uncomfortable. Both would have been more than content just existing in one another’s presence but Anna soon entered, interrupting their wordless moment, robbing them both of any happiness they felt toward the other, not yet ready for the world to see what they themselves could not fully understand.

 

Anna pursed her lips in apology and simply stepped out once more to give the couple one last minute moment of privacy.

 

Finally, Charlotte looked to him again. "You say stupid things, Benjamin."

 

"You do stupid things,” he tossed back.

 

"I know."

 

She was frighteningly self-aware, causing Ben to soften. "Kissing me wasn't stupid. Not if you meant it."

 

"Of course I meant it. And if you keep saying nonsensical things..."

 

Ben’s eyes closed at the sound of all she didn’t say. When they opened she was before him, clutching her book and her blanket but reaching out to let her knuckles tenderly touch his cheek.

 

"Goodnight, Benjamin."

 

“‘Night, Charlie."

 

He watched her go, smiling as Anna shared a grin of her own with a disappearing Charlotte. He had never considered the fact that Anna wouldn’t always be the only woman in his life. Someday, he imagined, he’d get married and in an ideal world his wife would get along with his mates just as much as he did. Perhaps that wasn’t practical or proper but it — like many other things in his life — seemed possible with Charlotte.


"You've had that girl worried sick,” Anna said as she took Charlotte’s place towering over Ben’s bed.

 

He stared blankly ahead. "I'm sorry my gunshot has inconvenienced everyone."

"She...she's genuinely worried about you, Ben,” she reasoned.

"I know that."

"She cares about you."

"I know that too."


"So if you don't care for her…” Anna shut her eyes, wanting to backtrack but proceeding ever the same. “I guess what I was trying to say the other night is...I know what it's like to love someone who can't love you. I wouldn't wish that upon anyone. Not even one of my best friends who was a right prat last week."

Ben sighed. "Listen, Anna, about that...I'm sorry."

"You don't need to apologize, Ben. You're under a lot of pressure and I get that."

"Perhaps but that was extremely unkind and out of line and—"

"I'm not going to judge you, Ben,” Anna gave strongly, as if asking that he let her finish. “I told you that. I just need you to understand what you're getting into if you...if you care about Charlotte. I mean, even if she's completely separated from her family, this world will still expect things from her."

"I do care about her. I care about her greatly. But I don't know if—"

Anna paused, challenging Ben to continue like she was inviting the lie. "She's been worried sick," she reminded plainly.

"Well, I'm sorry. Truly."

"All I'm saying is that if you're going to take this leap, please make sure this is what you want."

"Oh...okay?”


"You're asking her to give up a lot. More than we already have. And if...if anything happens it'll absolutely devastate her."

 

“Happens?”

 

“To you!” Anna gave in frustration.

"I don't want…” Ben closed his eyes. “I didn't have control over any of this,” he finally reasoned.

"I know that,” Anna returned softly, looking away. "I know those feelings all too well."

Chapter Text

As he began to heal, Ben received his first order from General Washington, that being that he’d continue his recovery inside the main house. It actually began as an invitation but when Ben’s ego forced him to decline the offer, Washington sent the Major a letter, instructing him to move inside by the end of the following evening or face court-martial. Ben’s unwillingness to accept help had him insisting that Caleb and Anna help him move in the middle of the night so as to avoid any infantry witnessing his current weak state.

 

He also didn’t want anyone believing he was receiving special treatment; rumors now circulated that Charlotte was Washington’s niece and her relationship with Ben had earned him favor in the General’s eyes. The latter half of that gossip was true: Charlotte’s relationship with the Washington’s did earn Ben their attention, but the idea to move him was all George’s. Despite the setbacks caused by the ambush that wounded Ben, there was a newfound confidence amongst the army. It was intensely welcomed, especially by the frustrated commander-in-chief.

 

Charlie remained with Ben for two days after he was wounded. She even spent the night, this time without telling her aunt, earning her an endless amount of scrutiny when she returned home the following day. Charlotte didn’t seem to mind as much as she once would have; lately she was beginning to feel she was exactly where she needed to be.

 

Four days passed after her departure where Anna and several of Washington’s house servants tended to Ben but when Charlie returned everyone else was wordlessly dismissed. It was almost as if they knew he was now in capable hands, also happy to give the pair privacy if it meant being relieved of the duties Ben already wished they didn’t have to perform. He was used to being alone and typically he didn’t mind it, but he also wasn’t disappointed to see Charlotte.

 

She appeared to him without warning, tying an apron around her waist as she entered his temporary bedroom.

 

Ben had to concentrate to slow his breathing. “Playing nurse, are we?” he questioned as his eyes scanned over her silhouette.

 

“Doctor, actually,” Charlie played along as she went to him, standing at the foot of his bed with her hands on her hips and eyes cast down at him in assessment.

 

“Well I feel fine,” he admitted casually, causing both of them to share knowing grins.

 

Charlotte could only shake her head. She moved to the side of his bed and sat beside him. “You don’t look fine.”

 

“Thanks, Charlie. You look quite lovely,” he admired in return.

 

“Enough.”

 

Ben was amused by his compliment. “Does Washington know you’re in here?” he asked, his eyes bouncing to the door she’d just entered and how it was now latched in its jamb.

 

“Does it matter?”

 

“He’s doing me a favor by keeping me away from everyone else. I get a goddamn bed for the first time in months. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spoil it.”

 

“Is my presence spoiling things for you then?”

 

“You’re…” Ben let out a nervous laugh. “Hardly,” he settled. “I just don’t—”

 

“What?”

 

“Nevermind.”

 

“Don’t want him to think I’m giving you special attention?”

 

“Well, yes. But I also don’t need him lecturing me on…”

 

“On what?”

 

“He’ll ask that I stay away from you.”

 

“Introducing us and then insisting we dance is a very odd way to tell you to stay away from me.”

 

“That was mostly Mrs. Washington,” Ben pointed out.

 

Charlotte inhaled. “Well luckily for you he’s not my father and even if he were I think I’ve done quite the job at proving I don’t listen to what other people want from me.”

 

“Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear.”

 

“So in keeping with that,” Charlotte continued, “I’d request that you politely decline.”

 

Ben’s forehead creased. “Decline?”

 

“Join me in not listening,” she clarified.

 

“Charlie—”

 

“He’ll get over it,” she promised simply. “Everyone will get over it.”

 

“Everyone?”

 

“People are talking,” she admitted to the quilt she sat upon. Her eyes then danced up his chest only to rest upon his own. “Did I forget to mention that?” she asked innocently.

 

“Talking?”

 

“I’m your girl apparently.”

 

Ben grinned. “Oh, are you?”

 

“Apparently. Don’t sound so insulted.”

 

He almost laughed. “Never, I just—”

 

“Anna’s relieved to have her name cleared.” Charlie’s interjection was a clear show of her aversion to hearing that perhaps Ben didn’t feel the way she thought he did. His lack of confirmation either way kept her hopeful.

 

Ben seemed pleased with the interruption. The only thing worse than having feelings was being forced to confront them. “I bet she is.”

 

“Well I don’t care but perhaps if you do, maybe I should go. This isn’t doing much to help our case,” she explained as she began to lift off the bed.

 

With a tender touch to her wrist, Ben stopped her. The lack of force required to pull her back to him, had him smiling and her looking away. “I do require medical attention,” he quipped.

 

Charlotte gave a face. “I thought you felt fine?”

 

“It hurts a bit,” he conceded.

 

“Well then,” she exhaled, “Let’s have a look at it and then I’ll change your dressing.”

 

Her words stunned him. “What?”

 

“Take your shirt off.”

 

Ben leaned forward. “Pardon?”

 

“I can go get the medic if you prefer but—”

 

“Turn around,” he instructed.

 

“What?” Charlotte cackled. “I’ve seen a man’s naked chest before, Benjamin. Don’t be ridiculous!”

 

“I’m protecting your reputation,” he tried.

 

She cocked an eyebrow in genuine interest. “And what reputation is that? Daughter of a Tory officer? Rebel spy? Which one?”

 

Ben sighed and slowly began to reach for the hem of his shirt. He was thankful for the underdrawers he’d slipped into just last night, deciding even that was too bold a move for a Wednesday afternoon.

 

Charlotte shifted, her fingers replacing his, moving the shirt so he could bend out of it one arm at a time. She did not hesitate to touch his skin, making quick work of unpinning the wrap that covered his wound. With every peeled back layer the blood on the cloth grew darker in hue.

 

Ben looked to his injury, then to Charlotte. “Are you going to throw up again?”

 

Charlie finally looked to him. “I still can’t believe Caleb told you that!”

 

“Caleb tells me everything. Most things I don’t care to hear,” he admitted honestly. “That was amusing though.”

 

“I was worried, alright?”

 

“Yes, I see that. And now?”

 

Charlotte returned her attention to his gunshot. She inched away from him only to grab for the bowl and cloth that rested on the nearby bedside table. She immediately wet the material, leaning in again so she could see the area as she dabbed at it, collecting any dried blood before ringing the cloth out to start again.

 

Ben dropped his head back, wincing. She looked to him and smirked. “It’s starting to heal.”

 

“Well it hurts like a ba—”

 

“I’m sure it does,” she giggled. “Sit forward.”

 

Ben’s face fell. “That’s it?” He was beginning to enjoy this game they played, one where her hands could freely touch his skin without either having to admit what it was they were feeling.

 

“It? I’m changing your dressing. What else would you have me do?”

 

“If you wanted to find me some more morphine that’d be grand. I have tasks to get back to and I think it’d really speed things up.”

 

“No morphine. Or rum.”

 

“You’re being very unkind,” he observed.

 

“Me? Unkind? Who slept with you in the days following all of this?”

 

“With me? Where was I when this happened?”

 

Charlotte wanted to toss the rag at him but she instead placed it back on the table. “By your bedside,” she corrected, not able to meet his gaze. “Don’t be bold,” she warned.

 

“You have,” he admitted softly. “And I appreciated it though I’ve told you it was highly unnecessary.”

 

“You’re getting better and that’s what matters,” Charlotte said, sighing out. She stood, but only to retrieve the newly washed wrap one of the servants had laid out that morning. Ben watched her go, his eyes focused on the freckles on her neck then the curve of her hips as she walked back to him. He was so distracted he didn’t realized Charlotte was before him, ushering him to sit forward so she could finish his bandaging. When Charlie finally pinned the material into place she sat up to admire her work, but her breath hitched when she realized Ben was looking too, their faces only inches apart.

 

The moment was swiftly interrupted by a slave girl carrying Ben’s lunch platter. Both immediately looked to the door, sighing as they hid their rouged cheeks, avoiding her glance and refusing to share eye contact  with one another.

 

She swallowed. “Are you ready to eat then?”

 

“With you?”

 

The girl was gone now, leaving them alone but also leaving the door open. Both wondered if perhaps she was following orders to do so.

 

Charlotte continued nonetheless. “Well it’s better than eating alone, isn’t it?”

 

“What are we having?”

 

“Soup,” she said simply.

 

“What kind?”

 

“Mostly vegetables. But I was able to get a slab of pork on the way in this morning so it’s better than what you’re used to.”

 

Ben blinked. “You made this?” he asked, now looking to the bowl she handed him.

 

She took her own bowl to the other side of the bed, inevitably taking her place beside him so both were leant back against the headboard. Ben wasn’t aware it was possible to be this nervous sharing a bed with a fully-clothed woman.

 

“I most certainly did,” she stated proudly. “Why does that shock you?”

 

“I didn’t know they taught you lot to cook.”

 

“Someone has to.”

 

“Yeah, your servants.”

 

Charlotte scoffed out a laugh. “My parents have servants, Benjamin, I do not. And if you’re sullying my reputation then we’ll have to be married and last time I checked your family wasn’t the people-owning type so I’m teaching myself so we won’t starve.”

 

“You’ve got big plans for us,” he observed playfully.

 

“My only plan right now is for you to get better before we head South.”

 

“Are you using me to get Michael?”

 

“Of course I am,” she returned quickly, causing him to drop his head back and laugh. “You’re the one who offered to find him, remember? You’ve put yourself in this position.”

 

“Have I?”

 

“You have. Which is ironic too. Washington’s reaction to our friendship will be tame compared to his.”

 

Ben swallowed the soup he had just sipped at. It was an ideal temperature and as he bit into a chunk of potato he realized he was far more hungry than he’d originally thought. “What does that mean?”

 

Charlotte looked away. “Doesn’t matter,” she said simply, all before busying her lips with a spoonful of broth. “I don’t know what I’m saying.” This wasn’t a complete lie; if she never acted on her feelings toward Ben there was nothing for Michael to criticize. Even so, she feared her brother would be able to see through it all. If he were here now he’d be dissecting her every word, ready to pass judgement he considered helpful. Lately Charlie found herself almost dreading their reunion.

 

“Charlie?” Ben asked, leaning forward to look at her.

 

She blinked, dismissing a memory. Several moments must have passed because the food in Ben’s bowl had dwindled considerably. She forced a smile in apology for her temporary loss of reality. “Sorry, what?”

 

“Are you alright?”

 

She nodded quickly, now only smiling more. “Yes, I’m sorry.”

 

“Are—”

 

“I wanted to talk to you about something, actually.”

 

“Oh...okay.”

 

“I just...I’ve been thinking about last week. The night you were shot,” she explained. “You were out because of intelligence I had shared and I just wanted to…”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“You know I didn’t...I never thought that…you trust me, don’t you?” she finally asked, her words being released like a relieved sigh.

 

Ben still couldn’t look away. Finally, he shook his head in agreement. “Yeah...yeah, of course, why...you think I think you set us up?”

 

“I think there’s a possibility of you thinking that, yes,” Charlie returned with determination. “Before all of this…”

 

“I wasn’t angry at you.”

 

“You walked away and I didn’t know what you were thinking—”

 

“I wasn’t thinking you were giving us false information, that’s for sure.”

 

“And you still don’t believe that, correct? Because I—”

 

“No!” Ben chuckled. “Do you really think that lowly of me?”

 

“Of course not but sometimes I think that’s what you think of me!”

 

“Sometimes? Still?”

 

“It doesn’t matter, Benjamin. I just need to know you trust me. I was...sometimes you make me so angry I want to knock you out and you’re stubborn and your dedication can often be confused with rudeness but I was devastated last week.”

 

“I know you were,” Ben agreed. They’d shared a similar back and forth only minutes ago but this was a different level of honesty. “Of course I trust you. I’m sorry if you were still doubting that. I guess that’s my fault.”

 

“It’s not—”

 

“I do care what you think, Charlie,” Ben said softly, his eyes now begging that she believe him. “You were right...I hate admitting that but you were. So I guess I need you to know that I trust you. And I need you to trust me and—”

 

“I trust you,” she confirmed instantly.

 

Ben grinned, nodding slowly, then donating his gaze back to the wall straight ahead, clearly still lost in thought. “Good.”

 

~!~

 

It was odd then when one afternoon the same man that had insisted Ben stay inside, prepositioned him with a request of self-imposed distance.

 

“How are you feeling?” General Washington asked. He did not look up from the letter he was writing, but his hands stilled long enough for a single drop of ink to stain the parchment below.

 

Ben took note of his superior’s somewhat hesitant tone. “Better,” he nodded, his eyes still scanning George up and down in an attempt to gauge where he intended this conversation to go.

 

George merely nodded too. “Good,” he gave, all before returning to his letter.

 

Ben paused. “Is that it?”

 

It was then that the General placed his quill back in its bottle. “No.”

 

“Oh...okay?”

 

“I saw you and Charlotte last week,” he revealed in haste with eyes that finally met Ben’s. Before the boy could offer a response, he continued. “Then yesterday. And again today.”

 

“Right.”

 

“I guess I should have said this sooner but the meeting...that was Martha’s idea.”

 

“The meeting, sir?”

 

“At Martha’s fundraiser last winter.”

 

“Ahhh,” Ben nodded. “You didn’t want Charlotte and I to know one another then?”

 

General Washington only barely shook his head. “I did not say that.”

 

“Then, with all due respect, sir, what are you saying?”

 

“Charlotte has a reputation, Ben. A good one that her parents have worked all her life to cultivate and protect. Even with the war she is still one of York City’s finest and if and when she returns to Virginia, she’ll hold a similar title there. She’s engaged—”

 

“To Nicholas?” Ben asked rhetorically. He sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Ha!” he laughed out. Washington was not amused, causing Ben to straighten his posture and correct himself. “I’m sorry, I just...I’m not following, sir, I—”

 

“After the war, Ben—”

 

“Again, sir, I apologize but I think we all need to remember that things are hardly going to return to normal after all of this.”

 

George smirked. “I thought you weren’t following?”

 

“Well I am now and what you’re saying is...it’s nonsensical. Beyond the fact that Charlotte is just a friend and we’re just doing what everyone else has asked us to do, we all need to be realistic and acknowledge that her life won’t return to what it was. It can’t. I’d hope she knows that but if she doesn’t then maybe I need to discuss it with her because—”

 

“When all of this is over, Ben,” Washington began in a much louder voice, “regardless of who wins, Charlotte will return to her life. Perhaps not as the daughter of a Tory officer but she’ll still be a beautiful and bright young woman and she’ll still be expected to marry well. Wealth and—”

 

“It’s not serious,” Ben scoffed.

 

George paused, his eyebrows raising in his first show of true emotion: shock. “Well I’m not sure I like that response either.”

 

“She told me you’d say something.”

 

“Of course I will. Her father and I may disagree on all but breathing but I do respect the man and he and her mother would be devastated to learn Charlotte had spent time with a man she wasn’t meant to marry.”

 

“Yeah? Do you think they’ll also be upset to learn she’s helping us win this war?”

 

George closed his eyes, doing his best to collect his thoughts before continuing. “All I’m saying, Ben, is that if anything is to transpire it might be best if it waits until all of this is over.”

 

“When she apparently returns to her old life?”

 

“When things are a bit more certain, yes.” He sighed again. “Benjamin, you’re an adult—”

 

“So is she.”

 

“Perhaps, but I’ve known her since she was a child and I know the world she comes from far better than you do. I asked you to look after her. I did not ask you to—”

 

“We’re friends,” Ben declared simply, with a confidence that showed it was likely he believed his words would end their discussion altogether. “I’m sorry if it seems like it is more than that but it’s not.”

 

General Washington paused. His silence did not exist in an effort to bide himself more time, instead he no longer wished to debate with a man too scared of the truth he could not even acknowledge its possible existence, much less validate it. Ben was not lying, at least not to anyone but himself; he could not deceive someone on something he was still so deeply in denial about.

Chapter Text

Charlotte was growing impatient. Her original task of gathering information within York City had become a daunting one as the city around her began to take different shape. Officers were being shipped out to different bases down the coast and some men had even been sent back home, leaving her usual task of flirting with young soldiers to become a rare one. She still helped her mother host weekly parties, those of which diminished to somber dinners where mostly older men made crude comments to her in the absence of their wives. Charlotte had perfected a fake smile that hid how altogether miserable she was away from camp and now she was beginning to acknowledge this had little to do with her journey to find Michael. In some ways — selfish ways — it was also separate from the overall craving she had for the colonies to see a final victory.

 

Mrs. Grayford was none the wiser. She still planned and prepped as if the war had just begun, dedicating herself and the time of her servants to lavish parties and outings. Today was no different where on the table in front of her were several menus, all of them handpicked by the family’s cook as options for their next fundraiser.

 

“What do you think of this one, darling?” Catherine asked, handing off the parchment to her daughter.

 

Charlotte gave a smirk, relieved her mother’s words had taken her out of the reverie she was previously lost in. Her and Ben had not kissed since before his injury but she thought about it more and more, craving to be near him and growing restless with each passing day where that was not the case.

 

Recently Charlotte had caved and told her Aunt Lillian just where she was disappearing to, only to learn that her aunt had known all along. Lillian and General Washington had made this arrangement before Charlotte even met Ben, meaning her aunt was still in the dark when it came to the boy constantly occupying her thoughts. That didn’t stop Lillian from asking Charlotte what else she wanted out of a Continental victory, encouraging a life beyond this war in times where Charlotte felt that maybe it would all never end.

 

It was these same discussions, usually shared over tea out on her Aunt Lillian’s porch, that caused Charlotte to pack up her childhood bedroom and now sit across from her mother, unable to tell her that this city had nothing left to offer her and for that reason she’d be leaving. She could only offer her mother the same thing she’d offered her father and the rest of the men they’d entertained the previous night: that telltale smirk all women perfected when they were too uncomfortable to correct their current situations.

 

“It’s fine,” she said, all before returning her attention out the window.

 

Catherine’s eyes narrowed as she took her daughter in. Charlotte’s usually curly hair was not coiffed or adorned with jeweled pins. Instead it was pulled back into a simple bun, echoing the loose nature of her corset, an item she noticed her daughter had forfeited altogether many days ago.

 

“Fine? Well of course it’s fine, Charlotte,” she gave with a laugh, “I’m asking what you think. Which is your favorite?”

 

“The lamb,” Charlotte said cheerily, now turning back to her mother.

 

Catherine nodded and put the card aside.

 

“Mother?”

 

She smiled. “Yes, darling?”

 

“Was there...did you have anyone before father?”

 

Her mother nearly choked on her tea. “Have anyone?”

 

“Courting-wise,” Charlotte corrected with eyes shut in embarrassment.

 

Catherine giggled behind her cup. “Of course not.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

She placed the tea cup back on its saucer. “Have you heard differently, dear?”

 

“No, I’m just...I’ve had a lot of time to think…” Her voice trailed off again. “About lots of things,” she assured. “I wasn’t sure if…”

 

“What are you on about, child?”

 

“I only mean that—”

 

“You have someone?” Charlotte asked, echoing her daughter’s bizarre question with mirth coated words.

 

“No, I just—”

 

“Think it’s time to accept Nicholas’ proposal? Because I’d agree,” she shared strongly.

 

“I don’t…” She exhaled in search of courage. “No,” she stated firmly. “I’ve decided that I don’t want to marry Nicholas.”

 

Catherine chuckled. “Sure you do.”

 

“I don’t,” she persevered. “I didn’t before and I certainly don’t wish to now.”

 

“Now? What’s happened now?”

 

“Things are...they’re changing,” she explained, now with straightened posture.

 

“Oh, are they? I hadn’t noticed. Surely they’re not changing enough to where a beautiful girl such as yourself would ever reject the son of one of York City’s best families.”

 

“Is that why you married father then? Because your mother told you to?”

 

“No,” Catherine scoffed before sipping at her tea. “It was my father, actually.”

 

Charlotte’s gaze turned troubled. “You didn’t love him?”

 

“Of course I did! And I do.” She sighed before sitting forward, ready to touch Charlotte’s hands in reassurance if only the girl hadn’t pulled away first. “It may not feel like love right now, Charlotte, but he will be able to provide for you and the children you’ll someday have.”

 

“With Nicholas?”

 

“Who else?”

 

“Well what if I meet someone?” she stammered. “What if someone else proposes?”

 

“Have they?” Her mother tossed right back. “Is there something I should know?”

 

Charlotte bit her lip. Her attention drifted back out the window before falling to the floor just below. No one had proposed and she’d hardly been romantic with Ben; even their kiss ended tragically and though her fingertips ached to touch him, both had been too terrified to act on what they were both so obviously feeling. Even so, she’d choose this uncertain state over the life her mother described — she’d choose it time and time again, if ever given the chance.

 

Catherine sighed. “I don’t see why you or anyone would decline Nicholas’ offer. Do you know how many girls fawn over that boy? And his family adores you.”

 

“But what if it never happens?” There was clear panic in Charlotte’s voice. “What if he’s forever a friend? Don’t I deserve love? Don’t I deserve happiness?”

 

“Of course you do,” she said simply with a wave of her hand. “And Nicholas can provide those things.”

 

“Like father did for you?”

 

Catherine paused. “Your tone makes me question if you believe that’s the case, Charlotte.”

 

“Well is it? Are you happy, Mother?”

 

“Of course I’m happy, Charlotte! This state is my home. I grew up in this city—”

 

“This is hardly the city you grew up in, Mother, and you know it.”

 

Catherine placed a hand to her chest. “I beg your pardon?”

 

“York City? It’s been ruined. Father took you away and—”

 

“I wasn’t kidnapped, Charlotte. I went willingly to Virginia because that is where your father wished to be. And we came back here because this is where I wished to be—”

 

“You came back,” Charlie corrected sternly, “because Father was transferred. They needed him up here. It had absolutely nothing to do with you.”

 

“You know, I don’t appreciate this round of questioning, Charlotte. You must stop whatever it is you are trying to rationalize in your head. Love grows, darling. And with the help of a beautiful home and good social standing, so do children.”

 

“And I have no say in it?” Charlotte was almost breathless, the hope in her escaping her lungs like air disappearing after a hard blow.

 

“Honestly? Very little.” She pushed away from the table and moved to stand. The only thing that kept her from turning on her heel to walk away was her own daughter, the same girl she was currently so disappointed in, speaking in a tone that made Catherine think that maybe she was ready to apologize.

 

"Mother..." was all Charlie could manage. It kept her mother close but did nothing to rid her of the anger she felt in her chest.

 

"You're asking me questions and I am giving you the answers, Charlotte. We hardly have time alone to be this frank with one another and you started so I'm merely playing along. Any others?"

 

"What if there's someone else?" she asked desperately.

 

"That's the first question you've repeated. So tell me, Charlotte...is there? Is there something you need to tell me?"

 

Charlotte inhaled. As she looked back to her mother she let a forged grin tug at the corners of her mouth. "No. No, of course not."

 

But there was and such a thing was only confirmed as her mother walked away, leaving Charlotte to hear her own words in echo. She ran immediately for the stairs, unaware of how she’d waited so many days since last seeing Ben.

 

~!~

 

Charlotte remained in her room well past midnight. When her lady’s maid knocked at the door, offering dinner or even help getting undressed, Charlotte said nothing. She didn’t need anyone in the home noting a difference between her silent existence and soon-to-be disappearance. Charlie couldn’t afford to be followed. If she was caught walking down to the docks alone, especially at this hour, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep the rest of her secrets hidden.

 

Compared to most August nights, the night was cool, making Charlotte’s plan to wear her cloak down toward the Battery a more practical one. While the dress she wore was plain, the suitcase she carried and the thick drape of her coat did little to hide her class. Even though the area was mostly empty, she felt out of place here, and for as much as she needed to be out of the city she spent the moments waiting for Caleb by taking mental snapshots of the harbor.

 

She was shaking and her heart quickened to a gasp as someone approached. Charlie was instantly calmed to see it was not Caleb, but a boy she’d known from her childhood. Isaac and Michael had gone to university together and she hadn’t seen him in many years. She assumed, as she did with most of her childhood friends, that they’d either been lost to the war or so deeply entrenched in marriage and children they failed to notice its existence.

 

“Isaac!” she let out with relief.

 

“Char...Charlotte?” he asked. He stumbled, causing Charlotte’s smile to falter while she continued to take him in. He did not have a rifle at his back but a knife and flintlock sat tied on his hips. The rest of his uniform was pristine but she could smell the whiskey on his breath, especially as he grew closer, nearly bumping into her.

 

“Isaac?”

 

He took a step toward her. “Bloody hell, you’re pretty,” he slurred. His hands moved to her hip in an attempt to still himself.

 

Charlotte’s eyes scanned from where Isaac’s hands rested, back up to the soldier. “You’re…you’re drunk.”

 

“Perhaps a bit,” he chuckled.

 

“Why don’t…” A nervous laugh escaped her lips. “You should head home. I was actually—” Her words were stunted by Isaac’s grip, one hand remaining on her hip while the other tugged at her wrist to keep her close. “Isaac,” she warned, “let go.”

 

“Where’s Michael, Charlotte? Still gone?”

 

“Isaac, please…”

 

“Shouldn’t have left his baby sister in this city all by herself. He should know better…”

 

“Isaac...please, alright? Let’s just—”

 

“You never thought of me?”

 

“N...no, because—”

 

His teasing turned to torture as the back of his hand met contact with Charlie’s cheek. The sting that was present thereafter caused her to blink as she brought the moment back in focus. She even licked her lips, tasting blood on her tongue from the impact.

 

“Pity,” he breathed heavily, his mouth and nose dangerously close to her neck while his frame kept all of Charlotte pinned to the brick wall she originally rested upon. “I always thought you were so perfect, Charlotte,” he sang sloppily. “Couldn’t tell yer brother that, but he’s not here now, is ‘e?”

 

“Isaac...please let me go. You’re...you’re hurting me.”

 

Charlotte moved to tug herself out of his grasp once more but was stopped by Isaac’s weight. His hands gripped her arms tightly as he leaned in to press his mouth against hers. Instinctively his eyes closed, giving Charlotte ample opportunity to stomp at his foot and push him away.

 

“Get off!” she shouted.

 

Soon though she was back in his grasp, still so stunned by the situation she now felt powerless to get out of it. All calculations were lost as Isaac ignorantly pulled Charlotte flush against him, the alcohol on his tongue coating her skin as he dropped his mouth to her neck and inhaled her.

 

“You were always so pretty, Charlotte. And a boy gets lonely—”

 

The click of a flintlock had a sobering effect on the moment. It caused Isaac’s eyes to blink open, but he couldn’t turn his head to the source of the sound for fear of the gun placed his pulsepoint would be fired by its owner.

 

“Hands off the lady,” Caleb said calmly. In his other hand he held his ax, both items being observed by a terrified Charlotte while she took the moment to steady her breathing.

 

His drunkenness was not completely gone. Isaac laughed, and while the grip he had on Charlotte lessened, his boldness did not. “Who’s this?” he asked. “Want a turn?”

 

This time when Caleb cocked his gun, Isaac did not hesitate. He only continued to laugh, lost in his own stupor long enough for Caleb to lock eyes with Charlotte. “Charlie, slowly take a step toward me, alright?”

 

She nodded. All of her was still in shock but she felt a wave of relief wash over her now with Caleb at her side. She even gave a steady exhale as she slowly slid out of Isaac’s grasp, moving slowly so as to not bring his attention back to her. His reaction, while late, did eventually come. Isaac grabbed a bunch of Charlie’s dress, but before he could bring her close, a shot rang out and all of him instantly fell limp against her.

 

Horror graced Charlotte’s features as her eyes bounced from the hole in Isaac’s neck, to where Caleb was grabbing for her hand and her bag, dragging her off toward the docks. She did not have a moment to collect herself and it was only when the two were in Caleb’s boat, rowing away, that she was able to take one last snapshot of the city. The sudden reality of its dwindling existence in her life was made all the more clear the more it began to vanish.

 

Halfway up the Hudson, Caleb finally had the courage to speak to a clearly shaken Charlotte.  “Charlie,” he sighed, “I’m not requesting help but I am gonna ask that yuh stop crying.”

 

She picked her head up and looked to him. “He—”

 

“He was gonna have his way with you if I didn’t intervene.”

 

“He was drunk, Caleb!” she tossed back. “He didn’t know what he was doing.”

 

“Yeah well I’m drunk plenty and never once have I thought ‘uh disturbing a lady.”

 

“He’s friends with Michael—”

 

“That’s a shit friend if ever I saw one,” Caleb jested.

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “They went to university together,” she added.

 

“I’m missing the part where any of this matters. He could be the King of France and I still wouldn’t give a flying—

 

“Well Michael—”

 

“Would have done the same thing if he saw the way that sorry bastard was handling you. And if Ben—”

 

She snapped her head in his direction. “What?”

 

Caleb paused, even slowing the motion of his arms so the boat they were in nearly stilled in the middle of the river. “Charlie, this is...sometimes I think you still think this is a game,” he shared with a heavy sigh as if relieved to be rid of the opinion.

 

“Still? I didn’t know I ever thought of any of this as a game, Caleb,” she sassed.

 

“Well Ben would have done the same thing, alright?”

 

Her eyes narrowed. “Why are you saying that?” Any tears hindered by her anger now resurfaced, glossing her eyes to a lighter grey. “How do you know?”

 

“Because we’re men and this is war and it’s what we do.”

 

“Kill people?”

 

“Yes, sometimes! When necessary!”

 

“You could have just knocked him out, Caleb!”

 

Caleb looked straight ahead and shrugged. “Wasn’t a good angle, really…” he reasoned, causing himself to smirk at his own quip.

 

“Caleb!” Charlotte shrieked, begging that he stop speaking.

 

“Ben doesn’t even know I agreed to this, Charlotte, but if I let anything happen to you, tonight or any night, I’d be the one with a bullet in my neck, alright?”

 

“You didn’t...you didn’t tell him?”

 

“Of course not!” Caleb chuckled. “You told me not to!”

 

“I thought…”

 

Caleb sighed. “I know that...well it doesn’t matter what I know because it’s really none of my business what happens between you and Ben but I’d have done what I did regardless. I didn’t shoot that gobshite because he was a lobster or even because I feel responsible for you when Ben’s not around. I did it because you’re my friend too, Charlotte.”

 

Charlotte was quiet. She was enjoying the honesty Caleb was giving her and she assumed if they were anywhere else in the world, she wouldn’t get it. Already she was sure she’d never see it again.

 

“You kept him out of trouble, I presume?” Her words were a peace offering, a show of gratitude for his intervention and a returned favor for not harping on the thoughts he’d shared. Already Charlotte was smiling, her tears dried upon her cheeks as they now sat high on her face, put there by the thoughts of Ben she had in her head.

 

Caleb grinned. “He’s alive, if that’s what you’re asking.”

 

“I’d hope he’s more than alive.”

 

“Yeah, alive and intolerable,” Caleb agreed with a hearty laugh. “But that’s your fault.”

 

“My fault?” she played along. Charlotte knew none of this was a game and yet things like death and sacrifice were so commonplace it was easy, or at least necessary, to move on from them quickly.

 

“Benny gets quite cranky when you’re not around.”

 

“Oh, does he?”

 

“Sure does,” Caleb agreed effortlessly.

 

“How’s he healing?”

 

“Fine, I think.”

 

“You think?”

 

“He doesn’t talk about it! He acts like it didn’t happen. You know how he is…”

 

“Yeah, I do,” she huffed, thinking about their kiss. “Stubborn.”

 

Caleb chuckled. “Incredibly stubborn.”

Chapter Text

Ben had shaved yesterday and already the stubble on his chin and cheeks was growing back. His hope was that he’d see Charlotte but it seemed as if an entire week had passed since she’d last been at camp and he felt so exhausted by her absence that he lost count of how many days it actually had been.

 

He was back in his shared tent with Caleb now and he found himself not missing the bed his injury afforded him but instead the girl that napped soundly by his side. He and Charlie had become so skilled at breaking rules such a thing felt commonplace lately. Yet every time she left him he craved her close again if only so they could continue to push at unspoken boundaries.

 

He was lost in a thought of her when Caleb entered. This explained the quizzical face he wore and how it fell, his disappointment turning to anger when he saw it was his best friend and not the girl he was missing.

 

“Where were you?”

 

“Fetching you a gift,” Caleb shared simply, tossing his leather sack down to the grass below. He straightened his posture and flashed his best friend a wide smile. “You’re welcome.”

 

Charlotte must have been talking to someone outside because when she entered the laughter on her lips faded away. Her smile fell when she saw Ben’s own mood shift, all of him now taking her in. Despite it being the one thing he truly wanted, his shock at seeing her was only intensified when he saw the blood on her pale blue gown and how her hair, typically pinned back, was beginning to fall from its clips. Ben’s mouth fell open but he soon shut it again, swallowing hard as he continued to observe her from afar. Charlie’s own lack of energy came as she worried what she surely looked like. Appearance didn’t matter to Caleb or even one of the young soldiers she had spoken to outside but in Ben’s presence, Charlotte wanted to be the very thing she’d been running from: perfect.

 

Ben’s breathing quickened as his eyes continued to scan over her silhouette. If Caleb was watching their silent interaction, he was doing so subtly. Ben was so focused on Charlotte’s face and the hurt in her eyes that he had to stop himself from going to her with Caleb still in the room. But it was all he wanted to do, to hold her and cup her face, searching her features for further confirmation she was okay.

 

“Grub?”

 

Ben shook his head, blinking, before turning toward the sound. “What?” he asked Caleb.

 

Caleb grinned. “Supper? Any left?”

 

“Uh, yeah,” Ben managed. “Bread. Maybe a bit of jerky…” His words were slow and by the time he’d finished his read of the typically subpar menu, Caleb had already dismissed himself.

 

Ben immediately took a step toward Charlotte. His mere presence had Charlotte looking away, ashamed and inhaling sharply as if readying for conversation or even contact she wasn’t emotionally prepared for.

 

“What’s...what’s going on, Char?”

 

“I’m fine,” she said, forcing a smile. With her mouth puckered he saw how pink her lips were but he also saw the raspberry constellation on the apples of her cheeks, too prominent to be caused by an accidental force.

 

Ben was in front of her now, all of him nearly flush against her as he did what he had been wanting to do, cradling her face in his hands and using his thumbs, no matter how rough, to gently ask that she give him her attention. “Is everything okay?”

 

She finally looked to him. “What? Yes, of course.”

 

“Of course?” he repeated, almost with irritation. “Charlie, there’s blood on your dress,” he commented, his eyes looking to her waist then back up again.

 

“Then why did you ask?” she sassed.

 

Ben paused, knowing her defensive nature was not personal, but instinctual. “Because—”

 

“I’m sorry, Benjamin, I’m just...it’s been a long night and I’m fine…” Her voice trailed off and she slid out of his grasp.

 

With her absence, Ben felt a wave of cold air rush over him. It caused him to shift, his body moving just as Charlotte’s did, now to bring her back to him. When Ben’s hand circled Charlie’s wrist she gasped, causing him to freeze for the brief moment before she settled again, her body falling against his frame so he could support her as she broke down, quickly beginning to sob into his chest.

 

“Charlie…”

 

“It’s nothing,” she sniffled. Even so, she wasn’t yet strong enough to let go. After all they’d been through in such a short period this was somehow the first time she had been in his arms. The way he held her had her forgetting, even for a mere breath, the things she’d left behind in the city.

 

Ben, sensible to a fault, leaned back if only so he could see her again. He pushed back at any of her fallen tresses before speaking. “Did someone hurt you?”

 

“It was stupid.”

 

“There’s blood on your dress, Charlie, and your…” He looked down to where he still held onto her. If someone was to enter it would look almost as if the pair were dancing; Ben had a tight grip on Charlie’s waist while the other gingerly held her wrist in his palm. “Your wrist looks even worse than your face,” he observed.

 

“Ghee, Thanks, Ben,” she gave with an eye roll, clearly trying to lighten the mood.

 

As he looked back to her the anger remaining in his stare was evident. “What’s going on?”

 

Charlotte sighed out. “Isaac...he was my brother’s...well, I suppose they were practically best friends at one point—”

 

“And?”

 

“I ran into him on my way to the docks.”

 

Ben’s eyes widened. “He did this to you?”

 

“He was drunk,” Charlie revealed flatly.

 

Ben scoffed out a laugh. “I don’t care what he was.”

 

“He’s just...he’s always been a good man, Benjamin, he just—”

 

“A good man? Good men don’t put their hands on a lady, Charlie.”

 

“Well I told you he was drunk.”

 

“And I told you,” he echoed in her same melody, “I didn’t care. Are you okay? Did he—”

 

“I pushed him off of me before he could manage much. And Caleb was there.”

 

“Thank Christ.”

 

“Isaac’s dead now, so…”

 

“What?”

 

“Caleb shot him,” she explained flatly.

 

Charlie’s frank nature had Ben realizing how uncomfortable all of this was making her. It was clear Charlotte had never been in a similar situation and while that was of great relief to Ben, it didn’t stop him from wanting to demand a more genuine recount from her. It was for this reason that Ben chose his next words wisely.

 

“Well Thank God for that too.”

 

Charlotte’s eyes darkened and her mouth turned sour as she looked up to him. The bravery she thought she had left at the docks now rested on her shoulders and Ben realized it had returned, greeting it with a small smile he hoped she didn’t see.

