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The Issue on the Table

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When I arrive, Washington is deep in thought. He drums his fingers on the desk, and I can see his shoulders slumped - not in dejection, but in concentration. I recognize this posture to mean he is thinking intently. On what, I don't know yet.

I walk further into the room and say, "sir?"

Without turning, the president says, "Ah, Hamilton. Come in. You're right on time."

I'm always on time. Unlike Jefferson, who prefers to make a dramatic entrance. If he's wearing that sickening fuchsia coat again, I just might lose it. I set down my papers on the General's desk. "I've had some ideas, sir," I say, glad to have his ear for a moment without any interruptions. "To convince Congress to pass my plan?"

"Indeed?" The general - the President, I still have to correct myself - still does not turn to look at me.

"Yes, sir," I press on. "You see-"

"Hamilton, are you going to present this plan to Jefferson respectfully?"

I pause, wondering what that has to do with anything. "Yes. Sure."

"Because I notice that the two of you have been fighting quite frequently."

I wince, thinking of our last meeting where I actually almost slapped the Secretary of State in a fit of annoyance - but he would have deserved it if I had. My voice is still hoarse from the screaming match that ensued after that event. "Er, yes," I stammer." That's not going to happen again. But anyway, sir, I believe that we should try to compromise with the South -"

"Speaking of the South," an obnoxious voice says, and the door bangs against the wall a split second later. I groan as I hear the rustle of Jefferson's coat as he shrugs it off and tosses it - probably to Madison. "Hello."

"Jefferson," says Washington, getting up. "You are on time."

"For once," I grumble as I turn around.

Jefferson inclines his wild curly head. "Yes, sir."

"Very good. And have you both come prepared?"

"Yes, sir," Jefferson and I say at the same time, and he gives me a glare that tells me he wants to rip my throat out. I give it right back to him.

"Excellent. Well, come in, let's not waste time."

"What is he doing here?" I ask, looking at Madison, who as usual hides in Jefferson's shadow. "He's not even a member of the cabinet."

"And yet he still manages to do a better job than you do," says Jefferson, who is touchy where Madison is concerned.

"I can leave if you want me to..." Madison coughs.

"No. Stay."

"He can't do a better job than I do. He never does anything but stand there," I retort. I don't want Jefferson to trail his fan around everywhere he goes. Extra support for him just seems unfair.

"My point exactly."

"Stands there and coughs."

"Shut your face."

"Jefferson!" Washington snaps.

"Sorry, sorry," Jefferson says, regaining his composure. "Anyway..."

I can tell this is not going to go well.

 

I storm out of the room three hours later with the President on my heels.

"Hamilton," he roars, "if I ever see an outburst like that again -"

"I know," I say through gritted teeth. "I know, I'm sor-"

"You don't seem to understand the extravagance of your actions," he thunders, not stopping to hear my apology. "Whether you like it or not, Thomas Jefferson is the Secretary of State, and you are required to treat him with respect. Throwing a fork at him IS NOT ACCEPTABLE."

"I didn't really throw it at him..."

"YOU THREW IT ACROSS THE TABLE."

"But it landed on his plate." If I'd wanted to hit him, I certainly could have.

"YOU CALLED HIM A-" The president stops and glances around, realizing that what I called Jefferson is probably not something that ought to be repeated aloud. When I said it, Edmund Randolph was so outraged that he left the meeting.

"I know what I called him," I grumble.

"You will apologize to Jefferson," Washington snaps.

"But, sir -"

"And you will apologize to Madison, too."

"But I didn't even say anything bad about him!"

Washington stares down at me, breathing heavily, and then turns away. "I can't even look at you. Get out."

He stalks out of the room. I shrug on my coat and go out the door.

Only to run right into Jefferson and Madison, who are waiting on the steps.

"Hey, Hamilton," Jefferson says, holding up a piece of paper between his fingers. "Ya forgot this."

My heart stops, and then I snatch for the paper. "What is that?" I snap, even though I know exactly what it is.

"Who's John Laurens?" asks Madison, reading the letter over Jefferson's shoulder.

"So this is dated 1779?" Jefferson remarks lazily. He holds the paper above my head as I reach desperately, trying to get it from him. Curse my short body...

"And you still carry it around?" Madison asks before lapsing into another coughing fit.

"Give me that," I hiss. "That's private."

"It was in your coat pocket."

