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what air is to fire

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George is livid, red with it, and it’s all he can do to keep a level tone on the field as he sends Lee away for a doctor.

He knows (knows!) that for all that Laurens took the shot, it’s Hamilton who is most responsible. He’s furious at both, but it’s Hamilton he orders inside.

George is furious, yes, but also tired—Hamilton is unfailingly rash and borderline insubordinate on the best of his days, and for that to have escalated now into a duel—George’s chest is tight with it, a draining mixture of fear and rage, because the last thing he wants or needs is one of his family, crumpled on the field, shot through by any one of the men Hamilton can’t stop offending.

George stalks inside, confident that, if nothing else, Hamilton follows. Once in his office, George strides behind his desk and grabs the top of the chair for support, knuckles white. He exhales through his teeth; Hamilton is standing on the other side of the desk, as ordered, looking not the least bit ashamed of himself.

The boy is all of twenty-one, hot-headed and foolish despite his fierce skill with a pen. He's hardly full-grown, and appears a child in countenance and stature next to George. Despite that, he's cutting, brilliant, and George has relied on his counsel more than any other's since that first day in '77. Hamilton is irreplaceable, if flawed, and it's that knowledge that infuriates George more than any other; he cannot believe, cannot accept, that Hamilton would so loosely and irresponsibly risk his own life on a dueling field for a cause so lowly as George's own reputation.

(But then, George remembers being twenty-one, surrendering at Fort Necessity, awash in his own failures. George can remember the strength of his emotions then, how shame burned hot in his stomach and his face, how he thirsted for a chance at redemption, a chance to prove himself again and earn back his commission.)

“Son,” George starts, forcing himself to speak in a measured tone when he wishes to scream, to reach out and shake Hamilton by the shoulders until he sees sense.

“Don’t call me son,” Hamilton retorts, anger in his dark eyes, and whatever George was going to say next (you don’t need to defend my reputation, I need you alive) disappears in the force of his emotions at Hamilton’s casual disregard. George brought Hamilton into his family, for heaven’s sake, he and Laurens and the other aides, and they’ve been the better for it. George staunchly believes that.

And Hamilton slouches before him, throwing it all away—

George waits a beat before replying, to compose himself.

“You will stand at attention and be silent, Colonel,” he says, loud and firm, allowing his voice to boom through his office. “That is an order from your Commander.”

“Sir.” Hamilton bites out, and he straightens with a frown, snapping his shoulders smartly back.

George stays standing, too, drawing himself up to loom over Hamilton. There are a few ways this can go, and most end with Hamilton gone, back to his wife, leaving George here without counsel and much the worse for the loss. George can envision the two of them, ten years from now, war over, divided by a mountain of words unsaid and relationship limited to the barest of formal letters and well wishes from each others’ wives.

George grips and releases the chair, hands flexing in frustration; finally, he takes off his hat and allows himself the otherwise inexcusable lapse in propriety of throwing it viciously to the side. The force of it knocks over a glass that George had left on the side table, and Hamilton flinches at the noise.

“Don’t speak, Colonel,” George warns, slamming his hands down on the desk. “Imagine, if you will, how I felt this afternoon when a man—not one of my own, mind you—rode up and stammered that two of my aides were engaged in a duel. A duel. In a time of war, when every councilor and officer is required—mind your look, Colonel, your opinions of General Lee are neither appropriate or desired at this juncture.”

Hamilton stares straight ahead, mouth pursed, and he barely looks chastened, but George is only just getting started, and damn propriety, damn silence; if anyone’s listening at the door or outside George welcomes it, hopes that the added shame will finally get a message through to Hamilton’s stubborn mind.

“And then I arrive, and my aides have already dueled; and not only that, but wounded the General, and it was reported to me that this grievous offense was carried out in my name!” George can’t help but punctuate this by banging his fist on the desk.

“Sir, we—”

“SILENCE, Colonel,” George roars. Hamilton’s eyes drop to stare at the floor.

George takes a measured breath, then another.

“Remember this, Hamilton. I am perfectly capable of defending my own reputation and honor, and have indeed been doing so since well before your own birth,” George continues, finally. “You are expressly forbidden from engaging in combat on my behalf, from this day forward. I will not have you on the field, not as you were today. You will not duel again, not while I draw breath, and not after. Am I understood?”

Hamilton nods, tightly. Though circumstances might typically require a verbal response, George finds himself relieved that Hamilton didn’t try; George isn’t done yet.

“Your behavior today was reckless and inexcusable. You put yourself and Laurens at risk, as well as the others, and any success from Lee would have robbed me of two of my most valuable aides during this, our crisis of war. Is our independence such a worthless cause to you, then, Hamilton, as to risk its success on a perceived affront?”

Hamilton bows his head and shakes it, slowly.

“Do you not realize that your life is of value not only to yourself, but to your General? Your wife? The men with whom you share bonds of friendship? You act so quickly to throw that away and render our affection for you, earned through your actions, to grief. Mrs. Hamilton will be much aggrieved to hear of today’s events, as will her father, undoubtedly,” George continues. “You typically make up in wit what you lack in years, but today has been a notable failure on that account.”