 

“How is that so easy for you to say?”

 

“How is it not for you?” Ben challenged quickly. “He was being inappropriate with you, Charlie. I imagine if Michael happened upon you two he’d react similarly.”

 

“I just...I didn’t expect it, alright? It’s...it’s fine. I’m fine,” she stated strongly, as if in warning. “I’m grateful for Caleb and I’m here now so—”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

 

“I didn’t know if I’d go through with it. And you were preoccupied and—”

 

“Smuggling you out of the city is something I can make time for.”

 

Charlotte giggled through her tears. “It was hardly a smuggle.”

 

“Well it’s not safe.”

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “I see that now.”

 

“How long have you been planning this?”

 

“A few weeks. Right after you were shot.”

 

“It’s...alright,” Ben agreed.

 

“Alright?” Charlotte blinked. “I thought you’d be pleased.”

 

“I am. I mean, of course I am,” he laughed, shedding just an ounce of disbelief. Not only was Charlie here but it seemed that would be the case for quite some time. “Very selfishly I’m quite pleased. I can watch after you here. It’s safer.”

 

“But?”

 

“General Washington was saying—”

 

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed as she continued to look up to him. “What did I tell you about listening to him?”

 

“I know, Charlie, but—”

 

“He doesn’t know what he’s saying, Benjamin.”

 

Ben laughed again. “It sounds like he might.”

 

“Alright then,” she agreed boldly. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back. “Try me. What did he say?”

 

“That after all of this you’ll go back to your life.”

 

“Ha!” Charlotte let out. When she returned to the moment and saw Ben’s features had not been enthused, her own smile faded. “Oh, he was serious?”

 

Ben sighed. “He said no one will know the role you played and if you wish to you could carry on just as you did before.”

 

“Oh really? And what else?”

 

“Nothing, really…”

 

“Did he mention to you what I think?”

 

“Well, no—”

 

“Of course not. Because he didn’t ask. No one ever asks. They applaud my rebellion but still treat me like I’m my father’s daughter...like that’s all I’m meant to be. They assume , Benjamin.”

 

“I just don’t…” Ben was ready to protest but the somewhat amused smirk she wore had him stopping. He exhaled in defeat. “What do you want, Charlie?”

 

Charlotte’s smile grew. “It doesn’t matter what I can do, Benjamin. What matters is what I want to do and I’m here now and I don’t have plans of returning. I’d like to have a relationship with my parents but I can’t live that life anymore. I’m ready to write my own story and I can’t do that in York City.”

 

“I just...It sounds like a good life and maybe—”

 

“I can have a good life elsewhere, Benjamin. It seems my definition of a good life differs from most.”

 

He nodded. “Okay.”

 

Charlotte smirked. “Okay you understand or okay you don’t want to argue ?”

 

“A bit of both.”

 

“I don’t need to be looked after,” she declared proudly.

 

“Apparently you do,” Ben gave in mirth.

 

“Tonight was a bit different. But usually...I’m okay. I wanted independence and now I’ve got it. You’re not responsible for me.”

 

“I feel like I am.”

 

“Because Washington asked you to watch out for me?”

 

“No because...because I care about you, Charlie!”

 

“Ben...”

 

“And it terrifies me when you’re away and it terrifies me when you’re here.”

 

“Terrifies you? I terrify you?”

 

“No! I...I can’t protect you there and now that you’re here I don’t know if I... we ,” he corrected, “can give you that same life. I want to but—“

 

“I’m not asking for that life, Benjamin. I’m not asking for anything.” She went to him once more, clutching his arms while her eyes demanded he give her all of his attention. When she was sure she held all of him, she delivered her request in a whisper. “Just don’t be like Washington. Don’t be like any of them. They didn’t ask what I want and you did.” She forced a smile, perhaps to hide the way her emotions had her feeling she wanted to cry. “Now you know.”

 

Ben had no words. Charlotte was happy for this fact, made all the more elated when his silence allowed her to lean up and kiss his cheek. Her lips landed closer to the corner of his mouth and as he shifted her breath hitched, all of her nervous and praying that he’d finally allow them to finish what they’d barely started so many nights before. Their sharp inhales made in lust were replaced by shock, then intentional oblivion as Caleb entered the tent.

 

Whether he was aware of his interruption or not, Caleb could only smile as he flashed a bowl Ben’s way.

 

“Ay! Tallboy! You didn’t tell me there was stew!”

 

~!~

 

Charlotte separated from Ben only to find General Washington and tell him of her arrival. He greeted her with a smile but Charlie heard his words in her head, ones that contrasted with the hope in her he shared out loud.

 

Afterward Ben and Charlie managed to disappear, finding their usual spot along the river and starting a fire there so they could keep warm while Charlotte shared the last bit of intelligence with him. Regardless of her future plans, she’d miss feeling useful. The more selfish part of her journey was about to begin and she feared Ben would tire of her company if she didn’t constantly fill the silence between them with valuable information.

 

She tried to push all of these feelings down, to chalk each nasty thought up to a deep seeded insecurity. This was an easier task as their conversation transitioned to Ben’s day. Though he was surrounded by comrades and even friends, it was astonishing to Charlotte how calm he became when she inquired about his current mental state. The vulnerable nature that once had him pushing her away caused him to breathe a sigh of relief and Charlotte was more than happy to sit by his side, listening to all that troubled him as the fire continued to die.

 

Soon the night air chilled and with it, most sounds ceased. Charlie seemed to forget how exhausted she was but she felt it in her bones as she stood and began to walk back toward camp. She was relaxed only when she felt Ben’s hand pressed to the small of her back, guiding her through the darkness even when they returned where others could see.

 

“So Anna’s gone where?” Charlie asked, her face puzzled.

 

“To see her husband.”

 

“What?”

 

Ben chuckled. “Anna’s married, Char.”

 

“Well, I know, I just...I accepted she was married. I hadn’t yet accepted she had a husband.”

 

Ben paused. “Can you have one without the other?”

 

“I suppose if anyone can, Anna can,” Charlotte concluded honestly.

 

It earned her a louder than usual laugh from Ben as he leaned forward, pulling back the flap to Charlotte’s tent. She began to move in the new space he’d given her but she paused, colliding back into Ben but now unable to meet his eyes.

 

“Wait,” her voice came with worry.

 

Ben paused too. Concern overtook his features as he was reminded of how their night started. “Charlie?”

 

“I…” She sighed, blinking hard then finally looking to him with the minimal courage she had left. “I need help with my dress.” The words spilled out of her as if she were irritated by their existence.

 

Ben swallowed. “Your dress?”

 

“Well I couldn’t ask Grace—”

 

“Who’s Grace?”

 

“My lady’s maid,” Charlotte gave, her voice revealing such a thing as if it were common knowledge.

 

Ben grinned. “You have a lady’s maid?”

 

Her eyes narrowed and she was serious again. “Please don’t make fun of me…”

 

“No, I just…” He looked heavenward. “There’s that good life I was talking about.”

 

“Benjamin, please.”

 

“Alright, I’m...I’m sorry.”

 

“I couldn’t ask her to help me get changed because I wouldn’t have been able to explain why I needed to get into a different dress and I couldn’t exactly wear my nightgown down to the docks. I figured Anna would be here but she’s not and usually I’d just stay in this but with the blood…” Her voice cracked nervously. When Ben did not immediately respond she moved to cover her eyes then step inside, assuming he’d fail to follow. “It’s fine,” she tried. “Maybe one of the wives—”

 

“No,” Ben stammered out nervously. “I’ll...here,” he tried, finally following her into her tent. He hung the lantern he held on a post above. Its fading light cast their current interaction in a shade of grey.

 

Charlotte inhaled steadily. She placed a strong hand to her abdomen, now focusing on her breathing as she slowly turned away from Ben. It was also an attempt to keep her gown close; while the current problem was the stay she wore beneath her dress, she worried what would be revealed even as she began to undo the buttons on her shirt. Her fingers were uncertain as they fumbled with each latch and when she was done she looked back over her shoulder once more, half expecting Ben to have run away.

 

He hadn’t, of course. Ben remained, his eyes steady as Charlotte shrugged out of her caraco, revealing a painfully stiff stay and beneath it just a thin chemise. Ben was thankful her lower half was still covered by her petticoat but it didn’t stop him from staring, suddenly feeling ashamed for the inexperience the war had afforded him.

 

Even so, Ben was far more steadfast than she and soon he was at her back, his presence making Charlotte want to turn to him, possibly to stop him or maybe to at least witness his bravery. She was jealous of it even if he was just complying with her request.

 

Ben released a sigh he wasn’t aware he had been holding. With it, he gingerly reached forward, gently gripping Charlotte’s hair so he could move it off her back over her shoulder. The cool air kissing her shoulders had Charlotte devoting her attention back to him, wanting to see his hands shake as they approached her skin.

 

“It’s just...you just have to loosen…” But she had nothing to explain. It was as if Ben knew what he was doing, a thought that surprised and scared Charlotte back into silence.

 

Slowly Ben pulled at the lace bow at the base of her shoulderblades, letting it fall naturally down her back. In its wake the tight material of Charlotte’s stay gave a little, only allowing Charlotte to inhale deeply, afraid to breathe again until Ben was touching her.

 

His fingertips practically vibrated as they diagnosed the spiral lacing along Charlotte’s spine and how it somehow kept all of her together. Soon though he figured it out and by the time his fingers had latched themselves beneath the last bit of confining cord, he was so proud of himself he nearly forgot about the girl that shook beneath the restrictive garment.

 

Ben’s courage was transferred back to Charlotte now that her lungs could contract more freely. He was also distracted, thankful Charlotte was keeping her stay from falling away completely but lost in the freckles and moles he could see spread out upon her pale skin beneath the thin shift she wore. Charlie could feel him staring and though she felt alive under his gaze she was not yet ready to turn and face him. She was doing her best to dismiss all of the things she wanted from him, knowing they were likely exaggerated when she was so exhausted, while also fearing that her desires would not be reciprocated. This interaction was enough to have her ruined and yet Ben managed rationale in a way that almost made his participation seem innocent.

 

“There you are,” he managed barely, his lips slow as he continued to gawk, unsure of how she still looked away when his gaze did nothing but beg that she turn around.

 

“Thank you,” she whispered back.

 

Ben took Charlotte’s inability to face him as a dismissal and with his task complete he felt he no other option but to comply. Only when Charlotte felt the cold air dissipate did she know she was alone. The realization had Charlie slumping back on her cot, finally allowing her stay to fall away so she was practically exposed. All she could do was drop her head into her hands, hiding the scarlet color of her cheeks as she sobbed into her palms. Charlotte was certainly overwhelmed by the day but currently preoccupied by the previous moment, wishing she could still be lost in it. She was envious of Ben’s self control; all she wanted was for him, in any capacity, to keep touching her.

Chapter Text

Anna returned on the day following Charlie and Ben’s intense encounter, giving Charlie reprieve from the pressure she felt to give Ben the space she believed he needed. Anna sensed the energy between the pair but said nothing; she wasn’t given much chance to discuss anything other than her visit with Selah. There was always a genuine interest in romance when Charlie prodded for details relating to Anna’s relationship with Abraham. Now she asked questions to keep Anna from returning the favor. Charlie pretended to care about Philadelphia politics and her behavior was convincing but every few moments Anna caught Charlotte’s vision focusing over her shoulder, blurring her away to reveal Ben every time he passed.

 

It was only one day though. Charlotte couldn’t deny the urge she had to spend time with Ben and she was relieved to find he had ignored his stubborn nature to seek her out too. They took a walk after dinner that same night and when Ben dropped her back at her tent, Charlotte was thankful Anna was just inside. She didn’t even dare kiss his cheek; all she left Ben with was a smile before disappearing inside.

 

That was several days ago and now the two were accustomed to acting as if nothing happened. Life at camp often felt like a waiting game and with Charlotte finished with her spying tasks, the two had no other option but to pretend to bump into one another, always looking for an excuse to pass the time.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

As was custom Ben’s tent was open, allowing Charlotte to lean against a nearby post with her arms crossed over her chest. She smiled curiously, observing the scene before her. Ben was not in his uniform and instead wore a shirt and breeches in darker shades that contrasted with his usual cream-colored attire. The same black ribbon tied his hair back but in a far looser manner than Charlie was used to. If she was being honest, she would have admitted that she rather liked this version of Ben: not a soldier, just a man.

 

Ben was finishing his task of putting various items in his rucksack. “I’m being discharged.”

 

Charlotte’s face fell and with it she took a step toward him, losing all playful energy. “What?”

 

Ben finally turned to her. “Oh, yeah. Didn’t want to alarm you with everything going on but they don’t think me fit to fight on account of the bullet that lodged itself nicely between my ribcage.”

 

“Fight? What about the ring?”

 

Ben dropped his head back to laugh. His reaction had Charlotte’s features turning sour.

 

Then, all at once she caught on, showing this was the case with a well placed fist to his shoulder. “You’re a right arse, you are!”

 

“I’d have thought you would be relieved. Then you’d never have to take care of my sorry arse again.”

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “I get the feeling I’ll be taking care of your sorry arse for a long time…” Her voice drifted as her eyes scanned him up and down once more. “Now will you tell me?”

 

“Tell you what?” Charlie cocked her head to the side, clearly not amused. Ben laughed once more. She was irritated, or at least that was her intention, but she couldn’t help but to enjoy the sound of his merriment.

 

“Home,” Ben revealed simply. Before Charlotte could retort, he continued. “I have an errand to run. It’ll only be for a few days.”

 

“So close to us leaving?” she asked, referring to the plans Washington had to begin moving the camp south.

 

“Precisely. I need to go now. It actually makes more sense while we’re close.”

 

“Washington approved this?”

 

“He did,” Ben stated, also sounding surprised.

 

“Alone?”

 

Ben smirked. “Of course.”

 

“You should take a guide.”

 

“Is that an order?”

 

Charlie giggled. “Yes, it is!”

 

Ben shook his head. “I’m not taking a guide, Charlie.” He brushed past her toward the door, grabbing for some of his things on a nearby bookshelf. “I actually can’t take a guide because I can’t have anyone seeing me come or go and—”

 

Charlotte spun to watch him. “Then let me come with you!”

 

Ben’s gaze narrowed as he took a step back toward her. “What?”

 

The way his eyes bore into her had Charlotte feeling breathless. “I’ll...I’ll come with you. I could accompany you there and...surely there’s an inn in Setauket,” she reasoned.

 

“You want to come to Setauket with me?”

 

“I don’t want you traveling alone,” she insisted. “Especially not so quickly after your injury.”

 

“It’s been weeks, Char…”

 

“I don’t care. It’s not safe!”

 

Ben looked away then back to her. “I don’t think they’d allow it.”

 

“They?”

 

“Washington. My father.”

 

Aggravation pushed Charlotte’s eyes shut. “Washington doesn’t control...you don’t think your father would like me?” she corrected, adding the truth behind her original declaration.

 

Ben laughed. “I don’t think he’d appreciate me bringing a pretty lass home if I wasn’t going to marry her.”

 

“Tell him you’re going to marry me!” Charlotte suggested quickly.

 

“I don’t think he’d like that either.”

 

“Well…”

 

“Charlie, it’s a joke. He’d...sure, you can come.”

 

“Good because I was tagging along either way,” she stated proudly as if she’d been given permission all this time.

 

“I got that impression.” Charlotte gave him a smile. “But on a few conditions.”

 

“Let’s hear it, Benjamin.”

 

“You do as I say. I know you struggle with following orders, especially from me but—”

 

“Fine.”

 

Ben blinked. “What?”

 

“Well get on with it! Knowing you this is going to be a long list.”

 

Ben sighed. “You never give your last name. You never go anywhere without me by your side. You stay in my father’s home. And you do not joke about a possible union between you and me because that would surely break his heart.”

 

“Why?”

 

“We can discuss that later. I’m running late. Go pack a bag so we can get out of here.”

 

“My things are packed.”

 

“What?” Ben scoffed out in disbelief. “Maybe I should be asking you where you’re running off to.”

 

“I told you, I’m here now.”

 

“Yes, but—”

 

“I left my parents a note saying I was going to find Michael and I had a friend who was helping me.”

 

“Am I that friend?”

 

Charlie beamed. “You’re that friend.”

 

Ben paused. “Okay.”

 

Charlotte’s mouth fell open. “No protests? Comments? Questions?”

 

“You’re a woman who knows her own mind, Charlie. I’ve learned not to question it.”

 

~!~

 

Not only had Washington approved Ben’s leave of absence, he also provided a horse for Charlotte to take with her. She found this suspicious but she said nothing, wearing a satisfied smirk as she began to trot out of camp behind Ben. The stares they received had Ben quickening his pace but Charlotte welcomed the attention. All her life she’d been gawked at, usually by men with poor intentions. She wasn’t particularly fond of the stares but she appreciated their curiosity; Ben was constantly catching her attention too and as they took off she couldn’t help but to admire how fit he looked out of his uniform.

 

When they were out of view Ben slowed down, making it so his horse moved beside Charlotte’s. “You’re getting quite good at that.”

 

Charlotte smirked. “Riding a horse? I’ve been doing it just as long as you have, I imagine.”

 

“I highly doubt that,” Ben chuckled. “But I mean you...no more side-saddle.”

 

“I may not like to listen to you but that doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally have good points.”

 

“Occasionally?”

 

“Occasionally,” she confirmed. “My mother would be horrified.”

 

Ben grinned. “Well it’s a good thing your mother isn’t here, huh?”

 

“Yes...for many reasons,” she added, practically whispering.

 

Without warning Ben shifted upon his horse causing the steed to run, leaving Charlie behind. This incensed her and she followed immediately, feeling more alive atop a horse than she ever had before. The challenge was one she was happy to take on, especially when she approached Ben and eventually passed him.

 

“Hey!”

 

Charlotte turned over her shoulder and flashed him a smile. “You should know that teaching someone a skill risks them being better at it than you are.” She pulled back at the reigns, slowing her mare once more.

 

Ben caught up, out of breath even though it was the animal below him exerting energy. “It was one race…”

 

“Hardly a race,” Charlotte giggled. “Don’t be a sore loser, Benjamin.”

 

Ben said nothing. Instead he trotted off again, leaving Charlie with no other option but to follow.

 

The back and forth of changing speeds and switching leaders eventually led the two to stop for lunch. He immediately grabbed for an apple from his bag and began to slice at it with a knife. He passed a piece off to Charlotte and the pair carried on with this pattern until the fruit was whittled down to its core.

 

Charlotte stood beside Ben now, the two leaning their weight on the strong limb of an old tree. The way Charlotte handed Ben her canteen, all of this occurring in silence, would convince an onlooker this was not their first time sharing a meal. In all honesty, however, it mostly was. They weren’t given many quiet moments like this one and Charlotte hoped this would be the first of many now that they were away from the curious eyes of the Continental camp.

 

“What is that smile?” Charlotte asked as she stood to place her canteen back in her bag. When Ben said nothing she walked back to him, standing before him with her hands on her hips. “You didn’t expect me to be prepared, did you?”

 

“I didn’t…” He looked away. “I didn’t say that.”

 

“S’alright, Benjamin. Your face did.”

 

“Char, I—”

 

She laughed once more. “It’s okay. I surprise myself too sometimes.”

 

Ben dropped his head back, laughing. “Oh do you?”

 

“I do. Never in a million lifetimes did I think I’d be here but it makes sense.”

 

Ben stood, stepping into her. “Here helping us win this war?”

 

Charlotte looked up to Ben, her eyes concentrated on his gaze and how it seemed to look past all she was saying. She could only nod, waiting for him to say something else, or maybe make it so the two couldn’t speak at all. Instead though they were broken out of their plausible kiss by the sound of movement coming up the road. A wave of cool air brushed past them, rattling the trees, even causing Charlie to grip Ben’s arms.

 

He paused too, looking to her then back up the road where two redcoats on horseback were quickly approaching.

 

“Go hide,” he decided all at once.

 

Charlie’s eyes darkened. “And leave you alone? I will do no such thing! They want you dead!”

 

Ben’s attention was still lost in the men’s direction. He shook his head as if dismissing a plan he was mentally lost in. Soon he was looking to her again. “They look like men with rank. They could recognize you…”

 

Charlotte did not move. Her eyes were locked up the path too, her heartbeat quickening to a pace that had her feeling scared for the first time since all of this began. She felt something similar at the docks but this was different; Ben was here now and she worried for more than just her own safety. In fact, she didn’t think much of herself at all. All Charlie could manage were thoughts of Ben and the things she could do to get them out of this.

 

“Ben—”

 

The soldiers were already too close. Whether it be the bravery needed in this moment or his desire to have her without full disclosure, Ben thought quickly and gently pushed Charlotte up against the tree she stood beside. Her eyes widened but they soon fluttered shut, her body stiff until she felt Ben’s mouth upon hers. His hands moved similarly, one resting on her waist while the other gripped her neck keeping her close.

 

Needing air, Charlotte separated momentarily. Quickly though her own fingers were upon him, first pressed into his chest then gripping at the back of his neck, her body giving in to everything she’d wanted these past few months. They were so lost in their embrace, they barely heard the laugh the soldiers shared with one another as they passed. Charlie and Ben looked like nothing more than two teenagers escaping into the woods for a moment alone. With their skin so close and their lungs contracting together it made their existence seem innocent, even as Ben practically pushed his hips into Charlotte’s, finally causing her mouth to fall open.

 

With them breathless, both heaved, not able to look to the other yet. Each inhale brought Charlotte more clarity and before she could say much she pushed at Ben’s shoulders, doing so with a breathy laugh.

 

Ben chuckled too. “Before you begin to hate me, I have to say that is the most foolproof plan I have ever concocted,” he stated in a cocky manner.

 

“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” Charlotte was committed to hiding her feelings, though she was entirely unsure why.

 

“Well I’m not going to lie and say it was awful.”

 

“Don’t do that again!” she shouted with a warning finger pointed in his direction.

 

“I’ll ask for permission next time.”

 

“Good.” Charlotte turned back to her bag, immediately tying the straps so she could put the sack back atop her horse. Really she needed a distraction from the way Ben was looking at her and how his stare had her missing the taste of him on her lips.

 

“Unless it’s going to get us out of a dangerous situation...in which case that will be Plan A every time.”

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes before hopping back onto her horse. Ben could only continue to gawk, now feeling like one of the young boys that watched her at camp. The only difference was he had held her in his arms and felt the way her mouth fit so perfectly against his own. He was suddenly angry at himself for denying her all this time, especially with his limbs and fingertips buzzing with the need to touch her skin again.

 

“Ben?”

 

He looked up to her. Already Charlie was back on the path. “Yeah?”

 

“I asked if you were ready to go.”

 

He swallowed before mounting his own horse. “Yeah...yeah, sorry.”

 

Charlotte pulsed her calves against the flank of her horse, causing her to push forward into a gallop. She was happy to be ahead of Ben, this time not to make it to their destination first but instead to hide the smile she wore and how her cheeks, previously held so gingerly in his hands, were brightly rouged. Charlie wondered now where they’d be if she had only gotten Ben away from camp sooner.

Chapter Text

They arrived just before dusk. Ben and Charlie were lost in laughter; he had made a teasing comment and she tossed one right back. This light air carried on when he dismounted his horse and immediately went to Charlotte, grabbing at her waist to help her down. She slid off rather easily and with a smile on her face she looked up at Ben, wondering how long she needed to stare for him to lean in to kiss her. Her eyes blinked, waiting to taste the bravery on his lips. Ben’s hands shook but remained just below her ribcage and in an effort to shift closer he inhaled sharply, unable to exhale when he heard his father approach.

 

Ben lifted his grip and moved to tie off their horses on a nearby post. This allowed Charlotte time to smooth out her dress, occupying her hands in the space where his had just rested.

 

Reverend Tallmadge padded toward the pair. He was quiet in appearance and only gave a smile when he stepped into Charlotte. Her own parents, even her sometimes reserved father, were so boisterous and outgoing. Even the minister at her church in Virginia was known to drink and dance and laugh too loud at many of her family’s functions. The clear distinction in Mr. Tallmadge’s disposition had Charlotte feeling nervous. She’d met many men in her life and was practically raised on the art of introduction but here she felt she had an impression to make and the way Charlotte felt Ben watching this interaction did little to quell her anxiety.

 

“Pa, this is—”

 

Charlotte had already given her hand, making it easy for the Reverend to take it, all the while ignoring his son. “Miss Charlotte,” he nearly sang. The smile he wore was as warm as his hand was.

 

Charlotte continued to smile, unable to grin fully as her mind began to calculate just how Ben’s father knew her name. When Mr. Tallmadge touched her fingers she curtsied. Charlie then stood up straight and just as she was taught, allowed her hand to fall gracefully back to her side. “So pleased to meet you, sir.”

 

“No need for all of that, Charlotte. Reverend will do.” He did not wait for her to reply. It was glaringly clear that the Tallmadge’s weren’t accustomed to the pretenses Charlotte had been raised on. Her ignorance had her feeling inadequate as if all she’d been taught was useless in the world she now lived in.

 

Reverend Tallmadge turned back to his son, grabbing Ben by the neck after he playfully clapped at his cheek. Ben’s cheeks rouged but he laughed all the same. “You look thin, boy,” he expressed with a slap to Benjamin’s back.

 

Though being teased, Ben was still at ease here and he made no apology for the way he offered his hand to Charlotte as the two began to follow Mr. Tallmadge inside. Charlotte’s fingertips felt electric against Ben’s and the energy shared had her leaning into them as they walked. “Is this allowed?

 

Ben smirked. “What part of it?”

 

“I didn’t...I can hold your hand?”

 

Ben looked down to where the two remained connected. “It looks as if that’s the case.”

 

Charlotte nudged at him with her shoulder causing him to give a hearty chuckle. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just that we’re not married and—”

 

“Duly noted.”

 

“Bennn,” Charlotte chided, whining.

 

Reverend Tallmadge disappeared inside. His absence had the sky around them turning to a darker indigo. It also allowed Ben to turn to Charlotte, the two just as close as they were before they were interrupted. “Is all of this new to you?”

 

“Yes!” Charlotte tried in a hushed tone. “Very much so! And I’m nervous—”

 

Ben chuckled. “Why are you nervous? You’ve met Dukes and—”

 

“And I wasn’t...friends,” her mouth settled sourly, “with their sons.”

 

“Sure you were,” Ben teased. He started back in toward the house but the grip Charlotte still had on him had him spinning back into her.

 

“You have to…” She looked up to meet his gaze. “You have to tell me if I’m doing anything wrong or if—”

 

Ben pressed a finger to Charlotte’s pout, stunting her words. “You’re not doing anything wrong and you have absolutely nothing to worry about.” He sighed and shifted, placing his hands to her cheeks in an effort to calm her down. “Relax, yeah?”

 

Charlotte nodded and entered Ben’s childhood home with the confidence he’d given her. The farmhouse was rather simple, only a few open rooms decorated in nothing but necessities. There was a main room marked by a fireplace and two large windows that looked back out onto the valley. A single rocking chair sat near the fire and on the far wall, a plain-patterned sofa where years of use damaged each wooden rung and leg. The desk Ben’s father wrote letters upon was tucked in the corner with a single cushionless chair. Most striking was the fact that there was no piano or table upon which to place tea and Charlotte’s eyes continued to scan the room and the space leading down the hall, wondering if perhaps the items had been placed elsewhere.

 

As Ben shut the front door behind them he took Charlotte’s bag from her, leaving her to observe in the way she truly wanted to. The home’s single staircase was directly in front of her and just beyond it Charlotte could see the kitchen. She almost twirled in the hall, her gown fanned out as she noted the lack of paintings on the walls and how the stairs were nothing but wood painted a muted green. The bannister was not carved, smoothed or stained  and Charlotte took special note of this as she ascended the steps behind Ben.

 

At the landing he appeared to her again. Already he had placed their bags in their respective rooms and now stood in front of Charlotte with his hands on his hips as if asking for an elaboration on her clear wonderment. He even chuckled when she looked to him, apparently unaware she was no longer alone and hadn’t been for quite some time.

 

Before Ben could speak, Charlotte began. “Don’t give me that look, Benjamin. You don’t know what I’m thinking.”

 

“Sure I do,” he said proudly. “S’alright Char. I imagine your house would have me speechless as well.”

 

Charlie furrowed her brow in both confusion and offense. “What do you mean?”

 

“If it wasn’t so dangerous for me to be here I’d let you stay at the inn but—”

 

“No!” Charlotte tried firmly with a step forward.

 

Ben laughed again. “It doesn’t matter either way because the inn’s just as plain.”

 

“No, this is...it’s lovely.”

 

Ben shook his head and began to walk away. He stopped outside an open door and gestured inside where already a fire painted the small bedroom in an orange hue. “This is your room.”

 

Charlotte stepped forward. Ben had already placed her bag atop the bed. Before he could disappear again she turned on her heel, calling him back. “Where’s your room?”

 

“Right there,” he said, pointing now to the next door down.

 

Charlotte gave a slow nod. “Just in case…”

 

Ben walked away and this time Charlotte’s eyes followed, watching him move from room to room and deducing that his father’s room and a washroom stood on the opposite side of the staircase. This meant the room she was occupying used to belong to Samuel. Or perhaps Ben had taken Sam’s room to keep Charlotte from contemplating that very thing.

 

“Here,” Ben tried, bringing Charlotte out of yet another distracting thought.

 

He moved into her bedroom and she followed, her throat going dry as she watched him place another quilt at the bottom of her bed. If the two were back at her home, Ben wouldn’t have even been allowed up the stairs, much less in her room. In fact, Michael and all of the male servants were prohibited from entering her chambers and Charlotte was raised to believe this was customary, no matter your class. Soon though it appeared to her that these rules required both a large home and the wealth with which it was built. Ben was the son of a minister and though his intelligence had afforded him a Yale education, his roots ran deep in a small rural town on Long Island.

 

Charlotte’s continued admiration of the home’s plainness had her mind moving elsewhere. It was clear this place had raised him because there was a similar simplicity in Ben, one she began to see more clearly the moment he was out of his uniform. It was not missing tapestries or each room’s lack of light that distracted Charlotte now. Instead Charlie found herself staring at the tight nature of his faded waistcoat, also enjoying the way his sleeves were rolled and his hair tied back without a braid. He wore those same steel-blue eyes, ones that shared a knowing glance with her as they caught her gaze moving from his toes to the top of his head.

 

Charlotte could only beam to dismiss any suspicions her gawking had caused. “Thank you...sorry.”

 

Ben tossed an amused grin over his shoulder. “Are you going to be this quiet our whole time here?”

 

“No, I, uh…” Charlotte swallowed in an effort to regain her composure. “Your...your father lives here alone?”

 

“He does.”

 

“And he did all of this? The fires and the beds?” she asked, her eyes bouncing from object to object as each was called upon.

 

Ben nodded. “He did.”

 

“How did he know to prepare a bed for me?” Charlotte gave quickly.

 

Ben did not hesitate and his smile did not waiver. “I told him.”

 

Charlotte’s mouth fell open. “Wha...what?”

 

“You’re insufferable and I knew you wouldn’t let me come alone. You’re extremely predictable.”

 

Charlotte’s shoulders relaxed but her cheeks turned crimson as he properly diagnosed her. “Well pity for that,” she attempted, now with her hands on her hips.

 

For the first time that night she let out a relieved sigh. It was an effort to feign bravery and an overall hard task when she now felt Ben’s eyes admiring her while she moved. He was merely returning the favor she’d just offered him and yet she was almost terrified to turn back to him and essentially acknowledge that perhaps he was wanting her as much as she had been wanting him.  

 

Ben leant against the doorframe as he watched Charlotte pace toward the bed. From her portmanteau she grabbed a white garment, one that revealed itself as an apron as she tied the item around her midsection. Again she caught Ben staring, her step toward him pulling his eyes off her chest and not where she naively imagined it had landed upon her waist.

 

“It’s a sight, I know,” she tried, naively playing along.

 

Ben removed his eyes from her bosom and stood up. “You’re practically inviting me to criticize you and—”

 

“I made this,” Charlotte said proudly. “Stitched the muslin and everything.”

 

“Look at you,” Ben chuckled.

 

“Be nice,” Charlotte warned. “Do I look absolutely ridiculous?”

 

He laughed again. “No. Hardly. You look…”

 

“Are you coming?” Charlotte asked, now slipping past him to head for the stairs.

 

Ben was thankful for the interruption. He was doing his best to be proper but there were so many things he wanted to share with Charlotte, words that seemed easier to say now that the two were temporarily removed from the war. Charlie was equally receptive but hesitant to hear sentiment that maybe wouldn’t last past their journey. She closed her eyes as she savored the lack of sound.

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“I thought I was predictable?” Charlie teased, earning herself an irritated face from Ben. “We’re going to make your father dinner in appreciation for his hospitality.”

 

When they made it down to the kitchen Charlotte once again found herself searching for the Reverend, wondering if maybe he was making himself scarce on purpose. She hoped that wasn’t the case but surmised it was likely untrue; rather, it was more probable that he had many more duties to perform than her father ever would have. He ran the house alone in Ben’s absence.

 

Despite Charlie’s somewhat flustered attitude, Ben fell into his old list of nightly chores. He lit all the candles in the room and set the table in the newly provided light. Charlotte busied herself, cutting at carrots and wondering what part of the meal they’d belong to.

 

Reverend Tallmadge could be heard down the hall causing Charlie to stand beside Ben in one last attempt for privacy.

 

“What do I offer him to drink?”

 

Ben looked to her and smirked. “Well this is his home so—”

 

“No, I am a lady and it’s expected that I provide drinks to the men in the room.”

 

Ben raised a brow. “Oh, is it?”

 

“Yes, it is,” she gave back with sass. “Do you have tea?”

 

Ben gave a hearty laugh. “No.”

 

“Ale then?”

 

“We could have ale but he’s going to want coffee.”

 

Charlotte’s features softened. “Coffee?”

 

“You’ve had it at camp.”

 

“No, I haven’t.”

 

Ben paused. “Then you’ve made it at camp?”

 

Charlotte looked away. “No...I haven’t,” she echoed.

 

“Here,” Ben tried, passing off his task of making bread to her so he could occupy Charlie’s space closer to the fire. Her hands moved around in the dough as she watched Ben reach for several items, ending with the kettle off the fire. His father seemed pleased with the dark drink that was offered to him thereafter but the two shared knowing glances as Ben asked that his father not say anything to highlight how out of place Charlie was clearly feeling. The Reverend was happy to oblige, doing so because it meant he could read the paper by candlelight and occasionally glimpse at the palpable chemistry shared between his son and their guest.

 

“The tax,” Charlotte finally whispered.

 

Ben looked up from the fire to where she stood now ladling their stew into bowls. “What?”

 

“The...the tax. That’s why you don’t drink tea. That’s why you don’t even have tea,” she explained.

 

Ben nodded. “S’a big part of it.”

 

Charlie sighed. “How is it possible that we’re both American-born and yet come from different worlds?”

 

“We do come from different worlds,” Ben agreed. “And while this war continues there will always be different worlds. I’m not saying your world will disappear but I do think you’ll find the world I grew up in is far more common than you think.”

 

“I...I know that,” Charlotte nearly whispered. “I’m okay with that. I think I like your world.”

 

“I imagine I’d like your world too if given the chance.”

 

“It’s—”

 

“You shouldn’t be ashamed of where you come from, Charlotte.”

 

“Even if I was raised by Tories?”

 

“Sure,” Ben chuckled. “Even if you were raised by tories.” He sighed out. “And it’s okay if you want to go back to all of that. I probably would as well.”

 

“Why?” she tossed out instantly.

 

“Why?” Ben laughed in disbelief. “Before the war I had never eaten a meal I didn’t have a hand in preparing. I didn’t know what a nap was until I learned it was a great way to pass the time at camp. I may hate those fundraisers the officers are required to attend but selfishly it’s more than nice to be out of the cold for a night or two every month.”

 

“But you don’t want that life all the time,” Charlotte convinced.

 

Ben shrugged. “Probably not. But I guess the war has afforded me some time to figure it out. I’ve seen both sides and while my upbringing wasn’t perfect, it was still my upbringing. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve been through or where I come from and neither should you be.”

 

“I’m not ashamed I just always felt so...fortunate. I had the best governess and we had servants and these parties and the dinners…” Her voice trailed off, leaving her to look to Ben almost begging that he understand her meaning. Instead she sighed. “I am at such a disadvantage in the world because there is so much I don’t know. I can’t...I can’t be a wife and a mother if I still don’t know how to start a fire or...or make a cup of coffee!” she gestured. Her increased volume, while still concealed, did have Mr. Tallmadge looking up.

 

Ben took a closer step. “You’re doing great. I...this wasn’t meant to make you feel bad, Charlie. I didn’t…” He let out a breathy laugh. “I didn’t think anyone would ever be jealous of any of this.”

 

When Charlotte said nothing, Ben stopped what he was doing and turned to her fully. “What is with this wife and mother talk? Last I checked you left all of that behind you. That’s not...no one’s expecting anything from you anymore, Charlie. No one except maybe you.”

 

“Take it as you wish, Benjamin, but it means a lot to me being here. I am so honored you let me come home with you. I like this world. I wouldn’t mind this being my world when all of this is over. My concern is that this world is going to think I’m not worthy of your time because maybe I’m not capable of doing all the things a woman should be able to do.” Charlotte had always wondered how society would perceive Ben in her upper class world but not once did she ever think that perhaps she’d be the one needing to prove herself.

 

Ben could only smile. “Not having the proper knowledge and lacking the capability are two very different things, Charlie.”

 

Her eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”

 

“I’m saying that if you want this world you can have it. It’s as easy as that.”

 

~!~

 

Charlotte said nothing but her eyes couldn’t conceal how shocked she was at realizing the table they’d be eating at was the same one they’re prepared food upon. She was thankful for the prayer they fell into for it both distracted and normalized her. It was essentially the same one she’d say with her family before a meal with the main difference being that she was allowed to hold Ben’s hand while his father spoke. When it concluded she ached to have to let his hand go and Ben must have felt the same way because he paused, leaving his hand on his knee before finally moving to serve himself.

 

“Charlotte,” Ben’s father began as he handed her the plate of bread, “do tell me what you’ve done to get Ben to agree to all of this.”

 

“Dinner?” she inquired.

 

“Well, of course.”

 

“I said please,” she said simply, sharing a laugh with Mr. Tallmadge as Ben sipped at his ale, pretending not to feel embarrassed while simultaneously enjoying the effortless banter occurring between his father and friend.

 

“Now where are you from again, Charlotte?”

 

Charlotte put down her ale and smiled. “Oh. Virginia, sir. Williamsburg.”

 

“Ahh, so that’s how you know General Washington then.”

 

“Yes, sir. Mrs. Washington grew up with my mother. The two used to be best friends.”

 

“And your father was aware of this friendship, I imagine.”

 

“He was,” Charlotte spoke. “That’s why they used to be friends.”

 

The Reverend chuckled. “So you live at camp now, is that correct?”

 

“I do.”

 

“And your mother and father are fine with that?”

 

“I honestly didn’t tell them much before I left. I don’t think they even know where I am but even if they did, they’d have to be. They don’t have much say either way.”

 

Ben’s gaze bounced from Charlotte to his father and then back again. “Charlotte is a notorious rulebreaker,” he delivered, earning a flirtatious smile from Charlie, one she hid behind her mug of ale before Reverend Tallmadge could comment on that too.

 

“Sounds like someone else I know,” he tried instead, shifting his attention back to his son. “Benjamin, how are things?”

 

“They’re…” He sat up straighter. “Fine.”

 

“He was shot.”

 

“Charlie!” Ben let out, mostly shocked by her boldness.

 

Mr. Tallmadge set down his fork and sat back. “Again?”

 

Charlie giggled and Ben let out a defeated sigh. “It was nothing. Single shot to my ribcage.”

 

“Well thank God for your ribcage then.”

 

“I’m fine, Pa.”

 

“Well I’d like you returned to me. At least for awhile. Have you started to think about what you’re going to do after all of this?”

