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What Would You Do If You Had More Time?

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1804

Alexander had thought, before that fated day in Weehawken, that he knew about death. From the day his weak, fevered body had been peeled away from his mother's corpse, from the wreckage of the hurricane, the bodies he'd all but climbed on top of to get himself away from that island. From the brutal deaths of men on the battlefield and the festering deaths from infections and plague. From sitting with dear Peggy, calmly waiting for death to escort his sister and friend away from her pain. From the inhuman experience of Philip's deathbed, curling up next to his tormented son knowing how powerless he was to stop death's invasion. From the months after Philip's death, struggling to find light in the world even as new life grew inside Eliza, realizing too late that little Angelica had fallen too far inside herself for him to reach.

Dying, it turned out, was something that could only be truly understood from the inside. The world disappeared for a while after the punch of Burr's bullet finding his ribs, but he saw a hazy view of the Manhattan shoreline then faded away again for a while until he woke to the blinding pain of the doctor's hands on him. In him. He caught glimpses, through the roiling darkness of his last hours, of the people around him--his dearest Eliza, his sister Angelica and brother-in-law John, all of his children, even the smallest ones looking at him with their big, beautiful eyes. He heard little Angelica talking to Philip, and when he managed to push his eyes open he thought he saw his oldest son, strong and alive again. And then Philip was gone. Again.

Though he couldn't muster the strength to open his eyes, he thought he heard his mother praying at his side. He thought he felt John's hand in his hair, that fond voice whispering in his ear.

The last thing Alexander was sensible of was Eliza's slim, strong hands holding his. "I love you truly," she said, her voice choked. "You're a damned fool but I would choose you again."

You always were a headstrong woman, Alexander tried to say, but his throat wouldn't work around the taste of blood. He managed to catch Eliza's gaze, and in her nod and shaky smile he saw that she understood. The pain that wracked his body began to slip away, the room turned foggy around him, and his breaths began to lapse away from his body like the small waves of the river's tide washing away from the shore. Slow, gentle, intractable. And then nothing.

~~~

And then Alex sat up, gasping at the rasp of unfamiliar breath through his lungs and throat. In the dim light of one candle he could see that he was dressed in his best black suit, and as his gaze traveled past his own body he blinked at the shadowed form of his old friend, George Washington.

"I should have expected you to be with the hosts of angels in heaven, sir, not in whatever purgatory to which I've found myself consigned."

Washington smiled, that gentle smile that always meant Alexander had run too far past the best path. "There is to be no afterlife for us, at least not yet. This is purgatory only in the sense that this city has always been, compared to the peaceful spread of open fields and unmolested tracts of forest."

Alexander shook his head, preparing his argument for the vibrant life of the city and the beauty of his home uptown, before his mind returned to the mystery of their situation. "Sir," he said, his voice reminding him of himself in his most uncertain moments as a young man under the General's tutelage. "Please, I don't understand."

Washington stepped closer and put his hand on Alexander's chest, just over his beating heart. "You were dead, just for a while, and now you're not. I cannot explain how this has happened to you any more than I can explain how it happened to me that first time, years before we ever met. Whether it's a blessing or a curse, you and I are of the sort that Death declines to remove from the world."

"You don't mean that we're some manner of ghost or demon?"

Washington laughed. "No, we're simply men. Living men."

Alexander swung his legs over the side of the slab he'd been laid out on. "Then I must go home. There's so much work for me at home. My family--"

"No." Washington's hand on his shoulder was gentle but heavy, and the word brooked no argument. "In the eyes of the world, you are dead. They saw you die. You lay in state, men carried you through the streets, and you were buried in this crypt. The church bells cannot be unstruck anymore than the bells of Liberty could be. There's a life for you, but your old life is gone. You chose to trade it for some scrap of honor, and you cannot take it back."

Alexander shook his head. He argued until his words rung against the stone walls of the tomb, but in the end he walked out with Washington in the cover of darkness. He thought he might have well been a ghost, but sometime between getting into the back of a carriage with his old friend and walking into an unfamiliar house in the light of morning he came to understand that this was a new kind of living, a new world beyond the shade of death that had chilled him throughout his life.

Despite the ache of what he'd left behind, Alexander's mind raced ahead to what he could do next. He felt like the young man he'd been when he first stepped foot on New York soil--the young man who had been lurking under the weight of years and responsibilities, debts and regrets--began to wake again. There was a big world around him, a still-new nation, an infinite future. And breakfast. Good god, hopefully breakfast.