He notes, distantly, that he’s crowding over the desk, leaning into Hamilton’s space; he can see Hamilton swallow, can see the beads of perspiration forming on his brow. George doesn’t stop, just leans in closer.

“I find myself wholly and utterly disappointed in you, son,” George says, lowering his voice. Hamilton flinches again, not from the action this time but from the words, George’s words. “In addition to the duel, you have shown ongoing disrespect and insubordination. If you were any other soldier, I’d have had you flogged and drummed out of camp by now.”

Hamilton pales, but George is not sorry.

“You may speak, Colonel, but I might suggest you mind your tone,” George says, eventually, and he straightens, crossing his arms over his chest.

Hamilton licks his dry lips and waits a moment before opening his mouth.

“Sir,” Hamilton says stiffly, and George can tell he’s holding back a retort, an ‘I’m not your son,’ but Hamilton apparently thinks better of it. “Your points are well-taken and I apologize for my actions. I submit myself to your judgment,” Hamilton continues. “If Your Excellency deems my dismissal an appropriate recourse, I shall accept without complaint.”

“Hamilton. I’m not dismissing you,” George responds with no small amount of frustration. “Have you not just heard my own words regarding your value to this campaign?”

“I did, sir,” Hamilton acknowledges, eyes still downcast, “However, I would not impose my presence upon you, if it is found unwelcome.”

‘You are not unwelcome,’ George wants to say, thinks he should say, but in truth, he’s still angry; the duel (they shot Lee, for heaven’s sake, shot him) and his own fear regarding Hamilton and Laurens’ fates are still to raw in his chest for him to ignore.

George settles on “You are not dismissed,” delivered curtly, and Hamilton stands up a little straighter in response. “I invited you into my family, and I do not intend to dismiss you short of your own choice. This is a time of war, Hamilton, and I need you here, to serve.”

“Thank you, sir,” Hamilton says, quiet for once, though from the way he’s glancing up at George’s face and away again George can tell he is gearing up to talk.

“Say your piece, Colonel,” George allows it with a wave, and, suddenly tired, pulls out his chair and sits down. He leaves Hamilton standing at attention, of course, because the boy could use repeated lessons in respect.

“Begging your pardon for my frank response, sir,” Hamilton begins, and George sighs inwardly because that is never a good sign; especially not just now, when he’d thought Hamilton was ready to acknowledge his own wrongdoing. “I find I must admit that I am not conscious of disrespecting you, who you must know I admire, and in particular I note that my intentions regarding Lee were not to dishonor you or cause you concern regarding your staff. But since you have felt it necessary to tell me of the effects of my actions, I have no choice but to realize that the consequences of such were graver than I had…anticipated. I must repeat my most humble apology, your Excellency.”

George is pleasantly surprised, and mollified, but Hamilton’s not done, and George can almost sense that Hamilton must be twisting his hands behind his back, nervous.

“I must confess, sir, I…do not know how to move forward from this error,” Hamilton says, next, and George…well, George hasn’t thought too far ahead on that count, either, for though initially he’d intended to demand an apology and send Hamilton away for the night for them both to calm down, his words had progressed further than that. George realizes too late that somewhere behind them there had been a precipice, of disappointment or shame, cruelly but justly verbalized without thought to the ensuing fall.

“Through this position or our…r-relationship,” Hamilton struggles to even say the word, George notices with dismay, “I have not intended or desired to acquire any special preference or treatment from your Excellency or indeed the Army. I must therefore entreat you to set aside any p-personal attachments and handle this affair as you would for any other soldier, for I—I do not believe I can…continue as though nothing has changed, when I have so acted to lose your confidences.”

“I will not drum you out, Hamilton,” George repeats. “If you should attempt to resign, I do not intend to accept. It is not special treatment; it is a plain rendering of facts; as commander in chief, I require your assistance moving forward."

“Then have me flogged,” Hamilton interrupts, voice loud with frustration. “For I cannot move forward until I know that I have taken steps to be returned to your regard.”

His eyes are dark and boring into George’s own, and George can tell by the flare of his nostrils that Hamilton is holding position by the skin of his teeth.

“I cannot have you flogged; you are my aide-de-camp. I will not tie you to a post and allow the men to witness such an affair. You forget that your failures reflect back on me—”

“Then you do it, here and now,” Hamilton interrupts, again, and now he has broken position; his fingers flying to the buttons on his jacket, still muddied from the dueling field, and before George can respond, Hamilton is standing in shirt and breeches, chin raised obstinately.

George puts one hand to his own forehead, rubs at his temple. He cannot agree—the very idea is ludicrous.

“Sir, I beg you,” Hamilton, again. “I have lost your esteem and I beg your indulgence in regaining it. I understand that I will have to demonstrate my sincerity in actions in coming days, but I request to…to start by putting this affair behind us, as any other soldier would have the opportunity.”