 

Ben glanced to Charlie then back to his father. His cheeks turned red under the heat of her stare, especially when her smile grew as she waited for his answer. “Yeah, a bit.”

 

“And?”

 

“I’d prefer not to make any plans out loud. Let me at least get through this year.”

 

“The year?” Mr. Tallmadge clarified; it was not anger but surprise that coated his words. “They’re predicting all of this will be over before then.”

 

“Maybe so but I’m still not making any plans.”

 

Reverend Tallmadge shifted his attention back to Charlotte. “Charlotte, do tell me, dear...are all men Ben’s age as rude?”

 

She laughed, covering her mouth while she did so. “All of them,” she played along. “Though I will say, Benjamin is especially good at it.” She delivered her last statement right to Ben. The way she took him in had Ben looking away, unable to exist under her gaze with so many words still left unsaid between them.

 

~!~

 

After dinner Mr. Tallmadge worked to clear the table but was quickly dismissed. Charlotte even tried to push Ben away, wanting to perform this task in a continued show of appreciation for being welcomed into their home. It was honestly a task Ben used to loathe as a child but he now enjoyed moving about the kitchen, mostly because Charlotte was by his side. Though he respected her wishes, he hoped she did want this world and he wondered if maybe she’d let him live in it with her.

 

“Here,” Charlotte said, passing a cup in Ben’s direction. He looked down to it then back to her. “Coffee. For your father.”

 

“Charlie—”

 

“I made you a cup too and you have to try it before you give it to him. I think I did it right but...”

 

Ben sipped at the liquid and returned his gaze to her only when he wore a smile. “Not bad.”

 

Charlotte still looked nervous. “Not bad... palateable ? Or not bad I don’t want to offend you ?”

 

Ben chuckled. “It’s good. Really.” He went to turn away but stopped, still wearing a grin. “You know I’d tell you if it was shite.”

 

Charlotte giggled. “I know you would...arse.”

 

His smile turned to a full laugh as Ben brought the cups of tea out to where his father sat on the porch. Reverend Tallmadge happily took his cup but looked immediately back to the horizon as Ben took a seat next to him.

 

“You told me you were coming with a girl and I was sure this was your way of telling me you had a wife.” Ben’s father didn’t look to him; he didn’t need to. Mr. Tallmadge’s  words were brave enough that he could hear the way Ben held his breath as he listened.

 

“Oh really?”

 

“Realistically I thought that perhaps you’d found yourself in the family way and—”

 

Ben nearly choked on his coffee. “Not quite,” he coughed out. “Just a friend.”

 

Reverend Tallmadge finally looked to his son, now wearing a curious grin. “Just a friend?”

 

This, of course, lead Ben to look out onto the valley. “S’what I said, isn’t it?”

 

The pair had become exceptionally talented at avoiding one another, a habit picked up right after Ben’s mother died and the two found themselves in a much more business-like relationship. There was little time for affection when there was always so much work that needed to be done.

 

“Why are you so offended? Charlotte’s a beautiful girl, Benjamin.”

 

“Aye.”

 

“Is she promised to someone then? You two get along so well and—”

 

Ben could only smile, continuing to drink his coffee. “Friends, Pa.”

 

The Reverend wanted to move on but he felt a pull to push at his son. In these moments he felt Ben’s mother asking him to do the things she no longer could. “Is that your choice or hers?”

 

“It’s a mutual friendship, I can assure you.”

 

“Alright and does your friend know you’re in love with her?”

 

Ben looked to his father and let out a laugh of disbelief. “What?”

 

Mr. Tallmadge sat forward, placing his now empty cup on the porch below. “I don’t see you very often, Ben, so I don’t have time to beat around the bush here.”

 

“Well you’re beating around the wrong bush.”

 

“I don’t think I am,” he said, persevering. He also gave a sigh. “Poor thing might love you back…”

 

“Pa, I love you but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“She reminds me of your mother,” Reverend Tallmadge continued, now completely ignoring his son.

 

“Pa, really…”

 

Ben’s father looked to him. “She has her grit. She has to if she’s going to put up with you.”

 

Even through his irritation, Ben couldn’t help but to chuckle. “Well I’m hardly the worst thing to happen to the girl.”

 

“Ahh but you’re hardly the best, no?”

 

“Thanks, Pa,” Ben said with eyes rolled heavenward.

 

“I see the way she is, Benjamin. What have you taken her away from?” Ben looked to his father so he elaborated, somehow all too happy to do so. “She’s truly lovely but she’s a far cry from any girl in Setauket.”

 

“I haven’t taken her anywhere. She’s left behind quite the social standing but if it were up to me she’d be back there.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“She wanted her freedom and now she has it and I want so badly to support her and selfishly I do but she’s protected back there. She’s...Charlotte’s done brilliant things for us and she’s certainly more than capable of looking after herself...”

 

“But?”

 

“But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t worry me. She’s...she’s bold and she says what she wants to, to whoever she pleases.”

 

Ben’s father shrugged to show his indifference. “Not the best trait a woman can have but also not the worst.”

 

“It’s a fine trait,” Ben corrected, almost in offense. It was problematic but like the other parts of Charlotte, he loved it all the same. “All of her traits are fine traits. She doesn’t have any bad traits, really. I wish she did”

 

“What is it then? You’re distracted?” Ben’s eyes turned cold and he said nothing. Somehow this was encouragement for his father to continue.  “It’s okay if you are, Ben. I’m happy to hear that if that is the case. You’ve always done a great job going at it alone.”

 

“I’m not distracted,” he dismissed.

 

“Perhaps that’s true. All I’m saying is that...you don’t have to. You don’t always have to fight this world by yourself. So I hope you’re being a gentleman and taking care of that girl as she has clearly taken care of you.” He stood slowly, his legs stiff in a show of his accelerating age. “Friends or otherwise,” he added, clapping at Ben’s back before heading back inside.

Chapter Text

Ben sat back, remaining slumped into his chair as the day dwindled around him. He heard the stairs creak  as his father ascended them, clearly going to bed. He could also hear the scraping of chair legs against the old wooden floor in the kitchen but when he entered he found the table and each seat just as they left it. The main difference, however, was the room’s newfound cleanliness. The dishes were already drying by the half-dead fire and the sound Ben heard earlier was Charlotte moving the table so she could sweep beneath it just as she’d done the rest of the kitchen.

 

“Christ…” he let out.

 

Charlotte leaned back, immediately wiping at her forehead. Several strands of hair were coming out of her chignon and the apron she wore was now stained with dirty handprints. “What?”

 

Ben let out a breathy chuckle. “You didn’t have to do all of this.”

 

“I didn’t mind,” she shrugged, still somewhat breathless. “I wanted to give you time with your father and I know how busy he is with everything that’s going on. I figured it was the least I could do.”

 

“He’s...yes,” Ben sighed, “He’s exhausted.”

 

“Well good. I’m happy I could take care of this for him. Maybe tomorrow we could—”

 

“Charlie?”

 

She looked to him, somewhat surprised to have been called on. “Yeah?”

 

“Tomorrow,” Ben said, as if in agreement. “I’m exhausted too.”

 

She nodded, all before grabbing for the last lit candle on the wall. It was all she needed, a request from Ben, that had her leading him up the stairs and away from a now dark first floor.

 

She stopped just outside her room, her breath hitching when Ben stopped too. Really he had no other option. In fact, he nearly collided into her as if he didn’t expect her to stop — as if he expected her bold nature to bring her feet to his own bedroom.

 

She gave him a smile, one of propriety that held back all she wished to say. "G'night, Benjamin." She leaned forward, extending up onto her toes to kiss his cheek. She was speechless once more, finding that same air trapped in her throat as she pulled away and found Ben not turning his head to ask for more.

 

He inhaled sharply, dismissing the moment. “G’night, Charlie.”

 

~!~

 

The water in the basin Ben set out for her was cold. It chilled her skin as she splashed it on her cheeks and was just as biting when she was forced to ring out the cloth she’d packed for this very task. Slowly she wiped at her neck and along her collarbone, ridding her skin of the dirt and dew it had picked up since she and Ben left camp that morning. The pressure she applied turned her arms a pure white before revealing freckles on her shoulders and chest. They were similar to the ones that painted the bridge of her nose, but highlighted a more private side of her. Occasionally few could be seen in the summertime and while they began to tell the story of her complexion only Charlie knew they failed to exist elsewhere. At her core she was nothing but milk-colored skin, wholly untouched.

 

As she’d done lately, Charlotte forfeited her main corset for one with clips she could undo herself. Though she adored the way Ben’s hands moved upon her skin so many nights ago she knew her craving was impractical and the change in garment made her removal of that day’s gown a far easier one. Even so, she felt the way the bone of her stay dug into her abdomen, leaving stretches of red skin in its wake. Charlotte’s chemise was so thin you could see each mark as she moved in the light.

 

With her gown put away Charlotte began to remove each pin in her hair. It seemed to do nothing to release her hair down her back until it suddenly did, the last pin acting as the glue that somehow held it all together. She could smell it now, the lavender oil she had run through her hair the previous night and she smiled, almost sadly, wondering if Ben had smelled it too.

 

Charlie walked to the nearby fireplace, bringing with her the candle she’d taken from downstairs. She was hesitant to blow it out, not yet accepting her night was over. It also didn’t help that she felt cold, a fact that remained true even after she tossed a log onto the hearth. The flames raged on but did nothing to warm the chill in her bones even from beneath the many quilts and feather duvets Ben’s father had laid out for her.

 

Now the candle on her nightstand taunted her, asking for a commitment.She was challenged by it’s blue flame, feeling an imaginary heat when she once again slipped out of bed, taking the melting wax with her as she padded back into the hallway with nothing but a wool shawl around her shoulders.

 

Charlie swore the floor noisily moved beneath her but it was the light of her candle that had Ben turning over in his bed when she entered his bedroom. His features were a mix of horror and excitement, his breath quickening as he took all of her in. Charlotte carefully shut the door behind her and Ben sat up, waiting for her next move.

 

“Charlie…”

 

“I can’t sleep,” she said simply.

 

“You’ve hardly tried,” Ben reasoned.

 

“Then I’ve hardly tried,” she conceded. The candle she held was immediately blown out and she gave no second thought to it as she dropped her shawl and took a step toward Ben’s bed. “Move over—”

 

Ben did shift, but mostly out of fear. “Charlie, I’m—” His mouth dried as he watched the fire trace her curves in shadow beneath her shift. “You shouldn’t be here,” he let out, almost in self-reprimand.

 

Charlotte pulled back Ben’s quilt and sat down. “Your father’s asleep,” she explained before picking up her feet to place them beneath the bedsheets.

 

“I…”

 

“Why shouldn’t I be here, Ben? Do you want me gone?”

 

“You...you are you, Charlie, and we are not married and—”

 

“And your father’s asleep, remember? Who’s going to know?”

 

“I’m going to know,” Ben gave as if the answer were an obvious one.

 

“Well God forbid,” Charlie sassed.

 

“Charlie, please—”

 

“I thought you’d want me here, Ben. I thought—” Charlotte sighed. They now looked like a true couple, the pair arguing in bed the way only those sealed by marriage were allowed to.

 

Ben shut his eyes, doing his best to rid his mind of its sensibility while also clearing his vision of the swell of Charlotte’s chest beneath the lace trim of her nightgown. “I do want you here,” he said, sighing as he opened his eyes. “That’s the problem. We may kid but your reputation means a lot to me and people are already talking and—”

 

“And right now we’re alone. And I’m cold. And I am in this town I’ve never been to, sleeping in a home I’ve not been a guest in before. I don’t have a hundred men with guns right outside my door. I only have you.”

 

Ben exhaled. “We’re safe here.” He even moved his fingers closer to hers atop the mattress.

 

“I’m safer now. I feel...I would feel better if you were close but if—”

 

Ben raised the quilt, inviting Charlotte into the empty space beside him. “Lay down, just keep your voice down, would ye?”

 

Charlotte obliged. “Do you want me to get the board?”

 

Ben lifted his head off his pillow. “The what?”

 

“The—”

 

He rolled his eyes before shifting closer to her. “I’m a grown man. I don’t need to be bundled,” he dismissed. Soon though his courage was quiet again. “Unless...in which case, I mean, we could manage something if—”

 

Instantly Charlotte began to laugh, her lungs contracting so much the bed nearly shook beneath them. She could only roll into Ben, still smiling while the moment turned to silence. Their breathing found the same rhythm with the two just looking at one another, waiting for the other to say something but also being perfectly content in their shared silence.

 

Charlotte swore this bed was warmer but as Ben moved his arm above her head she began to debate if it was because Ben’s bed was closer to the fire or if it was just because he was beside her. A dangerous current existed between them the longer they refused to reach out and even innocently touch one another. Charlie wanted to, but she didn’t dare kiss him. Instead she nestled into his side and placed a hand to his chest only when his lack of hesitation invited her to do so. This was cemented as she felt Ben sigh beneath her.

 

“Get comfortable,” she whispered, mostly to fill the air with sound, if only for a little while.

 

“I am comfortable.”

 

Charlotte looked up to him. It was extremely apparent now that her head was on his chest. At this angle she saw his hair was no longer tied back. Soon though a defense mechanism crept back in, warning her against touching him. “I imagine that’s a typical feeling when you’ve got a girl in your bed,” she jested, all the while holding her breath as she waited for his response.

 

“I wouldn’t know,” Ben gave softly.

 

Charlotte looked to him once more. “What?” She was warmed by his admission of innocence but she was wholly surprised. She always envied the lower classes - open shows of affection were much more common and Charlotte was shocked to hear no girl in this town had ever taken him up on the offer. Or maybe he never offered.

 

“Unlike you, I follow the rules and joining an army consisting solely of men hasn’t really aided in other pursuits.” Ben looked to her too. “Am I to assume you’re so comfortable here because you do this often?”

 

“Ohh, you bite your tongue,” she growled. “I am comfortable here because…”

 

Immediately Ben was reaching out for her, finally accepting her weight upon him with a well placed hand around her shoulders, keeping her close. His fingertips even dared to dance with her own atop the cotton of his own shirt. “I’m comfortable too, Charlie. I’m sorry, I just…”

 

“What did you mean before? You said ‘ And you are you’ ...what do you mean?”

 

Ben looked to the ceiling, an amused grin tugging at his lips. “You’re...you’re Charlotte Gray. You’re the sweet daughter of one of the most respected men in the British army. You’re...not supposed to be spending time with Continental officers.”

 

“Or sharing their beds?”

 

“I could hang for this,” Ben admitted honestly.

 

Charlie sighed. “If you’re that uncomfortable, Benjamin—”

 

“I’m not,” he stated sternly. “At all. But I don’t want to...I don’t want to scare you,” he explained with a sigh of relief.

 

“Scare me?”

 

“Well—”

 

“I’m the one that came in here, Ben.”

 

His eyebrows quirked at the sound of her addressing him in a foreign but welcomed way. “Ben?”

 

“Yes, Ben,” Charlie teased. “A girl knows her own mind, remember?” Even so, she looked away. “But it took a lot for me to walk down that hall so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make fun of me.”

 

“Wasn’t making fun.”

 

“Do you know how many men wish they were you right now?” There it was, yet another attempt to keep him at a distance. All of these efforts were useless, lost long before they’d arrived in Setauket.

 

“Are you that fond of yourself?”

 

“I’m merely repeating your words back to you. But what about you?” she challenged. “Doesn’t seem right to share your bed with the daughter of a Tory. You have a continent of patriot women to choose from and—”

 

“I didn’t choose though. You get that, don’t you?”

 

Ben demanded she look at him with a firm hand cupping her neck, caressing her cheek. It was all the permission that Charlie needed to now reach up and touch him too. At the same time her lips found his, the two inhaling together in an attempt to maintain the contact for as long as possible. When the pair pulled away, both were too terrified to look at one another. Charlotte even rolled her lips inward wondering if she could taste the moment for just a second longer. Instead she nodded, revealing her swollen lips to him once more.

 

“I know.”

 

Ben was still beneath her, afraid to move for fear of forgetting what they’d just stared. He could only blink up at the ceiling, the tips of his fingers now held by Charlie as she actually attempted to close her eyes in search of slumber.

 

“I don’t have any tasks to run while I’m here,” he stated plainly, causing Charlotte’s eyes to blink back open.

 

She looked to him again, only sad because the movement had her pulling her head off his chest. “What?” Already she missed the sound of his heartbeat.

 

“No work. No messages.” Ben finally looked to her. “Nothing.”

 

“Then why have you come?”

 

Ben sighed. “Because I’m coming to terms with the fact that I may never see my father again.”

 

“Ben?” There was fear in her voice, shown by the way she tried to sit up without detaching from him completely. “What are you talking about? Is he ill?” Then: “Are you ill?”

 

“We’re both fine. Now,” he said quickly. “We’re fine now . But I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get back, Charlie. They...they do want me dead and I won’t stay hidden in a tent planning while I send my men out to do my dirty work. That’s hardly fair and it’s not how I operate.”

 

“So you...you think you’re going to die?”

 

“I don’t think anything,” he admitted honestly. “I just know it’s a possibility and my father has already lost so much. I didn’t want him to find out I’d passed and then struggle to think of when I’d been home last.”

 

Something in his words calmed Charlotte, causing her to settle back into his side. “You’re...you’re going to be fine.”

 

“Sure. I want to believe that too.”

 

“Then believe it,” she tossed out, almost in urgent challenge. “I do.”

 

“You have to.”

 

“No, I don’t.” There was anger in her voice now but before Ben could inquire or even soothe, Charlie continued. “I have believed for over two years now that Michael is alive. I believe that because I don’t have a choice. But most days I find myself doubting it and some days I believe my doubt and wonder if all of this spying and traveling is for nought.” Ben could have sworn she was crying but he didn’t feel any tears slide onto his chest and when she carried on all her sadness had been banished, replaced with a sweet smile only she was capable of. “But then I met you and very selfishly I forgot about Michael for a bit. It’s okay if Michael’s dead because I have you.”

 

“Charlie, don’t say that…”

 

“Why? It’s the truth.”

 

Ben exhaled slowly. “Well if anything happens to me then I hope you have Michael.”

 

“I’ll have the both of you because nothing’s going to happen.”

 

“I want your blind faith,” he said with a small smirk.

 

“Then have it. I...your world is very foreign to me, Benjamin but just tonight I found myself wanting it. It’s so quiet here and your father has been endlessly generous. You’re rather hopeless, of course, but—”

 

Her words were stunted by Ben’s fingertips, tickling her sides as his weight nearly covered her completely. She didn’t mind and merely twisted beneath him, her body inching away while secretly wanting each bit of contact he offered. His concentration was soon lost on the heave of her chest and how beneath the stitching he could see the swell of her breasts, the same curves he’d nearly touched as his hands moved up and down her sides. The reality of the moment put everything on hold. Ben looked down to Charlotte and she reached up, finally able to push back at his hair, wanting to see him but also loving how he looked when privacy allowed him to come undone.

 

“I like you, Benjamin,” Charlotte whispered, interrupting the silence. “I haven’t said it and I hate that I’m having to say it now because I hope this isn’t news to you. You’ve become incredibly important to me and I am here, both in your father’s home and in your bed,” she smirked, “because you’re not going anywhere.”

 

“I—”

 

Charlotte pressed a finger to his lips, mimicking his earlier actions. “Don’t say anything. You’re going to ruin it.”

 

Ben chuckled. “You don’t want to hear that I like you too? That maybe I—”

 

“I know how you feel about me, Benjamin. You can tell me some other time. Maybe when this war is over.”

Chapter Text

Most of the British infantry had been removed from Setauket several months before Ben and Charlie’s visit. A few men, mostly in low rank, remained as a mere presence; there was a strong belief amongst the redcoats that to lose any part of New York was to essentially forfeit the city.

 

This was why Ben and Charlie found themselves out of bed early, walking into town while the moonlight still kissed the river below. Charlie had the same wool shawl from the previous night wrapped around her shoulders but beneath she wore far more than her shift. As they walked she leaned into Ben, gripping his bicep and using his frame to hold her up as the two disappeared from the view of his childhood home.

 

“Will you please slow down?”

 

The look Ben gave Charlotte told her that he found her complaint to be an empty one. “Can you please keep up?” he tossed back.

 

“I have little legs!”

 

“Your legs are plenty long enough you’re just not using them properly.”

 

Charlotte stopped completely, shocked by such a statement and pondering what type of ego was required to mutter it. “I’m sorry, Benjamin , I didn’t realize there was a right and wrong way to use your legs—”

 

“Keep your voice down!” he hushed.

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes and paced forward until she was back in stride with Ben. “Who am I going to wake?”

 

“I don’t...I don’t know this town anymore, Charlotte, so I’m not really sure.”

 

Though there was still irritation in his tone Charlie knew a lot of Ben’s frustration stemmed from a hurt he had not yet addressed. Knowing that perhaps the town square wasn’t the best place to ask him to confront these demons, Charlotte returned to her earlier methods.

 

“Bennn!” she whined. “If you don’t slow down I’m going to be forced to yell because you won’t be able to hear me being so far ahead—”

 

Ben hadn’t caught on to Charlotte’s plan but he moved all the same, scooping her up in his arms before continuing to pace forward, a look of determination on his face.

 

“Benjamin, you put me down right this instant!”

 

“No way,” he gave. “Look at all this ground I’m gaining— oof! Charlie!”

 

She giggled as she fell out of Ben’s grasp and he now buckled over, holding a hand to his gut. “Christ, Charlie! That hurt!”

 

“I very kindly asked you to put me down.”

 

Ben’s eyes widened. He was smiling now, joining her in her calculations. “You most certainly did not. You demanded—”

 

“I had a right to demand. You picked me up without warning!”

 

“Those are your options! Either keep up or I carry you like a child ,” he emphasized, causing her gaze to extend as she feigned offense with a well placed hand to her chest.

 

“Alright then,” she finally sighed out. “You can carry me.”

 

“Okay then—” Again his words were stunted, this time by Charlie lunging forward, donating her weight onto his back. She was lucky her petticoat was plenty wide and the grip she had around Ben’s neck strong enough to keep her holding on even when Ben stumbled forward. All the same he reached back for her, wanting to keep her close.

 

She giggled into his ear, each breathy laugh tickling his cheeks, coaxing them into a soft grin. He had no other option but to look over his shoulder and witness her joy. Somehow even in moments of total seriousness Charlotte managed playfulness. She was a welcomed interruption to his otherwise mundane mornings and afternoons and nights. Ben couldn’t be mad at her when her mere presence gave him permission to slow down in life.

 

“You better not be getting mud on me,” he said, now looking briefly to her boots and how there were blades of grass stuck to the soles. “I have to wear this to church…” Right as his voice trailed off, Ben’s feet stilled, causing Charlotte to breathe out a final laugh before joining him in silence. “The church,” he said again.

 

The words acted as a request for Charlotte to slide off Ben’s back and stand beside him. She did, grabbing for his hand as well. “Ben?”

 

Charlotte looked to him then to the structure they stood only several yards from. The bell atop the church remained but everything else about it was damaged. Ben’s features now mimicked what was once such a sacred place for him: broken, mostly, nearly causing him to cry.

 

“Ben…” Charlotte tried again. “Maybe we should…” She rested upon him again, her chin nearly on his shoulder in an attempt to give him comfort. Soon though he was pushing her off. Charlotte couldn’t be offended, especially as she witnessed him approaching the building, going immediately for a headstone that stood at the center of what seemed to be a makeshift fortification.

 

“Bastards couldn’t even be bothered to put them back before they left…” He laughed, still so shook by his disbelief he hadn’t even realized he was on his knees now, his fingers running across the limestone in silent worship.

 

Charlotte kneeled too, returning to her earlier posture of resting her chin upon his shoulder, somehow finding the position allowed her to give him strength. “Ben…” Was all she could manage as her own eyes began to make out the letters etched on the smoothed stone.

 

Susannah Tallmadge

1729 - 1768

 

When Charlie looked back to Ben he had his eyes shaded. The sun was coming up but he avoided her gaze, his reasoning clear when he dropped his hand and nearly collapsed into her. Charlie’s mouth fell open but she was all too happy to take on his weight, even as he clutched onto her and continued to cry. Ben’s body shook under the pressure of his own sorrow causing Charlie to wonder how many months it had been since Ben had last cried. It was honestly something she once feared he was incapable of but she saw it often lately; not the sadness but his overall capacity to be truly vulnerable with any of his emotions.

 

She wanted to say something but all Charlie could do was allow Ben to rest body against hers, his face buried in the crook of her neck even as she felt him begin to calm down. Charlie aided him in this pursuit, gently pushing back at his hairline until he was ready to look back to her.

 

“How dare they…” he muttered.

 

Charlie nodded. For whatever reason she felt the attack was a personal one. She couldn’t explain it but Ben sounded so angry she wondered if perhaps he was grouping her with old company. Then again, she was the same girl he was relaxed into, and she felt just as heartbroken to see the destruction before her. Charlotte had never been to Setauket but she surmised the dilapidation was not typical. This was war, she reminded herself. But even the Continental Head of Intelligence was human.

 

“Thank you,” he finally muttered into her neck as he began to pick his head up. Ben moved himself to sit but Charlie remained, her hands still upon him until she was sure he was of sound mind to be without her support. His vision blurred back to his mother’s tombstone.

 

“I wonder what she’d say if she were here.”

 

“To you?”

 

“To anyone,” Ben explained simply. “Her opinions were rather loud.”

 

“For a woman?” Charlie challenged.

 

“In general.”

 

“That’s where you get it from then?”

 

Ben smirked. “I suppose.”

 

“She’d be proud of you, don’t you think?”

 

“I’d like to think so.”

 

Charlie was silent for a moment, as if making calculations in her head. “She didn’t see you go to university.”

 

“No,” Ben exhaled, possibly breathing past more tears. “She didn’t.”

 

“Ben, I am so so sorry. I wish I could say more but—”

 

“There’s nothing to say, Charlie.”

 

“I wanted to call your bluff so badly that day.”

 

Ben stopped. “What?”

 

“One of our first conversations. You said—”

 

“Yeah well I don’t talk about it. And I don’t know what I’m grieving. This town or her.”

 

“Both?” Charlie suggested.

 

Ben tried to smile again. “She would have liked you,” he finally revealed.

 

Charlie scoffed out a laugh. “Well that’s good. I don’t think I’ve done much to flatter your father so it would be nice to have someone on my side.”

 

“Actually, I think my father likes you plenty. We don’t…”

 

“Usually talk much? I got that impression.”

 

Ben shrugged. “Something like that.”

 

“Seemed like you two talked last night.”

 

“We did,” Ben nodded. “Too much, perhaps.”

 

“Well regardless of how it went it’s worth noting that he seems to be truly touched by you being here. I imagine none of this has been easy for him.”

 

“He’s lonely, I’m sure. But a minister doesn’t admit those things. There’s always scripture or a congregation to keep him company.”

 

“But he’s human and it’s okay for a man to miss his wife and his children. Not just Samuel but you too. Surely a minister’s allowed those moments too, no?”

 

Ben laughed again, constantly awed by the bold nature behind even Charlotte’s most simple observations. “Everyone always said I was like my mother but she was the only one who swore I was like my father. I guess she was right. We’re both shite at talking about our feelings.”

 

“You could look at it that way. Or you could say you both excel at pretending you have none.”

 

Ben dropped his head back to laugh. “Is that the positive way of looking at things?”

 

Charlotte smirked. “I think so. Though…” Her voice quieted down. “I’d like to think I’ve helped a bit.”

 

“A bit?” Ben chuckled. “I’ve certainly never cried on Abe or Caleb.”

 

“No?”

 

“So this never happened. You can’t tell anyone or I swear, with God as my witness,” he said, pointing up toward the steeple but wearing a somewhat mischievous smile, “our friendship will be over.”

 

Charlie giggled, hiding her amusement behind a well placed palm. “Your secret’s safe with me, Benjamin.” He looked away, shaking his head but also concealing the way he was also amused, and currently obsessed with her laughter. “On one condition…”

 

Her voice had Ben’s head popping up, his eyebrows raised in question. “Yeah?”

 

“You keep letting me help.”

 

There was a pause, a microsecond where Charlotte’s words settled into Ben, creating the same pleasurable pain of a small needle, one forceful but not enough to break the skin. He couldn’t catch her glance; he feared its intensity and didn’t want to cry again. All Ben could manage was a nod. When he moved to stand he grabbed Charlotte’s hand and held it tightly. There were no words but also no hesitation even as the sun continued to rise, revealing them to a wakening Setauket.  

 

~!~

 

They were forced out of town early. Ben’s goal of witnessing the inevitable changes was forced to happen when night still covered the valley but their retreat out of town toward Ben’s childhood home served a separate purpose. With his father’s church still under British rule, Reverend Tallmadge took to holding services in one of the old barns on the back of his property. Crop had been cleared out by Continental soldiers in the Spring, allowing for benches to be placed atop the softened plank flooring.

 

Just feet from the barn Charlie felt the grip Ben had on her hand loosen until it slowly fell away completely. In the daylight holding hands was akin to the sins they’d committed last night when only the dwindling fire painted their skin. Ben was also planning for the inevitable shock his homecoming would receive upon entering the barn and he was doing his best to protect Charlotte from this, an altogether impossible task considering everyone was likely to be just as surprised to see a girl by his side.

 

At the door Ben kept his head down. Though he wished to grab for Charlie again he found the glares he was already receiving to be enough to keep her looking downward as well, pacing just behind him until they reached an empty bench. He stood back, granting her entrance to the aisle before he too shuffled in and sat down. Though he said nothing, Charlie couldn’t help but to stare up at him, a tight lipped smirk puckering her lips when she saw his action as an offer of protection from the stares they were currently receiving.

 

Charlie shifted upon her seat before opening her bible. Ben’s eyes followed her own, scanning through scripture to distract themselves from the attention their presence was creating. It did not help that Ben’s father had given the pair a smile, thus confirming what each Setauket resident had already guessed. Ben was forced to tip his hat in acknowledgement of each man that now looked his way. The women echoed Charlie, looking down more as a sign of respect, possibly thinking of the sons and husbands they’d sent off who were unlikely to return in the way Ben had.

 

“Seems like you’re quite the spectacle,” Charlie whispered, not daring to meet Ben’s gaze.

 

He cast his head down, thankful for the brim of his hat and the persistent buzz of chatter around them. “They probably think they’ve seen a ghost.”

 

“Is it you or me they’re staring at?”

 

Ben paused. “Me.” He sighed out. “Possibly you as well.”

 

Charlotte hid a giggle in her shoulder. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

 

“I’ve got no one to say hello to.”

 

“Ben…”

 

“These people don’t know me anymore, Charlie. They know stories and they think I’ve done far more than I have. I can say hello when I’m home for good and we’ve actually won this thing but for as long as the British remain in this town and every other town on Long Island, I might as well be a ghost. I don’t deserve any of this attention.”

 

“Benja—”

 

Charlotte’s thought was interrupted by sudden silence. Ben’s father now stood upon his makeshift pulpit and without hesitation began to address the congregation before him. Though Charlie had always struggled to maintain focus during worship, that was especially true here. The Reverend’s voice had a somewhat soothing quality about it, earning her many minutes to scan the barn around them noticing mostly how everyone remained still and how she in contrast was unable to do so.

 

While Charlotte struggled not to fidget, Ben sat with his back straight and his hands placed firm in his lap. As he donated his attention to the front of the room Charlie could only stare at him, taking his features in and fighting the urge she had to place her hand upon his knee or even drop her head upon his shoulder. The unusual nature of war had allowed them so many moments that were only highlighted as forbidden when the two were supposed to sit side by side and act as if the other didn’t even exist.

 

Ben must have felt her staring because he eventually gave in, not looking toward her fully but allowing a grin to tug at his lips to show her he felt her eyes upon him. He had to look down, his cheeks rouged now as he too shifted upon the seat. There were many families sitting behind them and the pair was reminded of this when one of them coughed. It was possible it was a coincidence but both Charlotte and Ben heard it as an insistence on propriety.

 

Charlie was embarrassed. She wanted nothing more than to come to Setauket with Ben and witness this place welcome him home. Now that she was here she hated herself for the way she was wishing the two were alone again. She would have felt more loathsome had Ben not felt it too. Slowly he shifted his hand upon his knee, inching each digit closer and closer until finally he was gripping her fingertips. Ben brought Charlie’s hand back into his lap and spent the remainder of the service absentmindedly manipulating her touch upon him as he listened to the sermon.

 

Just as they’d done before entering, the two detached rather effortlessly. It was actually Charlie’s grip that pulled at Ben’s fingers, urging him to let go. He was happy she did because his mind was elsewhere and once the service ended he moved without thought, shuffling quickly for the aisle so they could exit.

 

“Benjamin!” he heard, leading him to inevitably search for the sound in the crowd. Immediately he was surrounded, salutations and questions hurled his direction as everyone excitedly acknowledged his return. He hadn’t even gotten a chance to address anyone but already he felt alone and when he reached back to grab for Charlie she was gone, disappeared out the doors without warning. Perhaps she was the ghost.

 

Ben had no other option but to share smiles with everyone from town, men and women he grew up respecting even when he was far more naive and a war did not threaten every facet of their otherwise simple lives. He felt young again, mostly because he was the only one of his age standing amongst the group and it was mostly women or older men, both groups not allowed to fight. Reverend Tallmadge said nothing of his Ben’s visit but word spread fast when the town had little else to do but wait for the war to end.

 

Everyone had so many questions but Ben was still on auto-pilot. If he gave the correct answers he was not sure, but when the room cleared he was only left to share a nod of thanks with his father. His weak smile showed of an exhaustion not related to his early rising or the hours before when Charlie and he whispered beneath bed sheets, holding one another, selfishly keeping the other awake.

 

When he could finally escape, Ben found Charlie on the southside of the property. She was not shielded by any of the nearby trees and the bonnet she wore inside was now laid out next to her on the grass. She beamed up at him before returning her attention to the valley below. All of Setauket, the same paths they’d walked just that morning appeared to her in a blur and she took it all in as everyone they’d just worshipped with headed home.

 

Ben sat beside her, mimicking the way she leaned back with her legs pointed down the hill. “You didn’t have to leave.”

 

Again she looked to him but did not dare to let her eyes linger when she spoke. “I wanted you to have time with everyone. I didn’t want to distract them from saying hello to you.”

 

“I wish you hadn’t.”

 

Charlie finally looked to him, meeting his gaze. “Why do you say that?”

 

“Being back here and facing my father has been hard enough. No one is...they’re just not realistic. They look at me with hope in their eyes and I don’t have the answers they need. This man they speak of...I don’t know him.  I’m not...I’m hardly a hero, Charlie.”

 

Charlie sat forward and turned to face him. “Benjamin, you’re talking nonsense.”

 

“Am I? Because I don’t feel like I am. I feel like I’ve barely done anything to advance this war effort and—”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I’ve not—”

 

“Benjamin, you sound insane. You may not feel like a hero but to these people you have done amazing things and...and I’d have to agree with them. And they don’t even know the half of it!” Charlie tossed out anxiously. She moved her hands so they were clasping his own.

 

Ben looked down to where they connected, concealing the heat he felt behind his eyes. He was sure he’d begin to cry again if Charlie demanded his gaze and if the past few days were any indication he’d once again give in to her.

 

As his mind wandered Charlie moved to kneel by his side, first placing a calming hand to the back of his neck then embracing him fully, allowing him to settle his weight back into her. She clutched his frame before inevitably dropping her head to his shoulder, providing a strength he’d never admit he needed. Even so he remained, gratefully accepting her existence when he felt so broken.

 

“What if…” Charlie picked up her head, abandoning the sound of his contracting lungs to hear him speak. “What if I come back and there’s nothing to come back to?”

 

“Benjamin…” It was all she could do: say his name and hope the melody had some healing effect.

 

“I shouldn’t have come, Charlie.”

 

“Yes...yes you should have,” she insisted in whisper. “I’m so glad you did. You need...you won’t admit it,” she laughed off, “but you need a reminder sometimes. This is all so much bigger than you, Ben. These are the people you fight for. This place made you who you are and now you have this opportunity to be that person and change the world.”

 

“The world?” he snickered through his almost-tears.

 

“Part of it. Their world. My world,” she spoke softly. Charlie even placed a kiss to his cheek as if to beg that he believe her. It seemed their embrace was a mutual offering of support. Perhaps they both needed some time away from the war, even if it was certain that they’d soon return.

 

“This all feels so never ending sometimes.”

 

“I know,” she nodded. “But it’s not. Just a little bit longer.”

 

Ben nodded. He then turned, shifting so he was holding Charlie, bringing her back upon the grass with him. With her head upon his chest, Charlie listened to Ben’s heartbeat. Even in his defeat it sounded the same as it had the previous night and she wondered, rather selfishly, if she was the cause.

Chapter Text

For as daring as Charlie felt she and Ben were sometimes being, the two still managed different facades in their public and private time together. It was similar to the front they wore at camp, split between their vulnerable conversations along the river and the chaotic meals and meetings shared with Caleb and Anna and the rest of the Continental Army. Holding Ben’s hand, especially during a Sunday church service was exhilarating but it didn’t compare to the thrill Charlie felt waking up in Ben’s bed that same morning.


“No.”

Charlotte giggled. She wasn’t aware she had woken Ben up but that was clear now as the same grip she was trying to slip out of grew tighter around her.  “No?”

“Where are you going?” He mumbled, his eyes still closed. “It’s warm...”

“You wanted to get up early so we could head into town, no?"

"Not yet."  

Charlie sighed. Her eyes focused on the wooden beams above instead of on the way her shift was well above her knees. Ben’s hand was steady on her hip, his fingers stretching over the expanse of her hipbone in a way that made her feel small. “I can’t have your father finding me in here,” she revealed matter of factly.

“He won’t. Sun's not even up and he'll be heading out soon anyway.”

“Well when he returns...”

Ben’s eyes blinked open. He smiled before shifting closer, practically nuzzling her neck with his nose as if to display the lack of distance between them and how he wished that to remain the case. “We'll be gone by then. Stay with me.”

“You can’t stay in this bed forever, Benjamin,” Charlie challenged.

Suddenly his voice became clear. “I’m not asking for forever, Charlie. I’m asking for a few more minutes and I’m asking that you spend them with me.”

She almost felt as if she had no choice, though that was probably the case because the decision she made thereafter was in line with what Ben was asking of her. Charlie sighed and settled back into him. Her eyes were soon coaxed shut by the softness of Ben’s lips gracing the back of her neck.

 

Their inability to be those same people when their bare feet hit the cold wooden floor below had them craving that solitude throughout the day. Or at least Charlie was craving it and wondered if Ben’s thoughts were so in sync with hers if perhaps he’d encourage her to join him there before nightfall.

 

But lunch passed and dinner too. All the pair could manage were several slight brushes of skin. When a moment of privacy presented itself Ben’s father requested his help outside and with the kitchen cleaned the previous night Charlie had no option but to retire to her room alone. As she ascended the staircase she reasoned with her solidarity; maybe it was safer if the two were forced to separate so close to slumber. Perhaps Charlie should have restrained herself the previous night, withstanding the chill of the night on her own in the room the Reverend had so graciously provided for her.

 

Upstairs she stripped unceremoniously. The nightgown she wore cascaded smoothly down her form. Her hair fell down similarly causing Charlie to thread her fingers through it an attempt to tame each unruly tress. It was also an effort to distract herself. She was doing her best to ready herself for bed instead of focusing on the chatter downstairs. Her raking fingers stilled only to twist the grouped strands into a loose plait. Just as the braid was almost complete she’d let it out and the weight of her hair would unwind so she had no other choice but to start again.

 

She did this over and over again, barely sitting on the edge of the bed while her eyes blurred into the fire. Each crackling flame had her collecting resolve until finally she stood, pulling her ribbon into a simple bow at the base of the loose braid she’d finally settled on.