"You have no right to go through my coat."

"It was in the breast pocket."

"That is a personal letter," I say, "and if you don't give it to me, Thomas Jefferson, so help me, I will -"

Jefferson's eyebrows rise as he continues to read the letter. "Wow. Close, weren't you?"

I rip the letter out of his hands. It tears, and a small corner is left in his grasp. Madison chuckles as I shove the letter back into my pocket.

"'Your affectionate friend forever,'" Jefferson reads aloud from the small portion left in his hand. "Yeah, affectionate's right." He glances back over at me. "Wow, Hamilton. I don't even know what to say about that."

I stalk down the steps and up the path, their laughs still wringing in my ears. John's letter burns against my heart, and, to my chagrin, a few tears sting in my eyes. One of these days, I swear, I will wring Thomas Jefferson's neck.

 

The President looks strangely happy the next time I see him. For once, I arrive after Madison and Jefferson - I'm the last member of the cabinet to arrive, in fact. Jefferson eyes me from across the room as I take off my coat - which no longer contains anything in the pockets. I checked three times to be sure, and I check again now. Nothing.

"Hamilton," he says.

"Jefferson," I reply stiffly.

"You're late, Hamilton," says Washington, though not in a tone of rebuke - he speaks as if it couldn't matter what time I arrive. Strange. I make my apologies and take a seat.

"Before we begin, gentlemen, I have decided to depart from the standard agenda for today," says Washington with slight amusement in his eyes. "As you are no doubt aware, our last meeting ended with rather undignified marks from Hamilton to Jefferson."

I flush, wondering why he's still bent on calling me out. Jefferson beams.

"However, I believe that both of them are at fault -"

Jefferson stops smiling.

"-so I've come up with a humbling solution, following the idea that humility tends to serve well as medicine." He looks from me to Jefferson. "Before the meeting begins, you two will hug."

Jefferson's mouth drops open into an enormous "o." I feel the blush creeping down my neck, up along my cheeks. No, this cannot be happening, this is -

"Not only that," Washington interrupts, "but I want you to hug for ten full seconds."

There is a deep, awkward silence, and then both Jefferson and I start shouting.

"Sir, this is preposterous -"

"There's no reason -"

"I will NOT hug Hamilton, I refuse -"

"So do I -"

"IF you refuse," Washington says over us, "then I will not let you speak on any of the issues. You may not participate in these meetings until you do it."

Madison looks like he might choke, though whether that's from typical sickness or from suppressed laughter, I don't know. One thing I do know, though, is that no matter what, I will not hug Thomas Jefferson. "Mr. President, may I have a word with you?" I say through gritted teeth. "Alone?"

Washington raises an eyebrow, but he gets up and follows me to another room, out of earshot.

"Sir," I say. "I will do whatever you want. I will deliver a public apology in the papers, if you would like. But I cannot hug Jefferson."

"Why."

"Well -" I sputter.

"Why, Hamilton," Washington repeats. "Give me one good reason, aside from that you dislike him and you would find it humiliating."

"Because - because..."

Because I've only ever hugged friends or family, and Jefferson is neither. Because the last time someone (other than Eliza and Philip) put their arms around me... was Lafayette, I realize - when he got onto the ship for France and said goodbye to me. Because shortly after that I found out that John was dead and I'd never see him again, and now I'm friendless and alone and lonely. And they held me so many times, Lafayette and John and Hercules sometimes, and I'd lean into them and take comfort from them, and I cannot tarnish my memories of them by letting Jefferson put a slave-handling, filthy hand on me. And I can't explain that to him, even though he might understand, because now that my friends are gone, there's a part of me that is missing, and that part of me doesn't belong to him. Certainly not to Thomas Jefferson.

"Because I can't," I say weakly. "I'm sorry."

"In that case, Hamilton, you will do as I say. You will hug Jefferson, or you will go home and not present your plan to me."

I feel my heart sink. "But, sir..."

We both pause as we hear Jefferson's whining from the other room. Washington turns back to me. "Well?"

I gulp. I will never, never live this down. But there's no choice.

"I'll hug him."

"Excellent." The President smiles and leads me back to the dining room, where Jefferson sits slumped in his chair. "Are you ready then, Jefferson?"

Jefferson looks up at through his messy hair, and I feel a shiver of disgust run through me as I realize I am literally going to have to put my arms around this man. "Sir, why don't you just kill me now?" he sputters. "Perhaps in a more respectable way?"