With that, Hamilton is pulling off his shirt, and before George can think to stop him, he’s standing bare-chested and slight in recognition of his own disgrace. Hamilton’s hands are shaking, and it is this sight, more than anything, that forces George’s realization of the boy’s depth of emotion.

George opens his mouth to respond, still unsure of what he will say—what he will do—when, conveniently or disastrously, Lafayette announces his presence with a loud knock and call for the General.

Lafayette does not wait to enter, as is custom with their intimacy, though in this moment George fervently wishes he had thought to maintain barriers of propriety with all of his aides.

“Your Excellency,” Lafayette starts, and he’s two steps into the room before the door swings shut behind him and he draws up short, having noticed Hamilton’s shirtless form and George’s own countenance. “Merde. My apologies, General, I will depart,” Lafayette murmurs, looking away, but before he can leave a hand—Hamilton’s—grabs his sleeve.

“No, stay, please,” Hamilton says, and George can see his fingers are white-knuckled where he’s holding onto Lafayette’s wool coat. “You are familiar with what happened today?” Hamilton continues, without waiting for George’s approval.

Lafayette opens and closes his mouth, apparently thinking better of answering. George waves a hand in permission; he’s not sure what Hamilton’s goal is but he cannot imagine his own delaying of Lafayette will be particularly productive.

“The duel, Alexander? I am familiar,” Lafayette responds with a frown, and George spares a moment to thank God that not all of his aides have descended into madness.

“I have requested that the General reprimand me, as he would order punishment done to any other soldier exhibiting the same behaviors,” Hamilton continues, stammering, a flush rising in his face. He soldiers on without a pause. “As circumstances dictate, we require a…witness, to maintain the protocol according to the code of conduct.”

“For heaven’s sake, Hamilton, I haven’t agreed to anything,” George mutters, but it is lost in the sound of Lafayette’s puzzled, somewhat indignant response.

It devolves into French, after that, and though George doesn’t understand the bulk of the words, he can make out that Lafayette is both appalled by Hamilton’s general behavior and in disagreement with Hamilton regarding the method by which his trespasses should be rectified. Hamilton wins, however, and after a minute’s flurry of conversation they both refocus on George.

“The Marquis has agreed to serve as witness,” Hamilton says, squaring his bare shoulders. “Insubordination carries fifty lashes, disrespect another fifty, and dueling up to two hundred at the discretion of the commanding officer, if it will oblige you, sir.”

“Enough,” George says, raising a hand in horror at Hamilton’s proposed sentence. “I refuse to flay you alive, son.”

“Your Excellency,” Hamilton returns, forging ahead. “I then must resign, I cannot otherwise atone for my callous behavior. I believe that neither the one of us would be satisfied, to return to your study on the morrow with no change in our relation but for the destruction that my actions have wrought.”

George opens his mouth to respond, to protest, to deny the resignation; but Hamilton’s last sentence plays back in his mind. Neither the one of us would be satisfied.

The bulk of George’s fury is gone, dissipated by Hamilton’s stubborn arguments for his own dismissal, but George remains angry, at the back of his mind, and he cannot deny that something has changed. A boundary crossed, a precipice leaped, into an unforgiving and unfamiliar land.

“If I may, your Excellency, Alexander,” Lafayette interjects, tentatively. “Could this not be solved in a more gentle fashion, as within a family?”

Hamilton goes pale, and George can instantly tell that any punishment drawn from such a suggestion, bearing the hint of a filial relationship, will yield more remorse and regret from Hamilton’s soul than a thousand lashes could against his skin.

And this, George can do; he was thrashed often enough, by his father and then by Lawrence, and he’s had a firm hand in raising Jacky all these years. For better or worse, George long-since accepted the occasional need to use the rod. George doesn’t know Hamilton’s history, and has indeed never met a boy so reticent to divulge his own origins, but he has gleaned enough from Hamilton’s conspicuous silences and from slips by Laurens and Lafayette over the years to know that Hamilton is bastard-born, was orphaned young, and was likely molded by any number of heavy-handed men and headmasters.

Perhaps Hamilton will, against all odds, respond.

“That is acceptable to me, sir,” Hamilton says, finally, raising his chin again.

“And there will be no talk of going home, no talk of resignation?” George asks.

“No, sir. With your agreement, I will consider it my duty to continue making amends through loyal and honest service,” Hamilton answers.

With that, George nods in tacit agreement. Hamilton relaxes a fraction, though he clearly remains on edge; George has long since concluded that Hamilton feared dismissal and the resulting excommunication from the war effort much more than any physical or verbal chastisement, as evidenced by his foolish desire to take three hundred lashes.

“You are dismissed with thanks, Lafayette,” George says, and when Hamilton opens his mouth to protest George shakes his head, firmly, and continues. “In my family, such events were—are—conducted privately, as the goal is not shame but reconciliation.”

“With your permission, your Excellency,” Lafayette nods, relief apparent on his face, and with a last line of hissed French at Hamilton (George catches only ‘lucky’ and ‘you fool’), he leaves, quickly.

Then it’s the two of them, George and Hamilton, and the silence that hangs between.