 

Charlotte did not start for her bed, though she certainly convinced herself (if only briefly) that was where she was headed. Instead her feet brought her to the door, her eyes widening and her body motionless only when her fingertips gripped the brass handle and she truly confronted the weight of the decision she was about to make. The moment was in pause and her shock intensified, not when her hand pulled at the object but when she remained frozen and the door opened anyway, revealing an equally surprised Ben.

 

Ben said nothing but made quick work of quietly shutting the door behind him. When his eyes finally met hers again his features displayed what he feared to be a dwindling bravery and he stopped smiling only when she nodded, practically giving him permission to kiss her in a mutual need for reassurance. Charlie was relieved to see him and now relaxed into his embrace as they rolled against one another in a fight for dominance. It was a dance they’d perform together but the two seemed to be so hungry for this type of intimacy they barely had time to breathe, much less settle on a rhythm.

 

The steady grip Ben had cupping Charlie’s face had her practically melting into him. She gripped his arms and his neck, thankful for his courage when he detached to breathe, allowing her to do the same before he continued his delicate assault on her jawline, neck, and collarbone. Charlotte’s knees felt weak as his mouth adored her skin, even tenderly sucking and soothing at the sensitive skin of her clavicle turned lavender beneath his touch.

 

Her eyes fluttered open only when she felt him shift against her, picking his head up so he could look at her, his eyes innocent and somehow asking for all the things she’d already granted him access to. The couple shared nervous smirks but as the crimson color of their cheeks deepened, Charlie only stepped into Ben once more, closing the distance between them to continue what he had started.

 

There was certainly appreciation in the way Ben took her in but Charlie felt shy and somewhat naked under his gaze. There was far more light in this room than the pair had the prior night and now when Ben’s hands gripped Charlie waist he could see the curves his hands were caressing. Their illuminated movements had Ben feeling bold and each time his thumb brushed along the underside of Charlie’s breast his grasp tightened, wanting her steady as their mouths made reacquaintance. It was a seamless replacement of sharp wit with a lustful connection both were now silently admitting was long overdue.

 

The kisses they shared had them both stumbling back toward the bed. Halfway they detached but only so Charlotte could take off Ben’s shirt. It was a somewhat natural reaction for her fingers to reach for the hem of the garment and pull it up over his head and Ben did not hesitate when she had to avoid his gaze, instead focusing on the rise and fall of his now naked chest. Unlike last night Ben wore a pair of thin linen breeches, ones that allowed Charlie to touch him in the way she craved on so many otherwise ordinary nights like this one. Her thumbs ran softly along his collarbone and when Ben missed the taste of her lips and leaned back in, Charlie’s fingertips loosened only so they could drag themselves downward, pressing gently into the planes of his chest as she gave into the sensation of his mouth upon hers.

 

The grip Ben had on Charlie’s entire body gave him the perfect opportunity to lift her up into his arms, all of her moving in a way that felt undeniably natural to the both of them. Just as it had last night, Charlie’s chemise bunched at her thighs, encouraging a boldness that had her hands running along the waistband of Ben’s underdrawers. Ben stumbled forward, his feet unsteady until his knees hit the feather mattress and his mouth asked that they separate if only so he could gently lay her down.

 

Charlie obliged, unwrapping her legs from his midsection because she knew all of him would soon cover her. Instantly his weight was keeping her flush against the mattress as they continued to kiss. She felt safe nestled beneath him as the chill in her bones transitioned to an inexplicable heat.

 

His lack of clothing had Ben feeling inadequate. Charlie must have been able to feel his doubt because she refused to let him go. She didn’t want to hear him ask her if she was comfortable; she hoped that answer was a clear one. Each time he rolled his hips Charlie could only grin, smiling through several open-mouthed kisses. The thin material of their undergarments did little to hide the way Ben so clearly wanted her and the bravery of Charlie’s lips was mimicked by her hands as she reached down, ready to touch Ben in a way she never had before.

 

Immediately Ben’s breath hitched, causing him to break their connection. He was simultaneously relieved and angry at himself for doing so. “No...”

Charlie’s eyes blinked open, appearing to Ben in a deep grey. “Wha—” Confusion coated her vocal cords.

Ben nipped at her mouth, kissing her fiercely. “We have to stop,” he revealed gruffly against her lips. He needed to catch his breath so he pulled away, dropping his forehead to hers but with eyes that remain closed. "I’m sorry, Charlie...”

“No, you’re right,” her voice delivered in a contrary melody. She shifted so she was sitting up, now sitting beside him but still in his grasp. “We have to stop before I decide that I don't want to," she whispered bravely.

Ben dropped his head back. “Charlie, you can’t say those things.”

“Why?”

"It’s..” Ben laughed nervously. He even reached up to rub at his eyes. “Christ. I don’t know what...”

“You should go,” Charlie suggested.

 

He looked to her, pausing before swallowing his concern. “What?”

 

Charlie covered her mouth and began to laugh. “I’m kidding! Unless...unless you want to,” she offered, but only because she felt she should.

 

Ben smirked. “I don’t,” he gave strongly. “I’m sorry but—”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” Charlie implored as she reached out to hold his hand in her lap. “I’m not sorry.”

 

There was love in his eyes but the respect Ben had for Charlie was only translating into touch. Thankfully when he shifted to lay down Charlie followed, her body folding into his just in the way it had the night before. It was all too easy for her to drape her leg over his while the rest of her clutched at his form. He already had his arms around her and Ben watched as she drew circles on his chest, distracted by his nakedness and possibly contemplating her own.

"I don't want to go back, Charlie,” he finally spoke, admitting the truth to the ceiling above.

Charlie picked her head up and looked to him. "You have to, Ben. We have to."

 

"I'm scared."

Charlie looked away. Ben didn’t apologize for his honesty and he didn’t ask that she not share it with the rest of the world. He felt what he felt so deeply he just seemed to be relieved to be rid of the emotion. "Me too,” she nodded simply.

"I also won't get to hold you like this every night and I'd be a lying bastard if I told you I won't care. I already care."

Charlie giggled. She appreciated Ben’s vulnerability but she was equally grateful for his propensity toward humor. She was beginning to come to terms with the fact that she was the only one who saw these rare sides of him. "We're close though, right? We get back and this is the beginning of the end."

"I hope so."

Charlie rested her chin on his chest. “Can I ask you something?”

“I suppose.”

“How did...why did Washington let you come?”

 

Ben breathed out a laugh. “I...I don’t know. I’ve never asked before so I figured...I honestly thought he’d say no but...”

“He thinks highly of you, Ben.”

“That’s what they tell me.”

“Why do you say that?”

Ben lifted his head off his pillow. “You don’t know much about our relationship, do you?”

“Sure I do! I know plenty!”

“Then you’d know that I’m constantly being reprimanded for things I did or didn’t do.”

“He seems to care about you,” she tried.

“It’s an odd way to show someone you care.”


“Listen,” she sighed out, “I absolutely adore him but General Washington is an odd fellow. He always has been.”

Ben laughed. “He is.”

Charlotte sighed and looked at Ben’s hands, effortlessly beginning to play with them against her own. “You're entirely too hard on yourself,” she observed.

Ben paused. “Why do you say that?”

“Because it’s true,” she responded quickly. Then: “Because it hurts me to watch you struggle.”

“I don’t struggle—” he stated, almost in warning offense.


“Everyone struggles, Ben. And that’s okay. But you struggle with struggling.” Ben laughed but the grip he had on her tightened. “It’s okay to be human once in awhile.”

“You don’t think I’m human?”

“I know you’re human but I also know I’m one of the only people who sees you like this.”

Ben quirked a brow. “You’re welcome?”

“Well thank you. But I hope you can be this person again. Everyday. When the war ends.”

“You can’t make plans, Charlie.”

“Sure I can,” she disagreed cheerily. “And I will. I have...”

“You think I put pressure on myself? It’s a lot of pressure to know you’re in someone’s plans.”

“I didn’t say that,” she boasted coyly, all while wearing a grin that told otherwise.

 

“Your face did,” he countered.

“You really don’t have any plans? None?” Charlie’s voice was earnest. “I won’t tell anyone...”

“I have plans,” Ben confirmed simply. “I just don’t like to share them.”

“Saying them aloud doesn’t make them any less true.”

“I don’t—”

“Oh...it’s me?” Charlie played along. “You don’t want to tell me?”

Ben released a heavy exhale. “It’s a lot of pressure being in someone else’s plans and I don’t want to do that to you,” he teased.  

The two shared knowing smiles. Just as Ben was ready to accept the silence of their contentment, Charlie reached up, asking for a kiss he was too willing to give. The way she moved against him had Ben wondering why he’d ever denied her in the first place. He needed a thousand nights just like this one, some before all of this ended but most, he hoped, in the many years after.

Chapter Text

For as much as Ben occupied Charlie’s thoughts lately, so did her mother and father. As Ben held her, keeping her close while he slept, she fought off the guilt that consumed her in meeting his father when she had not spoken to her own in several weeks.

 

Charlie wondered who was more upset at finding her letter. It was her mother, of course. It could almost be guaranteed that Mrs. Grayford cried reading the note her daughter penned. Nearby Charlotte’s father, who had perfected various unaffected looks in his lifetime, perhaps hugged his wife but provided no consoling words. His sorrow often masked itself as anger and he most likely went to his office the next day, possibly yelling at his fellow officers or making rash decisions in an attempt to hide his discontent.

 

Mother and Father,

 

You’ve undoubtedly noticed my absence by now. I’ve not been able to miss or mourn Michael this past year. He is my brother and I love him just as you say you love me - just as you said you once loved him. I'm of no use sitting in this house and I've left to learn Michael's whereabouts without your judgement. Please do not send someone to look for me. Even if I was to be found, I won’t be returning. I fear the choices I’ve made, this letter being one, won’t have me earning a homecoming anyway.

 

With Love — Your Daughter,

Charlotte

 

There were other letters she’d since started, all unfinished in her rucksack. Parchment was hard to come by lately but she’d packed many sheets with her as if she knew these days would come. There was an honesty within Charlie that had her acknowledging that she’d never actually begin the correspondence. This came with the truth she confronted: a relationship with her parents, even a poor one, was one that existed no more.  

 

Mother and Father,

 

I’m with Mr. Washington…

 

 

Mother and Father,

 

There is a boy…

 

That one she crossed out, starting another immediately after it almost as if her quill was apologizing to the paper it wrote on.

 

Mother and Father,

 

There is a wonderful man…

 

 

Mother and Father,

 

I still haven’t found Michael, and I can’t confirm if he’s even dead or alive but I believe in the decisions I’ve made because I have come acquainted with an officer I hope to spend the rest of my life with.

 

 

Mother and Father,

 

I’m in love…

 

 

Saying goodbye to Reverend Tallmadge was a reminder of these letters and of the life she left behind at camp and the motivation she had to find her brother and then how it was inevitably lost on the same man assigned to complete that very task. Ben’s father gave Charlie a hug, holding for a moment to whisper a small Thank You to the girl, one he hoped she knew the meaning of.

 

She smiled of course and as she watched Ben embrace his father she began to think of all the reasons he could be grateful. As she fought back tears she realized this simple hug was proof enough; had she not come, these moments between Ben and his father would have failed to exist. Charlie was a welcomed salve during battle but she hoped her healing effects would last long after the war.

 

When the two mounted their horses and began to ride off, Charlie felt the way Ben was staring at her. She hadn’t kissed him since they woke that morning but she wondered if Ben told his father of his intentions with her — she wondered because she had yet to learn of those same intentions and was left with the pressure of his mouth adoring her skin, confirming how she prayed he felt.

 

Charlie smirked. “What are you staring at?”

 

“You,” Ben laughed as if the answer were an obvious one. It certainly fell from his lips with ease.

 

Charlie looked over her shoulder to flash him a sly smile. “You’ll see him again, you know.”

 

Ben shifted upon his horse to get the animal to trot alongside Charlotte’s steed. “My father?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Your confidence is sickening.”

 

“Sickening? Two nights ago you were jealous of it.”

 

“Yes, well two nights ago I had you in my bed,” Ben looked away, his cheeks blushing. That night he had also told her that he didn’t wish to scare her. “We’re heading back to a less welcoming place.”

 

“Camp?”

 

“War,” he corrected coldly.

 

Charlie continued to grin. “Well we’re not there yet. We have a full day of riding ahead of us. I don’t have to share you yet.” She paused. “I imagine we’ll have to stop for lunch and…” Her voice trailed off as she watched her words register with Ben. Soon he was smiling too as she pulsed at her horse with her thighs, sending the beautiful beast off running. Ben had no option but to follow, chasing the same intimacy and solitude they’d left amongst the sheets that morning.

 

~!~

 

They did stop for lunch and quick work was made of the meal they shared. Charlie had barely placed her things away before Ben was upon her, approaching her slowly but knowing she’d instantly give in. The force of his kiss had the couple stumbling back toward a tree. It was an attempt at privacy but also a much needed support for the pair as their hands continued a similar dance upon covered skin. Ben had become much more brave in his actions and Charlie gave him plenty of room to mark the swell of her breasts, hidden just beneath her shift. Though she was still well covered, Ben’s hands kneaded at her chest through the stiff material of her stay. At one point he broke away, his chest heaving and his eyes closed as he cursed the garment.

 

Charlie giggled before demanding another kiss. Ben obliged as his hands fell to her waist. They could still adore her there, especially as she reached up, cupping his neck to keep him close.

 

Soon he broke away again. His eyes remained closed and he looked down. Charlie’s smile faltered as she remembered when she’d seen this before — last night, just before he’d told her:

 

“We can’t—”


Her eyes narrowed. “What? You’re going to give me a complex if you keep kissing me then telling me we have to stop, Benjamin.”


“No, Charlie…” He moved his hands so they were cupping her cheeks. “I’m just thinking...at camp. We can’t...”

“Can’t...can’t what?”


“This,” he nodded, his eyes glancing downward, resting on her heaving chest for just a moment too long. Her exposed skin was a punishment for his sensibility. “We really shouldn’t.”

“I can’t kiss you?” Charlie spat.


“I’d prefer you didn’t.”

With the tree at her back it was difficult for Charlie to move away from him but somehow she did, leaning back to show her offense. “I beg your pardon?”

“Charlie—”

"At all?”

“In front of others, yes.” Charlotte was speechless so Ben continued, revealing a frustrated sigh first. “All I mean is that I’m the one working with Washington still and I don’t want him to treat you differently or make comments to me or—”

“Comments?”

Ben shook his head. She still didn’t get it; or perhaps she did and feigned ignorance because she didn’t want to. “He’s not going to understand. He told me to stay away from you and—”

 

“He what?”

 

“I told you that, Charlie.”

 

“Yes, Benjamin, you told me that but I thought he said it playfully. I was clearly delusional because that was obviously what I wished to believe but now it makes sense.” She gave a breath of pause. “He’s just like my father. They’re all the same.”

 

“Charlie, he cares for you. I’ve been...we’ve all been away from women for a very long time and you may not want to admit it but these men aren’t shy about getting their kicks in. I mean, you see the way they look at you at camp—”

 

“I most definitely do not!”

 

Ben nearly rolled his eyes. “You’re not daft so stop pretending. It’s not your fault...I stare too!” he gave in support.

 

“Yes, Benjamin but you are a gentleman and we are friends and I’d think Washington would trust you to look after me. I mean, that’s what he wanted, isn’t it? He wanted me safe and I’m safe—”

 

“You are,” Ben conceded, now more softly. “Which is why that’s all he needs to know. Him and everyone else. I...I can’t have him thinking I’m distracted.”


“Are you? Distracted, I mean?”


“My father seems to think I am and I’m starting to agree with him.” He inhaled sharply. “But you’re certainly more than just a distraction!” he defended.


“So what? I avoid you?”

“No! No, of course not. We just...act like nothings changed. Even in front of Caleb and Anna.”

“What?” Her voice raised in volume, causing Ben to look around. Moments before he almost wished redcoats, or anyone, would happen upon them. Now he was terrified of that prospect. Ben was proud of the way he had her earlier and now he was ashamed to be ruining what was left of their trip with his reappearing rationality.


“It’s...it’s only for a little while, Charlie. I’m just trying to be pragmatic here. This weekend was...”

“I know,” she whispered, her hands now on his cheeks to bring his attention back to her.

“I want so many more days like that but if—”

“If people know what we’re doing they’ll disapprove and having those days will be harder,” she droned, finishing his words for him in a way that showed she actually agreed.


Ben brightened. “Okay, so you understand?”

“I do.”

His smile fell though, his eyes rapidly scanning her features in concern. “And you’re put off. Clearly,” he diagnosed.

“I’m not!” Charlie nearly cried. “I just...yes, these past few days were wonderful. I wanted some time alone with you and I got it. I guess I just wanted to live in this world for a little while longer.”

“We still can, Char.”

“They just can’t know. I know...I get it.”

Ben sighed. “Please don’t be mad at me, Charlie. I really...I’m not trying to do anything but protect us.”

“S’alright Benjamin.”

He looked away, wiping at his lip nervously before turning back to her. “This whole weekend you’ve called me Ben and I was liking that and that used to be the way I knew you were angry with me but now you’re calling me Benjamin and—”


“Does it ever stop?” Charlie asked, with arms crossed over her chest and a look of determination painting her face.

 

Ben’s brow furrowed. “Pardon?”

“You? This?” She asked, pointing to his head. “The thinking.”

A grin pulled at Ben’s lips. “It’s constant,” he chuckled.


“I see that. I...I’m just not ready to say goodbye to this yet.” Suddenly Charlotte’s hands were on the lapels of his jacket, bringing him so close that Ben could feel her breathing upon his neck.

“It’s not goodbye, Char, it’s just...shelved for a bit.”

“We shelved it for a very long time, Ben, and I’m sad it’s being placed back there.”

“But you get why, right? I only mean...it’s important to me you understand that.”

Charlie put her hand to his cheek and Ben closed his eyes, practically relaxing into her touch. “I get it.”

“Good,” he nods, coming back to the present. “And we don’t have to say goodbye yet. We have a few hours of daylight left,” he observed with eyes cast up toward the sky. “And we’re not too far from camp.”

“Then kiss me.”

Ben brightened and was all too happy to oblige. When they finally broke away it was close to dusk. They wore swollen lips on the remainder of their journey.

 

~!~

 

The first step in keeping their relationship a secret showed itself when Charlie suggested that they enter camp separately. Ben saw this for what it was: an attempt on her part to show she was supportive of the decision they were making and would make until this war was over.

 

Ben offered to stay behind to tie up their horses. She gave him a small kiss but he pulled her in, both inhaling as they lost themselves for what was likely to be the last time today, possibly even this week. Their embrace had Charlie feeling brave, but as she entered camp she began to notice the stares Ben described earlier. It was easy then for her to pace quickly toward the main house, ready to announce their return so correspondence could be sent to Washington.

 

Ben waited several minutes. His mind was racing, finally confronting the work he’d left behind. This was the first time he’d acknowledged the itch-like curiosity he had in relation to the letters both Abraham and Culper Jr. were meant to be sending while he was gone. The entire course of this war could have changed in his absence and yet he didn’t regret the time he spent away in a way he once would have.

 

“Tallboy!” he heard, causing him to freeze.

 

Ben didn’t have to look around for the source of the sound. He knew his best friend’s voice all too well and today it sounded suspicious, causing Ben to drop his head back in anticipated irritation. "Caleb, I don't want to hear it."

 

"Hear what?" Effortlessly Caleb handed his best friend a letter. Even as Ben ignored his antics, he was able to concentrate on the words on the paper, making out the note’s short message even amongst all the code.

 

"The questions,” he finally responded, looking up. He folded the note and slipped it into his jacket before turning around and walking off, heading toward their tent.

 

Caleb jumped to get back in step with him. "What questions?"

 

Ben sighed. "Never mind," he said, not wanting to play this game. He entered the tent, not bothering to hold the flap open for his friend. Caleb was right on his heels, making such a favor unnecessary.

 

"How was it?"

 

Ben dropped his bag on his bed. “How was what?”

 

"Setauket,” he dragged out. “Should I be inquiring about anything else?"

 

Ben rolled his eyes. "Setauket was fine, Caleb. Empty. A bit demolished. Nothing we can't fix."

 

Caleb casually fell back onto his cot. "Did your old man like Charlotte?"

 

"Of course he did. Everyone likes Charlie.”

 

"Did—"

 

He sighed once more. "Nothing happened, Caleb. And even if something were to happen, it's none of your business."

 

Caleb cackled. "What?"

 

"Caleb, don't start…”

 

He jumped up, clapping at his best friend’s back with great enthusiasm. "Holy shite! You feckin’ bastard! You love her!"

 

Ben was steadfast in his composure. "It was a visit home."

 

"You're in love with her! You've done it Benny boy! You've gone and fallen in love with a Tory!"

 

"She's not a Tory, Caleb,” he dismissed, annoyed.

 

"If Abe could see you now."

 

"Yeah, well he can't. No one can.” Ben said sternly, now revealing his impatience. “And you don't know what you're talking about."

 

"God,” Caleb laughed, “I knew she loved you but—”

 

"Can we stop talking about this?”

 

“Don’t tell me you’re still in denial, Benny boy.”

 

“Nothing to be in denial about,” he stated simply. “Pack your things. We leave at sunrise."

 

~!~

 

They did leave, following the coast well into New Jersey. It seemed Charlie was taking Ben’s advice to heart, as she barely talked when she trotted alongside him during the journey. Then when they arrived he didn’t see her for almost a day. He wondered if she was avoiding him out of caution, or maybe she was secretly angry about what she’d agreed to. Unfortunately he couldn’t find the cause of her disappearance. They certainly couldn’t discuss anything during travel and when the camp finally rested, Ben was pulled away on several tasks, leaving Charlie to fall back into her chores with Anna.

 

On one day in particular, the two avoided the rain inside their tents, taking advantage of these almost unbearably warm days to clean each man’s coat. The thunderstorm they were experiencing was a small effort to relieve the day of its humidity but it did little to make their work any easier.

 

Charlie fell back from her washboard to rest on the floor. She wiped at her forehead and sighed out, giving permission to Anna to do the same.

 

Charlie looked to Anna, studying the strong line of her chin and the way she now wiped her wet hands on her dirty apron. Her eyes soon narrowed, as if to speculate. "Do you...do you have friends?"

 

Anna looked to her. "Of course I have friends,” she chuckled. “Ben and Caleb are my friends."

 

"No female friends?"

 

"Oh...no,” Anna rejected flatly. “My cousin Emily lives up in Boston but I haven't seen her or her family in ages. I treasured the friendship I thought I had with one of my house servants but I wasn’t able to keep her on after Selah was sent away and I doubt she’ll want to speak to me should we ever meet again.”

 

"Oh."

 

"And you?"

 

"I thought I did,” Charlie revealed simply. “But I've realized in being here that none of them had made an effort to contact me in the weeks and months before I left and I honestly have no interest in reaching out to them either."

 

"War does that."

 

Charlie picked her head up. "Does what?"

 

"Brings everything into focus. Shows you what matters. Shows you who shouldn't matter,” she emphasized.

 

"I...I consider you a friend, Anna. So I hope that's okay."

 

"Yes, it's…” Anna smiled. “Of course that's fine. I consider you a friend as well."

 

"And I know everything you do for the boys and they may not say it but I know they appreciate it too."

 

Anna smirked. "They or Ben?"

 

"Both."

 

"You don't have to speak on his behalf, Charlie,” she gave, as if disregarding her answer.

 

Charlie sighed and sat forward. "I do though because...he told me what he said to you and he was extremely upset when you wouldn't let him apologize all those weeks ago. And he should be. He was completely out of line. He’s better than that.”

 

"We all say terrible things we don't mean. It's part of friendship."

 

It was Charlie’s turn to smirk, brushing off her own nervousness as she avoided Anna’s gaze. "I'm...I’m working on forcing the emotion out of him."

 

Anna laughed. "Ben?” Charlie nodded quickly. “And how's that going?"

 

"Bloody awful,” she said, dropping her head back to her cot. When she looked back again, her features had changed, showing a newfound determination. “Has he always been this way?"

 

Anna paused. "Mostly, yeah. Has he not told you he loves you?"

 

Charlie swallowed. "I think that requires him to actually love me first."

 

This was all that made sense to Charlie. If you loved someone you told them and because Ben had yet to tell her, he must not have loved her. Charlie believed in this with all her being because she knew it would be absolutely effortless to tell him how she felt, to say those same three words, just as long as he said them first.

 

"Oh, I...I misread that,” Anna said, looking away, clearing embarrassed. “I'm sorry, Charlie, I didn’t mean to—”

 

"Has he said anything?" There was a certain earnesty in Charlie’s words, causing Anna to swallow down the pressure in her throat as heat of possible tears pricked at her eyes. She’d recognized the same desperation in her own plight, first in coming to terms with her ever present love for Abraham, then again when she hopelessly wondered if there was still a way they could be together.

 

"No,” Anna almost whispered, as if delivering the news inwardly. “But he wouldn’t with me,” she gave swiftly, as if suggesting hope. “He probably won’t with Caleb either. If anyone knows, it’ll be you and—”

 

“And I don’t.”

 

Charlie stood up and walked for the door. Anna concentrated on the sound of the rain outside as she watched her go, blinking and helpless as Charlie accepted the sky’s tears upon her shoulders, likely inviting her own to fall. Where she went Anna did not know but in Charlie’s absence she was able to confront her own pain, covering her face with her palms as she too began to cry.

Chapter Text

They had moved camp three times this week. With each passing day, Ben said less and less about Washington’s plans and Charlie didn’t prod, knowing an explanation was unlikely even if she had. This meant meals were shared with Anna and Caleb and when Ben was away from camp or preoccupied with his work, Charlie made friends with many of the soldiers, laughing with them just as she once laughed with the redcoat officers her parents entertained. When the two met up again they’d slip off to some remote spot just outside of camp. It was dangerous but there was a thrill to the risk, especially as the time they shared was spent mostly in silence, with hands and lips moving more quickly than their thoughts ever could.

 

On this day in particular the pair found solace beneath a cypress tree on the cusp of land separating the river from its sandy shore. The pair had the bend of the stream to keep them out of view of any passing boat and the steep nature of the riverbank made disguise beneath the tree’s branches easily attainable.

 

Those same limbs moved in the barely-there wind, coaxing the couple into a light slumber. As was typical of late, Ben couldn’t remain sleeping for too long. He originally thought it was because Charlie was no longer by his side but on afternoons like this one, with her present, he realized that perhaps he just couldn’t shut his mind off. Too often Charlie would catch him staring off, lost in a thought he’d never share with her.

 

Now Ben was staring, but not absentmindedly. Though Charlie had fallen asleep holding onto him she now laid upon her back. Her usually braided hair was hanging freely, fanning out behind her head as her eyes remained gently closed. The tree above cast her skin in various leaf-shaped shadows, hiding the pronounced freckles on her nose or the way her fingernails were dirtied by that morning’s chores.

 

Ben stared all the same, first thinking of their trip to Setauket before carelessly moving on to more simple topics: the plumpness of her cheeks and the way he swore she was always smiling in her sleep. The more her beauty distracted him the more he began to wonder about other things: where she’d go when the war was over and if he’d join her — or even be invited, much less welcomed — wherever they went. It perplexed him that for as effortlessly as Charlie fit into his world, Ben didn’t know if he could ever return the favor. They also hadn’t discussed if that was something Charlie wanted. What sense of normalcy would she be craving when the fighting ended?

 

The smirk Charlie wore in her sleep was confirmed as her eyes fluttered open and it grew. The heaviness of each lid combined with the sun peeking through the tree canopy above had her squinting. “Hi,” she giggled through a whisper.

 

Ben grinned too. “Hi.”

 

Immediately Charlie was reaching up. She didn’t want to sit up but instead wished for Ben to come down to her. He complied, of course, but the way she gripped his neck gave him little option in the matter. All senses and self-control were hindered when Charlie was around and Ben honestly didn’t seem to mind. He was unreasonably independent but it was nice to share all of this with her — they shared kisses like secrets and not once did Ben doubt the things Charlie said or the way they made him feel.

 

With her hands draped lazily around his neck, Ben’s body nearly covered her. Their legs intertwined, where already both had removed their shoes in an attempt to invite summer in. The wave-like motion of their passionate embrace had Ben gripping Charlie’s hipbones and only when she involuntarily ground her hips into his, did Ben reposition his hands to her ribcage. Naturally, those same hands brushed at Charlie’s chest, even through the thick material of her stay. Slowly she pulled away and he paused, frozen as he waited for her to give him permission to continue.

 

Maybe she just needed to breathe , Ben thought, almost in agreement.

 

His surprise continued, his eyes scanning her form as she gently pushed him away, if only so she could sit up and then inevitably stand.

 

“Charlie?”

 

She smirked as she casually walked toward the shoreline. Charlie was light on her feet, almost teasing Ben with the sway in her hips. When she turned around her playful nature intensified, shown in the way her fingers worked to quickly unclasp each eyelet keeping her jump fastened. The garment eventually separated, giving Charlie much-needed room to breathe — her breath had quickened under Ben’s curious gaze and she couldn’t calm her beating heart even if she wanted to.

 

“It’s so hot, Benjamin…” she gave raspily.

 

Ben only barely sat up now. Though she was offering herself up to him in this way, Ben felt the need to pause, as if asking her to mentally reevaluate. All of his body itched just the same, his fingertips on fire when he finally stood and began to pace toward her.

 

By the time he was close, Charlie was already stepping out of her petticoat. The garment fell from her waist with ease and landed in a halo around her feet. The soft linen was tossed into the same heap as her waistcoat, leaving all of her to stand before Ben in just her shift.

 

“Jesus Christ,” he murmured, taking all of her in.

 

All of her, the same woman who had now spent many near naked nights by his side, was in his view. Beneath the sunlight the same silhouette he had fallen for was all the more apparent; the swell of her chest and the shadow concealing the apex of her thighs caused his breath to hitch.

 

Charlie reached out for him, not asking but demanding that he touch her as she took his hands and placed them on her waist. She then leaned in, thanking him with a forceful kiss to the mouth as if assuring him this was what she wanted. This confirmation was all Ben needed to soften into her. Holding her like this made it easy for him to keep her close and when the two finally pulled away to breathe, Ben was so hesitant to give Charlie distance that he felt her nearly smiling against his lips.

 

“Come swim with me?” she asked, somehow rather innocently. Already she was detaching from him, moving to turn back toward the river.

 

Ben didn’t let her go that easily. The grip he had on her waist transitioned to her hands where she gingerly held his fingertips, asking that he join her. “Charlie, we shouldn’t…”

 

“No?” she tossed back simply. “Maybe Caleb will swim with me—”

 

“No!” Ben took a strong step forward. It broke their bond but caused Charlie to laugh into the back of her hand.

 

“No?” she finally asked again, this time with feigned composure. “You need to make up your mind, Benjamin. Get in this lake with me before I find someone to take your place.”

 

Her voice trailed off as she took several steps backward, inviting the cool water to touch her toes, then her ankles, then her knees. Each step had her shift moving higher until finally she stood with the water just below her waist. Charlie pushed at the thin linen of her chemise, banishing it to the water below. It kept her covered but did little to deter Ben’s gaze from her now wet backside. Just as he had suspected, the summer material of her undergown was made to be practically invisible when wet. The curve of her hips and the roundness of her backside was completely in his view, encouraging him as he soon did, to begin undressing.

 

With his jacket and waistcoat already beneath the tree, it was far more simple for Ben to join Charlie in her current state. His shirt was unbuttoned, tugged out of his breeches and then tossed aside. The starched white cotton stood in contrast to Charlotte’s silk petticoat when the item landed right atop it but by then Ben was already wading into the water, unable to take his eyes off of Charlie until he was beside her. Only then did she move further in, letting the water stain her sleeves as she delicately lunged forward to swim away from Ben.

 

He immediately followed, incensed by her playful nature but also encouraged by the see-through gown she wore. Charlie was nearly exposed to Ben in a similar way just a few days ago, before Caleb returned to the tent, interrupting what could have been a defining afternoon for the pair. Like all the times before it was darker then and all of this felt brand new in the light.

 

“When you said you wanted to swim, Char, I didn’t think you meant you actually wanted to swim.”

 

Charlie stopped. She found a place she could stand and turned to face Ben. “What else would we do?” she teased, only motivating Ben to splash toward her.

 

His goal was to have her in his arms again and it was a likely victory, considering his broad shoulders did far more to displace water than Charlie’s small form did. Ben allowed her to float on her back, slipping away from him in a flirtatious way. He watched her go, his hands on his hips as he calculated his next move. His chest heaved, both out of breath from their splashing.

 

Charlie stood once more and quickly Ben was before her, wrapping his arms around her midsection and nearly picking her up in the process.

 

“Ben!” she yelped. It was not his hands that shocked her but the air that surrounded her wet skin when taken out of the water.

 

He put her back down and Charlie instantly relaxed into the water again, this time bringing her with him. Immediately she was kissing him, her arm with a tight grip on his bicep while the other cupped his neck. Charlie had such a thirst lately and was doing her best to be proper but she wanted Ben and was doing all she could to wordlessly tell him that. Each time he refused to push at her quickly fading boundaries, Charlie wondered if it was a sign for her to also slow down. They were young and there was talk of this war ending very, very soon; there was no need to rush any of this if the very real possibility of a shared future was only weeks away.

 

Their lustful embrace had Ben catching Charlie as she jumped up and naturally wrapped her legs around his midsection. He could feel all of her pressed into him, a fact that only aided in the way he moved against her. Ben’s mind greedily calculated if and how he could have more of her in his grasp.

 

When they broke away, Charlie’s mouth detached from Ben’s in a languid pull. Their lips were reluctant to part and their eyes remained closed as if savoring the moment they were previously lost in.

 

“Good choice,” Charlie finally whispered as her eyes slowly blinked open. She beamed before leaning in again, asking for yet another kiss.

 

“We shouldn’t...I don’t want anyone to see you,” Ben said, urging her to stand again. It was also a selfish attempt to get her back on the shore. The blanket they’d laid out seemed like the perfect place to finish what they’d only just started. As he waited for an answer, he could only stare at her breasts, telling himself it was the rise and fall of her chest and not the darker color of her pert nipples beneath her wet shift that had him so distrait.

 

Charlotte felt Ben staring and couldn’t reprimand him for it. She liked the heat of his glance far too much to care if perhaps it was inappropriate. All of this was anything but chaste and while her goal was to always have him lighthearted and laughing, it wasn’t unpleasant to see him intensely loving her with his eyes.

 

In an effort to keep up the light mood, Charlie swam up to Ben again, this time wrapping her arms around his neck and placing a kiss to the sensitive patch of skin behind his ear. When he involuntarily shied away, Charlie heard the sound of his laughter brushing at his ear, making her next move of kissing his neck to be an easy one.

 

"No one can see us,” she said between hot open-mouthed kisses to his dewy skin. “I'm an expert at finding hiding spots.”

 

Her voice trailed off as she placed a final kiss to his pulsepoint, adoring his skin with a soft mouth that urged his skin to plump in its wake. Before Ben could say anything Charlotte was back to him, angling her face so she could taste him once more. The way he held her in his arms now was as strong as it had ever been. He was hungry for her touch and somehow content having her like this for several more hours if the now setting sun above would allow it.

 

"Charlotte?"

 

Charlie’s eyes snapped open at the sound of such a familiar voice. Ben was looking too, not toward the noise but instead to Charlie who now hid herself behind him. He took notice, even pulling her closer to shade her exposed skin.

 

On the embankment with a concerned Anna standing by, Michael Grayford stared down at the pair. He had a hand on his hip and the other raised in the air almost in search for explanation. His little sister was hidden behind this man, causing Michael to tense. He saw only the taut muscles of the man’s back and the way his hair touched his shoulders. For all he knew he was naked beneath the water and though Michael caught a flash of white as Charlie avoided him, he knew her shift did little to conceal her own nudity.

 

"Michael?" Charlie finally called out. There was bravery in her voice as she peeked around Ben, forcing surprise to cover up the sheer horror that pumped anxiously at her lungs.  That fear turned to panic as she watched Michael avoid her gaze before quickly walking away.

 

"Michael, wait!" Charlie called. She used Ben’s arms to push away from him, no longer caring about her state of dress when the prospect of losing her brother seemed like a possibility yet again.

 

Ben let her go. He was already defeated by the moment, shown in the way he shared an irritated look with a bewildered Anna before glancing back to Charlie. His shoulders dropped as she continued to swim away from him, back to the riverbank. It was as if he was still lost in the moment, all of this seemingly unreal.

 

"Apparently so is your brother,” he let out sarcastically.

Chapter Text

“Charlie? Charlie, wait!”

 

The moment zoomed into focus and Charlie’s absence had Ben springing forward, running out of the river to meet her on the shore. The eyes that previously scanned her skin now paid attention only to her eyes. He refused to look away, selfishly needing reassurance that she was okay; Ben felt a guilt he couldn’t quite describe.

 

For only a second, Ben turned over his shoulder to where Michael had once stood. Even Anna was gone now, giving the pair just a few minutes of reprieve before they’d eventually be forced to confront the repercussions of what was meant to be a private moment.

 

“Charlie…” Ben tried again. His worry had him almost breathless as he took another step into her and found her taking a step back. Her intention was to grab for her dress but Ben couldn’t help but to be offended by the distance she put between them.

 

“Just help me with this, will you?”

 

He nodded quickly, swallowing down his ego. “Here,” he even gave, clasping each eyelet so her jump was tight around her waist again, this time aiding her still soaked chemise in sticking to her skin.

 

Charlie even leaned down to ring out the hem of the garment, a poor attempt to dry the material that would soon be covered by her petticoat. It was also an effort to look away from Ben. She felt everything he was feeling but she didn’t want his sympathy. All she wanted was to go back. She wasn’t thinking in the river and now she felt as if every reality she had been ignoring flooded her senses and demanded to be dealt with simultaneously, like such a thing were possible.

 

Charlie did what she could to compose herself, allowing only a single notion to linger. The person she was afraid of losing had not walked away — the person she was afraid of losing stood before her, doing his best to put her back together even if it meant sending her away.

 

She hopped into her boots. Ben stood under the tree again, putting his shirt on while his attention blurred as he continued to stare at Charlie.

 

“Are you coming?”

 

Ben looked up. Charlie was already headed back up the hill, carrying the blanket they’d previously laid upon tight to her chest. There was comfort in the soft wool and she craved the intimacy they’d shared and how safe she felt with all of Ben gently keeping her pinned to the warm earth.

 

“I need a moment to let these dry,” he tried, now pointing to his wet breeches. For as secretive as the two were, even this would be a difficult thing to explain away, much less hide altogether. Ben sighed. “I don’t think he’ll want to speak to me anyway.”

 

“But I want—”

 

Ben must have thought he knew what Charlie was going to say because he spoke too quickly, only encouraging her current irritated state. “Yeah, me too. Now just isn’t a good time.”

 

I want you by my side when I talk to him , Charlie thought, silently finishing her statement. I want you by my side when… The list of things she wanted from Ben and all the things she someday hoped to share with him remained unspoken but the statement was somewhat of a hymn now as it played over and over again in her head. This wasn’t about them anymore. Their world had been exposed, leaving both feeling naked in a way that had little to nothing to do with their state of dress.

 

Charlie didn’t look back to Ben. Instead she took several big steps, climbing up the small embankment with her face pointed toward camp. Charlie was ready to confront many truths and she feared this was not the only one she’d be battling alone.

 

~!~

 

Charlie once told Ben she didn’t realize how the men in camp gawked at her but she felt it now as she ran directly for her tent, her wet hair blowing behind her, tangling in the wind. Inside, Charlie realized she was happy to be alone, a foreign thought for a girl brought up believing her role in life was one of caretaker and entertainer, neither task being possible without company. The solitude currently provided to her allowed her to quickly braid her hair but only after she changed her shift and stepped back into her petticoat. In her previous life she’d have options but war had simplified things, meaning Charlie made do with her damp waistcoat, even wearing the blanket back into the world when she finally emerged from the tent.

