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“Are you kidding me?”

Burr doesn’t mean to shout, but he can’t help it. And really, it’s actually quite restrained when you think about it, because what he really wants to say is are you fucking kidding me, you must be out of your goddamned mind, so he’s at least edited in that department. Not that these office walls haven’t absorbed their fair share of curses, but Burr generally tries not to contribute.

“I’m serious,” says Washington, as if he was ever anything else. Burr hadn’t really expected a different answer, but he’d had to ask.

“You have the temperament and upbringing for it,” Washington continues, “and your French is impeccable, I’ve heard. You’d be a decent ambassador.”

Burr doesn't miss the dryness that accents the word - decent. Still. An ambassador. He tries to wrap his head around the word. It’s not a path he’d ever pictured for himself, certainly not now - not with the war wrapping up, a new nation rising from the wreckage left behind by the revolution. He has a plan, was preparing to return to New York to establish himself as a lawyer, with notions to eventually move into government. It’s a neat plan, well laid out. Ambassador was never a plan. Never even a consideration.

“I can’t force you, of course,” says Washington - not technically a lie, but they both know what would be in Burr’s best interests, “but doing this...favor for me would greatly improve your political standing upon your return.”

Implicit in Washington's words, of course, is the suggestion that if Burr does refuse Washington's offer, his political standing could greatly suffer. Despite his frustration, Burr still has enough wits about him to begrudgingly appreciate Washington's cunningness, the quiet authority he held over Burr. Ironic, really -- all those times Burr has sought Washington's favor, and here it is, being offered to him on a platter – or, offered on the bow of a ship.

“I'll think about it,” says Burr.

“I expect an answer by tomorrow,” says Washington.

In truth, they both already know the answer. It was never much of a choice in the first place. There’s no other real option, not if he truly wants to advance his political career. Washington has, in his way, cornered him as neat as a cat corners a mouse. Burr already knows, of course, that Washington has little regard for him as a soldier, and Burr wouldn't be able to go far under Washington's new political regime unless he could do something to change the narrative, something drastic to win Washington’s favor.

Ambassador, he thinks again. Maybe he could get used to the word.

 

***

 

Burr goes home and pretends to think it over. Truth is, the idea was growing on him (perhaps because he has no other option; but perhaps not, perhaps this could be his calling). The trip to France alone would be an adventure. As a boy, he and his sister Sally had often visited the docks, usually unsupervised, and had enjoyed watching the men load and unload the ships with every item imaginable - nets full of fish, rugs with exotic designs, and even livestock. Burr recalls especially a day when they saw several men unloading a sleek Thoroughbred racehorse, a black stallion who had bucked and twisted his way down the gangplank and had almost broken free from the men holding him once they’d made it to land. He’d fantasized about stowing away on one of those ships, sailing to some new exotic land to pick out horses and goods of his own. He’d even gone so far as to walk up a random ship’s gangplank, but he hadn’t taken all of two steps aboard before one of the dock workers had spotted him and dragged him off by the ear. He recognizes this now for the escapism it was, the imaginings of an unhappy child shuffled from household to household, dreaming of adventure -- but this didn’t negate the fondness of his memories, the way the docks had thrilled him.

He’s been aboard ships since then, of course, but always short jaunts -- a few days here or there, and once a week-long trip with his grandfather on some spiritual mission. He’d always experienced a sort of thrill on those trips; standing on the deck and watching the land shrink away behind them. On board, he’d spend hours at the railings, watching the water and occasional splash of fish (and once, something larger, a fin cutting through the water with an unnerving quickness). He’d always disembark with his face wind-burnt and hot from so many hours spent outside. It’s been awhile since he was last on a ship, and the thought of returning to the sea grows increasingly appealing.

And now, the more he thinks about it, the more he shouldn’t have been so surprised that Washington had eyed him for this task. Washington’s animosity aside, Burr has the fluent French and genteel upbringing of any good diplomat, and surely even Washington could not deny that Burr would make a good representative of their emerging country.