~~~

The house was on the outskirts of a small town in New Jersey, a narrow structure but sturdy and neat with a doctor's shingle hanging out front: L. Johnson, MD.

"I've had rather enough of doctors just recently," Alexander commented as he followed Washington out of the carriage.

"This is just a place for you to catch your breath and decide where to go next. You'll find an old friend inside, one who's been looking forward to seeing you again for some years."

"But I thought--"

"Patience, Mr. Hamilton."

They had no bags to retrieve from the carriage, and the driver left after a word from Washington. At the door, Washington knocked once then turned the knob to enter without waiting for a response. Alexander hesitated on the threshold as he felt something strange, like a vibration at the base of his skull. Nothing happened, and the feeling in his head settled so he followed Washington inside, and the sight of the young man he saw descending the steps left him feeling for a moment that he might die again, that his heart and lungs were trying to once again cease all motion.

The man's hair was cropped where it had been long before, and there was something of the weight of twenty years in his bearing but his face was as unlined as it had been the last time Alexander saw him, before his fateful departure for South Carolina. "John?" There was no breath behind the word, but the man nodded anyway as he reached the foot of the stairs and drew closer, his hand reached out.

"Yes. It's good to see you, my friend." His voice was different, that old southern accent weaker, but Alexander couldn't help the rush of fondness inside of him any more than he could help the flash of rage that followed it.

"God damn you, Laurens!"

John drew his hand back, startled. "Alex--"

"All of those years! Two decades I mourned you, and all that time you were alive!"

John looked down and didn't respond, but Washington murmured, "As your family mourns you now."

Alexander shook his head and reached out to grab a rough handful of John's shirt. "You left me. I needed you. God damn you!"

John looked up to meet his eyes, and the calm Alexander saw there cooled his own anger. "I've regretted my death for twenty years now, as I know you'll regret yours, but we can be friends again now if you can bear it."

Alexander let go of John's shirt and pulled him in for an embrace instead. "God damn you," he whispered in John's ear, but the anger was gone for now.

Moments later, the three men settled down for a breakfast of thickly sliced toasted bread with blackberry jam, fried eggs, and coffee. Alexander looked around the room which was well but simply appointed. "Have you been here all this time? Since the war? On your own, or--"

"On my own, yes. I have a girl from the town who comes to clean and cook a little, but I mostly get by on a bachelor's rations, besides what some of my patients foist upon me. Since the war, no, but I've been here for some years. Almost too many years, I think."

"I agree," Washington said around a sip of coffee.

"It seems like a nice enough arrangement."

"It is, but I've always known I'd have to move on. After the--after I died and after the General here came to spirit me away, I went further south for a while to study medicine. Once I finished my training, I came back up north to escape the fact that I had made no difference and could make no difference to the lives of so many people living in bondage. I'm not proud of that, but I built my practice here, and the town has been good to me."

Alexander nodded. "And you worry that soon they'll notice that you scarcely look a day older than you did when you arrived?"

"They already have, but I don't know how much longer I can laugh it off as the luck of a strong constitution."

"Not much longer, son."

John tipped his head to acknowledge Washington's words. "I've answered an advertisement recently, from a town out west seeking a doctor. Dr. Lawrence Johnson has recommended his young apprentice for the position, and I expect I'll be departing by next spring at the latest. There, I'll start fresh again." John looked more resigned than pleased at the prospect, but it made sense, to the extent that anything in these last hours had made sense.

