Burr does calm, eventually. He stays at the railing and watches the waves, tries to slow his breathing. He walks the length of the deck, wanders back to the access boats William had shown him. It really is a fascinating system, and as Burr examines it he begins to see how it works -- which knots likely need undoing in order to lower the boat into the water. The boats themselves are small, oars nestled neatly inside them. Burr figures they could comfortably hold about six people, maybe ten if they were crammed tight. He makes a mental note to ask William or one of the other sailors about how to work the knots themselves, figuring a lesson in knot-tying might prove interesting. Burr has always liked to pick up small talents like that, wilderness skills. They’d come in handy in Quebec, when the troop’s supply of matches had gotten wet and the whole ground was freezing; Burr had been the one to start a fire with an intricate setup of sticks and friction. The men had cheered for him; and it had been a good feeling, the sense of saving them, almost as good as the baking heat of the fire on his face.
Dinnertime rolls around, and the meal is appallingly bland. A pea soup that Burr thinks is more water than anything else, boiled salt pork, and hard biscuits. The long table is crammed with sailors, men who are uncomfortably loud with abysmal table manners. The room quickly comes to stink of men - sweat and body odor - and Burr finds himself put off his food long before it is finished. He passes off the remainder of his rations to William and retreats to his quarters. Moving down the hall, he realizes he’d never met the bunkmate William had mentioned -- forgotten about it entirely, between the gut-punch of realizing he was nothing but backup, and backup to Alexander fucking Hamilton, at that.
Burr swings the door open to see a man hunched over the desk, scribbling rapidly away. Burr recognizes the ponytail trailing between the man’s shoulder blades, but he still hopes --
Hamilton is smiling like he couldn’t imagine a better bunkmate.
Speak - or think - of the devil and he shall appear, apparently.
“So,” Burr said, “you’re my bunkmate.”
“Ambassador’s quarters, after all,” Hamilton says, and now Burr hears the plurality in it, understands the brief confusion on the captain’s face.
“I claimed the top bunk, Hope you don’t mind,” Hamilton’s still writing, doesn’t pause as he speaks, two apparently coherent trains of thought running parallel.
“That’s fine,” Burr doesn’t mind, and really prefers the bottom -- on a past voyage of his, the ship had experienced choppier seas and he’d found himself rolling out of bed, not just once but rather an embarrassing number of times, and should that instance repeat itself he figures it would be best if he were closer to the floor. He notes that Hamilton’s bunk is already messed up, covers askew as if he’d nested in it like some strange bird.
Burr climbs into his bunk - the room is so small that when he’s standing it feels like he’s hovering over Hamilton, as if he’s trying to read whatever the man is writing. The mattress is hard, and feels like it doesn’t have much more give than the floor he’d just been standing on. He stares at the dark roof of the mattress above him, the slats of wood, but grows bored with that soon enough and begins to watch Hamilton instead, in lieu of anything else to keep his attention. Hamilton is bent over the desk, quill scratching furiously. Burr notes an ink stain on his wrist, fresh. He can’t see Hamilton’s face, but he’s seen him write before, and can picture of it -- eyes squinted tight in concentration, mouth pursed. There was something almost primal about the way he writes, almost intimate; and Burr quickly begins to feel odd, like a voyeur.
“I can feel you staring,” Hamilton remarks.
Burr almost apologizes, but then responds with, “believe it or not, but sometimes you’re more interesting than the wall.”
“I did say sometimes.”
Hamilton laughs, and for a moment Burr is reminded of when they’d first met. They’d never been overly close - their friendship had been in a delicate, nascent stage when the likes of Laurens and Lafayette and Mulligan had tromped in - but they’d gotten along well enough, shared stories over drinks, and fought some of the same battles together. They’d even exchanged letters when Burr was fighting with General Montgomery in Quebec - more, Burr assumes, because Hamilton liked writing in general than he liked writing to Burr, but they had been letters nonetheless, ones he still has stored somewhere. Burr’s mild distaste for Hamilton is a more recent thing -- and is, he has to admit, a bit of a petty thing borne out of jealousy rather than any intense dislike.
