There's nothing like autumn in a dinghy
Fingers goin' numb and you're feeling kinda shitty
Jefferson's got a little melody going through his head, vaulting along on off-beats and syncopation: Hm, hm, hmmm mm mm; hm-hm-hm. He massages his knuckles, trying to work out the knots of cold that're this close to turning his nails blue. Good thing the captain was out of earshot when the dinghy line came up -- otherwise, Thomas would be singing a big solo about drowning in the middle of the goddamn Atlantic before he even made it back home.
Damn, it'll be good to get home. Warm fireplaces. Whiskey. Yeah, just keep thinking warm thoughts and watch out for the icebergs, TJ.
The melody keeps circling, a little louder now. It's kind of familiar. Thomas frowns, trying to suss it out, as his feet shift back and forth on the deck. The sway of the boat’s hooking into the underlying beat, pretty basic four-four time stuff, and that usually means whatever’s going on is a pretty big deal. Where the hell has he heard this before?
“Aw, hell no,” he shouts, in a giant bellow of fogged breath.
“I finally get home, Washington makes me Secretary of State, and the whole intro kicks off with Hamilton’s theme?” He paces back and forth in a swirl of purple tailcoats, stomping hard enough that he can barely hear Madison’s coughing. Which is kind of a plus, let’s be real. Man needs some medicine up in here STAT. “Really? I’m not some background bit -- “
“You kind of are,” points out Madison. Thomas glowers; Mads just coughs again. “And I have to admit, you may be seeing less in that line than you should.”
“Oh?” Thomas’s look sharpens: this better be good.
“It circles Hamilton, yes. But only because he’s here, in the United States.” And yeah, okay, despite all this crap, a smile flickers at the corners of both their mouths. An actual name for an actual country tastes pretty sweet. “Where did you first hear it?”
“I didn’t. Lafayette did.”
“And that was…”
“In that bar where they were talking about the -- “ He stops. “Ah.”
“Exactly.” Madison lifts his eyebrows. “It isn’t about you, or even about Hamilton. It’s about our new country. Forming a legacy. You see?”
“Yeah, yeah,” mutters Thomas: deflated, but not disagreeing. He scowls. “It’s still bullshit.”
Which is when the door opens, and Thomas turns on his heel to let the President and the little shit of a Treasurer welcome him home. Come on. That’s the real important bit here.
Even if Hamilton crashes all over Thomas’s theme with his own, in Thomas’s number, completely ignoring how everybody up to President Washington himself adapted to the tune. Even the President! But not Alexander Fucking Hamilton, oh no.
Yeah. This debate’s gonna go great.
Two hours later, the only way Jefferson could be angrier is if Hamilton had ended a line in purple and lobbed it straight at his head.
This was supposed to be easy. Mads’s got a nervous disposition -- he likes to exaggerate sometimes, get all poetic and bombastic, so how was Thomas supposed to know he was serious about all this soul-of-the-nation shit? That yappy little bastard of a treasurer talks big. Turns out he walks pretty big, too. Fuck.
Burr shoots him a sympathetic look as Thomas stalks off the stage. He tries not to notice. Burr’s always been a little creepy, in Thomas’s so-humble opinion. It’s not just because he’d rather answer a song with a smile instead of a rhyme; he’s always got this look on his face like he knows something you don’t, like he’s looking straight past you to a future you. Those times Washington starts going on about history having its eyes on you, while Burr’s back there practically boring holes in his skull? Yeah.
Guess that’s what the Cabinet gets for hanging around with a narrator, though. They’re all like that.
Anyway. Thomas shakes himself out of it, tugging on the lapels of his jacket before smoothing them back into place. He’s just gonna have to up his game. No more underestimating that prick. No problem.
Is it too late to work something into the Constitution about oranges?
As he works, the melodies keep flowing. They’re always in earshot no matter where he goes, like a tether to keep him from straying too far. He’ll be walking along in eighth notes, then find himself switching to sixteenth notes for no damn reason before slowing to his usual pace. But whatever’s going on, it all happens just beyond what he can hear. He listens, but no cue arrives to tap him back into the game.
