As ashamed as he is to admit it, the first time Hercules visits Rivington’s, he doesn’t even notice Robert Townsend. He’s decided, on the recommendation of a friend—James, who’s been bothering him finally coming down to his newly renovated coffehouse, that is—to come down and have a pint of ale, or somesuch.
He registers a few of the barkeeps, gaze sliding over the most drably dressed one; and he spots James a few tables away.
James also spots him; and turns away from the woman he’s talking too—slim, with a magnificently kept highroll, and an absolutely stunning, finely embroidered robe à la française of pale blue and gold. “Hercules!” he calls, jollily, “you’ve finally decided to grace my establishment, I see! Come, come—let me get you a drink. Ale? Mead? Wine?”
“Ale is fine,” Hercules says, and draws up a chair. “Madam...?”
“You must be the illustrious Hercules Mulligan,” is all she says.
“Aye,” Hercules says, and takes her proffered hand, pressing a chaste kiss to the back of it; noting the soft, dove-grey silk of her glove. “I must confess, you have me at a disadvantage—you know of me, and yet, I, myself, cannot say that I know of you, despite your beauty being great enough that I ought to have heart rumours of you by now.”
She blushes prettily; and then says, “I am Marie Allard, Monsieur Mulligan—I have only been in York City for two days.”
“Ah,” he hums, “then I shall expect to hear of you plentily today.”
“Charming my customers again?” James says, sitting back down in his chair; and sliding a glass of ale to Hercules. “One of these days, they’ll all come to your shop, and there’ll be no fine ladies for me,” he laments.
Hercules pats his hand; leans in to whisper conspiratorially, “Worry not, my friend, I shan’t keep them all to myself.”
James throws back his head; laughing heartily; eyes twinkling handsomely, the copper floral embroidery on his banyan complementing the rich brown. “To friendship,” he says; and they all raise their glasses, repeating the toast after him.
Once he’s finished his glass, Hercules rises from his seat. “My apologies, madam,” he says, “I must be off—the shop cannot go too long without its proprietor, after all.”
“Oh, come off it,” James says, “stay a moment longer, Hercules—I’m sure Cato can manage the shop himself for a little longer.”
“It’s Saturday,” Hercules argues, “there’s always more people—I don’t want to overwhelm the poor man.”
The other heaves a theatric sigh. “Fine, then,” he says, “at least let me fetch you another round.”
“Only if you let me pay,” Hercules counters.
“Nonsense!” James huffs, “no, no, you’re an old friend, it’s on the house.”
“I’m afraid I must disagree with you, James,” comes a voice from over Hercules’ shoulder; and he twists to find a dour-faced redhead, a jug in one hand. “As your partner, I cannot allow you to give away drinks on the house at your every whim—we’d be bankrupt if you did.”
James scowls. “And that,” he says, “is my business partner, Robert Townsend.”
“Is he always so...”
“Boring?” Townsend says; cuttingly. “I am afraid, sir, that you simply do not know me well enough to judge.”
“He is,” James says, long-sufferingly; they’ve probably had this argument a thousand times, judging by how little the other patrons react.
“I was about to say plainly dressed, actually,” Hercules says, “and I’d appreciate if you do not further assume my intentions, sir. Though, perhaps,” he says, consideringly, “you can assume that I would be willing to tailor you a new coat.”
“I have no need of a new coat,” Townsend says, stiffly, “the one I have is perfectly functional.”
“He’s allergic to a good time, I’m afraid,” James sighs, “I would say it comes of being a Quaker, but his father is as well, and he’s far more entertaining. Why, just the other day—”
Townsend’s dour expression morphs into a glare of tremendous proportions, and James’ words trail off. “Oh, fine,” he says, “but Hercules gets a discount.”
“I’ll take ten percent off his bill,” Townsend drawls, and moves to refill another patron’s tankard.
James grimaces. “My apologies, to both of you,” he says, “Robert isn’t usually so...caustic. He can actually be quite charming, if you get to know him.”
Hercules raises a brow. “Truly?” he says, raising his brows; and watches a furious blush rise across his friend’s face. At the sight, he chuckles.
“I’ll go get your drink,” James mutters, rising and hurrying away.
“You must be good friends,” Madam Allard observes. “With others, I suspect, he would not have taken kindly to the implication.” She takes a dainty sip from her glass.
Hercules hums. “We’ve known each other for near on ten years, now,” he says. “James tolerates my teasing, and in return, I tolerate his endless attempts to set me up with his customers.”
Allard’s lips quirk. “I should like to see that,” she says. “It sounds quite entertaining.”
“Oh, it is,” James, who’s returned with Hercules’ glass, says, gleefully. “Did I ever tell you about the time with the Prussian noblewoman...?” And there, he launches into the story, spinning the strands of it as only an expert storyteller such as he can. Hercules almost admires it.
Finishing his drink, he rises. “Good day, Madam,” he says, feigning the tipping of a nonexistent hat, and then to the other: “James, I’ll see you in a few days, I presume?”
“Oh, most certainly,” he says, “and perhaps, if I can convince him, Robert as well—the man desperately needs something finer than black cotton.”
On the way back home, Hercules’ thoughts are drawn to Townsend; the enigmatic figure with a sharp tongue hiding beneath his otherwise unassuming demeanour. Something about the man intrigues him; so easy to overlook, and yet, as soon as you notice him, far harder to forget.
He remembers the cutting edge of his words—obviously something Townsend usually tried to hide, which had managed to slip out; and he finds himself resolving to try and draw out the hidden side of the mysterious Quaker.