 

Outside she looked around in haste, needing to avoid the gaze of these men just as much as she wished to locate her brother. Just as she was ready to start off down the path she found her body jolting in the opposite direction. Michael was suddenly at her side and making no apologies for the way he grabbed at her wrist and pulled her back into the tent.

 

She tossed his grip away when the flap closed behind them. “Michael!” It was anger but shock as well. Charlotte scared easily and their upbringing was marked with days and evenings of Michael sneaking up on his sister.

 

Though he was mad at her, Michael couldn’t help but to smirk but when Charlie stepped in to give him a hug, he crossed in front of her, out of her grasp. “Michael?” she tried again, hurt.

 

“I don’t know what to say to you, Charlotte.”

 

Her eyes narrowed. “Charlotte? You haven’t called me that in…” Those same orbs now coated with a clear haze of almost-tears. “Well I missed you. And I’m so relieved to see you and you look so good in your uniform. I’m so proud...how are you?” she forced. Her former life had taught her to smile away her sadness and she was startled to find how easy it was for her to fall back into those pretenses.

 

“I was better before I saw my sister having a go with a soldier.”

 

Charlie rolled her eyes. “He’s an officer, actually…”

 

“Even better!” Michael tossed back, just as cynically.

 

“Michael...I’m sorry but you haven’t seen me in over two years and you’re choosing to spend this time talking about what I’m doing? I’ve been worried sick trying to find you,” she practically screamed, ending the sentiment with a strong stomp into the grass. “I wrote you so many letters, Michael! So many! I figured they had to find you sooner or later but I didn’t get a single response!”

 

“Well I was a bit tied up, Charlie. You know, fighting a war.”

 

“Yeah, me too,” she spat.

 

Michael seemed incensed by her words. “You shouldn’t be here,” he pointed as he took a step toward her. Being close to his sister had him instantly regretting not giving her the hug she requested. He could smell the residual lavender oil in her hair — a little piece of the girl he left in York City all those months ago. “You don’t belong with these men,” he continued. “You should be home—”

 

“Home? Virginia?” she tossed back. “Yes, that’s where I’m trying to go, Michael!”

 

“No! With mother and father. Away from all of this!”

 

“I don’t want that life, Michael! You know this! You always said—”

 

“Yeah, well that was before all of the fighting, Charlie. Don’t listen to me. I left and clearly had no idea what I was doing.”

 

Charlie’s chest stilled as her brother’s words hit her. “Do you...do you regret it?”

 

“Fighting for my country? No. Never. But do I regret leaving you? Yes, I do. Everyday.” He paused. “What are you even doing here, Charlie?” he asked, taking a step toward her. He was so close now he could whisper, his mouth demanding the truth now that no one could hear them. “Does Washington even know you’re here?”

 

“Of course he does.”

 

“Of course he does?” he hushed in response. “And he’s allowed this?”

 

“He suggested it!”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“The cause needed me,” she gave simply, almost proudly. “I’ve...I’ve been working with Major Tallmadge. Gathering intelligence in York City for awhile.”

 

“Benjamin Tallmadge?” Michael clarified with wider eyes. “Washington’s Head of Intelligence? They want him dead...and last I heard they were successful.”

 

“They weren’t,” Charlie responded. There was relief in her voice as the night in the medical tent appeared to her in fleeting snapshots.

 

“Then he’s at this camp?”

 

“Well he’s…” Her bravery dwindled but she forged on nonetheless. “He’s down by the lake drying off now.”

 

Michael’s stare widened and his lips puckered. “Charlotte, what are you even thinking?” He was clearly incensed and Charlotte winced, remembering his temper and how it echoed the dramatics she always saw in their mother.

 

“What do you mean what am I thinking? I want to help my country, just like you do—”

 

“By touzling with an officer?”

 

If the rest of camp hadn’t heard them before it was likely they were currently listening.  Not only had the army happened upon several local militia today, Michael’s included, but the always chaste Charlotte Gray was seen running with wet hair and now Benjamin Tallmadge had returned, barefoot with his boots and jacket in his hands. There was a story here, one easily pieced together if the young men continued to eavesdrop.

 

There was a rather pronounced lack of sound. The hard, unapologetic slap Charlie donated to Michael’s cheek did not translate to noise through the thick burlap of her tent. “You don’t get to leave and then dictate my life from afar!” she yelled. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t been here,” she reminded. “You don’t know what I’ve been through or—”

 

"I know that you should know better than to put yourself in these positions! As soon as the war is over, he'll want nothing to do with you. You'll have gathered what he needs, you'll have shared his bed and—”

 

"Stop saying that!" Charlie begged. She was nearly in tears, with her body doubling over as she felt the need to vomit.

 

"Then stop acting like a whore!"

 

Charlie was ready to lunge at him once more but she was stopped, frozen in her distress as light entered the tent, bringing Ben with it. His hair was smoothly tied back and he wore his full uniform. Somehow he suddenly looked very professional — a far cry from the boy caught kissing a girl on the banks of a river. "Charlie, you okay?"

 

Michael’s eyes darted back and forth between his sister and this man he’d heard so much about. Charlie’s glare followed a similar pattern, also judging. She looked to her brother, then back to Ben. "Fine," she practically spat.

 

She remembered what she felt on the riverbank and how for as selfish as she knew she was being, she swore she needed Ben more than she needed her absent brother. Charlie expected Michael to prove her wrong as he had so many times before but he only reaffirmed the safety she felt being with Ben. Michael was practically pushing her back into his arms which was where she headed, turning on her heel and walking toward him.

 

If anyone was still watching they would have seen Charlie and Ben walking out of her tent, immediately heading for his own. Another gap in information was left, allowing room for rumors, when the two disappeared inside. They did not embrace immediately. Charlie was flustered and Ben had no other option but to watch. He was practicing patience but his own mind was lost elsewhere, once again feeling guilty. A bit of that was eradicated when Charlie lunged at him, wrapping her arms around his neck so the rest of her could melt into his arms. Ben, while caught off guard, soon softened into her. He wrapped his own arms around her waist for as long as she needed to bury her head into his shoulder.

 

"Charlie, talk to me,” Ben finally said, his hands caressing her sides as if to coax it out of her. He wasn’t sure if she was crying but he assumed, meaning he was somewhat surprised to find Charlie lifting her head and not revealing any tears.

 

Disappointment clearly consumed her. "I hope you didn't hear that."

 

He had to let out a chuckle. "I heard the parts that count."

 

"He doesn't…” She separated from him and moved to sit upon her cot. “How can he say those things?"

 

Although Ben sat beside her he found himself feeling more like her best friend than the man that had put her in this position. "He's confused. He hasn't seen you in a very long time and things have changed since then. You're older. You're..."

 

"In love." It was what she wanted to say but instead her mouth fell open, letting out a whisper: “With you.”

 

Ben nodded. "Yeah..." Before he could say anything else, the flap to his tent opened. Ben jumped to his feet, grabbing for the sword that for once did not sit at his hip. Michael moved so quickly, Ben only saw Anna and Caleb entering behind him. It was this same unsettled state that gave Michael perfect opportunity to push into Ben with all his weight. There was a simultaneous gasp from the women in the tent but Caleb could be seen letting out a belly laugh. As Ben regained his footing he balled his fist and swung, making direct contact with Michael’s cheek.

 

"Benjamin!” Charlie screamed. She shifted as if to go to her brother but instead she stood between the boys in an attempt to keep this from escalating. The way Michael held his face made it clear that such a thing was impossible.

 

"You feckin’ cad—” he spat.

 

"Michael, enough!” Charlie hushed. “You're acting like an animal!"

 

"He punched me!”

 

"You deserved it," Ben said unapologetically. He was far more calm that the siblings that stood before him. Ben existed in war for much longer than either had and this was clear now as his composure cast an eery calm over the previously chaotic tent.

 

"Michael,” Anna tried, giving an exhale of relief as her mind clearly settled on how she was meant to intervene. Charlie was too lost in emotion to act similarly and as Anna had told the girl only a week ago, they were friends. This was Charlie’s first taste of that. “Why don't I get you a drink and we can take a look at that lip..." Anna said, ushering him off.

 

For a moment Charlotte wondered if she should have followed but somehow it was an easy decision, to choose the man she loved over the brother she had originally set out to find. Quickly coming to terms with this she sat down next to Ben, his arms around her as she finally began to cry.

 

~!~

 

Just as darkness began to consume the camp, Charlie fell asleep against Ben. She was so exhausted she remained in slumber even as he slipped out of her grasp, putting on his jacket before going toward the barn. As Ben exited, he looked over his shoulder. Everyone else was spending the pleasant night surrounding small fires causing Ben to wonder if perhaps he’d missed dinner. He was also looking for Michael, prepared for an inside attack, as if there was a traitor afoot. All of this drama had forced Ben to momentarily forget that he still had tasks to complete if their plans to take the South were going to prove successful.

 

Anna and Caleb sat on two bales of hay with a faded Checks board between them. From the looks of it, Caleb was winning but it seemed to be that many moves remained, and this war had given Anna many hours to work on her game.

 

The pair looked to the door as it creaked open. Neither seemed to be too put off by Ben’s appearance, shown in the way they looked back to their game with Anna even picking up her piece to make her next move.

 

Ben huffed. “A warning would have been nice!” he called out. His hands were on his hips making him look like a pouting child demanding attention.

 

Anna scoffed out a laugh and jumped down. “A warning? Yeah, for us too, Ben!” She crossed in front of him to head toward the door. His absence had clearly given Anna time to decide where she stood on the matter.

 

Ben turned, watching her go. “What was I supposed to do, Anna? Tell you every time I was stepping out?”

 

She snapped back in his direction. “No, but if I knew you two wanted privacy I would have given it.”

 

“Typically you do give it,” Ben confirmed, now with his hands in the air. “Everyone gives it. Usually no one cares what we do—”

 

Caleb had joined the pair, standing off to the side but ready to intervene should it be necessary. “Michael clearly cares,” he joked.

 

“That’s painfully clear,” Ben dismissed in irritation.

 

“I obviously wouldn’t have sought you out if I thought...”

 

“What did you think we were doing, Anna?” She said nothing, instead looking away, biting the inside of her cheek. “Right,” Ben scoffed.

 

“This isn’t my fault!” she defended.

 

“And it’s not mine either!” Ben met her in volume but a great distance still separated the friends.

Anna padded toward Ben, causing her voice to quiet. “That poor girl’s life is going to be a nightmare now.”

 

“And that’s my fault?”

 

Anna’s eyes darkened and her mouth twisted in disgust. “Have a bit of heart, would you?”

 

“I have plenty of heart. I—”

 

“You’d have been open with Caleb and I if you two were courting. But you’re not and the only reason I can think that Charlie would put up with that is if she knows her only other option is to not have you at all.” She looked away then turned back to him, her mouth ready to spit. “You lucky bastard.” Again she was walking away.

 

Ben took a step into her, calling her back. “Anna...you don’t...you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“I know exactly what I’m talking about, Ben!” She roared, now with a rigid finger pointed in his direction. “I have lived this!” she reminded harshly. “I have kept a man’s secrets. I have shouldered his pain only for him to share his bed with another women each night. It is exhausting—”

 

“I’m not...no one is sharing any beds here,” Ben clarified.

 

Anna rolled her eyes. “You might as well be married to this war, Ben! She builds you up so you can go out there and fight and you can’t even bring yourself to tell her how you feel.”

 

“She knows.”

 

“Does she? Because I think if she knew, we’d know too. But I guess it’s too much to ask for a man to not only have feelings but be brave enough to share them.”

 

“Anna, don’t do that…” Ben warned. He went to take another step toward her but he paused, unsure of what position he wanted to take. He wanted to comfort her just as much as he needed to dispel the rest of his frustration.

 

“I’m sorry. I...I shouldn’t have even said anything.” She hiccuped, concealing a sob in the back of her throat. “I’m sorry!” She let out, picking up her dress and finally running for the door.

 

Ben collapsed on the wooden post at his back. He dropped his head in his hands and when he looked up, Caleb was moving to sit beside him.

 

For a moment the boys sat in silence until finally Caleb tossed away the piece of hay he had been playing with, looking to his best friend. “Did you see how tall he is?” he asked casually.

 

Ben’s gaze narrowed. “Who?”

 

“Her brother,” Caleb explained. “Michael.”

 

“Shite. No,” he groaned.

 

“Oh yeah. Big bloke.”

 

“Christ...”

 

Caleb couldn’t help but to laugh, using his amusement to bring him to stand again. He even clapped at his best friend’s back. “What do you want for dinner?”

 

Ben looked up. “What?”

 

“For dinner—”

 

“I thought I missed it.” His selfishness had his brow furrowing, followed by a self-correction. “Wait, we suddenly have a choice?”

 

“I’ll see what Anna and I can do,” Caleb shared as he too headed for the door. With his hand on the latch, he turned back to Ben. “I know she’s ticked now but with it being your last meal and all...”

 

Ben rolled his eyes. “Feck off, Caleb,” he admonished. Even so, he couldn’t hide the smirk he donated to the dirty flood below. Caleb’s laughter continued outside and when it subsided Ben picked up his head, his eyes pointed heavenward in search of help.

 

~!~

 

Anna did make dinner but when Caleb went to deliver it to Ben, he was gone. He brought the cooling plate back to Anna’s tent, dropping beside her to begin eating his best friend’s rations. Anna said nothing. She didn’t even look to him, or shift when he swayed, gently nudging at her with his shoulder.

 

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine,” Caleb let out before licking at his fingers. With his attention devoted to his meal it was easier for him to soften, echoing the support Anna typically received from Ben — or even Abraham. “I probably won’t be much help anyway, but I figured I’d offer an ear if you needed it.”

 

Anna said nothing. Figuring this would happen, Caleb sighed, unable to speak only because Anna changed her mind, immediately revealing her thoughts to her friend. “I just miss him, Caleb,” she stated softly.

 

“Abe?”

 

Anna nodded and began to cry. “I miss him so much it hurts. And then I remember that he’s not my husband and he has a wife and I am a wife and...I have done my best to play my part and stay quiet but it’s just been a lot lately.”

 

“Yeah...”

 

“I shouldn’t have yelled at Ben. I know. He’s nothing like Abraham, I’m just so angry.”

 

Caleb shrugged. “I enjoyed it.”

 

Anna giggled, only causing another tear to stroll down her cheek. “Me giving it to Ben? I’m sure you did.”

 

Caleb paused. “He’s wrong, you know.” His stare blurred into the fire before them.

 

“Ben or Abe?”

 

“Well both. But I’m talking about Ben. You’re right. It’s not fair what he’s doing to Charlotte.”

 

“You didn’t...you didn’t know about this?”

 

“I knew they were disappearing, I just thought...feck, I don’t know what I thought. He’s been...he’s been different lately.”

 

“Happy,” Anna said instantly.

 

Caleb looked to her. “Huh?”

 

“Happy,” she said again, still unwavering. “That’s the word you’re looking for. He’s been happy lately.”

 

Caleb sighed. “You know I love you, Annie. And Ben loves you too. He’s not going to hold any of this against you. He’s just a bit sore he’s been called out. If I had his secret I’d keep it to myself too.”

 

“Caleb. He—”

 

He raised a hand to stop her admonishment. “I didn’t say it was right. I just know Ben and I know...you know he loves her,” he convinced, almost upset he had to.

 

“Does he?” Anna blinked. She was curious to hear Caleb’s response.

 

“Of course he does.”

 

“Does any of that mean anything if he’s not honest with her? Honest with himself?”

 

This was a game Anna found herself playing lately when she felt alone and insane for thinking about the life she wished to have, even amongst all this fighting. Tomorrow couldn’t be planned but if she could concentrate on the opinions and emotions of others, her own were much easier to ignore. This was why it effortless to take care of Michael earlier, and why when Ben finally sought her out, she had no other option but to explode. Her heart was constantly empty with all of her energy always spent on others.

 

“I don’t...”

 

“It doesn’t,” Anna whispered sternly. She stiffened, composing herself before kissing Caleb’s cheek and then walking off into the night.

Chapter Text

“You look awful.”

 

Michael momentarily pulled the wet cloth off his lip to look in the direction of the voice. It was one he knew well, confirmed as his sister walked toward him.

 

“Thanks, Charlie,” he mumbled, also giving a slight eye roll. By the time he was applying pressure to his face again Charlie was before him, her arms crossed over her chest while she continued to take him in.

 

“I just mean...God, Michael...” she huffed.

 

Before Michael could respond Charlie was at his side, grabbing for the bloodied cloth only so she could ring it clean and reapply it when it was wet again. She dabbed at his lip then moved to fabric up to his brow, where a bruise painted his skin in angry shades of red and purple. He winced at the sensation of the rough muslin upon his wounds but even as Charlie forcefully leaned his head back to further assess his injuries, Michael yielded to her movement. Charlie was every bit the maternal figure their mother failed to be. Their mother and father did their best, providing their children with fine things and a high standing in society but what their parents failed to provide was emotional support, encouraging the siblings to be there for one another well into adulthood. War interrupted this relationship but it was clearly present now, the tent they stood in dimly lit with silence as their soundtrack.

 

“He’s had a bit more practice than I have,” Michael finally admitted. His gaze shifted, just enough to interpret Charlie’s reaction, her face turning sour, causing their connection to fall.

 

“Fighting?” she asked, almost breathlessly.

 

“Protecting himself,” Michael shrugged. “Defending himself, really…”

 

Charlie couldn’t quite tell whose behavior her brother’s comment was excusing  — Ben’s or his own. The confusion had her forehead creasing. “Well he’s right. You did deserve it.”

 

Michael swallowed, the pause allowing him to slowly nod as he essentially accepted his responsibility in all of this. “I was out of line.”

 

“You were,” she tossed back sternly. “Extremely.”

 

“He—”

 

“He’s a major in this army, Michael,” Charlie reminded. “Regardless of what he is to me you have insulted one of Washington's best men. You know...you have the bravery to leave home and fight but you still act like father is here to protect you. Well he's not. You gave all of that up. This isn't...this isn't our world.” She tossed her hands down, her posture slumping as if to show her exhaustion in having to explain these things. Michael used to be the one to teach Charlie but the Revolution matured his sister, making her somewhat unrecognizable, especially where Ben was involved.

 

Feeling shame, or at least feigning the emotion in an attempt to mollify his sister, Michael sighed. “I know that. And I’m sorry.”

 

Charlie’s eyes widened. “That’s it?” she nearly spat.

 

“No, I’m...I shouldn’t have said what I said to you, Char. I didn’t expect any of this to happen today. I didn’t really expect any of this to happen ever,” he admitted honestly. “But I surely didn’t think the next time I’d see you you’d be in the arms of a continental soldier.”

 

“Major,” Charlie corrected.

 

Michael rolled his eyes heavenward. “Right.”

 

Charlie softened. “Better than a lobster…”

 

“Better than Nicholas too,” he agreed, craving that common ground once more.  

 

“Benjamin’s not...he’s a friend, Michael.”

 

He paused. “Looks like more than just a friend.”

 

Charlie rolled her lips inward and avoided her brother’s gaze. “Perhaps,” she finally conceded, “but he wasn’t taking advantage of me. He never has. He’s been the perfect gentleman and if we ever get in trouble it’s almost always my fault.”

 

Michael chuckled. “Yeah I remember those days. I’m sure it’s always your fault.”

 

“But I love him.”

 

Her words came so quickly and simply that Michael had to inwardly question if she’d said them at all. “What?”

 

“I love him,” she repeated. “I’m in love with him. He’s...he’s my best friend and I won’t apologize for the way I feel.” Her declaration terrified her but she delivered it with hope that her brother would believe her. This was the first time she’d said any of this aloud and though she was nervous to hear her emotions hit the air, there was also a part of them that had her heart fluttering and her posture straightened with resolve.

 

“Does he return these feelings?”

 

“Of course he does,” Charlie scoffed. “Give me a bit of credit, would ye?”

 

“Then I assume he’s asked for your hand?”

 

Charlie sighed. The moment revealed a weakness only Michael could pick up on, even as Charlie continued with a newfound energy. “Not yet. They say the fighting’s almost over and when this is done—”

 

“If he makes it that long.”

 

Charlie’s brow furrowed. “Why would you say that?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I say that?”

 

“What about your life?”

 

“What about it?” he tossed back once more. “I don’t have a girl at home praying I’ll make it back.”

 

“Alice? Is she not that girl anymore?”

 

Alice was Michael’s intended, a Lady like Charlotte with a mother and father who wanted nothing more than for their daughter to marry well. Michael fit their plans until one day he didn’t. It didn’t matter that Alice supported Michael. She wasn’t as brave as Charlotte, and like most women her age she found it easier to obey her parents than to put up a fight. Alice assumed, as many girls did, that it was a useless struggle anyway. It was unlikely for Michael to return and moving on seemed like her only option.

 

“Doesn’t seem that way. I’ve written her and haven’t received a response.”

 

“Perhaps her father has kept your letters.”

 

“Or perhaps she’s married. I want that for her if that is what she wants. I know things wouldn’t be easy if I went back and we tried to start our lives together. It doesn’t matter what I feel. I won’t do that to her.”

 

“Well I’m truly sorry to hear that but maybe I care, Michael. I’m not Alice but I’m your sister and I care about you just as much as I care about Benjamin and I’d be the luckiest girl in the world if my brother and my…my—”

 

Michael’s gaze narrowed. “Are you not even courting?”

 

“Bit difficult to court when he hasn’t gained permission from father,” Charlie laughed off.

 

“That’s not what I mean, Charlotte, and you know that.”

 

“Well I don’t know, alright? It doesn’t matter either way. I just need you two to get along. After this you’ll be the only two I’ll have.”

 

The air escaped his lungs. “You’re not going back?”

 

“Back to what? A life I did not want?”

 

“Charlie…” He was ready to admonish her but very quickly she composed herself, giving her brother a truth she’d kept to herself until now.

 

"I am so happy you are alive, Michael. I can't explain to you how much I've missed you and how much it means to me now that you're here again. But I won't be talked down to or called names because things have changed in the meantime. You followed your path and I followed mine. It was hard for me to understand then but I knew you leaving meant you'd be happy. Well...I'm happy too,” she stated, pleasantly surprised by her admission. “Maybe you need some time but hopefully someday soon you'll be happy for me too."

 

~!~

 

Charlie finished her night with Anna, the pair washing dishes and skillets of that night’s supper. Both swore their meals were getting smaller and smaller and the women laughed as if to dismiss something neither had control over. When the work was done Anna disappeared. Selah was at camp now and though she remained stoic in her feelings and therefore distant, Charlie saw the way Anna was beginning to soften in her husband’s presence. Charlie was thankful she had yet to be put in such a predicament and yet she had fallen in love during wartime and the man she adored was also currently missing, sent out on a mission Charlie swore was self-concocted. The mere hours Charlie was without Ben had her heart racing, making her sympathize with Selah in a way she’d never share with Anna. At any minute Charlie could lose Ben to the fighting and yet she loved him anyway, her heart giving her no other choice even if it was his own free will that had him sometimes turning away from her.

 

Charlotte’s nightly routine of washing and stripping down to her shift was an easy one to fall back into. She had agreed to the arrangement she currently found herself lost in, meaning she had no true grievance when it came to missing the feeling of Ben’s fingertips upon her skin. Setauket seemed like a lifetime ago with so much happening since then and Michael’s teasing reminder of Ben’s mortality weighed heavily on Charlie.

 

It was the memory she had of Ben holding her beside a dying fire that found Charlie falling asleep with her lantern on. It hung on the highest post of her tent and as the candlestick dwindled, the flicker of the flame lulled her into an inevitable sleep. Only when the light shifted did her heavy eyes, still lost in slumber, flutter open. She was just as she had been when she passed out, facing the tent wall where a silhouette now moved upon the  thick material in shadow. Her breath hitched but as she slowly turned to face the figure Charlie felt a hand to her shoulder.

 

“Shhh,” Ben whispered softly. “It’s me.”

 

Charlie’s eyes grew small and she smiled. “Hi.”

 

Ben continued tossing off his waistcoat. Already his boots had been thrown into the dark where Charlie assumed his jacket laid too. As she shifted to sit up to help him, her mouth soured.

 

“Ben…” Her voice trailed off as she reached for his face. A single splatter of blood dotted his cheek, somehow managing to avoid the cream color of his uniform. His hands were not only bloodless but altogether clean and Charlie saw this as he pushed her hands away so he could return to his earlier task of undressing.

 

“S’fine,” he dismissed simply. When Charlie gave a shrug of disbelief, Ben smirked. “I’m fine,” he corrected.

 

His waistcoat fell open allowing for Charlie to reach up and separate the fabric. Her fingers even pushed the material off his shoulders and before Ben could join her in bed, she tugged at his shirt and removed that too. The air around them slowed as Charlie reached out to touch him, her fingertips barely grazing his abdomen where evidence of his gunshot existed only in scarred skin. Ben looked down, watching her touch dance upon his ribcage. Charlie was silently adoring his wound, amazed by his body’s resilience and thanking that very thing for allowing him to be with her now.

 

When their eyes finally met the moment crackled into a pop and the the kiss the pair shared after was full of want and it banished any sadness, all of which Ben could taste on Charlie’s lips. His thumb caressed her cheek as he took her in. Their limbs were tangled beneath the quilt but it was chest to chest as both shifted, finding the most comfortable way to hold one another. Ben’s goal was to make Charlie feel safe and only when he succeeded did Charlie realize that was the same feeling she had been seeking all along.

 

“Are you going to tell me where you were?”

 

“I told you where I was,” he smirked, all before pressing another kiss to her puckered lips.

 

Charlie forced a lazy smile. “I don’t like you being returned to me covered in blood.”

 

“Covered?” Ben challenged with a raised brow. “In my defense it was a rather clean kill.”

 

Charlotte’s eyes closed slowly, hating the sound of Ben being so bold when it came to violence. This was not who he was and yet this was the only man she knew and the same man she had fallen very much in love with.

 

Ben saw the way Charlie began to slip away so he brought her back, taking her hands in his so he could kiss her knuckles. “I’m okay,” he reassured. “If it wasn’t him it’d be me,” he reminded honestly.

 

Charlie quickly nodded. “I know that.”

 

“This isn’t forever, you know.”

 

“Sometimes it feels like forever,” she joked, still not able to meet his gaze.

 

“Well I learned tonight that forever’s ending soon.”

 

Finally Charlie looked to him. “Hmm?”

 

“Amongst other things.”

 

“Like?”

 

“You’ll be in Virginia sooner than we thought.”

 

“Me? Alone?”

 

“No,” Ben said, shaking his head so he was close enough to place a kiss to the corner of Charlie’s mouth. “I’ll be there. Michael too. All of us and the bulk of the Continental army.”

 

“Why doesn’t that sound as wonderful as I’d always imagined?”

 

“You want to know?”

 

“Were you not going to tell me if I didn’t ask?”

 

Ben paused, even letting out a small nervous chuckle. “I’m the one who fights the world so you don’t have to.”

 

“Oh is that how this works?” Charlie jested.

 

Ben smirked. “For now it is.” He swallowed before continuing. It was his turn now to look elsewhere, his eyes trained innocently on the freckles above the neckline of Charlie’s shift. “Well for one I’m glad your parents aren’t in Charlottesville anymore.”

 

Charlie’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of Ben calling upon her mother and father. He’d only just met Michael and if her brother was any indication, any other familial introductions were likely to be just as unpleasant. “What do you mean?”

 

“It’s...it’s worse than Setauket.”

 

“What?” Charlie hiccupped.

 

“It’s alright, Char,” he assured as he smoothed back at her hair. “Nothing we can’t fix, right?”

 

“That bad?”

 

“I haven’t...I’ve only read about it. Just confirmation of stories we’ve been hearing for weeks.”

 

“And that’s where we’re headed?”

 

“That’s where I’m headed. You and the rest of the camp followers won’t be heading into town with—”

 

“Is that all I am? A camp follower?”

 

“Hardly.” Ben chuckled and squeezed at Charlie’s midsection before seizing her lips again. Both inhaled sharply and when they detached Charlie was gripping his face again, needing more.

 

Eventually her head fell to his chest. Charlie craved her skin upon Ben’s and wished she could take off her chemise but she stayed pressed into his side while Ben occasionally pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. Charlie wondered if he spent these noiseless moments just as she did: imagining a different bed in a different room, most likely in a different city. Perhaps they’d own a home someday but all Charlie could ask for were a few quiet days just like this night where the two could remain tangled up in one another despite the real world carrying on just outside.

 

“Thank you,” Charlie whispered. Her voice was so soft she picked her head up, somewhat surprised by its sound.

 

Ben’s forehead creased. “What?”

 

“For...for coming to see me.”

 

“It wasn’t easy,” he assured. “But I...I missed you.”

 

Charlie nodded. “I missed you too.”

 

“I’m...I’m sorry for what Michael said. He doesn’t—”

 

“I know,” Charlie gave, nodding again. Before Ben could say anything else, Charlie was folded back into him with a palm placed tenderly to his cheek. “It doesn’t matter. I...I’m so relieved he’s alright but you’re what I want, Ben. He’ll come around, I’m sure. He has to.”

 

Ben placed a kiss to her collarbone. “Why haven’t we been doing this more?” he flirted, ready to return to their earlier conversation.

 

“What? You visiting?”

 

“Visiting?” Ben smirked. “Is that what we’re calling this?”

 

“Sure. You’re paying me a visit.”

 

“You can call it what you’d like, Charlie, but I just think I’ve come up with a rather brilliant idea.”

 

“You?” She giggled. “I believe I started all of this in Setauket if I remember correctly.”

 

“Well then you had a brilliant idea and I’m stealing it as my own.”

 

“It’s only brilliant now because Selah is here so Anna is gone and I’m alone,” Charlotte reminded sensibly.

 

“Perhaps,” Ben agreed with a kiss to her pout. “But you’re not alone anymore.”

 

His hands toyed with the hem of Charlie’s gown. Already the soft cotton was pushed up to her thighs, practically begging to be removed completely. Even through the darkness Ben could see that she wore nothing underneath and his breath hitched as he reminded himself of their current situation. He had never wanted anything so much but like war the precarious state of their relationship was somewhat dangerous.

 

Charlotte must have struggled with the same intensity because she turned away from Ben, wiggling her form back into his as he effortlessly wrapped an arm around her midsection. It was teasing but there was also something tender about their connection, especially now that it existed without eye contact. Through her turning Charlie’s shift had fallen off her shoulder, revealing more than just Ben’s naked back to Anna when she entered only moments later. Ben felt Charlie stiffen in his grasp and though it was clear her intention was to appear to be asleep, he shifted only slightly in an attempt to give her comfort. Ben also had to smirk; it was clear now that Charlie shared just as much with Anna as he did, meaning it was unlikely their friend was shocked by the scene in front of her.

 

When she left again, Charlie sighed. Still she didn’t turn to Ben, content with the feeling of his lungs contracting against her spine. Her breath hitched as she waited for him to say something; this was a moment like so many they had found themselves in before where Ben’s sensible nature was lost to rare sarcasm. Somehow though he said nothing, and when Charlie looked over her shoulder to assess his mood she found it nonexistent. Ben had easily dozed off. Charlie wondered if it was her or his pure exhaustion that was the cause but she smiled all the same. Whatever it was had his presence promised to her for the rest of their night.

Chapter Text

There was chaos outside. The sound of men’s laughter and the clanking of wooden bowls and spoons had the camp sounding more alive than it had in many months, likely aided by the news that the war’s end was in sight. All of this merriment was muffled by the burlap of their tent but Charlie and Ben heard it nonetheless. Amongst it they heard more sinister whispers, silently reminding them that their relationship was meant to be a secret. Somehow though, it pushed Charlie closer to Ben, burying her head in the crook of his neck all throughout the night.

 

With the sun up, the pair were still wrapped up in one another with warm skin on skin. The freckles on Ben’s back matched those on Charlie’s neck where he softly laid several kisses along the curve of her upper spine. Charlie accepted the attention with a blithe smile, closing her eyes to enjoy the sensation of Ben loving her without any interruption. Through the night her hair had fallen from its braid allowing it to act as a veil for her to hide behind when she finally shyly giggled away from Ben’s touch. The span of his hand stretched over the roundness of her hip, keeping her close to him even as she looked away. He said nothing and yet Charlie felt as if he were waiting on a response. All she could do was laugh, donating her mirth to the pillow they shared when she felt her only other option was to melt beneath Ben’s gaze.

 

“How long can we keep this up?”

 

Ben tossed his head back to rid his forehead of its fringe. His smile grew as he studied her features. “What?”

 

“Staying in bed.”

 

Again Ben was dropping his head back, this time letting out a hearty laugh. “If I could, I would, Char…”

 

She sighed. “But you’re already planning your escape. I know,” she huffed.

 

Ben paused. “Am I?”

 

“You are!” she tossed back, attempting cheer when her heart had already admitted defeat and acknowledged the subsequent sadness that settled in when she was tight lipped once more.

 

“Charlie, I don’t—”

 

“I get it, Benjamin. I just rather liked ignoring our responsibilities. I think for a moment I forgot there’s a war going on.”

 

Slowly Ben nodded. He even looked away. He wanted to kiss Charlie’s shoulder blade to bring her back to him but already she was sitting up, tugging at her linen shift so she could button the material once it sat straight on her form again. Charlie wasn’t mad, at least not at Ben, but she was mourning these past couple of months and how much better they could have been had she and Ben met under different circumstances. She craved privacy and silence but above all else she craved Ben’s attention, existing just as it did last night and into this morning, wanting that adoration to be consistent and undivided.

 

Behind them the flap to the tent opened. Anna entered, causing Ben to flatten against the mattress. Charlie didn’t seem to be bothered and both reactions caused Anna to stifle a laugh.

 

“I’m hardly the symbol of morality around here so I don’t know why you’re hiding, Ben. Better me than—”

 

“Did Caleb ask where I was?” Ben groaned and sat up, shifting so he was looking in Anna’s direction. He wore breeches but he still kept the quilt tight to his waist as if to conceal something he didn’t wish for Anna to see. It didn’t matter if his friend was privy to the previous night’s events; Ben only ever intended to share those moments with Charlie and he would have been far more content not being found like this.

 

Anna smirked. “He didn’t have to.”

 

Ben’s shoulders slumped and his eyes widened. "Anna…"

 

“There are two options, Ben. Either you died on your courier’s ambush or you slept in here. We’re all happy it’s the latter outcome, aren’t you?”

 

“I—”

 

“Well I slept in your tent last night. You’re welcome.”

 

“My mattress is far more comfortable than yours,” Ben teased in return. “So I think you should be thanking me.”

 

“Thanking you?” Anna tossed back. “Caleb snores!”

 

“Why do you think I came in here?” Ben chuckled.

 

“Oh, was that the reason?” Anna deadpanned, causing Ben’s cheeks to rouge.

 

All the while Charlie was silent. She was far from ashamed of the chaste night her and Ben shared but she was still being forced to acknowledge that this was yet another day where her and Ben’s intimacy was put under a microscope. Their relationship was somewhat exposed and yet there were so many things Charlie needed to say to Ben, if only he’d say some of them first.

 

“Charlie?”

 

She blinked, nearly shaking her head back to clarity before turning to the voice. “I’m sorry. What?”

 

“I was just wondering if you wanted to help me. Ben needs to go—”

 

Charlie nodded. “Oh, yes...yes, of course. Whatever needs to be done.” As her concentration drifted off again Ben took notice, wondering what emotion had her so distracted.

 

“Right,” Anna gave energetically as if to signal her intended exit. She moved for the door but paused. “Michael’s around,” she finally warned. Her voice was low as if her tone was apologizing for the news it was delivering. “He’s looking for you.”

 

Ben, now sitting hunched over on the edge of Charlie’s cot, chuckled as he looked to his friend. “Which one of us?”

 

“Charlie, I’d assume.”

 

“Oh, well—”

 

“I’m about to tell him that she’s not in here but when you have a moment to leave, Ben, I’d suggest you take advantage of it.”

 

Anna went just as easily as she came, only this time her absence brought with it a wider gap between the flaps of the tent. The air that began to blow in coaxed Ben to his feet but Charlie remained, curled into herself in bed, blankly watching Ben get dressed.

 

“Charlie?”

 

A grin effortlessly tugged at her lips; it was impossible for her to hide a smile when Ben said her name. “Yes?”

 

“You’re quiet all of a sudden. You’re scaring me.”

 

She continued to smile and for a moment Ben saw the woman her parents had brought her up to be. Her actions were trained and more importantly controlled when necessary. Perhaps it was his own self doubt but he was momentarily unable to decipher if her smile existed for his benefit or her own.

 

“I...last night was nice,” she revealed rather shyly.

 

Ben grinned.  “Aye.”

 

“Everytime I get a night with you it makes saying goodbye harder, I guess.”

 

Ben stepped back into Charlie, now wearing his waistcoat. His hands reached behind his head to tie his hair back and when he moved to reach out for her, Charlie was already standing before him, gently draping his cravat around his neck so she could tie it and tuck it away. Pleased, she pressed her palms flat to his chest and stole a kiss. It was short and when the aftermath had her looking down, Ben angled her gaze back in his direction, if only so he could ask for several more.

 

"Not the fairest farewell," Charlie teased with brows raised in suggestion.

 

Ben chuckled. He took a step back so he could shrug into his coat but his hands were immediately around her again, keeping her close. “I could say the same thing,” he commented, all while his hands shifted downward, first resting on her lowerback then to the thick curve of taut skin just below.

 

Charlie shied out of his touch, giggling just as she had when the pair awoke. “Behave,” she playfully warned with a finger pointed in his direction.

 

Ben padded toward the door leaving Charlie standing by the bed with her hands now stiff on her hips. He saw all of her through the thin fabric she wore, making it that much more difficult to leave. For a moment he thought of saying nothing, of just leaving her with a smile, but he couldn’t help himself.

 

"Is it too much to ask for you to come visit me tonight?"

 

Ben didn’t give her time to provide an answer. Charlie’s cheeks, high on her face, were a vibrant shade of cranberry as she sat back on her mattress, now biting her lip. As her heart continued to flutter in his absence, Ben’s own happiness dwindled immediately when he stepped out into the sunlight. Amongst all of the noise and motion, Michael somehow managed to find Ben rather easily. Instantly Ben’s ego deflated, casting his glare downward as he walked off toward his own tent; he just needed to escape, not just from Charlie’s tent but from the moment altogether. There were no words he could give Michael to excuse what the boy already knew to be true and Ben couldn’t fault a man for showing concern for the women in his life, especially when Ben felt he was doing the very same thing.

 

“Morning’” he managed with a nod in Michael’s direction.

 

Michael nodded too.  “Morning.”

 

Ben pursed his lips, pushing down his inclination to correct Michael on how he should be addressed. Never before had such a thing mattered but Ben craved that hierarchy when it seemed it was the only steady ground he had to stand upon. With his mouth closed he forced a smile, but before he could turn toward the main house, he paused, turning back to Michael.

 

“Can I assist you with something?” It was a bold question coming from a guilty man.

 

Michael calmly approached. “I’d like to speak with you.”

 

“Alright, well—”

 

“I know you’re a busy man—”

 

“Yes, I have a meeting actually, so if you’d—”

 

“This is important, Ben,” Michael gave simply. His words lacked rigid dictation and emphasized volume. Such a conversation was somehow already overdue, leading Ben to believe that Michael could have failed to say anything at all and he still would have understood what the gentleman was requesting.

 

He sighed, then stepped back into Michael, clearly trying to keep their conversation hushed. “Have you been given your assignments?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

“They’ll be going around shortly,” Ben explained, his eyes still scanning the camp. He was constantly on guard, allowing Michael to look at him with slight wonderment without him noticing. This was the respect Michael assumed he would have paid the soldier had he not been found embracing his sister on the banks of a Chesapeake tributary. “Go back to your tent and when you receive them, tell the Officer I’ve given you a courier’s task.”