Alexander looked over at Washington. "May I ask what your situation is, sir? Surely your face is one of the most recognizable in the whole of the nation."

"Lamentably, yes, but I get by."

In the morning light, Washington looked many years younger than he had the last time Alexander had seen him, just after Adams' damnable inauguration. "How long ago was it, sir, that you truly died?"

"Just over thirty years ago now, in a quiet spot in the woods with nobody knowing other than a slave woman who was one of us. I was 41 when it happened and by the time I left the presidency it was becoming clear to me that powdered wigs and dental implements weren't enough to continue making me appear to age. Martha and I made arrangements, and after my public death I moved north to rural Pennsylvania. I have a small farm, where I can work the land myself with the help of paid farmhands." A significant look passed between him and John.

Alexander remembered when he'd been courting Eliza, when he'd warned her that they might well end up as simple farmers, thought he'd never had any intention of allowing his life to go that way. He thought of the small crops he'd grown at the Grange in recent years, and as his thoughts went again to his family, an idea struck him with a jolt that he felt all through his body.

"What is it?" John asked, peering at Alexander from across the table.

"You say there are more of us. Are they all known to you, in the city and nearby at least?"

"I'm not in the city often, but I've recognized only a few of our kind in passing."

"And do you know? Can it be told if this is passed down through families? My son, could he be--"

"He's not," Washington said gently.

"But my daughter, she's never varied from the insistence that Philip is still alive." Alexander felt himself shaking, the adrenaline of long-lost hope rushing through him. "We've thought her mad," he whispered, "but what is this, us here, but madness?"

Washington lifted his hand to rest on Alexander's shoulder, and the weight of it pressing him down into the chair was a surprising comfort. "I'm sorry, your son is truly gone."

"I wanted very much to visit you when I read of his passing," John said. "I'm more sorry than I can say."

Alexander nodded his head and did his best to push away the thoughts that darkened his mind. "Thank you, my friends."

~~~

Soon after breakfast was completed, John's first patient of the day arrived at his front door. Washington was concerned the he or Alexander could be recognized, so they withdrew to the second floor where there was a spare bedroom with a small parlor. Washington, who had traveled hard from the time the news of Alexander's death had reached him, excused himself to the bed for some rest, but Alexander found that he couldn't even sit much less sleep. In stocking feet, to avoid disturbing Washington or creating undue noise for John and his patients below, he paced back and forth. He composed correspondence that he would never write down, for they would only be a waste of paper and ink since he could never send them.

He had thought his affairs were satisfactorily resolved before the duel, but there were so many more things he could think of to write to Eliza, their children, the Churches. To Jefferson, to Burr. To the grocer, even, but he could understand the logic of his new reality even if he couldn't quite believe it. None of those people could even hear from him again. So many words he had written as Alexander Hamilton, and now there could be no more.

He felt as though the words were filling up his chest, choking him, and finally his quick steps couldn't keep up with the pace of his heartbeat and his jagged breaths, and he stumbled down to sit in one of the chairs in the little parlor. He would have been surprised that the commotion inside him hadn't woken Washington, but the man had always been the consummate soldier, able to find sleep when he could. Alexander was watching the pulsing darkness behind his eyes, listening to the irregular gasps of his breathing, when he felt a hand on his knee and looked up to see John crouched in front of him.

"Breathe more slowly, my friend," John said quietly, calmly. "I remember this like it was yesterday, don't you?" John breathed in and out steadily, and Alexander endeavored to follow him. "Not before a battle, not you, but that time before you went to make your proposal to Miss Schuyler."

"Among others," Alexander gasped out, sick with shame that he could still lose control like this. He was no young man now, and still his mind could run away with his body like a horse that had snapped its tether.

"And every time you found your breath."

John's calm assurance transmitted itself to Alexander the way it had all those years ago, and he felt the grip on his chest loosen. "Do you think I can safely venture outside without being hung as a witch?"

John smiled. "I think some fresh air is worth the risk. Let's leave the General to his rest."

Alexander followed John down the stairs and out his back door to a cool, wooded patch not far behind the house. They sat down next to each other on a broad felled tree, and it felt like they were young men again, making what they could of a quiet moment between training and meetings and skirmishes. With the aftermath of his panic trembling through him and the realization of how many words he would never get to speak to people he cared about, Alexander couldn't keep himself from saying what was in his mind to the man beside him.

"Dear Laurens, I hope you don't take me for a twisted old man when I say that you're as lovely as I remember, if not moreso."

A slight flush bloomed on John's freckled cheeks, and he looked down. "You've always been a flatterer, Hamilton."

"I know I'm going to have to make a plan on move on from here sooner than later, but maybe we could have a few days? There was never time back then, but I always thought we could have explored, perhaps, the pleasures of the Greeks." Alexander's heart raced again, but not with the raw edge of earlier. He wouldn't admit this to John, but he'd lain with men a few times, back before he and John had ever met, but those had been rough tumbles. He'd always wondered what it might be like to touch a man with the kind of tenderness he felt for his dear friend.

"I've declined that offer from you before, Hamilton, and the answer hasn't changed."

Alexander swallowed hard. "I'm sorry to have offended you."

"I'm not offended," John said, sounding more upset at the prospect of offense than he had at the suggestion of buggery.

"I thought that in this world where everything, even death, is turned upside down, perhaps we could move beyond those common morals. And you have no wife or any such thing here, unless the girl who does your cleaning--"

"Dear God, Hamilton, she's barely 15 years old. It's neither moral qualms nor romantic attachments that stop me, and I've never loved any man more than I have you, Alexander. I'm simply not inclined, and it would be decent of you to respect that."

Alexander was quiet for a moment, absorbing that and breathing the earthen smell of the trees into his body. "Of course, John. I'd like to spend a few days in any case. We can be bachelors together, and you can tell your patients that I'm your eccentric uncle who doesn't care for company."

"I'd like that very much." John smiled, and Alexander felt the sweetness of that smile spread inside him like tea on a brisk morning.