Of course, regardless of any nerves or misgivings Burr has, there remains one other very good reason not to go.

He and Theodosia have not been together long - and truth is, together isn't the right word for it, it is a relationship built on another man’s schedule, a thing veiled in secrecy - thinly veiled, sure, but veiled nonetheless. Burr is pretty sure that he is in love with her - a fact he hasn't admitted but has shown, in his way, a dozen times over - but all the feelings in the world can't change the fact that she is still much too married.

He doesn't want to leave her. He cherishes his nights with her -- the sex is good, yes, but better still is how she’ll keep him up ‘til all hours with conversations on topics he’d never imagined she’d been educated in, only to show herself more informed than he; and he loves her all the more for it.

He could ask her to come with him, he knows, but since they are not married he is unsure if Washington would agree to fund another person on the journey, and Burr lacks the purse to do so himself. There is also the matter of her children -- even if Theodosia would take it upon herself to abscond to France with him, the children surely wouldn’t, and she would never leave them behind.

 

***

 

“I’ll do it,” he tells Washington the next day, and doesn't miss the self-satisfied smirk that plays across Washington’s face, the unspoken I knew you would. Burr keeps his own face schooled and impassive.

“Excellent,” says Washington, “we’ll make arrangements to send you as soon as possible. Get your affairs in order. You can expect to set sail in a week or so.”

“A week?” Burr can’t help but repeat the words back to him, aware he sounds a fool. He knew Washington was in a hurry to cement their alliances with France, but this still seems too fast, too sudden. Just yesterday morning he hadn’t spared a thought to France, and now, in less than 24 hours, he is George Washington’s official ambassador there. His head spins a little at the thought.

Life changes in a moment.

 

***

 

Time does not slow down, though he’d half-hoped it would. Instead, it seems to speed up, until Burr feels as if the hours are passing him by in some kind of fervent whirlwind. He works with other high-ranking officers to disperse the soldiers at his command to new posts. He stays up late most nights practicing his French -- it is still too technical, too academic and stiff, but he hopes his grasp on the language will improve once he is in the country itself. Almost all his French has been built in the classroom, and while his conjugations and tenses are strong he is still messy on slang, on the easier way the French actually speak. Burr still speaks a bit too slowly, a bit too stiffly, running each word through his mental translator before allowing it to leave his lips. It will improve, he is sure. He’ll sound like a native speaker soon enough.

Telling Theodosia is the worst part. When he calls upon her house she greets him eagerly, body pressing into him with a liquid ease, and for a moment he is tempted to take her to bed without telling her, eke out one last time between them. But he knows to do such a thing would be dishonorable (more dishonorable than bedding another man’s wife already is), so rather than kiss her back, rather than bury his hands in her hair, he pulls back.

“Theo…” he begins, and before he can say anything else her face changes, darkens, as she picks up on the gravity in his tone. She has always been so astute, able to read him in a way he both loves and fears.

“Washington's offered me the position of French ambassador, and I accepted. I’m set to leave in three days’ time. I know it’s fast, but Washington wants a man over there as soon as possible…” he trails off, wanting to tell her more, more, to justify this further, because surely he has to justify it.

She smiles, but her lips are tight and the smile doesn’t touch her eyes. She’s not the crying kind, but Burr notes a sheen in her brown eyes, and feels his heart twist for an awful moment.

“Three days,” she repeats.

“Yes,” he says, “I’m sorry to tell you so late, but I only found out about it a few days ago, and since then we’ve been preparing, and, given your situation, you know I can’t call unannounced.”

A bit callous, that, to throw the nature of their relationship in her face. They have developed a routine - she writes him letters filled with dates he can call upon her, and they make good use of that time, make good use of the marriage bed she built with another man.

He tries not to think about it too much; the exact nature of their relationship - their affair - but occasionally the facts make themselves known in ugly, inconvenient ways.