But that first night that they’d met Burr had thought it was the making of a great friendship - Hamilton had drunk him under the table, never shutting up, but it hadn’t mattered because Burr had been drunk too, and the weight of his ambitions had not fully settled on his shoulders.
Hamilton puts down the quill and turns on the stool to face Burr. The stool has no back, so Hamilton leans forward, elbows on his thighs.
“George didn’t tell you I was coming.”
It’s not a question.
“He told me he was sending a bac--another ambassador, but shit, Aaron, I didn’t think it was you. I didn’t even know you spoke French!”
“We spoke French the first night we met.”
He wasn’t even sure how it had happened -- Hamilton had exclaimed something in French, and Burr had replied (partly as a joke, partly to show off), and from there the conversation had continued on, at least briefly, in French, and Hamilton had taught his several swear words in the short time period, and some expressions (chier dans la colle for you fucked up, for example, a phase that springs to mind now).
“Shit!” Hamilton’s eyes widen, and he laughs, again, “we did, didn’t we? I was so damn drunk that night.”
“Chier dans la colle,” Burr replies, affecting a sage tone.
“Oui, je l'ai fait,” Hamilton says, laughing again, and this time, Burr joins him.
“Anyway,” Hamilton continues when their laughter has died down, and Burr notices a flush high on his cheeks, notices there’s still a grin on him, “I’m honored you have you as an fellow ambassador.”
“You too,” Burr echoes, and whether he means it or not doesn’t matter, because Hamilton smiles in a way that’s bright and disarming, and Burr can remember why, as they’d sat in the dingy bar drunk on cheap beer and the potential of the new nation on the horizon, he’d kept saying smile more, smile more.
Hamilton is not a quiet sleeper.
Burr doesn't know why he’d expected anything else. He’d fallen asleep easily enough, despite the hard mattress and scratchy blanket he’d been given, but had been woken up after a few hours by the bunk creaking. Burr hears the blanket shifting, and there’s a low thud as one of Hamilton’s body parts hits the wall, but this seems to do nothing to quiet him. Hamilton’s snoring, too, which Burr could have lived with -- Theo was a snorer, on spring days when the air was thick with pollen - but the constant shifting and creak of the wood are noises that seem to worm their way into his skull.
And then, the talking.
The words are slurred and indistinct, sleep-talk, but there’s a lot of them.
The man can’t even shut up in his sleep, Burr thinks, probably wouldn’t shut up on his own damn deathbed.
He clamps the thin pillow around his ears and counts his breaths. Inhale, exhale. It seems to take hours to fall asleep.
It feels like he’s only been asleep for minutes before he feels a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. He blinks, for a moment unsure where he is, and sits up -- too fast, it turns out, and he smacks his head on the top of the bunk.
He rubs his head, feeling the tender spot where a goose-egg will no doubt sprout soon enough, and finally looks to see the owner of the hand that had shaken him awake.
Hamilton has the good sense to look sheepish, but there’s also a quirk to his lips, like he’s trying not to laugh.
“Sorry,” Hamilton says, “but it’s breakfast in fifteen minutes. Thought you might want to know.”
Burr moans. He doesn’t expect the breakfast to be any better than the dinner had been last night, but he knows he needs to eat.
“You’re a fucking loudmouth in your sleep,” Burr grumbles, sitting (carefully) at the edge of his bunk, trying to figure out the best tactic for getting dressed in these tight quarters, “and when awake, but you know.”
Hamilton actually flinches a little.
“Sorry,” he says, “it happens when I’m in new places. Or excited. Or…”
He continues on while Burr dresses himself. He only bumps into Hamilton twice, and considers this a success.