 

Michael nodded. Even if he was dissatisfied with the plan it was essentially an order and should he aim to be proper, he had no right to decline. As he watched Ben go he paused with his hands on his hips as the overall helpless nature he’d gained at this camp weighed back upon his shoulders. His attention shifted downward to a shadowy patch of grass, and when he turned to head back to his tent he found himself in the middle of the path, now staring at an equally fascinating figure. Charlie now stood outside her tent. Only some of her hair was pulled back and the sometimes auburn shade of her waves was highlighted by the sun above as she tied an apron around her waist. She was listening to something Anna had said and when she laughed, it pulled her from her task, finally allowing her gaze to fall upon her brother. He wanted to be angry but all Michael could manage was a sincere smile. He even raised his hand to wave. Charlie’s laughter trailed off as she turned away.

 

~!~

 

Ben’s meeting had him tense. General Washington was finally accepting his opinions but today they were given by others, taken as new information as Ben faded into the background. His bitterness, however, was overshadowed by Charlie and the night they’d shared. His mind drifted between those memories and the conversation he would soon have with her brother. He left the Main House feeling unsure; any other day would have found him energized by the army’s upcoming attacks but instead Ben marched out of camp in pursuit of an uncomfortable conversation with a man he barely knew.

 

“Whiskey?”

 

Ben laughed. He found Michael near the same shoreline Charlie and he had sought solace upon earlier in the week. Briefly he glanced to the embankment below and the same glass-like pool of water just beyond it.

 

“We’ve not had lunch yet,” he said, rejecting the bottle of liquor Michael passed his way.

 

Michael chuckled too, then took another sip of the dwindling alcohol. “That’s why I’m drinking it in my coffee,” he showed, now holding a metal cup.

 

Michael dropped the glass bottle to the glass below, its thickness landing with somehow thud that was felt more than it was heard. It was a clear line between the men but also a peace offering should Ben have changed his mind. As Ben looked to the item he had to hide yet another amused smirk. It was possible that if Michael didn’t dislike him the two would have been friends in another life. Then again, Michael existed in ages between Ben and Charlie and his lower status in the army reminded Ben of his younger years as if university and even Setauket were decades in his past. He might as well have been a different man, now living a completely different life.

 

Michael looked Ben up and down. He took in the stiff collar of his shirt and how his boots were shined. “Do you not drink?”

 

“Uh, not much. No.”

 

“No?”

 

“No,” Ben confirmed. “Don’t have much need for it. It…” His voice came slowly as he continued, hesitance lacing his opinion. “It slows the mind. Wasn’t much for it when I was studying and I haven’t needed it here either.”

 

“Yale, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Do you miss it?”

 

“Yale?”

 

"Yeah," Michael deadpanned. It was clear that Michael and Charlie had much in common, starting with their sometimes impatient nature. Ben assumed this was an easy trait to hone when you once had it so heavily restricted.

 

“Sometimes,” Ben gave casually. “I miss my friends...but most of them are dead now.”

 

“Yeah they all said you were dead, too.”

 

“They?”

 

“The other men,” Michael explained. Ben cocked his neck as if to ask for an elaboration. “We all felt like we were sitting around. We would travel and maybe have an ambush or two but then we wouldn’t see battle for weeks. It was your victories we heard about. Everyone wanted to be at Washington’s camp. It was something to keep us going.”

 

“Well you’ve made it,” Ben said, chuckling nervously, almost as if to apologize. “Is it everything you hoped it would be?”

 

“It’s still shite,” Michael commented honestly. “Only Charlie’s here now.”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“I used to be the only one who could call her that, you know.”

 

“I didn’t know that, actually. She made it seem like all of her friends—”

 

“Friends?” Michael chuckled. “The girls Charlie used to spend her time with were hardly friends though I guess they felt that way at the time. But I’m sure I was the only one.”

 

“What are you wanting from me? An apology?”

 

“I’m not wanting anything. I wasn’t even expecting a response.”

 

Both men looked back to the lake.

 

"How did you meet?" Michael finally questioned, rolling his head against the tree he leaned upon.

 

"Pardon?"

 

"You and Charlie,” he gestured. “How did you meet?”

 

“Oh. A party.”

 

“Surely not one my family would host.”

 

“Certainly not,” Ben dismissed with a laugh. “Mrs. Washington held a fundraiser a few months back.”

 

“Months?”

 

Ben stilled his breathing, nodding but still refusing to look to Michael. “Months.”

 

“And you approached her?”

 

“We were introduced,” Ben stated. A grin spread across his face and he even let out a small laugh as he remembered the girl he’d met that night and how yes, in only a few short months, she was a woman who had changed his world.

 

“Why is that funny?”

 

“Well we were essentially coerced into a dance and your sister spent the whole song insulting me. To assume that I approached her is to assume I had the confidence to approach someone like Charlie and—”

 

“Someone like Charlie?”

 

“She’s...I don’t think it’s useful for either of us to pretend to be ignorant to Charlie’s beauty...and she’s rather large in presence. She had on this really full gown and she was mouthy and…” Ben shook his head, bringing himself out of the ballroom they once danced in and back to the present. “My goal that night was to make an appearance and be done with it. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Her goal was to…”

 

“Girls like Charlie don’t go to fundraisers with goals in mind. I’m sure it seems ridiculous to you and perhaps she’ll never share it with you but Charlie likes parties. She likes to dance and she’s a wonderful conversationalist."

 

“Yes, that became extremely apparent. And yes, she has shared that with me."

 

“Do you love her?”

 

Ben nearly choked on the bold taste of Michael’s inquiry. “Pardon?”

 

“Charlotte. Do you love her?”

 

“I...she means a lot to me, sure.”

 

Michael took a strong swig of his coffee. “I don’t like that answer.”

 

“I’m just not sure what you’re asking.”

 

“It’s actually a very simple question, Ben.” When silence continued to exist between the pair, Michael continued. “Will you wed?”

 

“Wed?”  He shifted, fixing his posture against the large rock he rested on. “There’s...I don’t think—”

 

“Well I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that.”

 

“There’s a war going on,” Ben reminded rather harshly.

 

“Doesn’t seem to have stopped you from pursuing her.”

 

Ben dropped his head back to give an exaggerated laugh. “Oh, you don’t feel this is mutual?”

 

“I don’t know what it is. My sister says you’re not even courting—”

 

“Again, I’d remind you that it’s difficult to court during—”

 

“I’m here now,” Michael said softly.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I’m here now. You can ask me.”

 

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Ask you what exactly?”

 

“For permission to court her.”

 

Ben let out another laugh. “I...all of that seems a little unnecessary now, don’t you think?”

 

“No, I don’t. And I don’t appreciate that you do.”

 

“Hypothetically if I were to ask and you were to say no, what then?”

 

“You’d leave her alone.”

 

Ben laughed again. “Do you know your sister at all?”

 

“Of course I do.”

 

“Then you know how ridiculous that sounds. Since she left York City she hasn’t had to ask for permission to live her life. You may not agree with it but I don’t fault her for loving the life she’s created.”

 

“Created?” Michael scoffed. “You even said it, Ben. There’s a war going on. She fell into all of this. This world isn’t hers to keep.”

 

“You sound like your father.”

 

“You know my father?”

 

“Obviously not but I might as well with all Charlie’s told me. I know how limited your upbringing was. I know she had absolutely no options...that decisions weren’t hers to make.”

 

“It wasn’t that horrible,” Michael laughed.

 

“For the son of the family, no, I imagine it wasn’t.” Ben took a well planned pause. “But you still left, didn’t you?”

 

Michael smirked. “She’s engaged,” he said, looking to Ben once more. “Are you aware?”

 

“Present tense?” Ben was grinning too. “You might want to tell her that.”

 

“She knows—”

 

“Yes she knows she was told she’s meant to marry Nicholas and she knows she’s expected to create a home and a family with him.”

 

“She’s told you about Nicholas?”

 

“She tells me everything.”

 

Michael paused. “He’s not all that bad.”

 

“He’s a Tory,” Ben reminded plainly.

 

“He’s also a barrister,” Michael said, almost in correction. “She’ll live the very same life she does now...did.”

 

“But if she didn’t want that life with your family then what makes you think she’ll suddenly want it with him?”

 

“She has far more freedom than you think. I mean, she was hardly a prisoner. Charlie…” He let out a breathy chuckle. “Charlie likes to break rules and push boundaries. She always has. Rebelling excites her but at the end of the day she knows, just as all Ladies do, what she’s expected to do. Even if I were to allow you to court her eventually she’d be expected to be a wife and a mother.”

 

Ben’s mouth had fallen open but he quickly corrected the action with eyes trained back on the water. “I just don’t know how you can even think of these things.”

 

“I don’t know how you can’t.”

 

“We don’t—”

 

“We?”

 

“You’re belittling our relationship and I don’t appreciate it. I am sorry you had to find things out in the way you did but she’s still your sister and yes, absolutely a lady. You had your chance to leave and now she’s done the very same thing. Why would you want to push her back to the place you both felt so trapped by?”

 

“There’s a man there, whether it be my father or Nicholas, happy to take care of her. At least Nicholas has made his intentions clear. You haven’t offered any of your services.”

 

Ben released a belly laugh. “Services? I wasn’t aware she was in need of any.”

 

“All women–”

 

“I’m not talking about anyone other than Charlie. We may come from different worlds but right now we’re in the same one and I know how things work. I know what’s expected of her. But I also know what she wants and more importantly what she doesn’t want."

 

“You don’t think she wants marriage?” Michael stared at Ben, waiting to decipher the shift in his features and all they’d reveal.

 

He sighed. “I don’t think that’s important to her now, no."

 

“Well I think you’re wrong.”

 

“I think you want me to be wrong to justify the guilt you feel for leaving her alone. I’m not wrong. Marriage is not currently on her mind. Winning this war is.”

 

“It would be if you asked.”

 

“But we’re not even courting, remember?” Ben tossed back smugly.

 

"You're a right arse."

 

Ben’s confidence had him smiling. “If you don’t like me — and I don’t necessarily blame you for feeling that way, I suppose — then I don’t know if it’s worth wasting my time and yours to further prove that."

 

“I don’t know you."

 

“And it doesn’t seem that you want to. It sounds like you want to return to your old life more than she does.”

 

“She—”

 

“Have you asked her?” Ben leaned forward, waiting for the response to a question he already had the answer to.

 

“I don’t need to,” Michael tried. Once again his arrogance was feigned, all of the pretending nearly escaping him.

 

“So you just think you know what she wants? Or you’re assuming you know what’s best for her? It's been almost two years, Michael. You left because you couldn’t stand their rules and expectations—”

 

“And I didn’t agree with their politics.”

 

“Clearly. But now you’re no better than them. You’re creating a future for Charlie she does not want.”

 

“Then what life does she want, Ben?”

 

“A life that’s her own!”

 

“That’s it?”

 

“I think it’s a grand start!”

 

Michael shook his head. “You’re championing her independence because it benefits you.”

 

“I’m championing her independence and her happiness because I...I lo—”

 

“You what? You can hope all you want but that doesn’t provide a life she deserves. She is confused, Ben. She is young and this is all so exciting but she has no idea what she's giving up.”

 

“Listen,” Ben tried, finally exhaling all his anger. “I don't know the girl you left behind but I know the woman that I respect and yes, take care of just like I'm sure you once did. That woman is very aware of what she is giving up.”

 

“For you?”

 

Ben looked away, shaking his head. “Christ, you're a fool.”

 

“What am I supposed to believe? That you'll continue all of this when the war ends?”

 

“I don’t know what you’re referring to and I won’t pretend to but if any of it includes the friendship I share with your sister then yes, actually. I'd say that's exactly what you're supposed to believe.”

 

“And after that?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“When you've been paid and it's time for your life to move on...time for her life to move on. What then?”

 

“I'll figure that out then.”

 

“That doesn't seem too fair to Charlie.”

 

“What? That I allow her to figure it out as well? It's her life..." Michael said nothing and Ben laughed. “It's very clear we have different views on women's rights and I can be man enough and acknowledge that Charlie is your sister so we're both approaching this from different angles but maybe you really need to talk to her—”

 

“We did talk.”

 

“Well it sounds like maybe she has more she needs to tell you. But if you're combative with me then I'm sure she's apprehensive. It sounds like I'm the first man that's actually allowed her to speak her own mind. It honestly makes me sad but I'm glad she's finally able to be honest with someone other than herself.”

 

There was silence thereafter. Then, just before the moment turned awkward and urged Ben to leave, Michael continued, this time much more softly.

 

“I hope you do love her because I don't know if any other man that would look at my sister and think the things you admire are good traits. She doesn't play obedient well and that terrifies most men.”

 

“Doesn't terrify me. It's…”

 

“You've made that clear,” Michael said, almost in disbelief.

 

“Yes, well—”

 

Michael grabbed for the bottle of whiskey between them, the action causing him to separate from the tree and turn away from the lake. “I didn't go to Yale, Ben, and I won't pretend that my years at William and Mary were taken very seriously. I was there because of my father and because of my father I will be able to survive beyond all of this because even with his disownment, my birthright has earned me a place in high society. What I'm saying is...I'm not witty like you. I don't have all of the answers and it is very clear that you do but regardless of the bluster I have put my family through, Charlie is the most important thing in my life. Perhaps I'm jealous that I've been replaced or maybe I just want to make sure she'll be taken care of. So you see we can go back and forth until the sun goes down but I’m sure you have things to do so I'm asking what your plans are because I did speak with Charlie and to be quite frank with you she didn't seem to know.” He exhaled then looked back to the man with eyes quite similar to his sister’s. “It's one thing to keep what you're doing a secret from the world. It's another to keep it a secret from the girl you're doing it with.”

 

“I…” Michael’s honesty had Ben feeling speechless. “She knows how I feel."

 

Michael took a step back toward the path. He shrugged. “Maybe she does...I hope she does. It just doesn't seem like you do."

 

~!~

 

The conversation Ben shared with Michael had him seeking isolated solace for the rest of the day. It was true that he was far more composed than Michael but Ben wasn’t fond of the compliment; his goal was never to outwit Michael and his difficult questions; Ben actually entered the conversation in hopes of gaining  Charlie’s brother’s approval. Somehow though he was on the defensive, becoming a person even he didn’t recognize when analyzed in such a way. Ben thought of the similar criticism that Anna had thrown his way and was forced to laugh off the reality that it was not just strangers demanding his honesty.

 

Though Ben had told Caleb he was heading toward the coast in hopes of seeing the French fleet roll in, his eyes barely scanned the water before him. His gaze was lost to the sand below, his brow furrowed as he continued to stare into nothingness.

 

“I have been looking everywhere for you!” Charlie’s energy instantly pulled Ben from his thoughts and he gave a soft smile in her direction.

 

“I’m sorry,” he gave genuinely. “I’m—”

 

“Oooh! Ships!” Charlie exclaimed as she took the fleet in.

 

Ben grabbed for her, clasping his hand over her mouth as the steady arm he had around her shoulders pulled her closer. She giggled and he couldn’t help but to laugh as well. “How did we ever trust you with intelligence?”

 

In his embrace now, Charlie dropped her head back to Ben’s chest. “They’re hardly discreet, Benjamin. Do you honestly believe we’re the only ones seeing them now?” The grip he had on her was now one of love, and she held his hands in her own as if to ask that he not let go.

 

“No,” Ben chuckled. “But it’s...it’s quiet,” he gave, almost in simultaneous observation.

 

“No gunfire…” Charlie agreed. She looked back to Ben again. “Are you working right now...can I be here?” she clarified.

 

Ben nodded. “Of course you can be here.”

 

“You just want me quiet.”

 

“I want the world quiet,” Ben corrected. He then smirked and dropped his lips to the curve of Charlie’s neck so he could kiss her speckled skin. “I don’t trust that we’re alone anymore. Michael could be anywhere.”

 

“He could,” Charlie entertained, dragging her words out. “But I know he’s back at camp where I left him. There are loads of frenchmen arriving and apparently few men speak it. I’ve been with him translating for the past hour or so.”

 

“Ahhh, well I suppose the Continental Army is in great debt to your parents.”

 

“And our governess.”

 

Ben dropped his head back to laugh. “Christ. Of course you had a governess.”

 

Charlie pursed her lips in amusement. “Of course I did.” She had accepted her privilege, mostly because Ben had accepted it too. “But like you said, thank goodness we did. It seems there’s a lot that needs to be done. Things you didn’t inform me of.”

 

Ben sighed. “I told you we had a plan.”

 

“Well I’d hope we’ve always had a plan. But if I can help—”

 

“You can. You have. You’re keeping me sane. You’re an escape from all of this.” Charlie said nothing so Ben shifted against her, tightening the way he held her in his grasp as he dropped a hand to her stomach. “I’m not working right now, though I suppose I could be.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“I spoke with your brother.”

 

Charlie turned around, putting her back to the ocean so she could finally look Ben in the eye. “Oh.” Then, in feigned cheer: “How did that go?”

 

“I’m here so it didn’t end in my murder. I just don’t think he’s too fond of me.”

 

“Michael’s not fond of anyone,” she giggled.

 

“He’s rather fond of you. Extremely fond of you, actually. He really—”

 

Charlie looked down. “Yes, well I’m his sister. I’m the only family he has that doesn’t hate him for what he believes in. He has no other choice.”

 

Ben gave a slow nod. “I suppose that’s true.”

 

Charlie reached out for Ben’s face. Her palm fit perfectly upon the angle of his jawline and the way her thumb caressed his ear had him finally looking back to her. “What’s going on in your head, Ben?”

 

He smirked. “You don’t want to know.”

 

“I do, actually. I always want to know.”

 

“Michael worries about you. “

 

“Well of course he does, Ben. He’s my brother and—”

 

“No, more than that, Charlie. You...you thought he was off fighting a war but really he’s just been planning your future.”

 

Charlie’s eyes darkened. “Benjamin, I don’t appreciate your sarcasm right now.”

 

Ben tried to force a smile. “I can’t be angry at all of the things he wants for you, Charlie.”

 

“Things?”

 

“Not me, of course. I’m not part of his plans.”

 

“What if you’re part of mine?”

 

“Well I don’t know if that’s fair either.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I—”

 

Charlie cut him off with a fiery kiss. It’s only when they separated to breathe and Ben’s eyes flickered open that he saw she was nearly crying. Ben was searching her gaze for a deeper meaning, cradling her face in an effort to bring her back to him — to request that she stop crying.

 

All Charlie could do was drop her forehead to his. Her lips, now sticky with tears, almost reattached to his as she revealed her truth. “I love you, Benjamin.” Her eyes fluttered upward, locking upon his own. “I love you so much. I have for...I can’t believe I ever didn’t.” A small laugh escaped her swollen pout.

 

Ben’s attention was lost to her lips. He craved their silence and he wanted to procure it; her mouth existing without words meant that his could do the same.

 

“Ben?”

 

He looked up, blinking, no real emotion marking his features. Then he walked away.

Chapter Text

When Anna retired to her tent it was empty and it remained that way as she slowly readied herself for bed. She assumed Charlie would arrive late or perhaps the girl had found slumber in Ben’s tent and would not return until the following morning. Beyond the small ping of jealousy Anna felt at seeing the relationship between Charlie and Ben, she was mostly warmed by it. It was a welcomed distraction from the still stressful state of a war now in its homestretch and it reminded her of memories of her own, ones that also found her sneaking around late, all of her excited and constantly breathless over the reality of someone adoring you boldly, but in secret.

 

The end of the fighting would mark a conclusion for Anna as well; no longer would she be able to keep up this charade of spying and she’d be forced to decide how it was she wanted to carry on her life. Her love for Abraham, while unmoving, was impractical and in accepting this she was beginning to look toward the future at the life waiting for her there: a renewed marriage and several children, she assumed. For Charlie, however, there was far more freedom. This war would welcome independence, not just for this country but for the young woman as well. She could now make the choice to love Ben openly and the decisions the couple made thereafter would feel just as sweet as all the moments that had led them to that very point.

 

When Anna did finally awake, the blithe smile that graced her rested cheeks dissipated as she sat up and observed the room around her. It was entirely possible Charlie did get in late but it seemed she rose early too as her bed was now covered with freshly mended quilts and several piles of folded breeches. The girl’s productivity bewildered Anna but by the time her feet touched the carpet below Charlie was coming in, plopping down on her bed with a book in hand. She moved so quickly Anna didn’t see the title but she could tell by her friend’s overall disposition that her restless night had nothing to do with Ben. Or maybe it had everything to do with Ben, but not in the way Anna suspected.

 

The latter thought came to Anna quickly, causing her to speak and catch Charlie off guard. “Are you alright?”

 

Charlie forced a smile but her face did not light up in the way it usually did. “Of course.”

 

Anna tried to smile too. “You were up early.”

 

“I was.” She didn’t bother to look away from her book but she did shift on her bed, revealing the binding to Anna.

 

Holy Bible

 

“Are you pregnant?”

 

Charlie couldn’t help but to laugh. “No. That’s...no,” she dismissed.

 

Charlotte’s amusement quickly turned to anger, but only when Anna stood to begin to dress for the day. With her back turned, Charlie was able pinch at the bridge of her nose, pleading that the wells in her eyes not release. They did not but that didn’t stop the lump in her throat from tightening, making breathing difficult.

 

When it was time for Anna to head out she shared a soft grin with Charlie but said nothing. It was as if she could feel the girl’s discomfort. Anna knew there were many forms of heartbreak a woman could experience and how almost all had the sufferer wanting to be alone.

 

She granted Charlie her privacy but she did it with selfish undertones. Anna picked up her dress to make travel easier, heading down the path that surrounded all the other tents toward the main house. When she saw that Ben was not eating with the other officers her pace quickened. Ben was known for disappearing back in Setauket and for whatever reason, Anna always managed to find him. He was also the only one he would talk to, as if he wanted to be found by her because it meant relieving his mind of whatever consumed him. That was many years ago, before marriage and university and war turned them to adults. When Anna happened upon Ben, just where she believed he would be on the rocky shoreline, she exhaled steadily. She loved that through all of their growth some things failed to be lost.

 

“Did you eat?” she asked. Her petticoat was still in her grasp but when she moved closer to Ben she let it go despite knowing the rolling waves would soon soak the gown’s hem. Her mind was elsewhere as she studied Ben’s features. He held a letter in his hand but his gaze was cast out onto the water.

 

“No,” he gave simply. The feigned look of appreciation matched the one Anna received from Charlie.

 

She nodded slowly as she planned her next step. “What are you up to then?”

 

Ben finally took his eyes off the horizon. “Uh, just reviewing this letter Abe sent—”

 

“How’s he doing?”

 

Ben looked to his friend. Anna was a constant reminder that beyond all of this he had a life he’d left back home, that soon there’d be a life he’d need to live when all of this was over and settled. “He’s...he’s Abe,” he tried with a small shrug.

 

For just a moment Anna joined her friends in pretending. “Good.”

 

Ben was ready to move-on but then he turned back to her, facing the moment as if it were already being ripped from his grasp and he was annoyed that was the case. This was a familiar feeling but there was no comfort in it. “What was that like?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“He...can I ask a question?”

 

Anna smirked. “It seems you already have, no?”

 

“When Abe married…” He couldn’t even utter her name. “What was that like?”

 

Anna shrugged her way through a heavy exhale. “I don’t remember much of it to be honest with you.”

 

Ben’s brow furrowed. “What?”

 

“Well Selah had already asked my father for my hand at that point so I instantly accepted. What else was I supposed to do? A girl can hardly live a life alone…” Her voice trailed off but as she took Ben in, Anna realized she might have more to say. "A girl, or anyone for that matter, shouldn't want to live a life alone."

 

“Wouldn't you rather be alone than without the person you wanted to wed?”

 

“Perhaps. But what I'd rather do is of little importance. I have obligations just as all women do.”

 

“Does it get easier?”

 

“Which part of it?”

 

“Being forced to love someone you don't love?”

 

Anna had to laugh. Beneath all of Ben’s questioning she heard the answers he was actually seeking. “You've lost it.”

 

“I need to know, Anna.”

 

She was slow to answer. “No. That gets easier,” she said very simply.

 

“Oh...good.”

 

“But it gets harder not being with the person you know you're meant to be with. Loving Selah wasn't the problem. He's a wonderful man and any woman would be so lucky to be his wife, I just...I loved him very much but somehow I still loved Abraham more.” Ben said nothing. “I don't know what you're on about, Ben. What's...what's going on? This morning Charlie—”

 

“I mucked it up, Anna.”

 

“Mucked what up?”

 

"Charlie. I...I froze. She said she loved me and I froze. I didn't know what to say so I—”

 

“Well do you love her?”

 

“I...I'm sure I do,” Ben reasoned. “I think I've loved her for far longer than I know. Maybe since the day we met.”

 

“But?”

 

“But Michael isn't too fond of me and I get it.” Anna smirked causing Ben to do the same. "Beyond all of that, I mean,” he said, referring to that morning in the river, “Charlie's life has been planned for her since birth and I'm not a part of those plans.”

 

“Was this war a part of those plans?” She sighed. “At what point does the mind, and the heart for that matter, begin making exceptions?”

 

Ben grinned, laughing off a bit of the nervousness left on his tongue. “Everything feels so uncertain right now, Anna. I have this perfect girl and we're steps from winning this thing—”

 

“Doesn't sound too uncertain.”

 

“My life's never been this easy...and nothing should be this easy. And I'm happy and I just feel like—”

 

“You deserve happiness, Ben,” she implored.

 

“I know that.”

 

Anna paused, disbelieving. “Do you?”

 

“Well—”

 

“Because I don't think you do. And it's okay to want to be done with this. It's okay to be over the fighting and to want to start your future. No one’s judging you for that. If anything I'd say all of us would be overjoyed to see you so occupied with something beyond this war."

 

“All of us?”

 

“Caleb adores Charlotte. You know that. And you're his best friend and—”

 

“Yeah well I haven't opened up much to him,” he admitted, adding it to the pile of things he felt inwardly disappointed by.

 

“You don't need to for him to know where your heads at. And he doesn't take it too personally. He is unbelievably delighted that this girl has come into your life and changed things.”

 

“Does everyone see it but me?”

 

“But don't you see it?”

 

“I can't see much beyond this war ending. I think if I could I would have had an answer for her.”

 

Anna looked away. “You're not going to die. It's okay to plan a wedding and children and—” Ben’s widened eyes had Anna pausing. “No children then?”

 

“Not now. Not soon. She’s—”

 

Anna chuckled. “Please explain to me how you can discuss these things with someone without telling them you love them?”

 

Ben laughed too. “I thought she kind of understood. I thought discussing it was me telling her I loved her.”

 

Anna pushed at Ben’s shoulder. “That is such a man’s answer.”

 

Ben rolled his eyes. “Well I am a man, Anna, so—”

 

“I only mean that if she said it, she wanted to hear it back. It’s as simple as that.”

 

“It didn’t feel simple,” Ben admitted. The look of horror on his face almost had Anna amused. “I thought I was going to faint. I just...I know she's left her world but I still feel so guilty. I feel like I'm taking her away from this place that provides for her far better than I ever could.”

 

“Being betrothed to one of the best men in the Continental Army is hardly a cruel fate, Ben. You have your degree. There is so much you can do in this world and just because you've pushed all of that aside these past couple of years doesn't mean you can't think about it now.”

 

“She's...she's an angel, Anna. She's nothing like I thought she was and I am so angry at myself for not realizing that sooner.”

 

“Ben, listen to me, alright? You're not going anywhere. And you have a right to know what you want and to go after it.”

 

“I know how I feel about her and I hope she does too I just—”

 

“You'll figure all of that out, Ben,” she assured with a sweet smile. “But before you can work on any of these plans, just...you are going to have the best life and I pray Charlotte is in it. She is everything you deserve. We'd all be so lucky to have someone like that come into our lives.”

 

“You have—”

 

“Maybe. But that's okay. Not everyone has a soulmate. Maybe some of us do...or all of us. And maybe sometimes it doesn't work out anyway. But I don't think that's the case here. My story isn't your story. And it's time for you to write your story.”

 

Ben looked to her. In an odd show of emotion he wrapped his arm around her shoulder, bringing her closer so he could press a kiss to the crown of her head. As he looked back to the water he felt it, how this was possibly the last conversation he’d share with Anna where the two were still able to remember who they used to be. They had fought a war together and somehow still felt like scared children.

 

~!~

 

An errand caused Ben to miss lunch as well and when he arrived back at camp there was barely any dinner to be had. The amount of ale the men were consuming certainly raised morale but it had Ben feeling nervous. Like Charlie, he knew they were so close to a victory and yet he feared one misstep would have them sent back to the very place they’d started. Ben couldn’t imagine a life where all of this was futile but his mind was hazy with those very thoughts as he readied himself for bed.

 

“Ben?”



The sound of Charlie’s voice had him taking a step back. She wore a cloak but as he turned to her, he watched as she gingerly unveiled the hood, dropping it to her shoulders. He saw only white linen beneath the velvet of her coat and as she inhaled her shoulders raised, showing Ben she was also barefoot.



Charlie smirked and took a step toward him. “Don’t look so surprised. I told you I’d come see you.”


Ben could barely nod. He blinked too, wondering if perhaps his lack of sleep and inadequate nutrition had him daydreaming. His hesitant acknowledgement was donated to her lips because soon Charlie was standing before him, wrapping her arms around his neck so she could kiss him properly. Even with her close Ben froze, giving the vision he had of her time to disappear. When it didn’t and she continued to move against him, Ben was finally able to soften into her touch.

 

Instinctively, Ben’s hands fell to Charlie’s hips, then just below. Her cloak, still tied at the neck, did little to conceal her state of undress. A nearby candle traced the outline of Charlie’s curves, even revealing the bones of her ribs as she asked for another kiss, now with her hands pressed flat to Ben’s naked chest.

 

His shirt fell to their feet and Charlie nearly laughed at his sudden shyness. Ben noticed, giving a nervous grin of his own. There was what he wanted and what Charlie deserved and Ben waged an internal war, unsure of which side would find victory even as she kissed him once more. With her nearly naked form flush against him, Ben felt his selfish senses take over. His grip pulled her closer and Charlie’s eyes fluttered open as she felt his hardness grow.

Ben didn’t notice. He couldn’t. It was all he could do to continue kissing her. He knew he should have pushed her away but her mouth had convinced him that she couldn’t afford to have her heart broken again - not today.

“Charlie, we shouldn’t—” He wanted her there, that was without argument, but he also acknowledged that he didn’t deserve her, especially not like this - especially after all he’d failed to share with her that afternoon.

 

With chests heaving, Charlie took a step backward. Her delicate fingers pulled at the ribbon keeping her cloak on her shoulders. The covering fell to the ground in a haloed heap.

 

Ben’s mouth went dry. Despite knowing nothing could cure his current bewildered state, he swallowed. “Christ, Char—”

 

She cut him off with another searing kiss. “Shh...”


“Charlie, I’m...I—”


“It’s okay, Ben. I know,” she nodded. Her hand had floated to his hairline, pushing back at his fringe in an inexplicably tender way. Soon though she was upon him again, her touch grazing his chin as she coaxed a moan from him lips. That same lust had Ben’s fingers creasing the soft linen of Charlie’s shift. The wrinkled chemise folded at her hips and Ben’s fingers crawled upon the curve of her backside, making no apology for the way they slowly began to pull the material upward.


She broke away. Ben blinked, wondering if she were coming to her senses. He wanted that for her, even if he knew it went against what he was currently craving.


“Charlie...” he tried.


Her silence had him on edge but when he reached out for her, almost as if to offer an apology, Charlie welcomed his touch once more. She nodded, accepting the sorry that never came. It mixed with the other things she told herself - things she forced herself to hear if she were to continue standing there before him.


I love you too.


“You can touch me, Ben,” she reminded, now with a heaving chest that suggested which part of her body currently wanted his attention.


“I...I know that, I just—”


“I want you to.”


It was clear Charlie had plans of her own. He wondered if this is what she had been doing in her tent all day or if it came to her in a moment of bravery where her feelings for Ben overshadowed her senses.


Charlie’s hands fell to the seam of Ben’s breeches. His eyes popped open and he stopped. “Charlie, we don’t—”

 

“I want to,” she assured, all rather innocently. Ben could tell she was being sincere and her courage had him even more anxious. Neither emotion did anything to curb his growing erection. 

 

“We can’t...here?” He briefly looked toward the tent’s entrance.


“Where else?”


Ben paused. Charlie kissed at his neck, paying special attention to the stubbled skin just below his ear. “Did you have another place in mind?” she whispered raspily.


Ben's mind drifted off. He had thought of this many times, his imagination putting them in many different locations; at no point was his tent an option. His apprehension did nothing to stop the movement of her too-small fingers and soon, after only minor fumbling, Charlie had each of the buttons on his pants undone. Somehow his skin felt more hot than her fingers but her touch still burned, a single digit tracing the lines of his chest before disappearing below his waist to boldly graze his cock.


His head dropped back. Everything was foggy but even through the haze he felt Charlie looking to him, asking for reassurance. Unlike earlier, he hoped his silence acted as encouragement.


I love you too.


A nervous laugh escaped Charlie’s swollen lips. “I don’t know what I’m doing so I’m going to need—”


It was Ben’s turn to encourage her bravery. Rather passionately his mouth found hers and though her eyes flickered shut her hand fell soft along his length, unmoving but exploring all the same.


“Christ, Char...”

 

“I want to make you feel good, Ben. Tell me—”

 

He nodded. I love you too. She heard it again.


Ben’s want had his touch asking for Charlie’s weight and she gave it, even if it meant losing the connection she was trying to create. He didn’t mind, especially as she gripped his neck, his skin red as she moved against him. It was so easy for her to remain in his arms and yet Ben felt unsteady. Charlie must have noticed because she continued to taste him, bravely slipping her tongue past her own lips. It distracted them both from the somewhat clumsy way she reached behind her, seeking the mattress below. Her hand steadied them as Ben gently laid her down upon his cot, immediately joining her.


His own lanky frame covered her completely. The way Ben dropped his mouth to her neck kept Charlie from touching him in the way she was hoping to continue. This sensation was confirmed as he sucked at her pulse point, his palm even kneading her chest into two pert peaks. This was the first time he’d touched her in this way and as Ben’s mouth dropped further down, even licking at the curve of her clavicle, Charlie felt a tingle in her stomach. Her breasts, now swollen, almost ached beneath his fingertips.


He did not ask. The way Charlie’s hands went to his waist again had Ben believing such a thing was unnecessary. His silence had lead them there and he didn’t want any words to ruin all they’d shared and all he hoped to share with her before the night was through.


Ben pushed down his breeches and for the first time Charlie saw all she’d felt against her leg and her tummy so many times before. Her eyes widened, floating to his only once before focusing only on his length. She felt she was in a trance, confirmed in the way she blankly reached out for him, dragging Ben’s pants further off his hips. He joined her, inching the cotton covering her body upward. Her breath hitched as she felt more of the night’s air kiss her skin. Goosebumps painted her complexion, mixing with the rouged cheeks she wore and how her fingers now shook against Ben’s back.


In a flash Ben remembered stories he’d heard, in particular one Abe had shared with him about how his first time involved Anna staining the quilt they’d laid upon with blood. Just as quickly though, Charlie was reaching out for him, gripping his member, bringing it toward her. Instinctively his hips bucked and she giggled, concealing how terrified she felt with the prospect of receiving something Ben couldn’t dare say aloud.


His eyes clamped shut but Charlie’s touch, while shaky, was demanding things he could not deny. Losing control, Ben naturally settled into Charlie, slowly pushing into her.


Though this was what she wanted, her eyes clenched shut. She was unable to open them until she was sure the slight stinging she felt would not have her crying. Ben was doing all he could not to let all of his weight consume her. He knew he should have pulled out but Charlie’s hands remained strong upon his biceps, even begging for a kiss as the pain began to subside. Her lips softened and her hands moved to Ben’s backside, almost pushing him toward her, asking him for more.


Ben complied, unsure of whether or not he had a choice in the matter. He wanted nothing more than to give her what she was requesting and yet he was powerless against his own lust. He’d needed this very thing from the moment he’d saw her, maybe not when they’d first danced but on the several small interactions they shared thereafter. Ben wanted her just as he had her, her fingertips begging that he move against her as he soon did.


Growing accustomed to the feel of him, Charlie began to move against Ben. Their hips bumped and their breath grew more ragged with Ben even dropping his forehead to Charlie’s as if to admit slight defeat. Courageously she only smiled, kissing him through the mixed emotions she felt, the slight pleasure that overtook her and how she still wished for him to say all he’d failed to thus far.

 

I love you too.

 

“Charlie—”


“It’s okay, Ben.”


“I...I luh—”


She cut him off with a kiss, moving her lips down to his neck and shoulders as Ben’s embrace shifted her further into his arms. It was almost as if they were sitting, giving Ben better leverage to roll his body into hers. Charlie’s mouth fell open in equal parts ecstasy and pain.


Ben shut his eyes, cursing the pleasure running through him while wishing they had slowed down. He wanted to enjoy this and he certainly believed he was but the unsure feeling of the pads of Charlie’s fingers caused him to wonder if perhaps she was already facing regret. When those same digits turning to digging nails against the muscles of his back, Ben’s gaze was reluctantly given back to her.


“Charlie, I have to..”


“No!”


“I’m going to...” He held his breath and as his eyes met hers once more she seemed to somehow know what it was he was saying. “I’m sorry, I...”


It was quick and it was cold. The ache between Charlie’s legs was immediately apparent, momentarily distracting her from the way Ben’s back curved once more before spilling his seed on the inside of her thigh. He practically collapsed against her, embarrassed by his lack of control especially when she placed a tender kiss to his temple.


Ben rolled over. His lungs pumped at his ribcage, causing his chest to rise and fall with each passing breath. When he looked back to Charlie he saw her fingers glistening, each finger sticky as she sucked at her own skin, tasting him.

 

It was likely she had no idea what her action had done but Ben rolled into her, somehow able to press a kiss of his own to her pulse point. Charlie beamed, possibly proud, as she pushed her shift back down. Ben grabbed for the blanket at their feet. The wool was pulled up to cover them as they continued to breathe one another in. They shared one last kiss. Charlie was waiting for those three words but Ben was still breathless. She couldn’t fault him; she was drained too and still unabashedly content with him pressed against her.


She continued to wait, her gaze lost on the canopy above and how she swore she could see the stars through the thick burlap material that covered all they’d just shared. When Charlie looked back to Ben it was clear the expansion of his chest had slowed. Her own exhaustion allowed one last smile before lulling her into a slipping sleep.

Chapter Text

Charlie’s eyes fluttered open. The morning was so eerily quiet she almost forgot just how raucous the camp had been the night before. Of course all of that noise was hushed when she wordlessly prepositioned Ben but nevertheless Charlie welcomed the dawn’s serenity, pleasantly surprised by how palpable such a stressless dawn could be. It was almost as if the sun had banished all of the boyish laughter and manhood arrogance, replacing it with such an unwavering calm that Charlie had to smirk, wondering if she was still lost in the previous night’s dreamlike state.

 

Though the tent she slept beneath shielded her from the day Charlie still felt the need to giggle into the back of her palm, covering her eyes as she remembered all she and Ben had shared mere hours ago. Goosebumps marked her already freckled complexion, her mind dizzy by the mere memory of his lips on all of her exposed skin. She had never felt more secure than she had when Ben held her; the way his strong arms were capable of such a gentle embrace was overwhelming at best. It nearly brought tears to her eyes and she almost cried them too, caused not by sadness but by the strain of her cheeks pulled upward in a bright smile.

 

She loved Ben and even without his mutual declaration she felt, over and over again, just how much he loved her too. Charlie felt silly in a way, looking back and wondering how his lack of words could ever upset her. If anything she should have been upset with herself. Though he’d taken months to open up to her Charlie now felt as if she knew him better than anyone had before; with that true, she should have expected this from him. Ben thrived on action, constantly taking the plans he often refused to share and putting them in motion before anyone else’s opinion could affect their outcome. Loving her, Charlie assumed, was no different. She wouldn’t feel his adoration in lovely poetic lines but instead in the way she had beneath the moonlight, his grip strong on the curve of her hips as he settled further into her. Someday, she imagined, he’d finally give her the very thing she wanted: a proud and public admission of the feelings she already knew to be true. She knew this because she had given him the very thing he wanted: her, all of her naked and willing, in promise of a future. I love you existed in many forms and for Charlie listening for it meant accepting Ben’s silence.