~~~

That evening, after a simple dinner filled with conversation about Alexander's plans for the future, Washington left. His fields were calling him, and he prefered to stay farther from the city. Still, when Washington embraced him before taking his leave, Alexander found himself hoping dearly that their paths would cross again. He had spent so many years struggling under the weight of Washington's shadow and then those last few years wishing he could have that shade again. The one strange day with them both just being men, men who were somehow not dead, had given Alexander a hint of what it would be like to know Washington as an equal.

He thought about tracking down the man's farm in Pennsylvania once he was ready to leave John's house, but an invitation hadn't come, at least not quite. Alexander had instructions to write to Washington care of the post office in the nearest town to his farm, should he need any help, but that wasn't the same thing as a request for his presence as a dispossessed former soldier, attorney and statesman with an undependable record for pulling cabbages and squash out of the ground. Alex shook his head at the idea and watched Washington's carriage disappear down the dim road before following John back inside the house.

The few days that Alexander had with John in New Jersey were bittersweet. Aside from the mixture of the joy from spending time with his old friend and the sorrow of having left his family behind so irrevocably, he also couldn’t help imagining how the last twenty years might have been with John Laurens by his side. What might have been different in his career if he and John had risen up together, fighting side by side and back to back against Jefferson and others of his ilk? More painful was imagining what his personal life might have been with the trusted, steadying influence John had been for him during the war. He might not have let his sins lead him to tearing apart his family. They might not have--

Alexander feared he would lose himself to an infinite spiral of hindsight and blame, so when he found himself slipping into those thoughts he forced himself to look around at what he had: friends, a future, his life. He prayed that the years ahead of him wouldn’t grow to feel interminable. Late at night, mere hours before he was due to leave John’s home, and well into his cups Alexander leaned his shoulder against John’s. “What do you know of the natural laws of this new existence?”

“Hmm?”