“Please tell me we have coffee at breakfast, at least,” he says as they exit the quarters - partly to Hamilton, partly as some half-offered prayer to the gods. He senses he’ll need a lot of coffee to get through this voyage with Hamilton as his bunkmate.
They do have coffee, god bless. Burr burns his tongue drinking it -- it’s bitter and ill-made, but he doesn’t complain because they have it - and downs two cups before he feels even mildly human again.
Over the next few days, they settle in a sort of routine -- Burr barely sleeps at night, Hamilton wakes him, Burr drinks his weight in coffee. During the mornings, Burr spends time on the deck, sometimes observing the sailors work and sometimes just watching the ocean. When it gets too hot and bright to stay on the deck, Burr retreats to the quarters and reads, or naps, if Hamilton’s not in the room.
(He tries to nap with Hamilton in the room, once. Hamilton ignores his show of yawns and closed eyes and prattles on.)
They get used to sharing space. Hamilton is almost always up and dressed before Burr (always looking appallingly well-rested for as much as he thrashed; he was like a child in that way), so they almost never have to deal with getting dressed at the same time.
On the third day Burr finds William, pretending to be busy, idly polishing a pair of the captain’s boots that already have a mirror-shine.
“William,” Burr says, and the boy looks up, a bit sheepish.
“Can I help you, Mr. Burr?”
“I was wondering if you’d know me a few knots. I’ll pay you for your time, of course.”
William’s brown eyes brighten and he springs to his feet.
“Sure! Let me just drop these off. Stay there.”
William sprints off and returns in less than two minutes, holding a short piece of rope in his hands. They sit down, backs against the railing.
“This is the bowline,” William says, his hands moving in a blur until the rope is neatly knotted in something that almost resembles a hangman’s noose.
“Slower, please,” Burr says, and William, though impatient, obliges.
Burr watches William complete the knot several more times, and finally takes the rope into his own hands, attempts to mimic the motions he saw William put the rope through – small loop, thread the end through, snake around, back through like a figure eight. He messes up a little, and William corrects him, shows him the step where he’d messed up.
“It’s just a bunch of steps. 1, 2, 3, 4. Like this, see? And the steps, when performed right, produce the same result every time.”
Burr nods. It’s strangely comforting advice. After a few more tries Burr can produce what William deems a satisfactory bowline knot.
They continue the lesson for most of the afternoon, covering several other knots, until Preble bellows for William and the ship’s boy scampers off, leaving Burr with the piece of rope. He practices more, on his own, and finds it soothing. He enjoys the practicality of it, and the way the knots are predictable – the same result every time, as William had said.
At dinner, he slips several coins into William’s hand, a motion that doesn’t escape Hamilton’s notice.
“What were you paying him for?” Hamilton asks as Burr shifts around him, changing into his nightclothes. It’s more awkward when Hamilton’s standing like this; usually Hamilton’s at their desk, somewhat out of Burr’s way.
“He taught me a lesson in knots this afternoon,” Burr replies, “not that it’s any concern of yours.”
“I thought maybe you were paying him to off me. That you wanted to be the sole ambassador,” Hamilton’s grinning, and Burr knows the truth is that Hamilton’s just damn nosy.
“A tempting thought,” Burr says, “but I’d pay off someone a bit larger than a boy, for that.”
Hamilton grins, then moves towards the bunks, but rather than ascend to his he sits down on Burr’s bunk.
“Show me,” he says.
Burr rolls his eyes, but he grabs the length of rope and sits beside Hamilton. The bunk is too small for this type of activity, and Hamilton seems to take up more space than entirely makes sense, as if his ego inflates him, takes up the room. Burr does his best to ignore this, instead shows Hamilton the same bowline knot William had taught him. Teaching is good practice, and in relaying the information to Hamilton Burr feels his own knowledge solidify.
Hamilton lacks Burr’s aptitude for the process – likely because he isn’t actually listening, preferring instead to just blindly attempt it under some assumption that he knows what’s correct. It takes him nearly a dozen tries to complete a bowline knot, and he declines Burr’s offer to learn any more.