"Why, so you can go to hell sooner rather than later?" I snap. I can't help myself. I hate him.

"I have to hug you, you idiot. That's practically hell in and of itself."

I bristle. Madison's face is bright red.

"That's enough, gentlemen," says the president. "Let's get on with it."

I push back my chair very slowly and stand up. Jefferson unfolds himself from his slouch and does likewise, and we stand there staring at each other.

"Remember, ten full seconds," says Washington.

Ten full seconds. The worst ten seconds of my life.

Things could always be worse, I think as I step towards the Secretary of State. You could be back in the war, you could be reliving that day where you got the letter from Henry Laurens. No matter how awful hugging Jefferson is going to be, that day will always be the worst in my life.

Though this is going to come a very close second.

I can't delay this for much longer or there will be almost no time for the meeting. I take another step towards Jefferson, so we're only about a foot apart.

"Alright," says Washington. "Go."

"I hate you," Jefferson hisses, and then he grabs me by my arms and pulls me against him.

My instinct is to recoil, but his hands have locked behind me, his arms just barely brushing against me. He's far taller than me, so my face is pushed against all that horrible frilly silk. Very, very hesitantly, I bring my arms up around him, careful to hardly touch him.

"One," Washington begins to count. An hour seems to pass, and he adds, "two."

I can feel my skin crawling as some of Jefferson's crazy hair brushes against my forehead. The worst part is, it makes me remember Lafayette, who had the same frizzy brown corkscrew curls that would always be sticking out everywhere, especially when he'd just woken up and gotten to the command tent late.

"Fix your hair," I'd say fondly, running my fingers through it before he gathered it into a tight ponytail.

"I don't need your help, mon cher."

"No, what you need is a comb."

It makes all this worse - ten times worse - to think about my friends. Suddenly I have the foolish instinct to start crying. When will this be over?

Jefferson keeps making gagging sounds like he's going to throw up. Madison sounds like he might die coughing. I'm so embarrassed and angry - and sorrowful now that I've remembered my friends - that one of the tears falls out and runs into Jefferson's shirt. I feel weak, like I'm going to collapse to the floor, and my hands automatically seek for something to grab onto.

Unfortunately, my hands forget that the only thing to grab onto is Thomas Jefferson, and don't remember that fact until after I have fistfuls of his shirt in my grasp.

"Ten," says Washington, just as Jefferson jumps back.

"What is wrong with you?" he shouts in my face. I stand there, tears swimming in my eyes, my hands hanging helplessly at my sides. Breathing fast, I lift my eyes to meet his irritated gaze. I gulp.

"Would you excuse me for a moment," I whisper, and flee.

 

I sit at my desk, not writing. Yesterday's meeting was shorter than normal, probably because I couldn't bring myself to look at Jefferson or Washington. Eliza was asleep when I got back and left early this morning to visit with friends. I am alone. And I can feel it.

I bury my face in my hands to try and stop more tears. I knew my friends were gone. I shouldn't have to be reminded by Thomas Jefferson.

But oh, God, I'm lonely.

There's so much work I have to do, and yet, I can't seem to settle down and focus on any of it. I am - not tired, exactly - but weary. Of the work, of Jefferson of being friendless...

"Alexander, just take a break," John's voice murmured.

"I don't need a break," I'd answered. "I have to get this letter done, or the General -"

"Won't even notice," he'd said in reply. "You're working too hard. Come back to the tent and get some sleep."

"You go on. Tell Laf and Herc that I'll be a while, if they're worried." I hid my yawn behind my hand.

"Alexander." John cupped my cheek gently in one hand, and tilted my head to face him. "You're exhausted. I can tell."

"I'm not..."

"Alexander..."

I'd slumped back against him. John wrapped an arm around me and organized my papers with his free hand, and then bent over and blew out my candle.

"C'mon," he said, guiding me out of my chair and out along the row of tents. I'd leaned against him, with his arm wrapped around my shoulders. "Time for you to sleep."

The memory is what finally undoes me. I can't do this anymore. I'm so broken, I'm so lonely... I find my hands reaching for a pen and a paper against my will, and the words spill across them without a thought as to what I am writing. Before I can really register it, the letter is folded into an envelope, and I'm walking out the door to send it.