“I know I crave food and sleep in the same proportions as before, but can we starve? Can we sicken? Can true death find us in any way?”

John sighed. “All I know is what I’ve been told and what I’ve observed in myself and the few others of my acquaintance. If you’re injured, as long as your head remains attached to your shoulders, you will heal. It will happen very quickly for a minor injury, over the course of a day or more for grievous damage. I imagine that there must be a level of bodily destruction that would be unrecoverable, but I don’t know where that line would fall. Illness, however, cannot touch us. No more summer fevers for you, my Alexander.”

“I won’t miss that, certainly.”

“You'll have no more children either. After our first death, that spark that can generate new life is gone.“

“But I can still…perform?”

John laughed quietly. “So I am told.”

It was good news, Alexander supposed, that he wasn’t at risk of leaving a string of bastard issue behind him. If we were to be forced by circumstance to move on every decade or two, he wouldn’t have to abandon children the way his worthless father had. Of course, if he were to fall in love with a woman, it also meant that he could never give her children, but he reminded himself that he’d been lucky to have that with Eliza. Twenty years of marriage and nearly half as many children would surely have to be enough for any span of lifetime.

John jostled Alexander’s shoulder. “I hope that you don’t plan on seeking the borders of this life. I know we’ll both be moving on to new places soon, but I like to think we’ll meet again one day. And we can exchange letters, as long as we keep each other current regarding mailing addresses. Washington gave you the address of the general mail drop he set up in the city?”

“For if any of his geese become disconnected from the flock, yes. It’s strange to think that in a sense I’ve exceeded Washington in age now. Perhaps I should call him George.”

“Perhaps,” John said, sounding doubtful.