 

Charlie’s realization kept her from rolling over, wishing to touch Ben once more. He hadn’t sought her out in his sleep and she certainly hadn’t been brave enough to act either but now the craving Charlie was currently experiencing gave her an inexplicable courage. Her middle twisted, allowing her hand to gingerly reach behind her and feel out for Ben. The smile she wore almost brightened, peaking to maximum width just before it fell completely, vanishing from her features in the time it took for her to blink.

 

The emotion that painted her face in exuberance was replaced by shock. Charlie’s breath hitched as she shifted to sit up. Only when her eyes could confirm the empty space beside her did she exhale, wondering how such a small expanse of linen had grown so cold so quickly. That same disbelief caused her gaze to be lost on the far tent wall where she continued to open and close her eyes, taking snapshots of the loneliness as the acknowledgement of her naivety settled in. The war, she immediately remembered, existed just outside whether she heard it or not and it had her bed — Ben’s bed, really — feeling vacant even with her sitting atop it. Soon Charlie felt unwelcome too, almost as if Ben were actually there to ask her to leave. She felt foolish as all her insecurities rushed back. She was as daft to believe those vulnerabilities had vanished as she apparently was to think their intimacy meant enough to Ben to keep him beside her well into the morning.

 

Charlie’s face was flushed, feeling prickly and warm. Now when she covered her eyes she did so out of embarrassment. Eventually she did drop her hands, doing so the way a child would after protecting themselves from a scare. There was hesitance but also that telltale uneasiness that always accompanied what felt like a false sense of security. Ben’s I love you may have resonated out of the pads of his calloused fingertips or in the pause he took when he pressed his mouth to her skin but his current absence had Charlie confronting an unpleasant truth: it’s difficult to tell someone you love them, in any form, when you fail to exist at all.

 

~!~

 

Ben huffed, forcing his arm into the sleeve of his coat as he trudged quickly up the hill out of camp. He hadn’t expected to sleep tonight but he also hadn’t expected Charlie to enter his tent and make love to him. At least, that’s what he hoped it was: love .

 

Ben had wanted Charlie in a way he’d never wanted anything else in his life but that didn’t keep his touch from trembling against her spine or his eyes from closing when her heels wrapped around his waist and demanded more. He could have made a better effort to please her and he certainly should have acted on his urge to take things slow. Or, perhaps, Ben should have stopped her altogether. It was this thought that had him irritated, so angry that he couldn’t hide his anger as he approached Caleb.

 

“What took ya so long?” Caleb called out, dramatically raising his arms in the air.

 

“Me? I was looking for your sorry arse!” Ben tossed back, lying.

 

“I told you I’d meet ya here, din’t I?”

 

Ben shook his head. “Whatever.”

 

Although he wore a sour face Ben had to be thankful to his friend for saddling his horse in his absence. He’d have been even later if he had to perform the task himself but he still did not extend his gratitude. Ben honestly wanted to be done with the conversation, partially because he knew he was taking his confusion out on his undeserving best friend. It was for this same reason that once Ben mounted his horse he ushered the mare into a gallop.

 

Caleb had barely moved, making his task of riding alongside his best friend to be a difficult one. For nearly a mile he was forced to follow the gold lapels on Ben’s jacket as they jumped up and down upon his shoulders. They were supposed to be delivering a group of well organized militia and newly provided provisions to an awaiting French ship but Ben’s mood had both of them forgetting they’d been surrounded by soldiers during the entire duration of their interaction.

 

Ben’s posture on his horse was stiff, leaving his eyes pointed straight ahead. His goal was to focus on the path he was forging and not on the girl he’d left behind, something he now regretted as the moon began its descent in the sky. Like his mare, Ben’s frustration had him ignorant to his peripheral, not even minding Caleb as he tried to catch up.

Ayy! Tallboy!” Caleb finally managed. He was moving so quickly he had to pull back on his horse’s reins once he fell in stride with Ben. “Slow down, would ya?”

 

“I’m…” Ben blinked, bringing himself back to the present. “What?”

 

Caleb leaned forward to get a better picture of his best friend. “You alright?”

 

“What? Yeah, of course,” he laughed off.

 

Caleb nodded slowly. “You and Charlie have it out?”

 

“What? No.”

 

“Because Annie said—”

 

“She really needs to learn to keep her mouth shut,” Ben admitted honestly. He had a way of insulting others that somehow made it sound like less of a threat than it was. This war had honed that skill, one all of his friends assumed he had learned while at Yale. He was less bold in his youth, so much so that even he wondered if his teenage self would recognize the man he was today.

 

Caleb cackled. “She actually didn’t tell me anything but your reaction did. What’d you do now?”

 

Ben finally looked to him. “I just told you, Caleb. Nothing. I didn’t do anything.”

 

“No? You’re just naturally pouty this morning?”

 

“I’m not…” He gave a heavy sigh. “I’m not pouting, Caleb,” he huffed.

 

“Seems like you’re pouting. What did she do then?”

 

“She didn’t do anything,” Ben said, shaking his head. “She never does anything. She’s...she’s fine.”

 

“Aye, she is…”

 

Ben gave a chuckle. “Watch it.”

 

Caleb smiled and Ben had to join him. As Caleb’s cheeks fell, he continued. “You know, Ben, you may not talk to me anymore and I think you’re a right arse sometimes but you’re still my best friend and even when I want to kick your teeth in I can still tell when you’re not all there.” Ben said nothing so Caleb leaned forward once more as if he’d be able to decipher his distraction from the lines on his face. “Ben?”

 

He slowly turned to look at Caleb. “You don’t think we talk anymore?” Ben was genuinely surprised.

 

“I don’t think. I know.”

 

Ben nodded. After another pause he turned back to Caleb. “I’m...I’m sorry, Caleb. I didn’t—”

 

Caleb shrugged. “S’alright, really. If I had to lose you I’m glad I’ve lost you to Charlie. Better her than this goddamn war.” It was his turn to pause. “Can you believe our sorry arses have made it this long? I mean really? After all we’ve been through?”

 

Ben forced a laugh. “No, I honestly can’t. I surely thought I would have killed you by now.”

 

Caleb dropped his head back, laughing rather loudly. “Ain’t that the truth.”

 

The pair moved to a trot. The sun would be up soon and they had barely an hour to transfer the men and the supplies they carried to the docked ship. Thankfully Ben had briefed these soldiers the day before so when they arrived to the water’s edge everyone moved quickly, doing just what they’d been instructed to. Every movement was executed so effortlessly that Ben and Caleb were afforded the time to simply stand by and supervise. They originally thought they’d be spending this time shouting commands but instead they observed in silence, until Ben finally interrupted.

 

“I slept with Charlie.”

 

Caleb nearly choked on his rum. “What?”

 

“I—”

 

Caleb stuffed his canteen in his bag so he could clap at Ben’s back. “Holy feck! Finally!”

 

“Caleb, don’t…”

 

“Don’t what? It’s about time, right?”

 

“I...sure,” Ben conceded, still rolling his eyes. “Whatever.”

 

“Whatever?” Caleb balked. “You bed a lass like Charlie and that’s your response?”

 

“I just mean…” His voice was loud but as it trailed off Ben nearly laughed. “I don’t know what I mean,” he settled.

 

“God, that body…”

 

“Caleb! Fuck…”

 

“I’m sorry but...it was good, yeah?”

 

Ben smirked. “Better than good.”

 

“I’ve been waiting years for this! You lucky fuckin’ bastard!”

 

“Can you please keep your voice down?”

 

Caleb casually turned his head to look at Ben. “Is she as feisty as I imagine? She’s probably a handful, yeah?”

 

“I’m not…” Ben exhaled. “I’m not answering that.”

 

“What? C’mon!” Ben went silent, causing Caleb’s features to turn stoic. “What the fuck did you do?”

 

Ben’s brow furrowed. “What?”

 

“You. You fucked something up. That’s why you’re quiet,” he observed. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing’s wrong, Caleb.”

 

“Well now you’re just lying,” he dismissed. Caleb was unsure of whether he was amused or irritated. He was serious again. “She...she wanted to, right? You didn’t—”

 

“Christ, Caleb!” Ben yelled. “She came to me, alright? I didn’t...I would never! Fuck!”

 

“Well I’d hope not but your dumb face looks smugger than shite and I’m trying to figure out why that is.”

 

Ben’s chest deflated in defeat. “I...I guess I didn’t think it would happen this way. Not during all this.”

 

“Not romantic enough for ya?” Caleb teased. When Ben said nothing, Caleb laughed. “Fuck, you’re an odd one.”

 

“I just...I haven’t been great to her and—”

 

“That bad?”

 

“What?”

 

“You’re just new to it. You have to practice—”

 

“Caleb!” Ben admonished once more. “I’m not talking about in the sack, alright?”

 

“What are you on about then? She gave you a touzle, Tallboy. You couldn’t have been that awful to her or I imagine she wouldn’t have allowed that.”

 

“I can’t explain it, I just...Charlie deserves better. I mean that.”

 

Caleb gave a crooked smile as a show of sympathy. “Michael got into your head, din’he?”

 

“No…”

 

“I’ll remind you that the lad left his sister behind. And a lot can change in two years. He may not be the authority you think he is.”

 

“Well as a man I have to respect him.”

 

“Why?” Caleb squawked. “He hasn’t made much of an effort to respect you.”

 

“I don’t know if I blame him. If I was him I’d probably hate me too.”

 

“Well if I were you I’d hate him. I think I do hate him,” he reasoned.

 

“What?”

 

“He left Charlie and then yelled at her for doing what he did. He’s a hypocrite. And a shite brother. It’s clear the girl is happy. Let her be.”

 

“Caleb, she did all of this to find him.”

 

“Yes and she found him and she’s still chosen you, you lucky fucking bastard.” Ben’s mood was still somber, practically urging Caleb to take the next step. “You know, why can’t you ever be happy for yourself?”

 

“I’m...it’s not that.”

 

“No? You’re sulking a hell of a lot for a man that got his kicks from a girl he loves.”

 

“I...I do love her.” Ben was surprised to hear his honesty. He’d felt this way for a very long time, likely before they ventured to Setauket, but the words came so easily to his friend and his tongue tasted bitter upon realizing how freeing it felt to admit such a thing. Why hadn’t he told Charlie this long ago? Then again, Ben thought he had, hoping Charlie finally understood his heart last night as he moved against her.

 

“Ben?” Caleb tried. When Ben realized he had spaced out he turned back, trying to regain his mental footing. Caleb smirked. “Then?”

 

“She doesn’t know that. I...I didn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her.”

 

“She let you stick your prick in her, Ben. I think she knows.”

 

“Fuck, Caleb! Enough, alright?”

 

He rolled his eyes. “Why does everything have to be so planned with you? You’re thinking too much.”

 

“I didn’t do any thinking last night,” Ben groaned.

 

“And it got you a shag. Pity for that, Tallboy.”

 

“It wasn’t...she’s more than a shag, Caleb, and you know that.”

 

“Alright then,” he accepted with a shrug. “Tell her.”

 

“Tell her?” Ben swallowed.

 

“Yeah. If we can leave the city tonight. When we get back to camp. Tell her.”

 

“But—”

 

“No. No buts. Just feckin’ tell her and be done with it.”

 

~!~

 

When Charlie entered the tent she shared with Anna the brunette gave her an icy glare, likely surprised to see her but also mildly curious about her whereabouts. Anna was pacing and had been moving in repetitive zig zags between each corner of the tent for quite some time now and she continued this behavior even in Charlie’s presence. As Anna bit at the nail on her thumb she side eyed Charlie, observing how she dropped her cloak, revealing nothing but a shift. Out of respect Anna had to look away but as she trained her eyes on the tents flap she could still hear Charlie’s rustling as she slipped into her gown. The pins on the front allowed Charlie to dress independently and as she smoothed down the chest of her frock she stepped into Anna, almost breathless.

 

“Where is…” Her hurt heart half expected to see Ben in here. She wanted to feel ridiculous for reacting to his absence in the way she had instead of feeling ridiculous as she did now, allowing her mind to hope for the improbable.

 

Anna dropped her hands. “They’re surrendering,” she admitted. The declaration fell from her tongue with haste, coming out of her mouth like a secret she’d been tasked to keep for an uneasy length of time.

 

Charlie blinked, her face blank. “What?”

 

“I’m waiting on word but the redcoats...it’s over. They’re surrendering. We’ve...well I think we’ve won,” Anna laughed out. It seemed she was experiencing as much disbelief as her friend.

 

Charlie was still shocked and because of that ignorant to the tears that formed in the corners of her eyes. She was happy, surely, but devastated too and wondering how that could be. Annoyed with her feelings, Charlie pulled Anna in for a tight hug. It allowed her to press her eyes shut and allow some sadness to paint her cheeks without scrutiny. All the while she wore a smile, hoping that such a thing would somehow mask her current pain. Charlie had been removed from her previous life and she wished for it to remain that way but she was relieved to realize how easy it was for her to fall back into all the pretending.

 

Anna must have saw her friends tears because she stepped forward in concern. “Charlie? You okay?”

 

“What? Yes, of course,” she dismissed. She gave a small laugh as she pushed the dampness off her freckled complexion.

 

The force at which her hands pressed beneath her eyes revealed an anger Anna couldn’t quite place. “Charlie…”

 

She couldn’t prod further because behind them the flap to the tent was pushed open and Charlie countered the visitors actions so quickly Anna only saw the girl in a flash, now shifting to get a better view of the man standing at the door.

 

It was Michael and the realization had her heart dropping deep in her chest, pushing against lungs that begged for an immediate release from behind her ribcage. Somehow she was incredibly disappointed to see the same person she’d originally sought out through all of this.

 

Her brother’s silence had Charlie pushed closer to her emotional edge. “What’s wrong? Is he okay? Michael?”

 

“It’s not...Ben’s fine,” Michael dismissed, almost miffed at her question. He wasn’t sure how his sister could ask such a thing especially as his news weighed so heavily upon him. “They’ve surrendered.”

 

Charlie perked up, acting again. “I know! That’s great! Right?” Her voice dropped but she smiled all the same, needing to believe her words. “Right?”

 

Michael’s gaze upon her was unnerving. “Father’s dead, Charlie.”

Chapter Text

Charlie could barely see the luggage before her or the items she was haphazardly trying to place inside it. Her eyes were so clouded with tears she struggled with hearing as well, each sob muffling the tent around her as Anna and Michael stood near the door exchanging words. They were whispering and Charlie felt their eyes burning into her, remaining even when Anna continued to pace. Charlie and Anna had barely engaged before Michael walked in and yet it seemed as if Anna had volumes to share with the boy. What Charlie originally perceived as judgement could now be discerned as pity and she saw that more clearly when she straightened her spine and angrily wiped at the tears on her cheeks.

 

“Where is he?” Charlie tried blindly. The same pressure that had her knuckles turning white was evident in her voice.

 

“He’ll...he’ll be back,” Anna assured as she took a step forward.

 

“I don’t have…” Charlie’s harsh tone had her eyes widening, surprising her as much as they seemed to shock Anna and Michael. “I don’t have time to wait, Anna!” Both hiccuped an inhale as they waited for Charlie’s attitude to shift. It did not but her gaze did, now cast downward, pushed there by shame.

 

Anna nodded. “I...I know that, Charlie.”

 

Charlie gave a loud sniffle. “That was unkind,” she admitted, clearly embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I just—”

 

Anna reached out to touch her friend. The hand she placed to Charlie’s wrists stilled the girl’s walking but did nothing to cure the heaving in her chest. All of her exposed skin was hot and pink now as an anxiety bubbled within. “I can explain it all, Charlotte. I can—”

 

“No, you don’t understand!” Charlie shouted back. “I need to see him!”

 

Again she seemed to be just as startled by her own outburst, now growing frustrated at the world for not being more sympathetic - as if they were supposed to know everything about the intimate night her and Ben had shared. These were easy questions to ask when so consumed by such a palpable hurt. She had just received news that nearly knocked her on her feet but before she could confront the truth, Charlie needed to first mitigate the irrational anger she had toward Ben for being absent. She was tossing blame like grenades and then running away to place fault elsewhere before she could be affected by their impact.

 

“Charlie... “ Michael tried. He took a step toward his sister, confused but also terrified by the emotion dictating her features. All his life he had known this was what existed within Charlie but this was the very first time she’d allowed it all to spill out at once. Ben had done that; Ben had asked that she be herself and she happily obliged. She didn’t know how to hide it anymore and yet that was exactly what was being proposed to her as she considered the prospect of returning to her old life, even temporarily. “They’re...we have to go. We won’t find another ride north if we don’t.”

 

Just like that she was sobbing again, hiding her seething sadness in Anna’s neck as she pulled her friend in for a hug. “Please tell him, Anna.”

 

The brunette could only nod. “I know,” she agreed.

 

It was the only comfort Anna could offer when Charlie didn’t seem to want to discuss or even acknowledge the very thing that prompted Michael’s visit. The weight of it all came heavy upon Charlie’s shoulders only when Michael hoisted her up onto the carriage and she settled in, her eyes glossed over as she stared ahead. My father is dead repeated like a mantra as the bed of the carriage jostled them one last time before departing.

 

~!~

 

It was well into the night when Ben returned to camp. He had been gone for nearly five days and felt as if he had been without sleep for at least three of those days; he was so delirious he laughed inwardly wondering if there was any truth to the statement. Somehow he was covered with far less blood than the other men, even Caleb. What was meant to be a peaceful surrender by the British turned out to be rather hostile as loyalists refused to concede. Ben briefly thought of Charlotte’s parents, happy that two people he’d never met before were still in York City.

 

The camp was a mess, a mixture of drunk comrades, some to ease pain with others in celebration. Ben walked through as if he was untouchable, his mind so deep in exhaustion it was likely he wouldn’t have heard anyone calling after him even if they did. For once though he was somewhat relieved. There were no orders to follow and already he was planning his future: not just the long nap that awaited him but the days after when he could finally confront all he’d put off the past seven years. Oddly enough, Charlie fit into both plans and while clearly disillusioned, he was still upset to find she wasn’t waiting for him when he entered his tent.

 

“Anna?”

 

His friend stood, going to him. Written on her face was a story she was not brave enough to tell, one that had her mouth falling open with no sound to follow.

 

“Anna?” he tried again. The silence in the tent was deafening, causing Ben’s face to flush as an inexplicable anger pumped through his bloodstream.

 

“Charlotte…”

 

He stood, staring over her shoulder as if looking for evidence of Charlie’s whereabouts. He saw nothing, only his own cot empty and untouched. “Where is she?”

 

Anna cast her eyes downward. A resolve crept up, causing her to look to Ben and deliver her news with newly mustered courage. “On her way back to New York.”

 

The remnants of his smile faded completely. “What?”

 

“Her father is dead, Ben.”

 

“Wha...what?”

 

“She tried to wait for you but they found a guide and it was easier if she—”

 

Ben was incensed, his mood depicted fairly in his glossed over eyes. He swore his heart was beating so loudly his ears would pop. “Did she say if she’d be back?”

 

“I don’t...I don’t know any of that, Ben. Just like I didn’t know when you and Caleb would be back and–”

 

“I...shit!” he let out, pushing back at his hairline. Already he had taken a step back from Anna, possibly in preparation for what happened next.

 

“Ben…”

 

“Fuck!” he shouted again. His volume and overall disposition had Anna’s eyes widening. It was not just shock but fear as well. She’d never seen Ben so upset and she wondered what he was capable of, not to her and others but inwardly. Benjamin Tallmadge had a penchant for perfectionism and the loss of Charlie in his world had him suddenly feeling like he was losing control. This sort of thing could rot the mind but only if his heart didn’t consume him first.

 

“Ben, please, let’s just—”

 

“She’s going to hate me, Anna. She probably already does. I...fuck!” His frustration was emphasized as he tossed his helmet in anger, the metal landing cacophonously as it continued to roll against the grass away from where they were standing.

 

The night was actually beginning to chill but Anna was happy they were alone. “Ben, what—”

 

He pushed past her. A kick to a nearby chair had the legs nearly giving out, just as his own soon did right after he collapsed atop his cot, immediately dropping his head into his hands. “Have I lost her? What do I do, Anna?”

 

“I don’t...I don’t know.”

 

“I left her this morning,” he explained in an erratic tone. “I had to. I left before—”

 

All Anna had suspected was now confirmed, allowing a small smile to grip her lips and turn them upward as she reached out for Ben, placing a gentle hand to his shoulder in reassurance. The smile she shared with him was the same one she gave Charlotte before the girl left camp. She sighed, happy Ben hadn’t tried to fill the silence with any more words.

 

Anna settled in beside him and pursed her lips. “You...you finish all of this,” she gave simply. “You stand by Washington just as you always have and then when it’s time you...you go find her.”

 

Ben picked his head up. “Why didn’t she wait for me? I needed to—”

 

“She couldn’t wait, Ben,” Anna implored, losing just an ounce of her calm demeanor. She was frustrated too; Ben was hardly the first man in her life to acknowledge his emotions when their due date had long since expired.

 

Her honest words had Ben nearly crying. His mind raced, wondering if Anna’s declaration was a warning, a reminder of how long he’d pushed Charlie away and how the night before he was still so terrified that the sound of his I love you wouldn’t be enough falling off his lips.

 

“Her father’s dead, Ben.”

 

“I understand that, Anna! But she—”

 

The brunette’s eyes widened and she leaned forward as if asking him for an elaboration she knew she would not receive.

 

Ben’s breathing calmed. “I can’t be there for her. She’s gone and I can’t protect her and she’s going back to this life that won’t be welcoming. How am I supposed to know she’ll be safe?”

"You just have to believe it. She'll be fine, Ben. Michael’s with her,” she offered, almost as an afterthought.

 

Ben dropped his head down. Instantly Anna knew he was crying, as his back shook and he distracted even himself from the sadness with two hands covering his cowered face. The last time she’d seen him in this state was when his mother passed, nearly thirteen years prior. The years Ben lived without her had now surpassed the years she was alive and while he didn’t discuss it, there was a gaping hole left in her absence, one that was only reopened when Samuel passed many summers after. He didn’t have an choice then, whether his mother or brother survived but he had a choice with Charlie; looking back she gave him so many options — an entire world of chances.

 

Anna’s instinct was to wrap her arm around him and comfort him the way she had many times when they were children but she resisted, wondering if his rage would burn her fingertips even from their place upon his coat. His limbs trembled as he fought off another round of sobs. He was best left alone, she assumed, as he needed to continue his release and he’d already shared too much of what he was still trying to confront himself.

 

Before Anna could leave she was called back. His breathing had steadied and it was as if a realization hit him so suddenly it stunned him into sensibility. “I love her, Anna.”

 

Anna could only nod. Tears nearly stained her cheeks but she kept them at bay. “I know you do.”


She couldn’t wait , Ben heard in his head - over and over and over again. He’d made her wait for so many things so it didn’t surprise him that it was so easy for her to run away from him. He would have ran too; he certainly wanted to run now.

Chapter Text

The first day of travel took Michael and Charlotte’s caravan to Richmond. The next day the horses managed to last a few more hours on the road, spending the night in the rather bustling new settlement of Occoquan. The time spent on the road passed in silence. Each deliberate stop found Michael encouraging Charlie to talk to him but all she could manage was a forced smile and a nod of her head indicating agreement or displeasure.

 

Charlie’s first show of true emotion came only when she believed no one was watching. Because the truth was that she didn’t wish to discuss anything at all. She didn’t even know what there was to discuss. Her life, or what she thought it would be, suddenly felt like an existence of pure nothingness. She was just as scared, just as lonely as she had been surrounded by British Generals at one of her parent’s many fundraisers. What would she do now? How could a girl just forget the plans her heart had made?

 

“Charlie?”

 

Michael lifted his head from the makeshift pillow it rested upon. He and Charlie were given the bed of one of the carriages to lay upon while the men they traveled with agreed to sleep on the earth, showing Michael that perhaps the war had made such a thing seem like the more comfortable option. That night Michael unconsciously accepted the chill that the empty space beside him provided, doing so until that same breeze woke him up. He moved to sit up, still taking his sister in.

 

Charlie sat in a huddled mass pressed into the corner of the carriage. Nothing but a small shawl protected her shoulders but it didn’t seem to be the cold that was bothering her. The shake of her abdomen showed a different type of chill, the one that existed down to her bones where heartbreak battled with sensibility. It also tugged at her face, painting her freckled cheeks with fresh tears.

 

“Charlie…” Michael tried again in assessment. He couldn’t remember the last time his sister had cried and yet his once natural reaction to pull her in and comfort her seemed like the wrong one. It was as if his own heart was telling him this was something she had to do alone, or rather something she was choosing to do alone. The man she wanted was in the state of unknown and while Michael didn’t like to acknowledge Ben’s whereabouts, he knew it was the one thing on Charlie’s mind.

 

“I’m sorry,” she finally choked out. “I’m trying…” But her voice trailed off. It was already more than she’d given her brother in the two previous days and she was somewhat unnerved to hear her own voice so clearly. Her doubts sounded much louder in her head.

 

“I don’t know what to say,” he admitted with a small shrug.

 

“I don’t either,” she agreed, delivering the line in a daze.

 

He paused. “You’re not crying over Father, are you?”

 

Charlie finally looked to him. “Please don’t make me seem so pathetic that my feelings for Ben could overshadow how deeply I cared out our father, Michael.”

 

“I only meant—”

 

“Am I worried about Ben? Am I worried that I’ve lost one man that I love and it’s very possible I’m losing another?”

 

“It’s...this is temporary, Charlie. You can find Ben—”

 

“I don’t know if he’ll be alive to find, Michael!” she shouted.

 

“Oh.” It was insensitive but it was all he could manage.

 

Charlie clearly didn’t want his response; she just needed to say all of the things she’d been thinking since they first left camp. Michael worried this was just one of many outbursts she’d have. His sister was never good at keeping her mouth shut and he noticed her boldness intensified when she had a Continental Major by her side.

 

“This wasn’t easy for me,” she insisted, clearly angry but calm enough to break through the quiet. “Leaving to find you didn’t feel brave or adventurous. I was terrified.”

 

“Charlie…”

 

“And I’m still very heartbroken over the fact that my love for you and my loyalty to you as my brother and my best friend was a choice our mother and father forced me to make.”

 

“They didn’t—”

 

“They did though!” she shot back, almost annoyed that he still didn’t see the things she had always struggled with — things she imagined she’d struggle with again upon her return to New York. “Because I didn’t have a choice, Michael. I wasn’t allowed to make any choices,” she emphasized. Her voice softened. “In forbidding that I made the only choice I really could. I left.”

 

“It wasn’t easy for me either, Charlotte.”

 

“No but you were already arguing with them at that point,” Charlie reasoned. “I...I don’t think they had any idea how I was feeling.”

 

“No?” Charlie was silent once more. “Why haven’t we discussed this before now?”

 

“Because since we’ve been reunited you’ve been far too preoccupied by my relationship with Ben to acknowledge that I’ve made sacrifices too.”

 

“I...I know that,” he said, swallowing.

 

“No, you think I’ve made a joke of all of this and that Ben was my ultimate goal.”

 

“I didn’t...I never—”

 

“I actually thought I’d eventually be able to win them over. Maybe I’m sad that Father won’t be able to see this life I’ve forged. But now it’s all for nothing. He’s gone and I’m alone...it’s likely he passed thinking I was dead too.”

 

“Charlie—”

 

“So this isn’t simple,” she persisted. “And I’m heartbroken because I’ve always been heartbroken. None of this has been easy and it’s still not easy and to be honest I don’t...I don’t know who I’m crying over,” she revealed in a brave tone. “I’m crying for myself, I suppose. I’m just sad.”

 

“You’ll...you’ll see Ben again.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Her short and curt response had Michael closing his eyes in regret. “Charlie—”

 

Her eyes instantly found his again. “He’s my best friend,” she stated strongly. “It’s important that you know that.”

 

“I know that,” he nodded.

 

“I’m in love with him—”

 

Michael smirked. “I know that too.”

 

Charlotte sighed. “You left and I felt so alone and then I met Benjamin and I didn’t feel so lonely anymore. Then you came back and he was there and life was almost perfect for a little while. I was daft to think that’d last...not only during war but…”

 

“Not daft,” Michael dismissed. “Fanciful, perhaps, but I can’t fault you for that. Even after I left I thought I could come back and somehow everything would be okay. I could have you and Alice and Mother and Father. Now who’s daft?”

 

A silence fell over them. When Charlotte looked up once more Michael realized she was close to crying again. “We won’t make it for the funeral,” she acknowledged.

 

Michael sighed. “Perhaps not.”

 

“I don’t even know if Mother would have allowed us to sit in on it.”

 

“What? Of course she would have, Char.”

 

“She’s so disappointed in me, Michael.”

 

“Well then I can only imagine how angry she’ll be when she sees I didn’t die in the way I’m sure she hoped.”

 

“Michael…” It was Charlie’s turn to admonish.

 

“Listen,” he tried with a sigh, somehow shifting to look at her. “Ben’s not here but I will be. Then when we’ve settled everything we’ll...I’ll help you get back to him.”

 

“That’s if—”

 

Michael shook his head, not wanting to hear all the terrible things her mind had conjured on their journey. “I’ll help you get back to him,” he repeated, unwavering.

 

Charlie bit her lip. “What about you?”

 

He shrugged, even forcing a smile. “I left you once and I can do it again. Only this time I’m leaving you in good hands.”

 

It was the blessing Charlie would never receive from her own father. If only Ben was there to hear it with her.  

Chapter Text

What if she doesn’t want to see us?

 

What if she’s not even living there anymore? What if she’s already moved away?

 

Where do you think she’d go? Williamsburg? Maybe we should have stayed South. Maybe this was all so stupid.

 

The questions all belonged to Charlie, an always-nervous girl that could no longer hide her anxiety as she walked the streets of York City. The last time she was here she was alone, heading to the docks to meet Caleb so he could transport her safely across the river. Before that it was her father, the same man whose permanent absence had now brought her back.

 

Their journey north took all of two weeks. Michael estimated that Charlie got barely an hour of sleep each night and was now running on nothing but sorrow and stale bread. She was thin, perhaps thinner than she had been when he first saw her at the Continental camp but he was somehow happy for that fact. If the bonnet she wore didn’t cover her face so well he assumed people would be staring, expecting to see her stomach swollen simply because it was the only explanation for her not holding a baby in her arms. It was as if even brave women were only given courage, and permission, by the men in their lives. It didn’t make sense for Charlie to leave on her own accord, just as it was now a bit perplexing to see her returning, all without a husband and child by her side.

 

When they turned the corner onto their block Michael paused to stand motionless with Charlie while she took in the brick building she used to call home. The street was almost untouched and the white paint around the home’s door seemed brighter showing that even amongst the chaos her mother has insisted on propriety.

 

“Do you think she’s home?” she coughed out, swallowing but still refusing to look to her brother.

 

Michael pulled his shoulders back and released an unsteady exhale. “Only one way to find out, eh?”

 

His question brought her back to the present. The hand Michael offered her differed from the upper arm she’d gripped all the way from the Jersey border. It was more intimate and as Charlie felt her brother’s grip between her fingers she was made stronger by his resolve. For only a moment she felt guilty, wondering what thoughts plagued his surely indecisive mind. Perhaps the way he looked back to his sister was to catch a glance of the bright blue home on the other side of the street where he hoped Alice was unmarried and still living with her family.

 

Had they all survived?

 

Who else had this war claimed?

 

The questions were Michael’s now but he shook them from his mind as they approached their childhood home. This time Charlie did not hesitate and when he stopped, frozen, she let go of his hand to knock on the door. Michael assumed a rush of courage pushed her there and he was thankful for that. If she didn’t knock when she did he feared they’d never be granted entry to the home.

 

There was silence. Charlie didn’t dare look to Michael almost afraid that taking her eyes off the bright red door would cause it to disappear. If it weren’t for her heavy breathing Michael wouldn’t have noticed his sister still standing by his side. She no longer wanted to hold his hand — this must have been just another thing she demanded that she do alone, as if preparing for the world she’d accepted she’d live in for the rest of her life.

 

When the door opened both siblings blinked. It was not their typical greeting as their mother, dressed in black but still looking as stunning as ever, greeted them stiffly. There was anger written across her face but that faded to shock, then sadness, before incensing itself to fury once more.

 

All at once the door was slammed shut. Michael and Charlie released the oxygen they’d been holding, causing their shoulders to drop in slight defeat.

 

“It’s okay,” Charlie reminded. “We expected that, right?” When Michael said nothing she turned slightly to look at him. “Right?”

 

He nodded swiftly. “Right.”

 

“Do you think she’s dismissed Grace? And Albert?”

 

Michael blinked, hard. “No...well, perhaps,” he conceded.

 

“Should we—”

 

The door opened again. The woman standing there was not Charlie’s mother but she might as well have been. Grace always wore dark colors so her appearance didn’t display mourning in the way her mistress’ had. Her eyes were also different, a bright white blurred behind a set of fresh tears contrasting with her dark complexion.

 

“Grace…” Charlie almost whispered.

 

“Miss Charlotte?” she croaked. “By God, chil’, come in!” She took a step, grabbing for Charlie’s small frame to guide her inside. As Charlie moved, Michael followed. It was in this moment that Grace placed a hand to the young man’s shoulder, also greeting him. He noted the scent of freshly kneaded dough on her hands, giving him hope that not everything had changed since he’d left nearly three years ago.

 

Charlie’s shock at seeing her childhood home as pristine as it had ever been caused her to fall into the old habit of giving her hat and shawl to Grace who, after years of performing the very same task, was warmed by Charlie’s almost innate movements.  Her vision was lost up the staircase before them where she could only assume her mother had traveled upon shutting the door.

 

“Are we...can we be here?” Michael mumbled. The somewhat arrogant boy that used to walk these halls was now a shy man, unsure of every step and breath.

 

Grace did not falter. “Yessuh, your mother requested I let you in.”

 

“Why would she do that?”

 

“Well I ‘magine she didn’t wan’ you standin’ out on the stoop in the cold.”

 

“She didn’t want us to draw unnecessary attention,” Michael guessed.

 

Charlie’s eyes scanned the staircase. “Can she...is she okay here? They’re not…

 

Grace must have understood the meaning behind Charlotte’s words because she grinned and nodded. “She’s fine. Several soldiers ‘ave been by checkin’ on her. Miss Stanley comes by almos’ ever’day wit’ pies an’ flowers. No one knows what tuh say, but Mistress has ‘ardly been alone.”

 

Charlie wanted to cry but she forced a smile instead. With the foyer lacking sound again she shuffled, allowing Grace to guide them into the house’s sitting room. The siblings teetered between kin and strangers, even as Grace walked away. She returned shortly thereafter carrying a tray of tea and scones. The warmth in the room and the familiar treats had both Michael and Charlie momentarily forgetting that they’d made conscious decisions to leave this place and how somehow since their departure and with a war being fought just outside, nothing seemed to have changed.

 

Grace disappeared again. Having swallowed her scone far more quickly than her mother would have found appropriate, Charlie clutched her cup of tea, thankful for many reasons that her and Michael were alone again.

 

“This is odd, no?”

 

Michael chuckled, relieved. “Yes. Unbelievably so.”

 

“It’s like...I’m just waiting for Father to walk in.”

 

“Do you think they’re all just living in denial?”

 

“I don’t think Grace knows the meaning of the world. I don’t think she’d allow Mother to live that way. She may be delicate in her care but...no, she wouldn’t,” Charlie settled.

 

“She said Mother wanted us here.”

 

Charlie snickered before taking another sip of her drink. “Yes, well I’m still grappling with that one. That may have been kindness on Grace’s part.”

 

Michael could only manage a smile before they were interrupted again. Grace walked toward them, carrying two dresses that were once so familiar to Charlotte. Both were black with one made of a heavier cotton while the other had sleeves of silk. The cotton gown typically came with a soft gold skirt but without the item looked much like the frock her mother wore when she greeted them at the door.

 

Grace carefully placed both gowns on the settee before them. The garments floated up into the air before resting just as gently upon the cushions of the sofa.

 

Charlie swallowed, recognizing the dresses but not the girl who used to wear them. “Grace?”

 

Her lady’s maid ignored her, instead donating her attention to an equally gobsmacked Michael. “Albert ‘as already begun tuh press your suit, suh.”

 

“My suit?”

 

“S’right,” she nodded.

 

“Grace—” Charlie wanted to stand but found her crossed ankles giving in to the plushness of the Camel Back they sat upon.

 

“Your mother ‘as called for the seamstress,” she explained simply. “You look thin an’ I can’t possibly fatten you up ‘fore tomorrow so I’m sure she’ll have tuh at least take in the waist. Which one did you prefer, Miss?” she asked, gesturing to both gowns.

 

Charlie’s mouth had fallen open. “Prefer for?”

 

“Your father’s memorial dinner.”  

 

~!~

 

Upon his death, Charlotte and Michael’s father was buried almost immediately. While the British and all loyalists began leaving the city in droves, Mrs. Grayford insisted on a night burial and arranged for her husband’s coffin to be transported all the way from Smee Street to the cemetery off Bowery Lane just after dawn. With his title and rank, he was pulled in carriage with the selected soldiers acting as pallbearers only when they reached the gravesite. It was a solemn affair, Grace explained, but many attended.

 

It was well past midnight when Mrs. Grayford finally left. She’d spent several hours weeping upon her husband’s casket and then several more hours in the carriage on the ride home. Her sorrow had her so exhausted, Albert had to help Grace retrieve her before a new day began.

 

The war didn’t allow for the typical viewing. A small blessing was given before the burial but a priest wasn’t even present at the cemetery. Friends came in waves but their presence passed without words. It was for this reason that Mrs. Grayford was hosting a memorial dinner, one that could now be properly attended by more comrades and the few members of their extended family that didn’t feel it was safe to travel so soon after the surrender.

 

Charlie chose the gown with the lace sleeves. It did need to be taken in at the waist and still required ample stitching to fit comfortably beneath her black brocade petticoat. Grace helped Charlie into the frock just as she’d done so many times before. This all happened after she’d taken the time and care to give Charlie a bath, her first in months.

 

Even as Charlie’s frail frame curled into itself she couldn’t help but to sigh at the feeling of warm water cascading down her hair and onto her shoulders. When she stood and Grace helped to wrap her in a soft muslin blanket, Charlotte got the first glance of herself in the mirror near her armoire. She cocked her head to the side at the sight, even going as far as to take a now-drying curl and bring it over her shoulder, her eyes seeking out normalcy. She wondered if this was how she’d looked to Ben all these months or if the sallow cheeks and bony limbs were a more recent look she’d acquired on her journey northward.

 

Despite being aware of Charlie’s hesitation, Grace paid it no mind. They were certainly on a time schedule but Grace also knew better than to pester the girl for details. She could see now in the way Charlie gazed at her lovingly and with so much appreciation that if it were possible, Charlie would have told her about her plans to leave. Grace didn’t hold it against her especially considering the young woman had returned.

 

“Grace?” Charlie tried, still holding her blanket close. Behind her Grace twisted her locks, ringing out any remaining water.

 

“Hmm?” she asked as she leaned into Charlie.

 

“Can I...can I ask something?”

 

Grace smirked. “Uh course, chil’. What is it?”

 

Falling back into routing, Charlie lifted her arms as Grace helped her into her shift. Her clothes had been laundered upon her arrival, turning the garment white again. “It’s, uh, you can’t tell my mother.” Charlie bit her lip. “Actually, you can’t tell anyone.”

 

Grace had already moved around Charlie, beginning to lace up the stay she held to her chest. “Alright then, girl. Out with it.”