It’ll happen. No way it won’t. But marking time while you’re waiting for someone else to do their thing blows. At least he can keep himself busy while he’s chilling, right? There’s a lot to do. After all, Thomas a constituency to fight for, a financial plan to destroy, and, hopefully, a guy to punch in the face by the end.
Man, it’s gonna be so great when he punches Hamilton in the face.
He doesn’t even see much of Burr around. Guess that’s a good thing. And it’s a good thing that persists right up until Thomas walks into a meeting with Madison and goes, “Uh...what’s with this guy?” as he points to Burr.
Burr smiles. Thomas has the distinct feeling he means it to be reassuring, but, like always, it just makes him look even more unsettling. “I’m not here on business,” he says. And amends: “Not…that kind of business.”
He punctuates that with a wave of his hand, encompassing the broader structure, the gears outside that nobody but Burr ever glimpses.
“Well, that’s a relief,” says Thomas dryly. “Thanks.” To Madison, in the exact same tone as before, “What’s with this guy?”
In response, Madison produces a newspaper. (And, for once, doesn’t use it to stifle more coughing.) “He wants to join us,” he says. “As an ally.”
“Riiight.” One of Thomas’s eyebrows rises, a slow winching upward that he times to perfectly match the rising inflection of his voice. “As an ally...how?”
One of the snippets of melody peaks, swinging to the forefront of all their minds. I wanna be in the room where it happens. Thomas is so used to Burr keeping quiet that he doesn’t realize it right away: Burr’s the one who carried the melody in here, saying the words aloud, cementing them in the story.
“Seriously?” Burr can’t be serious. Can he? “Can you even do that?”
“There’s precedent,” Mads points out, and Burr nods.
“But you’re the -- “ Thomas mimics the broad gesture Burr delivered earlier. “You aren’t allowed in the room where it happens. That’s the point. That’s your job, isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t have to be.” Burr lifts his chin, looking Thomas dead in the eye. Thomas suppresses a shudder that wants to claw its way up his entire spine. Fucking narrators, man.
“So you’re just gonna give up your gig.” Thomas’s eyes narrow. “Who’s taking it over?”
Thomas splutters. “So we got nobody showing us where we go?” he demands.
Burr rises to his feet, and it’s like every light in the room goes dim. A couple candles even give ominous flickers that stir the shadows on Burr’s face just so. Shit, if he really did give up his gig, he kept a bunch of the perks that go with it. What Thomas wouldn’t give for some well-timed pathetic fallacy he could wield in a debate. Maybe a chance to call down lightning on Hamilton. Yeah, that’d be sweet.
Right. Focus, TJ.
“Maybe you don’t need somebody to show you where to go,” says Burr. Thomas’s neck prickles uncomfortably; it gets worse when Burr smiles. “We’re a free country now.”
Not that free, thinks Thomas, and hopes like hell it doesn’t escape on another string of melody.
So Burr’s gone AWOL. Kind of. Pretty soon, they all figure out it’s worse than that: he’s in the story and out of the story at the same goddamn time. When Washington passes away, Burr’s the only one who doesn’t seem surprised, and Thomas hates him a little for it. The only way he manages to squeeze some joy out the whole affair is by watching Hamilton’s career implode with all the force of a backfiring cannon.
Sure, though. He’ll play along with whatever Burr’s trying. They had a couple duets, they shared a beat with Mads. Hamilton might’ve had Washington on his side, but Thomas? He’s got the guy who knows where they’re all headed, even if he’s not talking too much about it anymore.
Okay, well, nobody’s talking about it much, actually. Every whisper he overhears mentions that kid of Hamilton’s who got himself shot instead. The impatient, tethered feeling grabs Thomas again; he jitters his feet in thirty-second notes whenever he’s alone, ignoring the slow, somber rhythm of a country sinking into winter.
Finally, in frustration, he bursts out to nobody, “Can we get back to politics?”
And something shifts.
He pauses, listening hard. For a second, he thinks he hears a steady clicking like the pulse of a metronome, and then it fades to nothing. Someone all in white passes by, pressing a flyer into his hand. Thomas takes it without thinking and reads.