“Perhaps.”

~~~

In the morning, Alexander began his journey to a new life. First to Boston, where some of the funds Washington had left for him went to buy a new suit that would be serviceable for traveling along with the few other things he would need until he could establish himself in a new place. From there, carrying expertly forged identity papers arranged for by Washington, he boarded a ship bound for the continent. He didn’t know quite how Washington had made the arrangement, but the head of the Milan office of an import and export firm with ties to America had recently vacated the position, and Alexander was to be his replacement.

As he sat in his small cabin on the ship, he thought about his first long voyage, the one from St. Croix to New York. He’d been a boy then, on his way to start a new life in a new place, and his situation was strangely similar thirty years later. Those thirty years had given him strength and knowledge, but they’d taken some things from him as well. At least he still had his mind, he thought as he crammed over some slim texts he’d picked up in Boston. He spent long hours studying to turn his rusty but fluent French and his old schoolboy Latin into a working knowledge of Italian.

By the time he arrived in Milan, he was ready to push forward with building a new life that could also help to support the life he’d left behind. He worked to increase the profits of the business, easily replacing the business lost when he cut ties with any companies that traded in human flesh, and sent everything he could back to New York as anonymous donations to the fund that Washington had told him was established to support Eliza and the children. In his off hours, he gained fluency in his new tongue and studied the laws of his new home. He kept up correspondence with John, as much as was possible given the logistics of getting letters from the American Midwest to Europe and back, and if his communication with Washington was less frequent it came to feel like a touchstone in his life, a sense of a home he could return to one day.

Years passed, and Alexander’s spare funds went to the orphanage his dear Eliza had founded now that his own children were all grown. When it was time for him to shed the identity that had once been new, he moved to Rome and established himself as an attorney specializing in working with clients from English-speaking countries, travelers and expatriates both. Investments he made along the way matured, and he established an account for himself back in New York—a down payment on a future he hoped to have in the city he’d called home for so many years. He spent years shaving his face smooth twice every day and avoiding wearing his glasses in public and then more years growing out his beard and going about bespectacled to age himself. Some days it felt like a game, others a burden. Like life, really.

1853

When his life in Rome was growing older than he could pretend to be, Alexander weighed his options. Italy had become home, and he was proud that much of the time he could pass for a native, the coloring he'd inherited from his mother along with his fluency in the language and culture allowing him to blend in with the society around him. Seeking counsel, he sent a letter to Washington, and the answer he received was surprising.

Sir,

By the time this letter arrives, I expect that I will myself be en route to the shores nearer your location. I will rendezvous with an old friend in Paris then proceed to your fine city. I will send further word when we are on the road to Rome.

Yours,
GW

Alexander read the brief missive over and over again until the words began to make even less sense than they had the first time. Beyond the shock and surprising joy that Washington would be coming to visit him, he didn't know what to think about the prospect of an old friend. John Laurens was in California, having worked his way as far west as he could without leaving the continent. It was clear that Washington was acquainted with more of their kind, but it seemed unlikely that he would bring somebody Alexander didn't already know from Paris to Rome for a visit.

When the next letter arrived, it was with no more information but at least the anticipation was to be shorter. Washington declared their expected arrival date to be Wednesday the 11th, and the calendar read Tuesday the 10th. His flat was well-appointed but not large, two bedrooms being more than enough for Alexander and whoever he had warming his bed from time to time. He had the signora who kept his rooms clean air out the second bedroom and refresh the linens on that bed as well as his own, and early Wednesday evening he was anxiously attempting to distract himself with a newspaper when a knock came at his front door.

Washington stood on his doorstep, as tall and pleasantly imposing as always, and behind him was a man Alexander had never imagined he would see again. "Lafayette! My God!"

The Frenchman gave Alexander a sly grin. "Are you going to let us inside, mon ami, or must the general and I seek lodging elsewhere?"

"Of course!" Alexander stepped back and opened the door wide for the two men to enter with their bags. When the door was closed behind them, he turned to look at Washington. "Why did you not tell me?"

"It wasn't my business to tell. In any case, I thought you should have time to fully establish yourself here without too much by way of ties to your old life. God knows you didn't need to be tempted to engage in American politics."

Washington pierced him with a look, and Alexander felt his mouth drop open in disbelief. "You knew? How--but it was only the one letter!"

"The 'letter' was more of a treatise, and nobody else could have been so righteously smug about Madison's re-establishment of the Federal Bank. The only reason your name wasn't attached to it by the public at large is that they believed you eight years in the ground. There were rumors that one of your sons had written it, though none who were old enough shared both your facility with words and interest in financial systems, and I even read a rumor that your sister Mrs. Church was the author."

"Well, at least people were reading it, and I imagine Angelica was amused by the speculation."

"I've never known a woman with a finer mind," Lafayette added, and Alexander was confused until he remembered that Angelica had become friends with the Marquis while she lived in Europe.

"I thought I read of your death, what was it? Ten years ago now?"