“If I need knots, I’ll just come to you,” he says, sliding off the bunk, placing his hands on his lower back and arching a bit, stretching in a way that’s ridiculous but that Burr watches nonetheless.
Hamilton retires to his bunk, the lamp snuffed out, and Burr practices there in the dark, knotting and unknotting the rope by feel alone.
The air seems to get hotter, and wetter, until one day Burr goes on deck in the early morning and it feels like he’s breathing through wet cloth. It’s strange, this weather -- he’s perused maps, he knows France’s climate is no more tropical than New York’s, and neither is the expanse of ocean between the two. He seeks out captain Preble.
“The weather seems odd for a France journey. Have we gone off course?”
Preble refuses to look him in the eyes, instead shifts, looks over Burr’s shoulder at some distant point.
“My men and I are...taking a bit of a detour, you could say. Don’t worry, we’ll deliver you to France soon enough. We just have to make a quick stop first.”
Burr’s stomach churns. It’s not that he minds a longer journey, but no kind of detour had been mentioned to him. Of course, Hamilton hadn’t been mentioned to him either.
“Did Washington approve this?”
Preble shifts again.
“Well…” he says, which Burr knows means no, “not quite, but Washington knows so little about trade. We’ll make double if we can make this detour first, trade with some natives for spices and the like. The French eat that shit up!”
“How long will this detour take?”
“A week at most. We’ll only dock there a day or two, enough time to trade our goods. You’ll still be in France by the end of the month.”
Burr wants to argue - the uneasiness in his gut hasn’t stopped - but he has no weight to throw around, for whatever prestige they have with Washington, Burr knows that he and Hamilton are essentially at the mercy of the ship and its crew.
“We’re fucking prisoners!”
To no one’s surprise, Hamilton is much more dramatic in his displeasure at the course change than Burr had been.
“Quiet down,” he tells him. The room is much too small to withstand Hamilton’s frenzy, and it’s too late for Burr to escape to the deck. Although he likes the ocean at night, at the later hours, with most of the crew asleep it seems eerie. Burr had gone up at night once, his second night onboard when he couldn’t sleep because of Hamilton’s incessant movements. He’d walked to his favorite spot on the railing, looking for a moment at the ocean, dark as ink under the cloudy, moonless sky. I could fall overboard, he’d realized, staring down at the dark waves, and right now, no one would notice. His stomach churned, and he backed away from the railing as if it would grow hands and throw him overboard itself.
“Prisoners,” repeats Hamilton, whispering now, though his whisper still sounds like Burr’s preferred conversational tone.
“We’re not prisoners,” Burr says, though technically he supposes they are – they can’t send word to anyone, they can’t change the ship’s course. But he’d rather not use the word.
“It’s only a short detour,” Burr finds himself echoing their dubious captain, because he doesn’t know what else to say – agreeing with Hamilton would only fuel the fire.
“Yeah, ‘til we’re sold into slavery on some godforsaken island….”
“We’re on a slippery slope, is all I’m saying. Preble’s a fucking liar. He’s probably not taking us to France at all. He’s probably going to ransom us back to Washington. And sorry, Aaron, but I don’t know how much Washington would pay for you…”
Burr notices Hamilton is grinning now, and the tension in the air slackens. He’s relieved – if they’re going to be prisoners, better compliant ones for now rather than Hamilton staging a coup.
Hamilton sleeps, eventually, and as Burr lies awake on the bunk beneath him he hears Hamilton moaning, an awful, pained sound, and he hears a word in that moan, clearer than Hamilton’s usual sleep-prose: prisoners.
The next morning the air is humid and still. Burr wakes up – before Hamilton, even – covered in sweat, his covers kicked off on the ground. He dresses quickly, leaves their quarters. He stops by the dining quarters for a cup of coffee and a hardtack biscuit, and escapes to the deck as soon as possible.
