The battle-thrill runs through Caleb as they push off over the water. Ben makes him Captain of the boat, unorthodox, perhaps, but not for them. Not one man on the boat blinks an eye at Ben demoting himself and putting them all under Caleb’s command. He sits-up straight in the stern, attentive to the balance of the boat and the feel of the water, but everything is subdued compared to the great beating of oars; hundreds of boats, all patriots, launching a surprise so great they don’t even bloody know themselves what they are about to do.
It’s beautiful; smooth, swift movement and Ben grinning at him in the moonlight from across the bow, eyes and teeth bright. It’s perfect.
Until it isn’t.
They haul Ben back into the boat quickly, but not fast enough. Caleb’s world shrinks to this fact.
Ben’s sodden and frozen body shakes so hard in Caleb’s arms that they can barely keep the boat steady as they reach the shore.
The men don’t say anything either when Caleb sends them on without him. Someone should stay with the Captain, and sure, it shouldn’t be the lieutenant but then, who else should it be? Caleb didn’t even try to justify it. It just had to be him. The men go on, attach themselves to another Captain, fall forward to face the enemy. Caleb stops thinking about the battle completely. His enemy is different now, no less deadly, no less familiar.
He’s a sailor, of a sort. He knows about these waters at winter, how little time he has, how fast he has to move. He strips Ben, lights the fire, tears the skins from two rabbits meant for a victory meal, and uses them to wrap Ben in thick, bloody swabbling. Caleb thinks nothing of ripping off his clothes, covering Ben with his body, and both their bodies with his coat. It’s disgusting, the skins are slippery between them and the smell is rancid around them. Caleb wraps his arms around Ben’s head, locking Ben’s ears between the muscles of his upper arm. He rubs his beard across Ben’s face, trying his damnedest to give him beard rash, moves against him, sliding the furs, trying to create as much friction as possible. As long as Ben’s shivering Cal keeps moving, keeps his eyes fixed on Ben’s lips, tracking the blue tint, desperate to know how much the moon is hiding from him, praying for dawn, for sunlight.
As the sun rises Ben stops shaking, Caleb allows himself to sleep briefly atop him, and wakes to find their limbs caked together with rabbit blood. He rouses himself, wraps Ben in as much of his clothes as he can spare, relights the fire, and lays Ben’s wet things out to dry properly. He prays against rain, against cloud and wind, and sets out to hunt.
He cooks the meat this time, wraps Ben in the skin while it still bears the heat of the animal. He presses the cooked food to Ben’s lips, nearly cries when there’s a small noise from Ben’s lips, a blessed swallow. He pours the juice from the meat into Ben’s mouth, carefully, nothing too much, just a little warmth for the inside. Ben isn’t shivering, but he isn’t waking up either, his body is hibernating, far away from Caleb.
Cal resumes his place on top of Ben, puts his lips over Ben’s throat, right where the faint pulse is still coming through. So weak it scares Caleb to death, worse than fighting, worse than anything. He is tied to this one thing. This small patch of skin and the stretch of artery beneath it. It’s everything to him now, he tracks it round Ben’s body, imagining the flow of blood, slow and stuttering, he wills it on, pushes his hands down Ben’s arms, rubs Ben’s legs in his own, as if his actions could press Ben’s blood back into his extremities. Every so often he feels Ben twitch a little beneath him and levers himself up a little to check his eyes and his breathing. He speaks to Ben, lips to lips for a while, sharing his breath with him, washing the blue off Ben’s lips with sharp nips of his teeth, urging the blood back to the surface.
“Come on, Benny, you’re missing all the action. Not only am I practically de-virginizing you here but there’s a bloody battle being waged not three miles away and you’re taking a short extended holiday from your body. When will you learn to pay attention to me, do you think? If this is your way of getting some action, I have to say it’s a bit desperate, a little bit of a half-cocked plan if you don’t mind the expression. You had but to ask is what I’m saying. And I’m asking, Tallboy, I’m waiting for you to man up and make your move, you old stiffy. Let Brewster take care of you properly. If I could risk leaving you I’d make a run for sweet Sarah Halbot’s place and bring you back a nice well-padded girl to sit on your cock and wake you up proper, but I can’t, so you’ve got me. So wake up you old fuck, we’re not going anywhere till you do and you stink like a racoon and I’ve smelt worse I know after a week or two on the boat with nothing but the fishies but you picked a fine time to get your revenge. Come on Ben, come home to me.”
He goes on and on like that, the way he talks sometimes after he’s been out on his own for a while and has to speak just to hear someone talk. He’s not aware of half of what he’s saying or why. It’s funny that a lot of those times it was Ben he was speaking to anyway, if he could be said to be talking to anyone. And here he is again, talking to a non-present Ben. He tells jokes and memories to that pulse on Ben’s neck, as long as it beats he keeps talking, pouring himself out, whispering his secrets into Ben’s blood, entrusting those veins and arteries with his soul.
This is how he’ll go on living, he thinks, if he’s cut down soon, in this battle they can’t lose. It won’t matter what bog his body sinks into or what part of the sky the fire releases him into, it’ll be here that his essence stays, in Ben’s beating blood. It gets stronger by the hour, life pouring back into it. Caleb feels like he’s working some old magic, a pray with life-force, transferring ownership of a soul. He doesn’t think twice about what he’s doing. This is what it is to trust, he thinks, this is what it is to know that you’re just as well off in another man’s hands as your own.
Ben stirs against him, bends his body towards him, and Caleb knows it’ll be time soon to get up and clean Ben up, wash the rabbit blood from his body, dress him back up as Captain Tallmadge. Maybe he’ll even put his hat back on him, so he wakes ready for the parade ground. That’ll be funny.
It’s strange what he’s done on instinct alone. Deep-rooted, fundamental parts of himself, of him and Ben, that he would never know how to mess with. He doesn’t worry about needing to tell Ben, or how he would feel about it, as long as Ben survives nothing else matters. He knows that the same would be true if things were the other way around. Ben would act first, would save him, and never worry about the consequences of that.
Caleb knows, now, that Ben will wake up. His world-stopping fear has disappeared again for the time being and what Ben will know when he wakes is that Caleb did everything he needed to for Ben to survive. It’s unthinkable, after all, that either of them will ever do anything less. And that’ll be enough. For both of them, it’ll be more than enough.