“It’s not forever,” he continues, “I’ll have the option to return in a year or so. By then…”

By then your husband might be dead, is what he wants to - but doesn’t - say. He knows it’s in poor taste, to want for another’s man’s death the way he does. As a soldier, of course, he’s killed, but those were nameless, faceless men, men clothed like the enemy on a battlefield - sanctioned killing, of sorts, on a sanctioned killing ground. The want for this man’s death is uniquely personal, even grotesquely intimate, in a way.

“I make you no promises,” she says, and her voice is strong, “even if...even if I am made available, I make no promises to wait.”

He’s expected as much - she is not the kind of woman who sits idly by waiting for things, wringing her hands - but the words still feel like a knife in his belly, a physical twist of the gut. He does a poor job of hiding his feelings, because her expression softens a bit, and she takes one of his hands between both of hers, rubs her fingers over his knuckles.

“In the meantime,” she says, “we have three days, and we’ll make the best of them.”

They do.

 

***

 

The last night together is when the bittersweetness of leaving sets in, they stay up talking and fucking. Eventually Theodosia curls against him, buries her head against his chest, not crying but not dry-eyed, either. She doesn’t look up at him, and he’s glad because his own eyes are stinging. He suddenly dreads the voyage, the expanse of cold nights, the ambiguous way they’re leaving things.

(Not that I make no promises to wait is very ambiguous. But Burr pretends. He is good at pretending.)

In the morning, they are both bleary-eyed and tired, and Theodosia’s youngest, Mary Louisa, is crying nonstop over some imagined slight and tugging at her skirts. Their goodbye is much too brief and entirely unsatisfying, and when Burr looks back at the entryway she has already closed the door. The sight of that closed door shouldn’t hurt as much as it does, but Burr tries to put the thought aside.

Burr returns to his own home and gathers up his suitcases, packs the final few items necessary - a few more shirts, the watch Sally had given him when he’d finished at Princeton, his favorite umbrella. The carriage ride to the docks feels too long and too short all at once, he spends it all looking out the window at the familiar streets with a sort of preemptive homesickness.

But there’s excitement, too, kindling in his belly -- a voyage at sea, a new country, a new language. Not to mention Washington’s all-but-guarantee of a high political post upon his return.

Secretary of State Aaron Burr has a nice ring to it, he thinks.

 

***

 

The docks are bustling, almost chaotic when he arrives. The air is rife with the scents of saltwater and fish, and all around him men are yelling. It’s not the same docks he’d visited with Sally as a child, but it seems the on-goings are the same whenever you set sail. He realizes with a pang he hadn’t yet written to Sally, informed her of his journey - they’d drifted apart, forged their own lives, it was no longer them against the world as it had been in childhood, as they’d been shunted from relative to relative, handed off by death or disinterest until they grew old enough to be on their own. He makes a mental note to pen a letter to her as soon as he gets settled into his room -- not that he could post it, out in the middle of the ocean, but having the letter written would be a reminder to send it as soon as they landed in France.

In the distance, Burr spies Washington near a ship and hurries in that direction. He’s a bit surprised Washington is even here to see him off, but takes it as a clear sign his favor must be finally turning, that Burr is at last climbing into his good graces. He squares his shoulders and smiles, and for once, it even feels natural to smile in Washington’s presence.

“General,” he says by way of greeting, extending his hand. Washington takes it, his grip firm enough that for a moment Burr expects to hear the bones of his hands grinding together, but Washington quickly releases him.

“Glad to see you haven’t changed your mind on us,” Washington says, and though he’s smiling, it doesn’t entirely feel like a joke. Burr wonders briefly why Washington bothered to come see him off if he still felt this snide.

Je suis prêt,” he replies, the French easy on his tongue, his own snide response, then, “any last commands?”

“No,” says Washington, “the journey should take a few weeks, maybe a month. I’ve sent word to my contacts in France to expect my ambassadors’ arrival, so they should be ready for you.”