It’s not much better near the railings. The sails hang limply above him, and the ocean has a flat, glassy quality. Everything feels strange and still, foreboding. The sun has only just begun to rise, but the sky seems exploded in reds and oranges, none of the usual calm pastels Burr associates with the sunrise.
It’s strange, strange, strange and Burr feels uneasy.
“Red sun at morning…”
Hamilton’s there, suddenly, having crept up on Burr, quiet as a cat.
“Beg pardon?” Burr half-wonders if Hamilton’s sleepwalking.
“The rhyme?” at Burr’s blank expression, Hamilton continues, “red sun at night, sailors’ delight. Red sun at morning, sailors take warning.”
His voice has a chanting, almost childlike quality that Burr finds eerie. Really, the whole thing’s eerie – the sky looks too much like blood (the obvious metaphor, he knows, but it’s what comes to mind), and here’s Hamilton, chanting sailors take warning.
“Is there much truth to it?”
The hideous red sky eventually fades, but when Burr looks off into the distance he notices dark clouds forming. There’s a tension in the air, too, the crew moving too-quick across the deck. Burr catches tail-ends of conversations – “…told him it was dangerous…” – “she can handle it” – but conversations cease when he’s near, only to start up again when he moves away, a susurrus of words he can’t make out.
More hours pass, and now there is no denying that there’s a storm forming on the horizon. The air is still quiet, so humid that Burr feels like he’s inhaling water.
He goes below deck to use the washroom and wash his face with cool water, trying for some respite from the stifling heat. When he walks by his quarters he sees Hamilton sitting at the desk, which in and of itself is not unusual; what’s unusual is that Hamilton is still. There’s a quill and parchment before him, but Burr can see from here that less than half the page has been written. Hamilton’s hands are wrapped around his waist, hands cupping his elbows, a self-comforting gesture that looks strange and piteous on Hamilton. Burr is used to the brash Hamilton, the man who screamed French curses at the barkeep when he’d refused them another round, the man who begged – begged! – to be sent out to the battlefields, who stole the British infantry’s cannons right out from under their noses.
This Hamilton before him looks like a small, scared child. Looks vulnerable.
Burr clears his throat and Hamilton startles, hands unwrapping, sitting up straight.
“Aaron,” he says. He doesn’t meet his eyes, and that feels strange, too – usually Hamilton’s gaze will sit on Burr like a weight, daring him to look away.
“Are you all right?” Burr asks, though it’s obvious he’s not.
“I’m fine. It’s just…this heat. This quiet. It’s…” Hamilton trails off, but Burr can begin to fill in the blanks.
He doesn’t know as much as one would expect about Hamilton’s childhood, only knows the basics: an orphan by twelve, emerging from a hurricane-wrecked town in the Caribbean to sail to America, and –
“You think what’s coming isn’t just a storm. It’s a hurricane.”
Hamilton almost flinches at the word.
“Back home…the quiet was the same. The sky was the same. Like an omen.”
“Do the men know?”
“They know. They don’t want us to know, because they don’t want to deal with some frightened little ambassadors until they have to.”
“Can we avoid it? Sail around it?” Burr feels queerly helpless, wishes he’d studied up on sailing, on weather patterns. Hamilton barks a laugh that sounds clotted and terrible in his throat.
“You saw the sky. They’ve pulled down the sails, tried to slow our entrance, but it’s coming. We just have to buckle down and hold on.”
“It’ll be fine,” Burr says, because that’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to say. Fine. Spoken like a man who’s never known natural disasters, only thunderstorms.
Hamilton looks up at him, still seated on the stool, and his smile is heartbreaking.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
By the time he and Hamilton return to the deck, a wind has picked up. It whips Hamilton’s ponytail into a face, a sight that would have been comical under other circumstances. They manage to find Preble, who once again refuses to look them in the eye.
“Rough night ahead, boys,” he says, and Burr hates the way he says it – boys – when Preble’s only a few years older than them at most. Hates the way they’re treated like children, an inconvenient burden.