Unfortunately, his plan is hindered slightly by Benedict Arnold. Hercules had never been fond of the tales of the man when he’d been a Continental General, and now, as a turncoat, he finds his lips curling at the mere mention of the man—something he does his best to keep hidden around polite company, but which, as far as he can tell, is a sentiment shared even among Loyalists. His father-in-law certainly has no love for Arnold.
His view of Arnold is, at present, sinking further and further into the mud. Just because he is a spy for the Continentals doesn’t mean that Arnold has any right to arrest him without proof, as they both know full well.
“I’m not a spy,” Hercules says, again, for perhaps the hundredth time that night. It’s a lie, of course, but he’s not uncomfortable about it; he’s willing to lie to get out of things, and always has been—it’s an essential part of the job.
Arnold slams his fist onto the table. “Just confess, damnit!” he shouts. “I know you’re a spy, Mulligan, and that you’ve been hiding behind your Admiral father-in-law.”
Hercules raises a brow. “That’s a serious accusation,” he says, “have you got any proof to back that up?”
Going by the frustrated growl Arnold gives, that would be a no. Hercules finds his lips twisting into a sharp smile. Unfortunately, as it turns out, that was the wrong reaction, because it earns him a stinging backhand across the cheek; and he tastes copper and warmth— must have bitten my cheek, he thinks, muzzily, and blinks to try and clear his vision.
Another man’s come into the room—tall, dressed in green. Leftenant Simcoe, Hercules recognises belatedly. He strides to Arnold’s side, whispering something into his ear; and Arnold’s face changes into a smile. “You’re in luck, Mister Mulligan,” he says, “you shall have a respite, for now—I have more important matters to attend to.”
“Your marriage, perhaps?” Hercules mutters, under his breath; but he’s mindful enough to wait until the General is out of hearing-range to say it. The leftenant does hear it, but rather than say anything, he smirks, and then slams the door of the jail-cell shut behind him.
They finally let him out at God knows what time—late, is all Hercules can tell. They’ve confiscated his overcoat and scarf, and as such, he finds himself shivering as he walks along the streets. He finds himself, after some amount of time, in front of Rivington’s.
Testing the door, he finds it unlocked; and there’s a table with a single candle lit, and a darkly dressed man sitting in one of the chairs. “Mister Mulligan,” he says, “please, sit.”
“You’ve prepared me a cup,” Hercules notes. “Were you expecting me?”
The barest hint of a smile flickers across Townsend’s lips. “Let’s say that I had a hunch,” is all he says, and then: “please, make yourself comfortable. I assume you have questions?”
“I do,” Hercules says; and Townsend—hands neatly folded in his lap; a picture of perfect proportions and mannerisms, as if carefully practised—lets him drink his ale before he speaks.
“Come,” he says, rising, and leads Mulligan up the stairway; and opens a door. “Worry not,” he assures, “my quarters are secure.”
“Not what I was worried about,” Hercules murmurs. Usually, I’ve at least called men by their names before they invite me to their quarters, he doesn’t joke, recognising that perhaps now is not the time for that discussion. After all, he’d like to know Townsend a bit better before proposing that, even if he’s a very pretty man.
Townsend settles onto the edge of his bed; motioning for Hercules to take the chair from his desk and sit opposite him.
“How did you come into it?” is Hercules’ first question; and Townsend’s lips twist.
“I was... convinced by a—friend,” he says. “A member of our ring—the first member. I caught him in the act of spying, but didn’t turn him in. More fool I,” he adds, self-deprecatingly.
“Coerced, you mean?” Hercules asks, gently; and after a moment, Townsend jerks his head in the tiniest nod Hercules has seen anyone give in a while. “My condolences,” he murmurs; aching to reach out and set a consoling hand on the other’s thigh. “That must have been hard for you.”
“Well,” Townsend shrugs, “it was certainly—something.”
There’s something there; something more that Townsend is not telling him—he’s wary; and that, Hercules understands. He casts a glance around the room yet again, marvelling slightly at how bare it is—deceptively creating, perhaps on purpose, the illusion that there is nothing of note to Townsend himself.
He wonders, then, if perhaps, part of Townsend is afraid of the vibrancy he has hidden within him—not just because of his occupation as a spy, but just afraid of showing it to others in general; afraid of their reactions. Afraid he’ll be too peculiar for them.
He’s ill at ease; Hercules can tell it; and so, in an attempt to relax him, Hercules talks; about himself, about his work; both the secret and the mundane; the day-to-day of managing the haberdashery shop.
Slowly, Townsend relaxes; even going so far as to, on one occasion, laugh. The sound is surprisingly rough, for a man so otherwise soft-spoken; but Hercules finds he’s charmed by it, in much the way that he finds, the longer he sits there, that Townsend himself, as a whole, charms him.
His fingers, to, have relaxed from where they were clenching the fabric of the bedcovers; and his expression has relaxed; eyes still guarded, but more open than they were when Hercules first sat down. In the candlelight, they’re soft, deep, like dark honey; and Hercules finds his cheeks warm when they rest on him.
By the time he rises, Townsend hasn’t said much; but he has revealed how he was introduced to the ring in full, and told Hercules to call him Robert —“After all,” he says, “we are to be friends, now, yes? You ought to call me by my name.”
“I would be honoured to,” Hercules replies, warmly, and takes his leave; vowing that he’ll coax Robert out of his shell bit by bit, for as long as that takes.