 

“It’s about...well, there was this man...is this man,” she corrected, now with burning pink cheeks. “We were...intimate, you see, and I…” She chuckled, releasing just a bit of nervousness. “It’s silly because I think I know the answer but I just want to be sure…”

 

“When?”

 

Charlie swallowed and turned back to her. “Pardon?”

 

“When? When were you and this man intimate?”

 

“A...three weeks ago perhaps?”

 

“Just once?”

 

Charlie’s cheeks somehow deepened in color. “Yes’m. Just once.” Her voice was sheepish too. “But that’s all it takes, right? Or is it many times?”

 

Grace couldn’t help but to give a chuckle of her own. “If we’re talking ‘bout the same thing, then it’s jus’ once.”

 

Charlie sighed. “Oh.”

 

“Did ‘e...finish inside o’ you?”

 

Charlie’s eyes widened. “I don’t follow.”

 

The lady's maid pursed her lips in amusement. The woman in front of her had far more education than she and yet when it came to certain things — the important things — she was utterly clueless and all because her world wanted her that way. “When you were done...when ‘e was done,” Grace tried, “did ‘e pull out?”

 

“Well we hardly slept like that,” Charlie deadpanned, earning a loud laugh from Grace.

 

“I only mean…”

 

“Oh!” It occurred to Charlie. “That stuff...it has to…” She looked back to Grace who was nodding. “Oh, thank God!” she let out, pressing a hand to her forehead in relief.

 

“Is that a no, then?”

 

“That’s a no...oh, thank god he…” She giggled from behind the hands that covered her embarrassed face.

 

Grace was nearly done fastening Charlie’s stay, all the while wearing a knowing grin. “Who is ‘e?”

 

“Oh, he’s...it’s nothing,” she shook off.

 

A bow was tied at the base of Charlie’s corset, keeping it in place. Charlie was so thin the item almost lacked necessity. “He din’ force ‘imself on you, did ‘e?”

 

“Oh, no...of course not.”

 

“Was ‘e a soldier?”

 

Charlie’s nodded, suddenly feeling small. “A Major, yes.”

 

“Our side or theirs?”

 

“Ours,” Charlie assured. Grace said nothing so Charlie continued. “I don’t think I’ll ever see him again so it’s not that I don’t want to have his children I just don’t want to raise a child alone.”

 

Grace stepped into Charlie to drape the gown over her head. “Is he alright?”

 

As it fell, Charlie turned to her friend. “I don’t know. I don’t...I have this awful feeling that he’s not.” Grace was preoccupied so Charlie spoke once more, hoping to gain her attention once more. “I wanted to marry him.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“And I think he wanted to marry me.”

 

Grace only nodded.

 

“Please don’t tell my mother,” she pleaded, now almost in tears.

 

Charlie was dressed now, her curls untamed and frizzing around her face. Grace placed her hands to Charlie’s cheeks and kissed the girl’s forehead. “I would ne’er. It’s none of my business but I can tell you care for this man an’ I’m only sorry ‘e’s not ‘ere with us now.”

 

“I love him,” Charlie croaked out.

 

“Love him?”

 

“Whether he’s here or not...in this life or the next...I love him,” she revealed steadily.

 

Grace beamed. “I believe you.”

 

~!~

 

Charlie had supper in her room, once again feeling guilty for the plentiful meal she consumed, even if alone. Michael knocked but he left when she did not answer. She was doing her best to focus on her family now but he still felt as if he’d left a part of her in Yorktown and he wondered if he’d ever see that part of his sister again.

 

With her meal done, Charlie slipped into a stiff pair of heeled shoes. They contrasted greatly with the riding boots she’d worn the past few months. She almost felt unworthy to be wearing them, especially when she allowed the shoes to take her out into the hallway where just downstairs the party had already begun.

 

Descending the stairs Charlie held her petticoat in her hands, careful not to trip on the taffeta gown but also using the time to steady her breathing before she greeted the room. Already she felt people staring and though her conversation with Grace was a revealing one she didn’t wish to share any details, no matter how chaste, with any guests. She couldn’t even explain these things to Michael but that didn’t stop her from seeking him out. An immense amount of relief washed over her when she found him carrying on in conversation with Alice’s father. The pretty blonde was nowhere to be found but Charlie waited, sipping at her flute of champagne in an alcove until her brother finally passed by.

 

“Pssst!” she tried. The mix of alcohol and bubbles had her mind dizzy. “Michael!” she whispered, finally gaining his attention.

 

The bizarre look he gave his sister revealed that already he was falling back into his role here rather nicely. This was confirmed as he grabbed Charlie’s arm and yanked her out into the hallway with him. Only the servants saw but as they walked toward the noise of the party, others stared, and not just because of their presence. Instead they watched the way Charlie wore a rather vacant, almost silly expression. Her posture was slouched and she smiled as if she were concealing a secret.

 

“How much have you had to drink?” Michael whispered as they moved to yet another couple wanting their attention.

 

“Enough,” Charlie grumbled, leaning into him.

 

“You’re being ridiculous.”

 

“I’m ridiculous?” she slurred. “I needed to relax, Michael. I can’t handle all of this attention. I just want—”

 

“Ben, I know,” he sighed. “Well you’re going to have to get over that...at least for tonight. Mother’s going to—”

 

“Charlotte!” A voice practically sang as a figure sauntered toward them in a deep green and grey gown.

 

Charlie hadn’t seen her aunt in many months but the sight of her, so sincere and welcoming, had the young girl swallowing the bit of sense she had left. As Lillian enveloped her niece in a hug she held on, whispering the same piece of news that motivated her to attend this gathering in the first place.

 

The sound of the truth had a rather sobering effect on Charlotte, who now blinked, an action that procured tears while also asking that they disappear. Her mouth dropped open too and she was only made to look like a casual participant in the conversation between Michael and their aunt.

 

“...Isn’t that right, Charlotte?”

 

She blinked again, bringing herself back to the moment. “Hmm?”

 

“I said—”

 

“Are you sure?” she muttered. It was all too clear she was still lost in her Aunt Lillian’s embrace.

 

Lillian forced a smile. “Darling, why don’t we—”

 

“How can you be sure? I mean…” There was an unbelievable pressure in her chest and Charlotte suddenly felt nauseous. She looked around, searching for a chair but her vision was too blurred by the tears she had already started to cry.

 

“Charlotte, darling…” Her aunt’s movements were not swift enough. Already Charlie was running for the stairs, stumbling in the process as the alcohol and shoes she wore provided for a severe lack of balance and overall sensibility. At the top of the stairs she hurried into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. If she had remained downstairs she would have felt the way everyone stared at her. She also would have seen the figure following her, the same one that opened her door and shut it just as quickly as she had done.

 

Very few words were exchanged between Charlie and her mother since her return and this didn’t seem to be any different. Before Charlie could speak her mother was reaching out, raising her hand at the perfect angle so when it came into contact with her daughter’s cheek the engravement on her mourning ring etched itself into the girl’s face. It was largely overshadowed by the deafening sound of the slap and the sudden wave of heat that accompanied the crimson complexion Charlie wore. If her Aunt Lillian’s words had her in disbelief this was a demand for her to return to sanity, even if her version of the world involved feigned smiles and other forms of pretending.

 

“How dare you!” her mother seethed. “This is not about you, Charlotte! This isn’t even about me! This party is meant to honor your father and you’ve gone and made a fool of yourself and of this family!”

 

Charlie didn’t say anything. She didn’t even hold a hand to her cheek to placate the stinging skin. She deserved every ounce of regret being hurled her way. She was also still calmed by her aunt’s news — still processing something so wonderful now that she’d started to believe it. Charlie even began to smile.

 

“And you’re looking...happy?” Mrs. Grayford roared. “Have you lost your mind, girl? I raised you better than this! And I’ve welcomed you back into my home, your father’s home, and this is how you show your gratitude? You’re lucky I don’t send you out on the streets tonight. Perhaps you’ll find your sense there because God only knows the things your father and I have always tried to provide to you were never enough. You had a bath and a warm meal and you’ve slept in a feather bed and you still act as if there’s something better out there. If that’s what you believe then go!” Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath. “Go, Charlotte!”

 

Her smile dwindled but Charlie showed no signs of movement. This only infuriated her mother more, and Charlie didn’t blame her when she stormed out of the room, leaving the door ajar in her wake. There was shame for causing her mother so much pain but Charlie’s mind was still elsewhere — back in Yorktown perhaps?

 

“Chil’?”

 

She looked up and tried to smile when Grace approached, bending to hold Charlie’s face in her hands so she could access the damage. It was amazing to think that with all of the tension that existed in this house for so many years this was somehow the first time her mother had struck her.

 

“What is it, Miss Charlotte?”

 

“He’s...he’s alive,” she explained brightly. All of the tears she’d been holding back bubbled out, and the bruising on her cheek was now stained with wetness that flowed so easily even her lips were covered. “Ben’s alive.”

Chapter Text

Charlie and her mother failed to speak after the incident at the party. The house followed suit, acting as it had so many times before when tension between parent and child had the air turned cold around them. Mrs. Grayford was embarrassed by her actions and Charlie wasn’t particularly fond of hers either. It was easier to act as if nothing transpired than to confront the situation and try to deal with it. This became easier the more Charlie thought about the same news that’d prompted her outbreak; she assumed she wouldn’t be spending too many more nights under this roof. Her home was elsewhere now.

 

On an otherwise bright Sunday morning Charlie sat with her mother and brother at the too-large table in their stately dining room. The setting was meant for parties like the one they’d had so many days ago but it felt empty with so few occupants and the silence did nothing to cure that.

 

Michael had the paper flattened out beside his plate. His eyes scanned each article but in between pages his gaze would look to Charlie, then to their mother and back again. Pretenses still existed here and neither were allowed to do anything other than eat at the table. With no other plans for the day both slowly ate their bread, sipped at their milk, and stirred the tea in their porcelain saucers. Most attention was lost out the window where a usually bustling street was only marked by residents, some of them still planning their exodus out of the city.

 

Albert entered, pulling everyone’s attention from their mindless tasks. Charlie looked much as she once would have: ready for news that never came, news that told of adventure and most importantly escape. It was even more difficult to remain calm now that she’d tasted that life and craved it now with everything in her being.

 

“Mistuh Michael, a letter, sir—”

 

Michael turned over his shoulder to take in the older gentleman. His brow furrowed, asking for an elaboration. He took the letter nonetheless, studying the delivery before daring to open it.

 

“Who is it from, Michael?” his mother asked, doing her best not to sound too curious.

 

Michael shrugged but gave an answer anyway. “A John Bolton—”

 

All at once Charlie had practically lunged out of her chair to snatch the folded parchment from her brother’s hands. She held it close to her heart, willing her chest to stop its heavy beating while her eyes closed, avoiding the glares she was now receiving from her family.

 

“Charlotte, do tell me why you’d ever think it’s appropriate to take your brother’s mail—”

 

Michael swallowed a sip of tea and set his cup back down. “Well mother it doesn’t seem the mail is mine. I don’t know a John Bolton.” A smirk seemed to be permanently imprinted on his face.

 

“I do,” Charlie croaked out.

 

There were a million things either of them could have said to her. Michael was skeptical but he gave Charlie the privacy he believed she deserved, just as he’d given her his trust innately so many years ago when the two were nothing but children. Mrs. Grayford wasn’t as kind, her gawk burning into her daughter as her fingers gently pulled at the wax seal to release it. A soft letter unfolded and Charlotte immediately recognized the careful script inside. Her heart felt heavy and she struggled to breathe as her eyes took in the very first line.

 

Charlie,

 

I'm sure this would have found you days sooner if it didn't take me several attempts to get it all right. I’ve ruined an entire moleskin in an attempt to perfect what I’m needing to tell you.

 

I love you.

 

It is as simple and as intricate as that. I love you and I miss you. I don't know how else to say it other than I miss my mornings and afternoons and evenings with you. I know why we have to be apart right now and I am so incredibly sorry that is the case but I hope you know that if I could be there for you I would be. You've done nothing but be a friend and even when I didn’t deserve it you supported me. Above all else you loved me. I don’t think I deserved that either but it doesn’t matter now. I may have had an altogether odd way of showing it but I was so grateful for you. Of course I love you. I’ve loved you for many months now. I loved you most the last time I saw you. Not because of what we shared but because every time I’m with you I find myself somehow loving you more.

 

I’ve acknowledged that there is a very real possibility that you never want to see me again. I hope that’s not the case and even if it is I hope I can make all of this up to you. I’d find you now if I could but I think it’s necessary that you return to your world now while I finish my work with Washington . I’m sure you’ve heard that we'll be in York City soon. I don't expect us to be able to meet but I thought it right to at least let you know. Please don't do anything that'll make any of this harder for your mother. I know what my father was like when my Ma died and I can only imagine what she's going through. I also hope she's been kind since you've returned and I hope she'll continue to speak to you and to Michael after you depart. That is, I’m hoping you’ll depart. If only for awhile.

 

You know I️ don’t do well being honest in a crowd and there are so many things I️ have to tell you now. But please know this is not me wishing to hide in the way we had to when we returned from Setauket all those weeks ago. If you’ll agree to have me back in your life, after I’ve told you all I need to, I don’t want any more secrets. I’ve learned that sharing you with the world doesn’t mean I’ll lose you. In fact I crave the day when the two of us can be together, as friends or perhaps more, and neither of us have to make excuses for it. It was the Ring that brought us together but it is my respect and my love for you that has me wanting you back and I want everyone in my world to see that. I’d share it with your world too if you’d let me.

 

I've been thinking of what to do now that this is over. I'll finally be getting paid so I'm going to build a home in Setauket . It just feels like the right place until I can figure something else out. If anything it’ll be property my father can sell or rent out to earn extra income. I’m not saying it is where I’m meant to make my life but I need stability right now. I've already received offers to join our men in Philadelphia . I’ve given them thought but I can’t make a decision yet. I don’t want to make any decisions without you.

 

I suppose the purpose of this letter is the ask for the forgiveness from you I know I don’t deserve. I’d also ask that you don’t regret all we shared that last night but I know that beyond all of this even that may be asking for too much. I’ve given you no return address so if you have already written me off I won’t even be able to hear about it but it’s important that if that’s the case you understand how much you mean to me and how much that night meant to me. You are everything to me, Charlotte.

 

I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

 

I am sick knowing you’re so far away and I’m still gutted to know I couldn’t be there for you during your father’s funeral. I have faith though. You told me you didn’t want to beg and I never wanted that. God, I wanted you so much that night... I will beg. I will ask for forgiveness. I am so sorry for the way I treated you. I had so many things I wanted to tell you and there’s no excuse for why it didn’t happen that night or even sooner. I guess I was right in saying that you terrify me. You’re perfect, Charlotte, and maybe I haven’t accepted that if I tell you I love you that maybe you’ll say it back. Then again I crave the sound and hate myself for not hearing it sooner.

 

I have so many things to say to you and I’m just praying this isn’t our end.

 

I love you and I need you.

 

Ardently,

 

John Bolton

 

The war was over and yet Ben existed as he always had to her: secretive in verse but powerless against his feelings for her. The only difference was she felt it now, all too clearly, how much he wanted and needed and above all else loved her.

 

It was second nature for her mind to translate all of the code he used. Such bold proclamations could have him hung if come across by the wrong person but the world had been reborn and it was clear Ben was ready to move on and he wanted her by his side while he did so.

 

The weight of such a realization had Charlie breathless. No, she couldn’t write him back and she definitely couldn’t tell anyone about the correspondence. Her mother was already doubtful and Michael didn’t need to know just how much Ben loved his sister, even if he was beginning to approve of the match.

 

“Please excuse me,” she managed weakly before pushing away from the table and heading out of the room.

 

Her exit was nothing like the one she’d made at the dinner party and she did her best to remain composed until she was safely behind her bedroom door. Tears flooded her eyes and her mouth fell open in a painful sob. Charlie placed an unsteady hand to her abdomen as if to ask her lungs to give her reprieve. Surely her face was painted pink and now wet with tears.

 

All at once she was unlatching buttons and tossing off her bodice. Her stomacher fell to the ground, granting her momentary relief as the cool air in the room graced her shoulders. It wasn’t the gown that had her feeling so suffocated but instead the stay she wore that was so tightly pinned to her she felt as if she were completely bare beneath the stiff material. Her small hands erratically grasped for the tight knot at the back of the garment, the same one that kept all of her upper body compressed. Her fingers were weak against the muslin but she somehow managed to undo the knot, allowing her to move on to the equally difficult stitching above each cinch.

 

The sound of her heaving filled the air and muffled the sound of someone entering the room. As her distress had her winded, Charlie looked up, seeing Grace standing behind her, stilling her motions so she could help her mistress remove the item. When it fell open, Charlie breathed in deep, allowing the item to fall forward off her shoulders. She didn’t care what she looked like now, especially as her body came crashing down, falling into a heap on the floor. Grace was soon there too, holding her to her chest while her touch soothed Charlie’s skin.

 

“S’alright, chile...is alright.”

 

Charlie could only nod while her sorrow marked Grace’s own gown with tears. “I have to go.”

 

“Where to, Miss?”

 

“East,” she sighed out, finally feeling calm without so much to constrict her. “To Long Island. Setauket,” she nearly whispered. The word fell off her lips with such ease Charlie couldn’t help but to smile at its sound.

 

~!~

 

Charlie was getting better. Ben’s letter prompted the last of her emotional outbursts, meaning she spent the next several days smiling and laughing to cover just how hollow she felt. Her mind seemed to be moving faster than she could comprehend: planning and calculating when she’d leave and how she’d go. Each day she awoke she walked down to breakfast with the hope that a moment would present itself where she could share her plans with her mother. Every day she went to bed realizing this was never going to be an easy conversation to have and every day she waited did nothing other than prolong her departure.

 

Slowly, Charlotte’s mother began to make a silent announcement of her own. Paintings were taken down from the walls and china was wrapped and packed away in large wooden crates. One day Charlie had gone to the market and by the time she returned all of the furniture in the sitting room had been wrapped and taken away.

 

Before Charlie could comment or even simply inquire her mother stuck her head out from the pantry down the hall. She wore an apron and her hair was pinned back in a loose fashion. “I’m leaving in three weeks.”

 

Charlie’s mouth remained open but she pursed her lips momentarily in an attempt to refocus. “Leaving?”

 

“York City.”

 

She nodded slowly to hide her confusion. “Oh...oh.”

 

“Please let me know when you have your things in order and I’ll arrange for them to come up and begin packing up your room.”

 

From behind pursed lips, Charlotte swallowed and managed a nod in response. Her exit was just as silent and as Michael watched her go he felt the odd tug to follow her. She had yet to share her plans with him and yet he knew what they were. He wanted them for her, while also wondering how he could pull her back to him and insist she live in this world — their old world — just a little bit longer.

 

~!~

 

It was nothing like the trip she’d made back in Setauket. Michael’s room was further down the hall than Ben’s had been that night and the excitement she felt wanting to be in Ben’s arms was nothing like the apprehension she faced in realizing confronting her brother was the first and last thing she presently wanted to do.

 

Ben was hesitant that night too but he was not confused in the way Michael currently was. Ben was scared but he wanted Charlie to sleep beside him. To Michael, this was once commonplace but the two were no longer children and he knew that her appearance in his bedroom well after midnight was the beginning of a goodbye.

 

Nevertheless he shifted atop his mattress as Charlie settled into bed beside him. Many years ago Charlie would have wrapped her arms around her brother in the way she’d done with Ben so many times since. Now that seemed childish. The two were adults now and though they existed in the same bed in the same home they were already worlds apart from one another.

 

“I...I haven’t slept alone in awhile,” she admitted up to the ceiling. Much like Michael did, Charlie had an arm raised above her head as her eyes blinked to pass the time.

 

He didn’t look to her but she could feel the way a heavy sigh had the covers sinking beneath them. “Those aren’t comforting thoughts for a brother.”

 

“I don’t care,” she bit back in whisper.

 

“Yes, well I do,” Michael reminded as he turned on his side to face her. “You’re still my sister, Charlie.” His words trailed off as he took her in. She was still his sister but part of him didn’t recognize the girl laying beside him, even when she rolled to face him.

 

“I told you...Ben’s my best friend. You were my best friend once, Michael. Still can be…”

 

“Because Ben’s not here?”

 

“Because you’re my family and I love you.”

 

He sighed, wanting to turn away again, maybe even close his eyes and will her away. “That letter...who is he?”

 

Charlie smirked. “John Bolton?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Ben,” she gave plainly. The word still had her smile spreading.

 

Michael couldn’t help but to smirk as well. “Did you have a code name?”

 

“I did.”

 

“What was it?”

 

“Charlie.”

 

Michael chuckled. “I never thought...” he breathed out with a shake of his head. “When does this John want you back?”

 

A stiff inhale froze Charlie’s lungs. “Whenever I’m ready.”

 

“You think you’ll marry?”

 

“I hope so...I think so,” she reasoned.

 

“I suppose I should enjoy all of this. You wanted me back and now it seems like you’re the one leaving.” He paused. “When will you tell Mother?”

 

“I...I haven’t thought of that,” she admitted honestly.

 

“I know things haven't been easy between you two but you have to know that she’s going to be heartbroken, Char.” His eyes lingered upon her features, waiting for a reaction.

 

“Maybe if she met Ben—”

 

“Charlie, no,” Michael implored.

 

“Why not?”

 

“She thinks the war took Father away and now you’re leaving. I fear she’d find Ben responsible for both of those losses.”

 

“She’s not losing me,” Charlie dismissed. “No more than she would have had I married Nicholas”

 

Michael sighed. “I think she always knew you’d depend on her if you married Nicholas. She doesn’t know Ben and to be honest I don’t either but I do know you won’t need us much once you leave.”

 

“A girl always needs her family, Michael.”

 

“I agree. But Ben will be your family and I imagine you’ll have a family of your own someday.”

 

For the first time since her return, the thought of the future had her optimistic and smiling. “Someday.” When her cheeks relaxed she took her brother in again. “Are you angry with me?”

 

“No,” he nearly chuckled out. “I want to be...selfishly, of course.”

 

“You can be.”

 

“Can I?” he asked, lifting his head slightly off his pillow.

 

“You’re right, you know. I came to find you and I did and now I’m leaving.”

 

“None of this would have happened if I hadn’t left in the first place.”

 

Charlotte paused. “Perhaps, but—”

 

“I regret leaving, Charlie. I’m not going to lie to you. How I did it is beyond me because now that we’re back I’m far more comfortable than you ever were...especially now.”

 

“Yes, well—”

 

“I can’t ask you to regret it and I won’t because I know that you don’t. I regret leaving because of Alice and because this city was always far kinder to me than it was to you. But being back I see all of the things you always hated and why you ran from them and why you want to run again.”

 

“I don’t want to run,” Charlie stammered.

 

“I only mean—”

 

“It’s not necessary anymore. It’s of no surprise to anyone, even mother, that this isn’t where I’m meant to be. She might not know about Ben or my plans but no one could believe I’d just fall back into all of this after what I’ve been through.”

 

“Why? I have.”

 

“The girl you love lives here, Michael. And God willing, Alice will be your wife soon. Ben doesn’t live here. This isn’t his world and I’m done living in a world without him. If it’s not his world it can’t be mine either. I wish I could have both but—”

 

“But you can’t,” Michael stated simply. His voice did not shake. It also did not question or judge. He understood. “You don’t need my permission, Charlie…”

 

“I know that,” she nodded, now clearly verklempt

 

“You’ve never needed my permission.”

 

She agreed again but finally let the tears fall. “It still doesn’t make any of this easy.”

 

Long ago Michael would have reached out to wipe at the tears on his sister’s cheeks. Now she already had the sleeves of her shift pulled over her hands to do the job herself. “Has any of it been easy?”

 

“No,” she sniffled.

 

Finally, Michael did reach out to Charlie. Instantly she softened into him, crying into his shoulder while he held her close. “Why did you leave Charlie?”

 

“To find you.”

 

He shook his head. “Why else?”

 

“No, that’s—”

 

“That’s it?” he inquired skeptically. Before she could speak, Michael continued. “It’s okay if you did it for yourself too.”

 

“I don’t…”

 

“You’re right, you know. The girl I love and the girl I’m meant to marry are the same girl. Even for as awful as these past few weeks have been that has made all of this worth it. Father’s funeral and the parties and the packing of the house...it’s okay because Alice told me she loves me.” His breath caught in his throat but he persevered, pushing through the pressure of his own sadness. “If Alice was elsewhere I wouldn’t want to stay here.” Michael gave an unsteady exhale. “If Alice was elsewhere you’d be demanding I go see her.”

 

Charlie’s nose wrinkled under the stress of her emotional calculations. “Michael…”

 

“Whether you like to admit it or not, you leaving had far less to do with my absence and more to do with how restricted you felt here. I was gone two years but when you left you did it because Ben would be waiting for you. I won’t demand that you go see Ben, Charlie. I won’t be like Father or Mother because I don’t need to be. Your mind is made up...it has been since we made it to Yorktown. If Father hadn’t passed you wouldn’t even be here right now.”

 

Charlie choked out a sob. “Don’t make me sound so heartless.”

 

“You’re not heartless. You’re in love.” He leaned forward to press a kiss to the crown of her head. “Go, Charlie.”

Chapter Text

The city was returning to normal now. Charlie imagined this was how New York was before her family’s move, perhaps how it even was when her mother lived here as a little girl. All of the British army had left meaning the harbor was mostly empty, save for a few personal fishing boats. With the ships gone the Battery seemed smaller and the noise (or lack thereof) that accompanied it only emphasized this.

 

With her mother’s move planned and nearly all of their belongings beginning their long trek down the East coast, the home Charlie resided in was now nothing more than a series of walls, separating mostly empty rooms with equally hollow inhabitants. The knowledge that it would remain this way until Spring was frightful enough, especially considering the wide and colorful hallways she once ran through as a young girl felt like prison cells on even the brightest of days.

 

It was for this reason that Charlie found herself running daily errands, ones she assigned to herself and looked forward to each morning. Shops were opening once more and families from the quiet surrounding towns — ones like Setauket, Charlie imagined — were making their way south to prepare for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Downtown saw a mix of this on this particular morning but the sense of relief was heightened by the knowledge that at any moment General Washington was expected to make an appearance, riding through the same streets that had been taken from him seven long years ago.

 

Charlie started her morning by stopping into the same tavern she’d once gathered intelligence from, doing so to deliver the response to Ben’s letter. Culper Jr. had sold his share of the business but the bar still saw daily patrons, some of them now reading newspapers written in what was meant to be an unbiased tone. She smiled at some of the men she recognized before easily excusing herself. She had two more stops to make and if she didn’t arrive to the market soon, they’d be out of the items she told Grace she’d pick up for that night’s dinner. Though Charlie requested that Grace and Albert let her help with daily chores, both took it as a more of an order. This was what one of the ladies of the house wanted and for that reason they had no other option but to comply. It did make their days easier but both servants wondered how long Charlie could manage this charade, one where she insisted she be useful in a world that no longer needed her.

 

Her last stop of the day was her favorite and she’d remain there for as long as the city allowed it. The cemetery, only a few blocks from the marketplace, had become a refuge for Charlotte. When sitting, she disappeared amongst the tombstones and anyone that happened to notice her surely wouldn’t confront someone in mourning with inquiry. Sometimes she’d spend an hour or two reading. Other times she’d sketch in her journal, or even shade an entire page of parchment to black until the coal in her hands was dwindled to nothing. On one occasion she’d even managed to fall asleep at her father’s grave and when she woke those same hands stained by her artwork had marked her face and dress similarly. It was more difficult to explain that to Grace but when Michael saw her return home that day he nearly smiled, somehow knowing where his sister had lost herself that morning.

 

People gathered in the streets as Charlie politely made her way through the small crowds of patriots awaiting Washington’s arrival. The Union Jack flag had only barely been removed from the harbor, meaning families were still catching up with one another, enjoying the brisk day on streets they’d likely never visited. A reminder of the city’s guests was apparent as Charlie took in several figures paying their respects in the same cemetery she was headed for. One, in particular, looked almost as if he was standing at the same spot where Charlie’s father was laid to rest, but she wasn’t sure and couldn’t confirm such a thing as a carriage rushed by and pulled her attention away from the somber scene.

 

Charlie grabbed for the hem of her gown, ready to step down onto the street and cross toward the cemetery when she felt a tug pulling her back. Her breath hitched, ready to react in a way that was surely unbecoming for a lady, until the touch turned soft, clasping her glove covered hand completely in a way that was almost tender. Charlie looked down toward her wrist and followed the man’s arm upward until her eyes were upon his face.

 

“Nicholas…” she breathed out, somewhat relieved. Her petticoat was instantly dropped as she joined him back on the sidewalk.

 

He smiled at her and she smiled back. Charlie saw apprehension in his eyes but could also see his always handsome and kind features shadowed below the tall hat he wore. He was dressed just as he always was: smartly and practically, with a cavat and shoes that looked as if they could have been new.

 

“Are the rumors true?” he finally asked from out behind a narrowed stare.

 

Charlie’s smile fell. “Pardon me?”

 

“You...you supported the rebels?” he asked, now using the polished cane he walked with to straighten his posture.

 

“I…”

 

“They killed your father,” he reminded. It was not his intention to be malicious, and Charlie was almost certain that regardless of his feelings toward her, Nicholas was incapable of such a feeling. Even so, she found herself on the offensive.

 

“War killed my father, Nicholas,” she said, somehow managing to be biting and sweet at the same time.

 

“And Michael’s back?”

 

“He is,” she stiffened, breathing in with a chin pointed high. “Just to help my mother leave again.”

 

“She’s going back to Virginia?”

 

“She is.”

 

“Are you joining her?”

 

“No, I’m…” Charlie’s vision blurred to the cobblestones below. “No, I’m not.” When she returned Nicholas’ gaze, what she imagined would have been a disapproving scowl was instead replaced by a look of slight wonderment.

 

“Will you stay here then?” he asked, almost too eagerly. “Let me make you my wife, Charlotte. We can start a family and—”

 

“No.”

 

His brow furrowed, and his eyes, previously adoring, now darted back and forth upon the pronounced features of Charlie’s face, trying to decipher her meaning. “What?”

 

“No, Nicholas,” she sighed. “I’m sorry but...no.” It was all she could manage until she’d taken a deep inhale, one that filled her lungs with the same courage it took to once leave this city behind. It was fitting too, as she was about to tell her betrothed that she intended on doing it again. “I don’t wish to marry you. I didn 't want to marry you before all of this and I can't possibly marry you now. I don't...I don't want the life you want to give me. Some other girl would be so lucky to have you,” she assured, now with a hand that reached out to gingerly grasp his own. “I'm just not that girl."

 

“Charlotte, of course...of course you are,” he muttered, still in disbelief.

 

“I’m not,” she tried warmly. Her voice was unwavering and while her intention was to calm him down her tone somehow had Nicholas feeling more unsettled.

 

“I can change that,” he offered quickly.

 

She smiled once more. “You can't. I'm...I can't love you.” The declaration had Charlie dropping her hands to her sides.

 

“Of course you can. You do. I...I love you.” Nicholas was almost pleading now and while he did his best to maintain his composure it was all too clear that he was flustered and feeling helpless.

 

"You don't know me, Nicholas,” Charlie delivered, just as softly. “Your parents have been planning this for so long you forget that you have a say in it.”

 

“I'll...I'll go where you want to go,” he offered.

 

Charlie grinned, thinking of Setauket. “You don't want to do that.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I'm leaving York City.”

 

“Then let's leave York City,” he proposed.

 

“No...me, Nicholas. I'm leaving,” she clarified. “There's a man I love very much and I need to get back to him.”

 

“What?” His eyes were mere slits now and the begging in his voice turned to pure confusion, almost disgust.

 

“I told you, Nicholas...you are wonderful and I wish…” Her voice trailed off. “I am not the girl for you,” she persisted.

 

Nicholas was gobsmacked and he did nothing to hide the look of exasperation he was clearly feeling very deeply. He had waited many years now to stand before Charlie and ask her something he swore he was guaranteed. He’d nearly blurted it out before at dinners and parties when his intention was to tell her other things too: his true feelings for her and his wish to someday take care of her and build a life together. Nicholas was always so sure Charlie felt the same way and even as she turned away from him he wondered if maybe she once had. He also wondered how it was possible to still be in love with someone when that same person was standing before you, completely changed by a war.

 

Charlie was thankful her back was to Nicholas. Despite her resolve, tears pricked at her eyes and the day’s wind did nothing but encourage her to cry. But she shook off the feeling of regret and turned back toward the street. It was more crowded now but as she stepped down to the stone she finally gazed upward, ready to examine the same man she’d seen at her father’s gravesite only minutes before.

 

The man was gone.

 

~!~

 

Charlie didn’t spend more than an hour in the cemetery. In fact, upon learning she’d be alone in the way she always wanted, she no longer felt welcome there. She was also still breathless, and feeling reckless with the need to reveal all she’d told Nicholas to the rest of the world.

 

“Mother? Mother!” She called out upon entering her home.

 

Grace was already rushing toward Charlie in an immediate effort to help her out of her coat and gloves. Already Charlie had removed her hat and was placing the garment along with the others atop the nearby hall tree. She was so motivated she neglected to see Grace at all, leaving the lady’s maid with no other option but to stand idly by and watch her mistress display her newfound sense of independence. All at once Grace’s mouth, previously slightly agape, fell shut. With clasped arms, she hesitantly walked away. Dismissal, it seemed, was not required when Charlotte failed to acknowledge her in the first place.

 

Charlotte’s mother typically spent her mornings in the library at the back of the house where passersby could not see the solemn face she sometimes wore when lost in thought of her late husband. This morning, however, she was seated in the front room, tucked in a large arm chair that nearly swallowed her and her black dress whole. It gave her perfect view of the street without revealing her fully.

 

Seeing her mother, or rather, fixating on her appearance after initially overlooking her, Charlie exhaled lightly. “Is everything alright?”

 

Mrs. Grayford finally looked to her daughter. “Aside from the fact that my daughter is being unnecessarily loud in my home? Then yes, I’d say everything is alright.” She took in Charlie’s somewhat disheveled appearance and leaned forward to gesture to the extravagant pieces of china displayed before her. “Tea?”

 

“Oh...I—”

 

Her vision narrowed. Every hour turned her daughter into more of a stranger. “You were looking for me, Charlotte, and now you’ve found me. What is it, girl?”

 

“I...I wanted to talk about my things,” she said simply. All of her early energy had instantly disappeared the moment she stepped into the same room as her mother.

 

“Your things?”

 

“The items I’m sending to Virginia,” Charlie explained, giving a slight nod.

 

“Ahh, yes. They’ve finished packing most of your room up. They’ll wait on your bed until we leave and then send it after. I hardly think—”

 

“They can take it all,” she stated, her voice devoid of emotion. The admission had her finally taking a step forward.

 

“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Grayford placed her tea down on the table beside her chair. If she wasn’t already so emotionally bare it was likely her anger would have propelled her to her feet.

 

“All of it,” Charlie assured. “Even some of my frocks.” A sharp inhale split through the tense air. “I...I won’t be needing them where I’m going and I honestly don’t want them even if I did.”

 

“Where you’re going? Well you’re coming to Virginia, no?”

 

“Well—”

 

Her mother settled back into her chair before averting her gaze back toward the window. Her hand went to the large pendant necklace at her neck. It was a nervous habit, one Charlie shared with her mother had she still worn jewelry, but this shift was also a conscious one. Charlie recognized the necklace as one her father had given her mother on their anniversary several years ago. If she remembered correctly there was a small engraving on the back where her father made no apology in declaring his love for his wife. Her mother spent most of her days seeking out her former life and as the energy outside increased she looked to the crowds as if they had personally stripped her of her normalcy.

 

“You’re insane if you think I’m allowing you to stay in this city, Charlotte. I will not. Unless, that is, you’ve decided to accept Nicholas’ proposal in which case—”

 

“No, mother,” Charlie swallowed. “That won’t be happening either.”

 

Mrs. Grayford sighed. “Charlotte, honestly, darling—”

 

“I won’t be staying here,” she muttered quickly. “No, I...I have someone I need to find.”

 

“Someone?” A sharply raised eyebrow was not lost on Charlie. It was a challenge; it was a threat.

 

“Yes, someone,” Charlie persevered. “He means a lot to me and—”

 

“He? A man?” she gawked, nearly laughing as the word fell off her lips in equal parts surprise and dismissal. “You’re leaving to find a man?”

 

“Yes, I suppose I am.”

 

“And does this man want to be found?”

 

“According to his letters, yes, he does. And I should be able to locate him rather easily I just need to leave—”

 

Her mother unpursed her lips. “Even if I knew this man and approved of your courting, it’s hardly appropriate for me to just let you leave to find him.”

 

“It’s not courting, mother. He’s...I assume we’ll be married soon.”

 

“Married?” Mrs. Grayford almost laughed. “You won’t marry Nicholas who you’ve known since you were a babe and yet you’ll marry this man? Why on earth...are you with child?”

 

“No! Of course not! I’m...I’m in love.” She offered as an alternative.

 

This time her mother did laugh, even placing a steady hand to her stomach as she did so. “Charlotte, dear, I don’t think you know what that means.”

 

“I do,” Charlie confirmed with a stiff chin. “I know what it means for me. I didn’t think I could ever be happy. Not with a marriage to Nicholas or anyone else. Then Ben came along and—”

 

“Ben? This man has a name?”

 

Charlotte was doing her best to ignore her mother’s flippant attitude but with each passing moment she felt her palms itch and her knees grow weak while she fought her body’s natural inclination to run away. “He does. A good name. He comes from a good family and—”

 

“Go then.”

 

Charlotte swallowed. “Excuse me?”

 

“Go, Charlotte. It doesn’t seem I’ll be able to stop you. I couldn’t stop you last time. What use is my opinion now?”

 

“I…”

 

“When will you leave?” she asked rather coldly.

 

“As soon as...I wanted to help you and Michael pack. I wanted you to leave first.”

 

“Oh, did you? How charming.”

 

“This isn’t a game, mother,” Charlie admonished. “I’m not trying to upset you. I’m sorry but I’m a grown woman now and you’ve said it yourself that it’s time for me to marry and start a family—”

 

“I’ll be more patient if you come to Virginia with me, Charlotte. Surely you don’t want to live your life outside of the city. What will you do?” There was clear accusation in her question.

 

“I don’t...I’m not sure. I just...I don’t want this life.”

 

“Is it a bad life then?”

 

“It’s a wonderful life,” she sang, genuinely. “Just not for me. I’m...I’m not you, Mother. I wish I could be but I can’t. I can’t sit still now. Not after everything I’ve seen and done. The war may be over but there’s so much to do now.”

 

“Not for a lady.”

 

“Maybe,” Charlie agreed. “But I won’t be much of a lady when I leave.”

 

“You will always be a lady, Charlotte,” Mrs. Grayford gave. It was the first time she was able to deliver the truth without an ulterior motive. Regardless of what Charlie wanted, then and now, she would always be the daughter of a Lord. A new surname did not erase all memories of the previous one.

 

An extended pause swept through the room. “Maybe when we’re settled we can come visit,” Charlie attempted, also forcing a smile.

 

“Perhaps.”

 

Her grin fell and her voice turned quiet. “I wish I didn’t have to leave this life to have the one I want.”

 

Charlie’s mother’s attention was focused completely outside now where the streets were so full there might as well have been a parade, even without Washington and his army. It felt cold and she was bitter, as if all the world was celebrating her misery.

 

“Love often involves sacrifice, Charlotte,” she finally delivered. Her eyes fell upon her daughter, taking in nothing other than the slate color of her eyes. “Let it be your first lesson as this is not the last time your heart will put you in this position.”

 

Charlie pursed her lips, attempting a smile but only managing a nod. Her eyes were clearly glossed over with tears and her hands were clasped firmly at her waist. She felt naked standing in front of her mother, as if her silence was revealing all she never could. “It’s certainly not the first.”