“It’ll be fine, though, she’s a tough old bird,” Preble slaps a hand on one of the ship’s posts, eliciting a dull thunk from the wood.
“You’ve weathered these kinds of storms before, then?” Burr asks, needing the reassurance, needing to hear – yes, it’s nothing to worry about. Not that it will stop him – or Hamilton – from worrying.
“Sure, dozens of times,” Preble agrees, “nothing me and the men can’t handle. You boys just hunker down in your quarters, wait this shit out. Things will be bright and sunny tomorrow, mark my words.”
Burr doesn’t trust Preble, not after the man’s diverted course and the fact he is literally steering them into a hurricane, but he has no choice. He certainly can’t pilot the ship.
“Now if you don’t mind,” says Preble, “I’ve got some work to do. You boys can stay on deck for a little while longer, but things may get ugly real soon.”
He doesn’t wait for a goodbye, walks off, leaving Hamilton and Burr standing there as the storm clouds gather on the ever-closer horizon. Burr realizes Hamilton never said a word, and thinks, that’s a first.
Preble had been right on one account – things do, indeed, get ugly real soon. Over the next half-hour the bruise-colored sky deepens ‘til it looks nearly black. The wind picks up, too, shifting from a light breeze to a strong wind. Burr’s standing too close to the railing, at first, and his face is whipped by a spray of saltwater gusting in. The sea grows choppier, too, the ocean wrinkling and bucking with its growing turbulence. The motions of the ship grow more obvious, until Burr has to focus on keeping his balance.
Hamilton stays with him on deck, though when the ship catches one particularly large wave, rolling enough so that for a moment the angle changes, he grips Burr’s arm hard enough to bruise and doesn’t let go, even when the ship has steadied.
Burr doesn’t say anything, only leads them back to their quarters. Hamilton doesn’t release his arm until they’re descending the steps. If possible, their room feels even more cramped, filled up not only by their bodies but by their anxiety as well, as if it were a corporeal thing claiming its own space. The ship’s increasingly erratic movements are less obvious here, but Burr’s still aware of it, the subtle angle shifts. He feels slightly nauseous, and isn’t sure if it’s from the ship’s motions, or dread, or both. They retreat to their bunks, and the silence is strange. He can’t remember the last time he shared space with both Hamilton and silence; he’d assumed they were opposing forces, unable to exist with one another.
Burr knots and unknots his rope, finds an almost-peace in the motions. William’s words echo in his head: the steps, when performed right, produce the same result every time. A comforting predictability, one Burr hones in on as the boat pitches and Hamilton’s silence in the room is deafening.
Burr must have dozed off, because one moment he’s turning the rope over in his hands and the next he’s tumbling out of his bunk as the ship pitches wildly, angling so much that the floor and the wall almost changed places.
It’s not long to fall, and Burr has time to think, fuck, not again, before he hits the floor, and, a half-second later, Hamilton crashes down, half on Burr and half on the floor. All the breath goes out of him and for the first time panic – not just anxiety but actual panic, a feral, screeching beast with fangs and claws – begins to scrabble in Burr’s chest as he heaves and fails to draw breath. It seems to last an eternity but is only a second or two, and then Burr’s gulping air, inhaling huge lungfuls of it like a drowning man. He takes a quick inventory, decides he’s little more than bruised. Hamilton’s still on top of him, unmoving, and Burr’s worry turns to him. He lifts his free arm – the other is pinned beneath Hamilton – and touches his arm.
Another moment of silence that seems to last forever, and then –
“Fuck, my head.”
Relief fills Burr, and some of his panic subsides – he can breathe, and Hamilton can speak. The world still spins.