Burr knows all this - even with only a week to prepare, he’s learned all he can about the journey and likely sailing path - but he smiles and nods anyway.

“Good luck, Burr,” adds Washington, and before Burr can thank him, Washington has turned to go.

A ship boy shows up for Burr’s suitcases and Burr tosses him a coin, watching the boy carry the heavy suitcases up the gangplank with a surprising strength. No one else appears with orders for him, so he walks up the gangplank alone.

 

***

 

He’s walking on the deck, trying to avoid the sailors getting the ship ready - which is more difficult than it seems, they bustle and move and shout to one another, all exact in their orders, dancers moving in a ballet Burr doesn’t know the choreography to.

“You look lost, boy,” says a voice, and Burr turns. The man stands with an easy air, sharply dressed. He is taller than Burr, and likely a few years older as well. His hair is brown and shorn close to his head - freshly cut, Burr guesses, judging by a small nick at the man’s temple.

“Edward Preble. Captain of the Pickering,” the captain says, and offers a hand. Burr shakes it.

“Aaron Burr. Washington’s new ambassador to France.”

A brief moment of confusion crosses Preble’s face, but he says nothing else, instead looks off and gestures for a ship boy - the same one who had carted Burr’s luggage off earlier. The boy runs over as soon as he’s beckoned, looking up at the captain with a puppy-dog eagerness.

“This is William,” says Preble, “William, this is Mr. Burr. Please show him around the ship and to his quarters. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Burr. I look forward to having you on my ship.”

Preble moves off, already calling to another of the sailors, and the boy - William, Burr supposes - is looking at him impatiently, even though less than ten seconds had gone by.

“Come on, then,” William says, and Burr follows, lengthening his strides to keep up with the boy’s speed.

 

***

 

William takes him below deck and shows him the mess area - small, but clean - and leads him down the narrow corridor to his room.

The room is small, almost claustrophobic. Bunk beds take up an entire wall and extend into most of the cramped room. There is also a small desk holding several books and loose parchment and a three-legged stool. Luggage - more bags than Burr has brought - takes up the rest of the space, leaving barely enough room for William and Burr to stand in there.

“Washroom’s one door over,” says William, then, “looks like your bunkmate dropped his stuff by. Have you met him? He talks more than you.”

There is judgement in the boy’s tone, though Burr can’t figure out for whom.

“Bunkmate?” he repeats, a bit dumbly. Though he supposes it makes sense - this is a merchant’s ship sailing on a longer journey, they must utilize every inch of space. The quick turnaround of Washington’s decision had not allowed for them to make grander arrangements, had, Burr suspects, actually involved a bit of wheedling if not outright bribery. Still, a room to himself would have been nice. Would have, perhaps, been fitting for an ambassador.

“Sure,” says William, “this is the ambassador's quarters. He’s a nice fella, though. And it’s more privacy than most of us crew get.”

Burr feels selfish, suddenly -- he’d seen the crew’s quarters, a large area packed with hammocks, that would no doubt at nights be filled with a chorus of snores and farts from the other men. He should be grateful he’d only have to room with one man on the journey.

The tour wraps up on the deck, where William shows him the handful of smaller boats strung near the ship’s sides.

“These are the access boats. We use those for quick trips inland when we’re not docking. I helped Mr. Preble rig up a new kind of system for them -- we can get them in the water much faster than we used to. He calls ‘em davits.”

William waves to the rigging, a system of ropes and pulleys that looks intricate as a puzzle. Burr nods, impressed, noting the way the boats are strung, beginning to make sense of the pattern, how the ropes keep the boats suspended, but able to be easily set into the water. Even without knowing much about ships, he can see it’s a clever system, a much easier way to get the boats in the water quickly.

“Only takes one or two men to get them in the water now, Used to take a half dozen of us. Preble even says they could even be used as escape vessels, this way,” William continues, “though with the war ending there’s not a lot of cause for escape.”