"Twenty." Lafayette raised his eyebrows and nodded in understanding. The time passed ever more swiftly, it seemed. "Of course, my actual death was many years previous." Alexander couldn't quite guess the age from Lafayette's face, but he supposed it must have been at least thirty years before his official passing.

"The revolution? Yours, that is?" He could never think of the French revolution and his friend's role in it without a pang of guilt. Keeping the fledgling United States out of the conflict had been the correct path, but Lafayette had crossed the sea to support the colonies in their revolt. He had deserved better.

Lafayette gave him a lingering look that let Alexander know he was thinking the same thing but then his face relaxed and he shook his head. "Non. I survived that, and what I did not survive is perhaps a tale for another time. Right now, I am more interested in dinner. And drinks. Or perhaps just drinks."

They all laughed and Alexander embraced each of his friends in turn before letting them freshen up and then leading them on the short walk to his favorite quiet restaurant. They stayed for hours, eating their fill and drinking bottles of wine before finally making their way back to Alexander's flat. He showed Lafayette to the guest bedroom and then directed Washington to his own room.

"And where will you sleep, Hamilton?"

"On the chairs in the parlor. I've slept in far worse, certainly."

"There's no need. Your bed is plenty large for both of us to bunk together."

 

"Sir, I couldn't."

"Call me George, won't you? I'm just a farmer, visiting old friends from another life. I've slept next to laboring horses a time or ten, so I think I'll manage with you."

Alexander thought suddenly of his drunken conversation with John about calling Washington by his Christian name. "Well, Farmer George, I'm so flattered by that comparison that I must take you up on your offer."

Washington's--George's dignified face broke into laughter, and Hamilton left to snuff out the lamp in the parlor before returning to his bedroom. The tall man was stripped down to his underclothes, his strong thighs naked below his long shirt, and Alexander forced himself to look away before undressing as well. When they were both in the bed with the light out, Alexander forced himself to lie still while his mind buzzed like a tree full of bees. Enough time had passed that he was sure George was asleep when he heard the low voice next to him. "I can hear that brain of yours."

"I'm sorry, sir. George."

"You don't need to be sorry. What are you thinking about?"

Alexander sighed. "So many things. The time races by, and it's only seeing you and Lafayette, talking about the past and tallying up the years, that I realize I'm nearly a century old. How can that be?"

"I don't know. I don't think anybody knows."

"By all rights, I should have died before I was old enough to shave. Unknown and unmourned save by a few who might once in a very great while have thought fondly of a child they once knew."

"Alexander, I think I would have mourned you, even if I had never known your existence. Our revolution and our government would have suffered without you, and I'm more glad than I can say that you survived. And that you survive still."

Alexander's throat felt tight with surprising emotion that he would not express. He coughed to clear his throat. "I suppose, considering what's happened, that I wouldn't have truly died back then in any case."

"Not necessarily. To my knowledge, the first death has to be a violent one in order to trigger the awakening."

Violent death had been a possibility, Alexander thought. Tropical fevers weren't the only dangers he had faced, but that led to times he cared to revisit even less than the memory of his mother's deathbed. He needed something to distract him from his own story. "Will you tell me how you died, the first time?"

George nodded slowly. "It's not a very exciting story but not a very terrible one either, at least not for me. It was a period of peace, relatively, and I was at home. It was very early morning, misty and silent. I was riding cross-country in the fields around the plantation, and I lost my grip as the horse galloped over a stream. I cracked my head on a rock, and that would have been that."

Alexander felt his heart twist at the thought that he never would have met the man, had that been the end of his life. He thought he understood what George had meant about mourning him even if they hadn't met. "What happened?"

"I woke hours later, alone and disoriented, with only a gore-covered rock and my unblemished skull to tell the story. I made my way back to the house, and later that day a woman found me. A slave." George cleared his throat. "One of my slaves. She explained to me what I was, that she was like me and that she'd always been able to sense that I'd meet this fate. She said I'd been converted."

"Converted?"

"From mortal man into whatever breed of immortal we may be. She had been converted by her first owner after she was brought to America. He was...one of us as well, and he could tell she had the same potential."

"So he--no." Alexander's stomach twisted.

"He murdered her so that she would stay young." George took in a deep breath and let it out in a sigh that jostled the bed. "I freed her, sent her north, arranged for her education, and for a long time I told myself it was enough. You and Laurens with your youthful northern ideals, that barely touched me. You know who changed my mind? Turned my heart into that of an abolitionist?"

It was strange and moving to hear George talk about this subject they had always done their best to avoid. "Who?"

"Your wife. Your Eliza."

The emotion that had threatened earlier suddenly swelled beyond the boundaries Alexander had built for it, and he let out a dry, sobbing breath as tears flooded his eyes. He rolled to turn his body away from his friend, hiding as best as he could from mere inches away, but George followed him. He fitted his larger frame in behind Alexander then put a hand on his arm, gentling Alexander as if he were a spooked horse. George didn't say anything else, just breathed quietly and steadily, close enough for Alexander to feel the wind of it on the back of his ear. The moment felt more intimate than any encounter he'd had in the last half century, and that made him squeeze his eyes shut tighter.

Slowly he began to relax, allowing some of his weight to rest back against George's body, and at some point without realizing it he fell asleep.