Hamilton moves off Burr, slowly, moaning something that’s part curse and part groan. Burr gets to his feet, moving gingerly. Hamilton’s on his knees, then feet, and stands upright but his eyes are glassy and unfocused and he sways, unsteady. Burr catches him a moment before he can fall to the floor, moves to ease Hamilton into the lower bunk but also goes to his knees as the floor pitches again. Burr ends up almost falling into his bunk while holding on to Hamilton’s stirring body; they end up prone in his bunk, facing one another like lovers. It’d be comical, in a different situation.
There’s not enough space between his bunk and Hamilton’s to sit upright, so Burr props himself on to his elbow. He keeps an arm around Hamilton, holding him to hopefully save him from another fall should the ship pitch again.
Hamilton’s eyelids flutter. He has strangely long lashes, curling out. It’s a strange thing to notice, but everything’s strange, now, below deck while a hurricane roars above them.
“’tooduptoofatsh,” Hamilton mumbles, something Burr can’t make out.
“I…stood up too fast. Sorry.”
Hamilton’s eyes open fully, and he seems to take stock of the immediate situation – crammed on a small bunk, facing Burr, Burr’s arm wrapped around him. Burr fully expects some snide remark, but Hamilton’s next words are genuine.
“You’re---” welcome, is what Burr means to say, but before he can finish the ship doesn’t just pitch but lurches, heaves to the side like a man shot in the knee. Luckily, the angle is in the other direction – port or starboard, Burr doesn’t know which, having suddenly forgotten any nautical directions he once knew - so rather than being dumped back on the floor Burr’s back is slammed against the wall and Hamilton is – once again – slammed into him, albeit by a shorter distance and with much less momentum. Burr waits for their direction to change again, even tightens his hold on Hamilton, expecting to be pitched to the floor, but the ship stays canted. A hideous groaning noise begins to fill the air, a creaking, strained sound.
“We hit something,” Hamilton’s voice is muffled against Burr’s shirt, “or something gave out.”
Although they remain angled, the broken ship continues to pitch in the thrall of the storm. Hamilton has one hand dug in Burr’s arm, digging his fingers into the bicep. Burr lets him. He can hear Hamilton’s breathing, coming fast, labored as if he’d been running for miles. Burr tries to calm his own galloping heart – inhale, exhale.
The quarters themselves seem alive, the floor shifting constantly, their few items clattering and rolling across the floor. A bottle of ink falls to the floor, shatters, and the room is soon permeated with the ammonia-like smell of ink.
Hamilton again. His voice sounds strange, choked, certainly not a voice Burr would have ever identified as Hamilton’s were he not looking at the man.
“I can’t stay down here. We can’t. We have to find out what – what happened.”
Burr wants to argue – a large part of him wants to stay here, denned up like animals, riding out the wild angles on the too-small bunk. But he realizes Hamilton’s right – if the ship has been damaged, they need to know how badly, need to know if the ship is taking on water.
“Let’s go,” he says.
It’s easier said than done, because as soon as Burr stands up his head spins with vertigo and the floor moves beneath him. His knees almost give way but he grabs the ladder Hamilton uses to get up to his bunk and manages to steady himself. That awful groaning noise is louder, now, closer; like some creature advancing on its prey.
They make their way to the door like they’re moving through molasses, grabbing their bunks and then the doorframe as makeshift handles.
The trip down the hallway seems to take an eternity. They are thrown into the wall more than once. A trip that had taken thirty seconds not a few hours earlier now stretches on and on, an endless parade of small, mincing steps interspersed with the occasional low groan as one man or another was thrown off balance. Hamilton seems to be moaning more too, something low and awful in his throat, and Burr tries to block it out, tries to focus on getting to the deck.
Halfway down the hall they hit water, sheets of rain blown in by the storm overhead. Burr sputters as the rain hits his face, blinks crazily to get the water out of his eyes. By the time they begin their ascent to the deck they’re both drenched.
What greets them is a world turned upside down.