He sounds almost disappointed, but then his face brightens, “could be used if pirates attacked, though!”

Burr knows the age of pirates is a few decades behind them, though he supposes there are still a few straggling ships about, especially down in the warmer climates. He smiles obligingly at the boy, though, and lets him have his thoughts of adventure.

“It’s a fascinating system,” he agrees, and that seems enough for William, who ends the tour there, leaving Burr on the ship’s deck near the bow. Burr finds a spot close to the railing where he seems to be out of the way, at least for the most part. He listens idly to the noise - men shouting, seagulls screeching, and the low slap of the waves against the ship’s wooden sides.

The ship shifts as an anchor is pulled up, and heavy sheaths of rope are thrown onboard as they slowly cast away from the docks -- and then they are unbound, sailing.

It’s a glorious day - sunny, almost hot, but a breeze coming off the ocean fills their sails and cools Burr’s skin. The ship picks up speed as wind billows eagerly into her sails, cutting a path through the calm waters, and in less than an hour the shoreline has disappeared from view completely, and they are surrounded on all sides by the murky blue water. Burr remains at the railing, still staring out, squinting slightly against the glare of the sunlight on the water. Excitement has cycled up in his chest, and he wonders if a bit of William’s adventurous spirit hasn’t rubbed off on him, because suddenly he can’t get enough sea air in his lungs, and he allows himself to grin.

He’s staring out, grinning like a fool, half-blind from the glare off the ocean, when a hand taps his shoulder. Before he can even turn, a familiar voice rings out.

“Well, if it isn’t Aaron Burr!”

Burr blinks, trying to comprehend the man before him; sure this is some kind of hallucination brought on by too much sun.

He opens his mouth to reply but for a moment nothing comes out. He feels like a fish pulled out of the water, mouth gaping, unable to breathe.

“Hamilton,” he says, “what the fuck are you doing here?”

Hamilton doesn't blink at the curse, breaks into a smile.

“Washington appointed me as ambassador to France! He said he needed a charismatic French speaker to go over there to improve our alliance, and well, if the shoe fits…anyway, what are you doing on this ship? I thought you were going to go back to New York, start practicing law.”

“Washington appointed me as ambassador to France, too,” Burr manages, and then adds, “though he clearly didn’t trust me to do the job alone.”

“Or me,” Hamilton laughs, finding a humor in the situation that Burr is blind to, “he only asked me two weeks ago.”

It suddenly makes sense, now - why Washington had been on the docks, why Washington hadn’t expressed his usual reluctance at giving Burr any modicum of power. Burr is nothing but a backup. All this appointment did was get Burr out of Washington’s hair, but he had no doubt now that, upon return, all the glory would go to Hamilton - a trend he’s seen before. He’s seen the way Washington had looked at the man back in the thick of the war, how he’d ignored Burr’s suggestions but taken Hamilton on as an aide-de-camp, and, before you could blink was listening raptly to a man who shut up as if every word was fascinating.

“Oh well,” Hamilton continues, “two’s better than one, right? This is such a great opportunity to us.”

“Yes,” Burr manages to say, and hopes the word sounds more convincing to Hamilton than it does to him.

“Well, I look forward to the partnership, sir,” Hamilton says, and Burr sighs a little - the sir had been a joke Hamilton had employed upon their first meeting several years ago, enjoying the rhyme - Aaron Burr, sir and Burr sir until Hamilton could hardly say Burr’s name without rhyming it.

“Now, I believe I have a tour to finish on this lovely vessel,” Hamilton says, and there was William, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. Hamilton follows the boy below deck, and Burr is once again alone at the railing. He turns back out to the ocean, his prior jubilance now turned to stone in his gut.

“Fuck,” he mutters under his breath, then, a little louder, because it was the one thing that felt good, “fuck.”

Fucking Alexander Hamilton.