 

The knock comes late evening the next night, just when I'm starting to regret sending that letter. When I don't answer, the doorknob turns, and Burr lets himself into my study.

"Hamilton?"

"I'm here," I say quietly.

"Your letter said to come..."

I nod, sorting through my papers, still not getting up to look at him. "Yes." I set the stack of papers onto the shelf at the top of the desk. "But I wasn't thinking, and the matter has resolved itself, so you can leave. Please close the door on your way out."

The door closes, but rather than the sound of his footsteps retreating, they come closer. "Jefferson and Madison told me," he says softly.

I bristle, then force myself to relax. "So you're working with them now," I say stiffly. "How nice for them to have inside information on me."

"It's not really like that."

"Go away, Burr."

There is a moment of silence, and then he ventures to say, "You cried?"

"For reasons unrelated to the... event at the meeting." I close my eyes and will him to leave. Stupid, I was so stupid to ask him to come here, I don't know what I thought I would accomplish by it...

"Why?"

"For someone who frequently advises me to talk less, you are full of questions tonight."

"Alexander."

The use of my first name makes me freeze. I sit there, rigid, for a moment, and then Burr lays his hand on my shoulder. I jump up and out of my chair, knocking his hand off of me, and flying across the room.

"DON'T TOUCH ME." I pant, pulling my coat tighter around myself as if to ward him off. His hand slowly falls back down to his side, and we stare at each other for a long moment. "Why don't you just go?" I whisper. "Go, just -"

"Alexander, if something's wrong, you can tell me," says Burr. "You should at least tell someone."

"Nothing is wrong, I'm fine, I'm always fine -"

"HAMILTON."

"I..." I shake my head, trying not to look at him, at anything. I squeeze my eyes shut. "It's John, and Laf and..." I stop. "No, I'm being stupid, you can just go. Please just go."

"What about them?" asks Burr gently, stepping closer to me. I pull further away from him, so that my back is up against the wall, wishing I could go right through it and get away from him. I hold out my hand, palm forward, trying to keep him from coming closer to me.

"Nothing," I say. "It's nothing. It's stupid anyway."

"Well, if it's stupid, it has to exist, right?" Burr smiles warmly, clearly trying to set me at ease. "It can't be nothing if it's stupid."

"It's nothing I want to talk about." I swallow. "Really..."

"Alexander," says Burr yet again, reaching out. I flinch, and his hand retreats. "Just tell me."

I wipe my eyes on my sleeve, turn away from him. "It's so pointless," I gulp. "I just... miss them and..." I cough, sputtering for breath. "When Washington made me hug Jefferson, it just reminded me, and..." I swipe at my eyes again. "I haven't had anyone hold-" I stop. "But I'm fine," I say quickly. "I'm really fine. Please just go away."

Burr stands behind me in silence for nearly a full minute while I slowly try to regain my composure. Finally he says, "Well, what about me?"

I turn to look at him. "What about you?"

"I'll hug you, if you want."

My heart stops, and then starts racing as my cheeks go red again. "No," I say, stepping away. "No, that's alright. You really don't have to..." I pause, and then I find myself stepping closer, my words spilling out like they did yesterday when I sent the letter. "If you tell anyone..."

"You'll deny it."

"And this doesn't mean -"

"That we're friends. I get it." Burr studies me. "So is that a yes?"

"Yes."

"Okay, then." Aaron Burr takes a step closer and puts his arms around me.

To my surprise, it feels...nice, to have him hug me. I'm comfortable, and feel safe. I bring my arms up around him and stand there. Since he's about the same height as me, unlike John or Lafayette or - I gulp again - Jefferson, I'm not smothered against his chest, and I can see over his shoulder if I want. I find myself leaning into him, tightening my grip, suddenly scared that he'll push me away and let me go and leave me alone once more.

But he doesn't let me go. Instead, Aaron holds me closer and rests his cheek against the top of my head. I cough and close my eyes as I start to cry again. "Shhh," he murmurs, "it's okay now."

I nod and bury my face in his shoulder. Yes, it's okay now.

Maybe this will be the last time. Maybe Burr will never show me any kindness again after today.

But for now, I'm here, standing in his arms, and he's here to comfort me. It's not overly affectionate, like it was to hug one of my friends. He doesn't stroke my hair or anything. Nor does he say anything else.

He just holds me. And it's enough.