Men are running about, fast - too fast – and the wood floor beneath them is slick, the ship’s tilted wildly and rolling in the tumultuous waves. The wind is a horrible, screeching thing, a banshee overseeing the oceans, and every drop of rain feels like a stinging insect on Burr’s face. He hears muffled shouts, orders that the men surely cannot hear. He grabs Hamilton’s hand, soaked palms pressing together, to ensure that they don’t get separated, and they inch their way to the closet sailor, a man Burr doesn’t know. As they head towards him a wave appears from out of nowhere, seems to tower for a moment over the ship, and then crashes down, crashes over the deck, and the rush of water goes almost to Burr’s knees and he thinks we’re going overboard, we’re going onboard and no one can save us, but both men keep their balance and the water drains from the deck.
They finally reach the man.
“What’s happening?” Burr shouts, throat protesting at the volume. It still sounds like a whisper compared to the storm raging all around them.
“Struck a reef,” calls the sailor, then, “damaged. A lot. Pray.”
Short, staccato sentences, but that one word – pray - tells Burr enough.
Another wave comes, larger than the last, and this time there’s a scream – high and desperate, cutting through the storm. It’s a scream Burr is familiar with. He heard similar screams from dying men.
Prisoners. We’re fucking prisoners.
He calls ‘em davits.
Burr hears William’s voice echoing in his mind, crystal clear despite the storm, and can’t figure out why.
Calls ‘em davits.
It’s a boring, pointless memory and Burr tries to clear his mind of it, if they are going down
he wants his thoughts flooded with loved ones, the voices of Sally, of Theodosia, of Jonathan Bellamy, not some memory of a tour of this wretched, godforsaken ship when William showed off –oh.
They could even be used as escape vessels, this way.
For once, Burr doesn’t overthink, he simply acts – he moves toward where the boats are located, pulling Hamilton behind him. Hamilton has stayed quiet, almost lifeless, and when Burr risks a look back, Hamilton’s stare is vacant and faraway. But Burr can’t focus on that, he’s dragging them towards the boats, already going over the rigging system in his mind, trying to recall what the knots had looked like. He’d understood, in the passivity of daylight and quiet seas, how to release the boats, but now?
No matter. No time to mull over that, now.
For a moment there’s so much rain and wind in his eyes he feels blinded, can’t even see the fucking access boats, only darkness, and he wonders if they’ve already been washed away. Burr’s too close to the railing anyway, it feels dangerous, precarious. But he remembers the dead look in the sailor’s eyes – pray - and with his free hand he swipes the water from his eyes, refocuses, and there, he sees the ropes and pulleys that make up the davit, hears the thunk of the access boat crashing against the ship’s side.
He tries to pull his hand out of Hamilton’s grip so he can work, and for a moment he can’t – Hamilton has him seized in a death grip. Burr ends up having to wrench his hand away from Hamilton, and feels horrible doing it, taking away the one thing Hamilton had to hold on to.
I’ll apologize later, he thinks, and wastes no more time, begins to feel along the ropes, looking for the knots. He simply hopes Hamilton will stay behind him, will keep his balance. The ship still feels like a wild bronco beneath him and Burr can no longer recall what solid ground felt like. He undoes one knot that seems to do nothing, and dread wells in his stomach, festers there – it’s not working it’s not working itsnotworking – but he undoes another knot and there’s a lurch, then the boat below them drops several feet. Burr can see that the next knot will have to be undone from within the boat.
“Alex!” he turns to shout, and – thank god – Hamilton listens, walks closer to him.
“We’re gonna jump into that boat, okay?”
Shouting it makes the plan sound absurd. Doubt sits in his mind, viscous and thick.
Hamilton is still staring, his gaze strange and unfixed, over Burr’s shoulder. He doesn’t respond.
Burr slaps him, and his palm makes a strange, wet squelching sound on Hamilton’s cheek.
And finally, something comes into Hamilton’s eyes, a glint of light, and he speaks, just one word, but it’s enough.
Burr grabs Hamilton’s hand; their fingers knotting together like rope, and takes him to the edge.