“Hot damn,” he mutters.
It’s an election flyer. Eyes wide, Thomas looks up at the sky. Maybe if Burr’s not doing his thing anymore, the gears are looking for someone else to grab. Maybe...huh. Why not Thomas? Yeah. Thomas Jefferson: Narrator. It has a nice ring.
He’s still smiling as he turns back the flyer -- a smile that drops off his face the instant he sees the name printed in boldface along its top.
Talk less. Smile more. Burr’s barely sung or rhymed a word in earshot of anybody his whole life -- how he ended up a narrator, Thomas thinks, is the first big American mystery -- but for once, it’s fucking working. That slippery, backstabbing little shit. Thomas almost has to admire him for playing to his strengths, but that only extends to the point of admiring him and still snatching the presidency out of his hands.
Well. He’s not gonna fuck this up like he fucked up with Hamilton. And if that means another little backstage deal...nobody’s gotta be in the room where it happens.
“Don’t say a damn thing,” he mutters as he brushes past Hamilton, shoulder-to-shoulder, before Hamilton even has a chance to open his mouth.
The smile Hamilton tosses him radiates so much smugness that Lafayette can probably see it all the way across the ocean. “Of course,” he says, so sweetly. Thomas grinds his teeth. “You don’t wanna force an endorsement, sir. I’ll take my time.”
“So you did learn from Burr.”
Hamilton’s face darkens at the rhyme. He stalks off.
But a week later, Thomas is smiling as he whispers in Burr’s ear, “When you see Hamilton? Thank him for the endorsement.”
Later, he’ll wonder if he twisted the knife just a little too far.
They all hear the gunshot. They can’t not. It shakes the earth like they’re all standing on a bass drum, and somebody pounded the pedal hard enough to bounce them clear off its skin.
He finds Burr in a New Jersey dive. It’s empty except for the two of them. Outside, sobbing buffets the air; in silence, Thomas takes a seat next to the narrator.
The villain? He doesn’t know anymore. Neither does Burr, from the looks of it. Shit doesn’t always break down as cleanly as they’d all like in stories like this.
“This is what you saw coming, huh,” he says. Burr nods, silently, and Thomas exhales a curse between his teeth. “Raw deal, man. Raw deal.”
The wailing crescendos. It’s all background; so are they, for now. Thomas has to wonder -- but can’t make himself voice it aloud -- whether this is why Burr tried to bail.
“It’s not about me,” says Burr at last, rough and unsteady. Little smudges of fog appear on the whiskey glass, haloing his fingertips. “That’s never what this gig’s about. It’s about serving something bigger than you.”
Thomas thinks of a piano melody, all those years ago, and rubs at his elbow as he casts his eyes down. He can feel the syncopation that wants to catch in the back of his throat. A song about a new country. A new legacy. Something that isn’t Jefferson or Hamilton.
“They’re gonna kill you,” he says, low. “You’d better hide.”
Burr’s already shaking his head. “I don’t think they will,” he says, and if anything else had just happened, that would’ve stopped the conversation dead. But the way he says it, some little hook of uncertainty digs into Thomas and makes him frown.
“You don’t know.” It’s not a question.
“No.” Burr downs the rest of his drink. Thomas stares. Shit. That shot really did shake the whole world; now that he’s looking harder, that thousand-yard stare Burr’s directing to a spot above the bar doesn’t have any of that skin-crawling weirdness he’s carried the whole time Thomas has known him.
Burr slides off the barstool. “You want to know what happens next,” he says, “talk to Eliza.”
He picks up his cloak; dumbstruck, Thomas watches him make his exit. The whole bar goes quiet and dark, as if every bit of candelight’s turned to a distant spot across the Hudson. A new narrator, singing by her dying husband’s side.
And it’s like the gig drops back into Thomas’s head for a split-second: he can see her bearing up, like she has for so long under so much, carrying on to a place none of them will see. He can see her taking a breath and stepping into the light, back into the story, with her head high.
In the dark, Thomas lifts his glass. “Break a leg,” he says, and hopes the air is silent and still enough to carry the words where they need to go.