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“Did you mean it?” Charlie says, at last.

Sitting behind her, Bass tightens his grip. His arms are crossed over her belly, and he huffs like a dog tired and rests his chin on her shoulder. She’s small, this girl.

Tonight is the first time they’ve talked like this. Could be the last.

You don’t get to be President-General of the Republic if anyone can just sneak up behind you, but Charlie had managed it somehow. He hadn’t known she was awake and had risen from the sleeping hollow he guarded until she settled down beside him.

“You’re gonna get cold,” he’d said, without much conviction.

“Since when do you care?”

“Since Miles’ll kill me if you lose your toes.” He lifted his arm.

Charlie eyed the proffered space like it was a dead fish. “If your old soldiers could see you now…”

“They’d say I’m luckier to be stuck with you than the other way around.” He turned away, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. After a moment, he added, softer: “Offer still stands. I’m not losing you.”

And there it was, again.

He should’ve known it was coming when she’d risen, crept around, and settled herself between his knees. As he’d processed this, Charlie looked over her shoulder–without looking at him–and ordered, “Keep me warm.”

No question, no doubt. Simple as that.

Her voice was as small as the rest of her, but he listened. Muttered, “c’mere,” looped an arm around her midsection, and pulled her her back, against his chest. He let his head fall back against the tree behind him, and wrapped his other arm around her ribcage. It felt good to have something in his arms again. Felt natural, like this, under the dark sky.

And now she may have wrecked the whole thing with one question–not one he can’t answer, but one where he isn’t sure she’s ready to hear it.

“‘Course,” he mumbles, keeping his voice steady, gazing up at the blue-black valley above. To his surprise, she doesn’t tense beneath him.

“You’re going to have to explain more than that,” Charlie says, because the girl can’t leave well enough alone. “If you weren’t just saying it–”

“No.” That lifts his head to stare at her, and Charlie turns her head, so that they’re inches apart. Bass frowns into her eyes. As always, he’s trying to reach something that lives under all that snark and pigheaded stupid–in her and in himself. He continues in a softer voice. “No, I wasn’t just saying it.”

“But you did.” She’s too much like her damn mother when she’s frustrated, this one. But she doesn’t leave his arms. “Why then?”

She’s searching his face, he can see it, and his instinct is to pull back a few inches. How can you ask that?

All too easily, of course. Her brow is furrowed, but her mouth is small in that way that looks like it might be a smile. He’s got to remember that this one isn’t Miles or Rachel. For all the resemblance, Charlie is a new thing; he’s still learning her. It may be she smiles at him a lot more than he’d thought.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he says, and Charlie snorts, but doesn’t look away or frown. “I’ll tell you if you keep it quiet for me.”

That does make her laugh and look away. “The last thing I want is to keep secrets for you.

“Hey.” He reaches up to cup her chin, and she looks at him again. Thank god for small miracles. “You made this bed, Charlie, and you’re gonna lie in it.”

“Really.” She’s giving it to him again, that look of fond distrust, with her lids half-lowered like he’s nothing. He loves being on the other end of that look. Drives him half-crazy.

“You’re gonna like this one.” He begins to wind her hair around his fingers. “Promise.”

Charlie blinks at him, in that go-ahead kind of way. She inclines her head slightly, and her hair slides out of his hand.

“Well then.” She’s not looking at him, but he wraps both arms around her middle, and studies her face from inches away as she speaks. She’s gonna hear this even if it’s the last thing he ever gets to say. “I was worried for you, Charlotte.” He feels those words hit her, but presses on. “When I saw them around you, even if I knew you could get out, I wanted you safe behind me.” She’s stubbornly not looking at him, but the edges of her mouth have softened like she’s thinking about it. “And after what I did to the first one, I thought the others might back off if they knew–”

“You’re mine,” Charlie says softly. Echoing those dangerous words.

“That. Yeah.” He shakes his head. “If you don’t want to, we can just–”

“You’re not listening to me.” Yeah, he’s working on that. But she’s looking at him now, when did she–

Then Charlie lifts one mocking eyebrow, and it hits him.

“Oh, you were saying–”

“Are you always this slow?” she mutters, and then she’s kissing him.

This is one of those goddamn once-in-a-lifetime moments, he thinks, with what little synapses he has left. This girl has blown just about all of them. He drinks her in, every detail of it, every decadent moment. At some point his right hand has come up to hold her cheek with the slightest pressure, keeping this girl, his girl, here in his arms, keeping this going as long as she can. His left hand, sliding from her belly up her ribcage, cups the side of her breast.

When she pulls back a hair for breath, he can’t resist sucking on her bottom lip as he lets her go. Like honey.

Her forehead is warm when she rests it against his.

“Do you have any idea how distracting you are,” he says, when he can feel his lips again, “to a man who’s just trying to keep watch?”

“Maybe you just suck at it,” Charlie says, and with a deep breath, finally melts back against him. She’s looking like the cat who got the cream.

He draws her closer, lays an arm across her chest, gently pins her against him. Charlie holds onto that arm like a kid grabs a toy. “Gonna make a law,” he says, as they shift and cuddle into position, “someday, against that smart mouth of yours.”

Charlie snorts with her eyes closed. “Oh, I’m definitely deposing you for that.”

“I’d let that happen,” he murmurs. Just for this moment, he doesn’t need any more power than this takes, holding a kingdom right there in his arms.